During the years of Topps’ first monopoly and the hobby boom of the 1980s, you could tell a lot about a player simply by looking at the number on the back of his baseball card … and nothing else.
No, not his stats — the number of the card itself in the broader checklist of its set.
For instance, if you were holding a Fleer card with #1 on the back, you could be pretty certain that a) the player’s last name began with an “A” and b) his team had won the World Series the year before.
A #1 Donruss card? Yeah, you’re holding a Diamond King, bub.
And a first-of-set Topps card? Most likely a record-breaker, highlight, or tribute card. Definitely a star of some sort.
Topps gave us more, too — the “10s” were generally semi-stars or better, while the 50s were All-Star candidates, at least. And the 100s? Those primetime numbers were almost always reserved for primetime stars — you weren’t likely to find Mike Fischlin at #300 in a Topps set, in other words.
Now, back to the #1s …
Imagine a set issued in the early 1930s and dedicated to the 48 greatest names across all sports — sport kings, if you will.
In fact, that was the name of said set, which actually exists — the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings, with athletes representing baseball, basketball, football, hockey, dog-sled racing, and others.
If you knew there were a scant three baseball players among that esteemed group, and that one of them landed card #1, who do you think it would be?
Easy … Babe Ruth, right?
Well, sort of.
The Bambino did make the Goudey cut, but at #2. So he’s not our guy.
And it’s not Carl Hubbell, either, who appears at #42.
So, who among the other stars of the day could have landed that coveted #1 slot?
Lou Gehrig? Jimmie Foxx? Hack Wilson? Heinie Manush, maybe?
It was none other than …
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Yeah, it’s then-all-time hits leader Ty Cobb.
He who had been retired for five years when the Goudeys hit the market.
He who still carries plenty of hobby weight but not Ruthian weight.
It’s a testament to the esteem Cobb carried in and around the game during his own time that he bested Ruth in this regard, even though Cobb was no longer an active player.
Today, this gem of a card will cost you plenty to own — something like $4000 in PSA 5 condition, about a quarter of the cost to own that #2 Ruth in the same shape.
But, even though Ruth may win the market battle today, it was Cobb who reigned supreme among the Sport Kings when it counted.