Base desires: Holy Grail baseball collectibles

They are the pieces that can make a grown man weep, often spoken about in hushed, reverent tones. They make even jaded and wealthy collectors perspire. They are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and the loot we would shower ourselves with if we ever pulled that lucky lottery ticket.

The Wagner T206 card, the 1952 Topps Mantle, a Ruth bat, Josh Gibson-signed ball or Gehrig jersey. In other circles they are the Dick Groat Hartland statue, mid-19th century feather golf ball, a Bronco Nagurski National Chicle card or an early issue of Baseball Magazine.

Every category of collecting has them. They are the “Holy Grails” – the artifacts and treasures that occupy the rarest air in the most fabulous collections. In honor of the start of the World Series, we thought we’d take a look at those baseball collectibles that could be considered the Holy Grail of their sport.

Truth be told, serious collectors often have two different types of Holy Grails to pursue: the ones that exist and they have seen with their own eyes, and the ones that they hope exist somewhere but have yet to surface. To that end, we have rounded up a who’s-who panel of hobby experts to give us their nominations and opinions on the ultimate baseball-collecting prizes, from tobacco cards to ticket stubs, bats and to bobble heads.cobbt1912pcfc.jpg

Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers was a controversial figure in his day, and his memorabilia is prized by collectors.

Prewar Baseball Cards: Honus Wagner T206

The quintessential Holy Grail piece, it is the most expensive and revered baseball card in existence, and even mediocre specimens sell for big dollars. Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 200 were originally produced, and perhaps only 40 to 60 still exist, with the most famous – and controversial – example selling for $2.35 million at auction in February of this year, and then reportedly breaking its own record by selling for $2.8 million in early September.

Clearly, there is something in the lore and legend of the card that has struck a cord with collectors throughout the years. There are several stories behind the card’s rarity: there was a squabble involving Wagner over compensation; copyright disputes with the original artist; a broken printing plate that cut short the print run; or – the most popular tale – that Wagner pulled the plug on the card because he didn’t want to be associated with tobacco products. Whatever the reason, the card is scarce and its legend has grown to mythic proportions.

“The Honus Wagner card, with all due respect to it, is not the rarest card,” said hobby kingpin Alan Rosen, who has owned nine Wagner T206 cards throughout the years. “It is the most advertised and most well-known rare card, but nowhere near the rarest card. There are other cards that are a lot harder to find, like the (1922) Babe Ruth Caramel card or the Joe Jackson rookie card.”

The T206 set was issued from 1909-11 by the American Tobacco Co., and is the most complete set from the period, hence its great popularity among collectors.

The most spectacular of the Wagner cards is a specimen once owned by Wayne Gretzky. It was sold by Brian Seigel of Las Vegas to an unidentified Southern California collector in February for $2.35 million, then recently resold to another anonymous buyer for $2.8 million.00x844f.jpg

Pitcher Sandy Koufax’s brief career makes his memorabilia sought after.

Postwar Baseball Cards: 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle

This is the only rival to the Wagner T206 in status. Like the Wagner card, the Mantle No. 311 is as famous for its story – about 1952 Topps high-number cards being sent to a watery grave after the set failed to sell well – as it is for being an attractive card featuring perhaps the most popular player the game has ever seen.

The combination of Mantle’s enduring appeal, a huge Yankee fan base and relative scarcity have made the ’52 Topps Mantle familiar to even non-collectors. The card does not rival the Wagner T206 in price, and is common enough that examples can be found at most card shows. The most a collector is known to have paid for one was $275,000 for a “Gem Mint” specimen back in 2001.

“I would definitely put it at the top my list, even over the Wagner,” said Tuff Stuff baseball card pricing analyst Joe Clemens. “It is the most recognizable card by far, at least in that era. Even young collectors not familiar with that generation know that card.”
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Autographed photo of the 1927 New York Yankees, considered by many to be the greatest team of all time.

Autographed Baseballs: Josh Gibson, Shoeless Joe Jackson (tie)

Since these two items are in the super-exclusive “There Maybe Only A Couple In Existence” category, it’s hard to even put a ballpark dollar figure on them.

A single-signed Christy Mathewson ball broke the bank at $161,000 last spring in a Huggins & Scott auction. Single-signed Gibson or Shoeless Joe balls would be considered even rarer.

Gibson was considered the Babe Ruth of the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and his signature and memorabilia certainly weren’t widely collected at the time. Add that he died young at the age of 35 due to a stroke and it’s no surprise that his signature is exceedingly rare.

At least one, and perhaps a handful, of baseballs with his autograph still exist, although it’s hard to pinpoint what their value would be.

Jackson’s autograph is notoriously difficult to find on any piece as well. The Standard Catalog of Sports Memorabilia values his signature on a ball at $25,000-$30,000, but it’s likely such a specimen with a well-preserved signature would fetch far more if determined bidders squared off in an auction.

“I’ve seen at least one authentic Joe Jackson single-signed ball, and I’ve seen one example of Josh Gibson-signed ball,” said Keating. “There are autograph anomalies out there like that where you say to yourself, ‘My God, I can’t believe these even exist.’”

Bats: Babe Ruth’s First Yankee Stadium Home Run Bat

This one is a slam-dunk, a no-brainer, according to authenticator Dave Bushing at Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services (better known as MEARS) in Milwaukee. The best part is that it’s the ultimate dream bat and it actually exists.

“Nah, there’s nothing else, even if we went into the next category of ‘What would be the Holy Grail of bats if it existed.’ Nothing in baseball history could top that. This represents baseball history, period,” said Bushing. “I don’t care if it’s the one he used in his first All-Star Game or his first rookie bat – none of them would be as important.”

Ruth Bat HG.jpgSotheby’s auctioned this historic piece of lumber for $1.3 million in late 2006, making it the most expensive bat on record. To put that number in perspective, the second-highest bat that had ever been sold to that point was a Shoeless Joe Jackson bat that went for $577,610 in 2001.

Fittingly, the Ruth bat has a terrific human-interest story behind it.

After hitting his historic first Yankee Stadium round-tripper on April 18, 1923, Ruth agreed to donate the bat to the Los Angeles Herald for use as the big prize in a high school home-run-hitting contest. The bat eventually went to local 16-year-old baseball hotshot Victor Orsatti. Orsatti went on to be a baseball and football star at USC, and eventually became a well-known Hollywood talent agent.

“How do you put a price on it?” mused Bushing. “Well, somebody sold it and somebody bought it, so it does have a price established, but I think it should be up there with Orville and Wilber Wright’s plane. In baseball, it’s the most historic item I can think of, period.”

Baseball Glove: Mickey Mantle’s 1956 World Series Glove

MantleBack.jpgGuaranteed to weaken the knees of Mantle fans and Yankee collectors, it is the leather that Mantle used for his famous ’56 World Series catch in Yankee Stadium’s “Death Valley” that helped preserve Don Larson’s perfect game.

In one of the most famous catches in baseball history, Mantle ran down and backhanded Gil Hodges’ drive into the cavernous left-field power alley. The play wound up saving the only perfect game in World Series history and helped the Yankees win the game, 2-0, and, ultimately, the Series, 4-3.

MantlePoster.jpgThe clincher is that the surviving glove can be photo-matched and is almost certainly the real deal. That’s certainly the belief of Pittsburgh-area collector Dennis Esken, who owns the trophy piece.

Considering that actor Billy Crystal shelled out $239,000 for a 1960 Mantle glove at a Sotheby’s auction back in 1999, it’s a good bet that Mantle’s ’56-’57 World Series mitt would produce a sizeable stack of cash if it were to become available.

Programs: 1903 World Series

World Series programs can bring some pretty righteous bucks. Anything from the 1960s and older is likely to be worth $100 or more if it’s not too beat up, and prices climb the farther back you go.

It stands to reason that the first World Series program would command top dollar, and that is certainly the case. The modest four-page flyer that passed for the first program is not much to look at, but it’s one of the great early artifacts from turn-of-the-century professional baseball. Pittsburgh and Boston squared off in the first World Series, and a program from either city is a Holy Grail-type piece today.

“I believe the Pittsburgh one is much rarer than the Boston one,” said Montreal magazine and program expert Bob Crestohl. “I’ve seen a Boston one, but don’t even know of anybody who has a Pittsburgh version. I know the Boston has gone for $75,000 to $100,000, and I’ve got to believe the Pittsburgh version would go for more.”