It’s a simple question: What was the first Babe Ruth baseball card picturing him as a member of the New York Yankees?
When Babe Ruth was sold by the Boston Red Sox to the Yankees in January of 1920 in a move that changed the game forever, he was already one of the biggest names on the diamond. It’s not surprising, then, that card manufacturers mocked up their first Ruth NY cards before the cash windfall had fully nestled into BoSox owner Harry Frazee’s bank account.
But which was first?
The answer depends on a muddled chronology of those early sets and also what, exactly, you’re looking for.
1920 Felix Mendelsohn (M101-6)
Felix Mendelsohn was a well-known sports photographer in Chicago during the early years of the 20th Century. Starting in 1917 and running through about 1920, The Sporting News offered a series of his photographs as “cards” through a special offer to their readers.
Although Ruth had already appeared in the set as a member of the Red Sox, TSN and Mendelsohn scrambled to get Ruth on a Yankees card after the big sale. Problem was, they were either too early or otherwise unable to attain a photo of Ruth in New York togs. So, while the card says “C.F. Yankees,” it actually shows Ruth following through on a throw while wearing a Red Sox uniform.
1920 Pathe’ Freres Phonograph
Pathe’ Freres was a French record company who tried to make a name for itself in the United States on the back of a record they called “The Babe Ruth Home Run Story.”
Purported to feature the voice of the “Babe” himself, the record was actually ghost-voiced:
Nevertheless, the record came with a small Ruth photo that undoubtedly dated to late in the 1920 season, and which definitely shows him in a Yankees uniform.
In the pictures, the Babe is wearing a black armband to honor the memory of Ray Chapman, who was killed on the field that August.
Distribution was limited to those who bought the records, though, and that, coupled with the fact that Ruth was the only subject is enough to cause some dispute over the legitimate “firstness” of this phonograph issue.
1920 W516-1, W516-1-2
The two W516-1 sets were issued as strips of cards, prompting most collectors to cut them apart to get to the individual players. Each of the two sets features colorized artist renderings of 30 players, with the W516-1-2s being mirror images of the W516-1s — each player thus had his handedness reversed!
Babe Ruth was card #1 in each of the two sets, and though he’s listed with the “Yanks,” he’s also listed as a pitcher. His generic white uniform is ambiguous enough that it could belong to just about any team, so it’s hard to say these set depict him in Yankees rags.
The W522 strip set consists of 20 cards, each featuring a black-and-white photo against a pastel background and blank backs. Ruth is set against solid yellow, and the only text on his card is a small #48 and his name along the bottom. While no team is designated, his red belt and pitching motion definitely give the card a Boston feel.
Yet another strip set, W519 consists of 20 cards, with Ruth checking in at #5.
While there is some debate around its date of issue, many hobby vets have settled on 1920 based on the checklist composition.
What is not in doubt is that Ruth appears in Yankees pinstripes and blue cap.
1920 Headin’ Home (Tex Rickard)
Issued to promote the 1920 silent film featuring the Babe and entitled Headin’ Home, the Tex Rickard “set” consisted of three cards showing Ruth in different poses.
Given that the movie was released in 1920 and that Ruth appears in Yankees pinstripes on the cards, it’s hard to argue that the Tex Rickard issue is not a strong candidate for the designation of “first Yankees Ruth card.” The only real knocks on its provenance are the set’s limited distribution and tiny checklist.
1921 American Caramel (E121)
American Caramel was formed by two competitors of Hershey in the late 1800s, and they began issuing baseball cards in their boxes of caramels not long after. While their pasteboard production was curtailed during World War I, American Caramel was back in full force by 1921. That year, their checklist contained 80 different cards, though with variations, that number rises to 120 or more.
Babe Ruth appears in the 82nd slot alphabetically (cards weren’t numbered), complete with three variations:
- Position listed as R.F.
- Position listed as R.F. and first name in quotes (“Babe”)
- Position listed as L.F. and first name as “George” (no quotes)
This last seems to be quite scarce, as PSA has graded less than 10 of the “George” variations.
Alas, while all of these cards purport to show him with “New York Americans,” the photo depicts Babe pitching in a Red Sox uniform.
Mostly, the E121 is included here as a bridge to …
1922 American Caramel (E120)
In 1922, American Caramel ramped up their cardboard efforts as the Roaring Twenties got underway in earnest. The E120 set contains a mammoth (for the time) 240 cards, featuring 15 players from each of the Major League 16 teams.
Babe Ruth made his obligatory appearance, both with the standard card back and with a blank back.
While the E120s were issued more than two years after Ruth moved to the Yanks, the Babe card has two things going for it in this argument.
First, it clearly shows Ruth in not just a Yankee uniform but in the iconic NY pinstripes.
Second, it was the first card of Ruth to depict him in Yankee togs which was widely distributed … sort of like the modern “rookie card” definition arguments.
For some some collectors, this combination of attributes is enough to give E120 the nod as “first Babe Ruth Yankees card.”
Issued by the Exhibit Supply Company, the 1921 Exhibits were the first in a line of “arcade” cards that were sold in vending machines at amusement parks (and elsewhere) for nearly 50 years.
This inaugural edition featured gorgeous black-and-white photography, including a majestic shot of the Babe in profile.
Alas, while the card lists Ruth’s team as “New York, Am.L.,” it’s far from clear which uniform he’s wearing. Is that the classic “NY” on Babe’s cap?
Hard to tell.
1922 National Caramel (E220)
Either way, they are at least contemporaries to E120, and the Ruth card features a rousing batting follow-through against a grandstand background — and the pinstripes are on full display, to boot.
With no clearcut “first” among other Ruth contenders, this one merits consideration, too.
1922 American Caramel Series of 120 (E121)
The “series of 120” was a follow-on to the 80 E121 cards issued in 1921.
In 1922 American Caramel expanded the issue by 40 cards, and while there were many near duplicates from the year before, they dedicated three new poses to Ruth: Babe holding a bird, Babe holding a baseball, and a photo montage of Babe.
The best part?
All three show Ruth in Yanks pinstripes.
Are there others?
Almost certainly, if you consider postcards, other promos surrounding Headin’ Home, and various minor (very) regional slips of ephemera.
But the checklist presented here gives you plenty to consider as you sort through your own definitions and predilections.
So which is the first Babe Ruth baseball card showing the slugger with the New York Yankees? It’s all a matter of perspective and semantics — in other words, the choice is yours.