Tops on the Mound: Most Collectible Pitchers Nos. 1-4

We set out to compile a list of the most collectible pitchers of all time. In a recent installment of “Classic Collectibles”, we anointed the all-time most collectible catchers. In a way, that was an easier task than this one. After all, when you talk about pitchers, the population increases by many multiples.

Baseball’s archives are jammed with far more hurlers than catchers, thanks to the makeup of a typical baseball team: 10 or 11 pitchers (sometimes more) vs. two or three catchers. The numbers are reflected in the Hall of Fame, where 72 pitchers – but only 16 catchers – have been inducted. Because of these factors, we’ll allow ourselves the luxury of a Top 12 list instead of the standard 10. In the first part of this series, we covered Nos. 12-5, counting backward. We now present the top four selections, again counting backward. Can you guess who is No. 1?

4. Christy Mathewson
This rock-solid right-hander pitched 17 years, compiling a 373-188 record with a 2.13 ERA, 79 shutouts and 435 complete games. The New York Giants star had a 94-34 record from 1903-05, when he won 30 games three years in a row. After a couple of “off” years (22-12 and 24-12), he had another stratospheric three-year stretch. From 1908-10, he was 89-26 with a league-leading 1.14 ERA in 1909. Batters rarely got good wood on the ball when facing Mathewson; he gave up only 89 homers in his entire 17-year career, he led the American League in strikeouts five times, and he had a lifetime WHIP of 1.058.
Mathewson was a clutch pitcher, too. We’ll likely never see a postseason performance like Mathewson’s in 1905. With his Giants facing the Philadelphia Athletics, Mathewson pitched three complete-game shutouts, allowing only 13 hits and a single walk in 27 innings.

Today, Mathewson is an autograph collector’s dream – if you already own one. If you’re buying, it’ll cost you thousands, if not tens of thousands. A Mathewson-signed photograph has a book value of $7,000-$8,000, and a baseball is at $20,000-$25,000. When a Mathewson sig comes up for sale, however, it’s likely to exceed any price guide number.
At Hunt Auctions in 2009, a beautiful single-signed Mathewson baseball fetched $44,000. Last November, a 1910 letter signed by Mathewson brought $26,000. (Hunt’s catalog noted that it was the first handwritten correspondence the company had offered in nearly 20 years.)

At SCP Auctions in 2007, a single-signed ball sold for $23,000. And a year later, Mathewson’s first major league contract sold for $69,830. Dated Aug. 17, 1900, the contract found the Giants committing to the princely sum of $150 paid in “semi-monthly installments on the 1st and 15th.” It originally landed in the Barry Halper Collection, given to Halper by a member of Mathewson’s family.

Among Mathewson’s cards, his T206 issues (Nos. 298, 299 and 300) will set you back $1,500- $2,500 if ungraded but in Excellent/Near-Mint condition. His 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack cards are worth even more: $4,000-$5,000 if in decent condition. And last November, SCP Auctions offered a T205 Gold Border Mathewson card graded PSA 8. The card, difficult to find in such clean condition, inspired a winning bid of $36,715.

3. Walter Johnson
Only Cy Young had more wins than Johnson’s 417, which is especially remarkable when you consider he played his whole career for the Washington Senators, a club that didn’t have a winning tradition. In fact, the Senators had 11 losing seasons during Johnson’s 21-year tenure (1907-27) as their ace – and they would have had several other sub-.500 campaigns without his work on the mound. Johnson’s finest season was in 1913, when he compiled a 36-7 record with a 1.14 ERA and .0780 WHIP, earning the AL’s Most Valuable Player award in the process.

Johnson led the AL in wins six times, and five times he posted the lowest ERA (his career mark: 2.17). “The Big Train” allowed only 7.5 hits and 2.1 walks per nine innings while throwing 5,914 total frames in his career, giving him a WHIP of 1.06. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound right-hander could swing the bat, too. He had a lifetime .235 average with 24 home runs, 41 triples and 94 doubles.

Walter’s signature has inspired memorable bidding wars in the hobby. At SCP Auctions in 2007, a Johnson-signed baseball went all the way to $90,000. The reason: He signed his autograph and notated it with “World Series 1924,” adding an “x” on a side panel. According to his heirs, the “x” allowed him to distinguish this ball from others. It was one of only three balls he personally saved.

Typically, a Johnson-signed baseball lands in the $5,000-$8,000 range. Documents, checks and letters signed by the Hall of Famer usually go for $1,500- $4,000.
Johnson card classics include his two 1909-1911 T206 issues (Nos. 229 and 230), both of which book for around $2,000; his 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack cards (valued at $5,250 and $3,750, respectively); and his 1922 Caramel ($1,600).

2. Cy Young
In terms of talent, stats and impact, all that needs to be said about Denton True “Cy” Young is that baseball’s award for the best American League and National League pitchers each year bears his name. Not only was he a great pitcher, but he was a model citizen. He was known for clean living, level-headedness and – as he once said – “outdoor life, moderation and a naturally good arm.”

But just for fun, let’s look at some numbers, anyway. Young, in a 22-year career that started in 1890, won an astounding 511 games – perhaps the game’s most unapproachable record. He also threw 749 complete games. Think about that: He averaged 34 complete games per season. He’d probably go nuts playing today, when the starting pitcher’s bar is around six innings, give or take a batter.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Young also threw 76 shutouts and had 15 seasons with 20 or more wins – and in five of those seasons, he had 30 or more wins. He was known for his fastball. Honus Wagner called it the fastest he’d ever seen, and “Cy” was a shortened version of the nickname he’d been given because of his smoke: Cyclone.

Yet the numbers don’t show that he was a strikeout pitcher, which may have been the secret to his longevity and durability; he had 2,803 Ks in a record 7,356 innings. The secret was (as it is now) keeping men off base. He gave up only 1.5 walks and 8.7 hits per nine innings.

While many of the great pitchers of Young’s era are overlooked in the collecting arena today, Cy is still revered. His autograph on a baseball is a holy grail among collectors, commanding a value of anywhere from a couple thousand to tens of thousands. Two examples turned up in late 2011. A shellacked ball bearing Young’s signature sold for $3,020 at Leland’s in December. With the cracking surface on top of the autograph, that ball couldn’t compare to a Young-signed baseball sold by Hunt’s Auctions a month earlier. The latter, a single-signed beauty inked in blue fountain pen, bears this nicely executed inscription: “June 14th 1931/Compliments, Cy Young.” It was estimated by Hunt Auctions at $15,000-$25,000 but sold for $45,000.

Want a Cy Young card? The ones to get appeared in the T206 white-bordered set issued between 1909-11. The three different Young cards in that series have book values of $3,800 (No. 510), $4,400 (No. 511) and $8,700 (No. 512). All three have taken steep climbs in the past decade; just five years ago, their book values were between $1,825-$2,600.

1. Babe Ruth
Surprised? Probably not. SCD’s readers know full well that before he was The Bambino, George Herman Ruth was a Boston Red Sox pitcher – a star pitcher – for a number of years. In fact, his work on the mound was a key factor in Boston’s 1916 and 1918 World Series titles. All told, Ruth started 147 games as a pitcher in his career – the equivalent of around five full seasons. From 1914-18, his years with Boston, he posted a record of 89-46 with a 2.19 ERA in 163 games, including relief appearances. Starting in 1915, he put up seasons of 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA, 23-12 with a league-leading 1.75 ERA, 24-13 with a 2.01 ERA and 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA. In World Series play he was even better: 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA. Today, that stretch of brilliance would merit a multi-year contract at $10- $15 million per season.

Ruth also got sporadic appearances on the mound during his 15 years as a Yankee, starting five games and winning all of them. All told, Ruth’s record as a pitcher was 94-46 (a .671 winning percentage) with a 2.28 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP.

As good as he was as a pitcher, Ruth’s real greatness, of course, was at the plate. Boston sold him to the Yankees after the 1919 season. But give the Red Sox credit. They’re the ones who put him in the outfield full-time in 1918 – at least on days he wasn’t pitching.
And you know about his work with the bat: the 714 home runs, .342 batting average, 2,213 RBI, 123 stolen bases, 2,062 walks and the 15 World Series home runs.

Ruth’s place in the world of baseball memorabilia is secure. Only Mickey Mantle is on a par with Ruth, and only Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio are close. He was a generous autograph signer, and he took care in how and where (the sweet spot) he signed, so the auction market sees nice examples come up fairly regularly (although secretary-signed baseballs are out there, too).

Authentic, top-condition Ruth-signed baseballs usually sell in the $15,000- $25,000 range, although lesser-condition examples can be had for four-figure prices, while top-of-the-line examples can get to $50,000 and beyond.

One of the best to surface has been a 1940s specimen graded PSA 8.5; it inspired a winning bid of $83,650 at Heritage Auctions in 2010.

Ruth-signed photographs, programs, ticket stubs and books, too, are desirable pieces for collectors, usually selling in the $2,000-$5,000 range.

The most desirable Ruth artifact of all is a game-used bat. They’re rare and extremely valuable. One great example fetched $537,750 at Heritage Auctions in 2009: the 39-ounce bat he used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day in 1923. Another Ruth bat brought $110,000 at Hunt Auctions in 2011. This one was the 43.8-ounce Louisville Slugger he used in hitting his legendary 620-foot home run at Sing Sing prison during a late-1920s exhibition game.

As for cardboard, Ruth appeared on a number of collectible pieces, beginning with his 1916 M101-4 HA card, which has a book value of $15,000. A PSA 6 specimen of the card fetched $38,840 at Heritage Auctions in 2009. While most of Babe’s cards show him with a bat, this one works best for us: It forever freezes him as a pitcher, following through. Some five years later, he nailed the perfect baseball makeover from top-flight hurler to The Sultan of Swat.

Honorable mention
Wondering who just missed our Top 12? Well, before you start writing letters to point out our oversights, here are enough names to fill two more Top 12 “most collectible” lists:

  • Pre-1950s old-timers: Chief Bender, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Jack Chesbro, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Grove, Addie Joss, Satchel Paige, Eddie Plank, Charles Radbourn, Red Ruffing, Rube Waddell and Ed Walsh.
  • Golden-agers: Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter, Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Robin Roberts and Don Sutton.
  •  Contemporary hurlers: Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux (10 years ago, Roger Clemens would have been included).
  •  All-time closers: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Rich Gossage and Trevor Hoffman.

Larry Canale is author of the book “Mickey Mantle: Memories & Memorabilia” (Krause, 2011) and editor-in-chief of “Antiques Roadshow Insider.” He also spent six years editing Tuff Stuff magazine and has authored two books with photographer Ozzie Sweet: “Mickey Mantle/The Yankee Years” (1998) and “The Boys of Spring” (2005). He can be reached at  larrycanale@comcast.net.

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