A Call to Arms: Looking at the Most Collectible Pitchers

Remember Bruce Springsteen’s 1985 baseball-themed song “Glory Days”? He has a line in that Top 40 single that sums up any hitter’s challenge in facing a great pitcher, even in high school: “He could throw that speedball by you, make you look like a fool.”

With that thought in mind, we set out to compile a list of the most collectible pitchers of all time. In our most 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 and only 16 catchers have been inducted. Because of these factors, we’ll allow ourselves the luxury of a Top 12 list instead of standard 10.

With that in mind, let’s get to our list, starting with No. 12 and working toward our most collectible hurler ever. The first part of this two-part series counts down from No. 12 through No. 5.

12. Tom Seaver
Tom Terrific put himself on the map as a 22-year-old rookie in 1967, when he won 16 games for a less-than-amazing Mets team. He followed with another 16-win season in 1968, and then led the Mets to their unforgettable championship in 1969. He was a true force that season, pitching so well that his record was 25-7 despite, frankly, not a whole lot of run support. Seaver’s ERA in 1969 was a minuscule 2.21 and his WHIP was a fantasy-friendly 1.039.

Seaver would go on to pitch for 17 more years, retiring after the 1986 season with a 311-205 record and a 2.86 ERA. Along the way, he made 12 All-Star teams and notched three Cy Young awards. In 1992, he gained easy entrance to the Hall of Fame.

In the hobby, Seaver has been a willing signer over the years, appearing at enough autograph shows (including many with former Amazin’ Mets teammates) to give the market ample supply. As a result, his autograph isn’t a particularly pricey one. But rarity isn’t everything. This is one of the greatest pitchers of our time, and to be able to get his sig on a photo for $50-$100 or on a baseball for $150-$200 is a collector’s advantage.
Seaver’s rookie card, a 1967 Topps issue, has always been a notch below Nolan Ryan’s rookie card. Seaver’s card-mate was Bill Denehy, a pitcher who would fizzle quickly, posting a 1-10 career record. Nevertheless, Seaver’s rookie is a desirable card that books at around $350, per the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, but can sell for thousands if graded and in top condition. Heritage Auctions, for example, sold one graded SGC 96 for $2,870 in 2008.

11. Warren Spahn
This Buffalo, N.Y., native got a late start in the majors, suffering a shoulder injury in the late 1930s and then – after a few forgettable games with the Boston Braves in 1942 – heading off to military service. He became the most decorated ballplayer to fight in the war, earning a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, a battlefield promotion and a Presidential citation. “After what I went through overseas,” he would later say, “I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work.”

Returning to the big leagues at age 25 in June 1946, Spahn got right to work. He went 8-5 that season and 21-10 in 1947, becoming a fixture in the Braves’ rotation. Using spot-on mechanics and his trademark high leg kick, the lefty won 20 or more games a remarkable 13 times between 1947-63. The final year in that run was one for the ages; at age 42, he turned in a sparkling 23-7 record with a 2.60 ERA. He pitched one more year for the Braves and split his final major-league season, 1965, between the Mets and Giants.
Spahn’s career record was 363-245 (only four pitchers won more games) with a 3.09 ERA and 1.195 WHIP. He earned a Cy Young Award in 1957 and was named to 17 All-Star games.

After retiring, Spahn could be seen at autograph shows in the 1990s, when his signature was a reasonable buy at around  $25 on a baseball. After his passing at age 82 in 2003, the value of Spahn-signed baseballs has risen to the $100-$150 range – still pretty reasonable for a Hall of Famer and the winningest lefty of all time.

Game-worn Spahn memorabilia is a different story. In November 2011, a Boston Braves jersey from 1949 (later signed by the pitcher) drew $28,680 at Heritage Auctions. Two years earlier, a Milwaukee Braves road jersey Spahn wore in 1954 sold for $39,600 at a Mears auction.

Spahn’s first baseball card, a 1949 Leaf, has a book value of $450. If graded at 8 or 9, its value jumps to several thousand dollars. But for $100- $150, you can find a number of later Spahn rarities worth chasing, among them his 1954 Johnston Cookies card and his 1963 Bazooka card (he was on a panel with Norm Siebern and Bill Mazeroski).

10. Bob Feller
Rapid Robert Feller’s first big league start came late in the 1936 season, when he was just 17 years old. All he did that afternoon was pitch a complete-game six-hitter with 15 strikeouts in a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Browns. Just like that, a star was born. Feller would win 31 games before turning 20 in November 1938. From there, he put together a stretch of seasons in which he won 24, 27 and 25 games.

Like Spahn, Ted Williams and other players, Feller then entered the military, giving up three prime years of his career to serve. At the conclusion of World War II, he returned to the Indians and picked up where he left off, posting a 5-3 record and a 2.50 ERA. In 1946, he was back for good, and he responded with his finest season: 26-15, 2.18 ERA, 36 complete games and 348 strikeouts.

Feller pitched a total of 18 years, putting together a 266-162 record, good for a .621 winning percentage, and an ERA of 3.25.

Feller, who passed away in 2010, was one of the most willing autograph signers the hobby has ever seen. As the old joke goes, it was harder to find a baseball he hadn’t signed than one he did sign. As a result, the value of his autograph became watered down. No matter: Feller’s is one sig worth having, regardless of financial worth. Anyone who ever saw him signing for throngs of fans at Cleveland’s ballpark, at card shows or down the left-field line during the Indians’ spring training games knows how much he enjoyed being around baseball – and how much fans appreciated their moments with him.

In today’s market, an authenticated Feller-signed baseball can be had for $50- $75 and a photo for around $25. His cards can be far more valuable. His rookie, from Goudey’s 1938 set, has a book value of $2,000 if in Mint condition, $700 if Excellent. His early Bowman cards, too, are popular, with his 1948 card holding a $450 value and his 1949 a $225 value. Perhaps the best-looking Feller issue is his 1953 Bowman, a $525 card that goes far higher if graded. Example: A bidder at Heritage Auctions spent $3,105 in 2010 for a 1953 Bowman Feller graded SGC 92.

Game-worn Feller items can really stretch the collector’s budget. At a 2011 Heritage Auctions sale, for instance, a game-worn Indians jersey Feller wore in 1938 or 1939 went for $35,850.

9. Sandy Koufax
Koufax took a turbo-path to enshrinement in Cooperstown: He played just 12 years – two of which were partial seasons – and retired at age 30 because of an arm injury. Who knows what kinds of records he’d have set with seven or eight more seasons?

As it was, Koufax was baseball’s absolute best for a five-year span beginning in 1962, when he posted a league-leading 2.54 ERA to go with a 14-7 record. Over the next five seasons, he won 25, 19, 26 and 27 games with ERAs of 1.88, 1.74, 2.04 and 1.73. The lefty led the NL in strikeouts four times, with a high of 382 in 1965. And he was a member of three championship Dodgers teams: 1959, 1963 and 1965. He won two games in each of the latter two series, leading the Dodgers to titles over the Yankees and Twins, respectively. His career World Series ERA was 0.95 in 57 innings.

Koufax’s autograph has been steadily rising over the past decade. He’s done sporadic autograph shows in the past, so there’s some supply, but not in the quantities of, say, Feller or Spahn. Expect to pay anywhere from $200-$400 for a clean, single-signed Koufax baseball and $100-$150 for a photo.

Game-used items, as always, capture the attention of high-end collectors. A nice rarity showed up at Robert Edward Auctions in 2010: A well-worn, sweat-stained Brooklyn Dodgers cap worn by Koufax between his rookie season, 1955, and 1957 (the year before the team moved to L.A.). The cap, once part of the collection of former pitcher Karl Drews, brought $9,400. A year earlier, an even more enticing item sold for $107,550 at Heritage Auctions: Koufax’s mitt, a Spalding Rocky Colavito personal model used by the great lefty during his final season.

Koufax’s rookie card, a 1955 Topps, books at $575. In 2011, a PSA 6 example fetched $690 at SCP Auctions, while a PSA 5 got away for $400.

8. Mariano Rivera
The question isn’t whether Big Mo should be on this list; the question is how high should he be placed? After all, Rivera is the greatest reliever in baseball history. Plus, he’s played his entire career in New York, where he’s enjoyed an international stage. Remember, the Yankees have made postseason appearances (including seven World Series) in 16 of Rivera’s 17 seasons – and he’s been a major reason.

And those numbers are nothing short of amazing. Rivera is baseball’s all-time leader in saves with 603 and counting; he’s got a career 2.21 ERA and a 0.998 WHIP; he’s racked up 1,111 strikeouts in 1,211 innings. In the postseason, he’s been nearly perfect, notching 42 saves to go with a 0.70 ERA in 96 games.

Collectors don’t always flock to relief pitchers, but Rivera is an exception. He has played in an era where game-used memorabilia gets into the market in greater supply than in decades past. Among the authenticated examples that have exchanged hands:
l A 2001 Rivera World Series road jersey sold at Heritage Auctions for $2,400 in 2009. The same year, SCP Auctions got $2,555 for a 1998 World Series pinstriped home jersey.
l An eBay buyer spent $3,400 in February 2012, for a 2006 game-used Rivera road jersey offered by Steiner Sports.

Single-signed Rivera baseballs already are in the $125- $200 range, and they likely won’t be dropping in value anytime soon. Ditto for Rivera’s earliest cards. High-grade Rivera 1992 Bowmans have been selling briskly on eBay; in a recent one-month span, nine of them – each graded at 10 – sold for prices between $150-$190.

7. Whitey Ford
The Chairman of the Board, as they called Ford, was well known for his fun-loving activities with longtime teammate Mickey Mantle. But baseball fans and historians won’t forget his accomplishments as a player, either.

Edward Charles Ford, at 5-foot-10, 178 pounds, wasn’t an imposing figure on the mound, but he used guile, strategy and a healthy dose of swagger to keep batters off balance. As former Yankees PR man Marty Appel once wrote, he had “an easy delivery in which he would rock back and come three-quarter arm with all sorts of motion on the ball.”

Mostly, Ford was a winner. His record of 236-106 computes to a .690 winning percentage, a record for all pitchers who have won 200-plus games. His lifetime ERA was 2.75, and he twice led the AL in that category (2.47 in 1956 and 2.01 in 1958.) In the postseason, he was money, posting a 10-8 record and a 2.71 ERA.

Ford has been active enough on the autograph circuit to give collectors a healthy supply. As a result, his is an undervalued signature. A number of authenticated Ford single-signed baseballs have sold over the past several months at prices between $75-$100.

As for cards, Ford’s rookie is a hobby classic. The No. 1 card in Bowman’s colorful 1951 set, its book value is $1,200. It’s not easy to find in top condition, though, so you’ll pay a premium for a high-grade version.

At the top of the line among Ford collectibles are those rare game-used items that land in the hobby. We saw a nice example pop up at Hunt Auctions in 2009: The Spalding glove he used in the 1962 World Series, when he surpassed Babe Ruth’s scoreless innings record. The glove, signed by Ford and inscribed “33 2/3 IN – 1962 W.S.,” brought $15,000.

In 2010 at Heritage Auctions, an early-1960s game-used Ford glove (a Spalding Rocky Colavito personal model) sold for $10,000. This one bears a list written on the inner webbing of tactics used by pitchers to get an edge. Under “Cheat,” it reads, “Mud. Spit. Cut. Vaseline. Slippery Elm.” The writer is unknown but, according to Heritage, it could have been Ford, who was suspected of doctoring the ball at times – and benefited from batters wondering about it.

6. Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander
This tough Nebraska native burst onto the big-league scene with a 28-13 record as a rookie with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1911. It was no fluke; “Ol’ Pete” went on to pitch 20 seasons, amassing a 373-208 record and a 2.56 ERA for the Phils, Cubs and Cardinals. He was a three-time 30-game winner who enjoyed one of the best stretches in major league history from 1915-17, when he had a combined record of 94-35 with 108 complete games and 36 shutouts. In fact, his career total of 90 shutouts is the second-highest figure ever. He played in three World Series, getting his only championship ring at age 39 when he won two games against Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the Yankees.

Alexander did it all despite a tough upbringing on the Nebraska plains. He was one of 13 children, five of whom didn’t survive to adulthood. His parents were farmers who named him after President Grover Cleveland, hoping he would grow up to study law. Instead, he found baseball, getting his shot in the majors at age 24.
As brilliant as his career on the diamond would be, Alexander fought demons after his playing days. He died at age 63 in 1947, and the last two decades of his life, according to a biography published by the Society for American Baseball Research, “are the picture of a man spinning out of control.” Health issues, alcohol, shell shock from World War I, divorce, an “odyssey of odd jobs” and an itinerant lifestyle had him in and out of sanitariums. He is said to have thoroughly enjoyed the process of being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939, but otherwise, his final years weren’t happy ones.

Not surprisingly, the supply of Alexander autographs is skimpy, so when signed photos, documents or baseballs turn up, they make a splash. A 1940s-era single-signed Alexander baseball, for example, sold for $17,330 at Heritage Auctions in 2009, while a signed letter from his years with the Cubs (1918-25) sold for $2,575 at SCP Auctions in 2010. Even unsigned photos can command high prices. Example: a 4-by-6-inch 1920s photograph by legendary black-and-white portraitist Charles Conlon sold for $2,700 at Hunt Auctions in 2008.

Alexander cards to get are his 1914 T222 Fatima and his 1914 Cracker Jack. A PSA 3 example of the latter sold for $1,955 at SCP Auctions in 2010. The same year, SCP handled a one-of-a-kind Alexander gem: Louisville Slugger bat he used between 1918-21. It brought $28,297.

5. Nolan Ryan
The Ryan Express came along just in time to contribute to the Amazin’ Mets of 1969. During his first couple of seasons, Ryan was a wild young fastballer who struck out gobs of batters but walked too many. A trade to the Angels in 1972 saw him come into his own; he was 29-37 with the Mets but won 19, 21 and 22 games in his first three seasons in California. From then on, he was an ace. Pitching for the Angels, Astros, and then Rangers, he compiled a 324-292 record with a 3.19 ERA and a record 5,714 strikeouts in 5,386 innings.

Ryan was known not only for his blazing fastball and killer curve but his durability. He lasted 27 seasons, finally retiring at age 46. It was a long journey from the fresh-faced kid who had a hand in the Mets’ improbable World Series title in 1969 to his days as a top drawing card with the Rangers in the early 1990s. In between, he threw a record seven no-hitters, including one in 1991, at age 44.

Still very visible in baseball because of his role as principal owner, president and CEO of the Rangers, Ryan is also a favorite of autograph collectors. His signature can be had on a baseball for $125-$200 but has been creeping up. (A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see single-signed Ryan baseballs sell for $50-$75.)

Game-used Ryan jerseys crop up and sell in the $2,000-$6,000 range, although there are exceptions, depending on historical importance. For example, the jersey he wore in throwing his sixth no-hitter sold for $44,815 at Heritage Auctions in 2011. (Ryan and the Rangers had donated the jersey to an auction benefitting the Steve Palermo Foundation.)
Ryan’s rookie card – the 1968 Topps issue that he shared with Jerry Koosman – is a classic. During the hobby’s boom years of the 1980s and early 1990s, the ’68 Ryan commanded more than $1,000. In recent years, thanks to the Internet and softened market prices, it’s more readily available (ungraded) at budget-friendly prices ranging from $100-$500. Of course, high-grade examples go the other way. At SCP Auctions in 2010, a PSA 9 Ryan rookie sold for $4,255.

Ryan’s second card, from Topps’ 1969 set, is also a desirable issue. It’s Ryan’s first full card and it’s a high number (530), so it can outsell its book value of $250 if it’s in top condition. His third card, a 1970 Topps, also has a high number (513), along with those black borders, which frequently show chips and corner wear. So finding a 1970 Ryan in Mint condition isn’t easy. We’ve seen several examples graded at 8 by various authenticators sell for $225-$300.

Stay tuned for No. 4 through No. 1 The top selection just might surprise you.

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.

One thought on “A Call to Arms: Looking at the Most Collectible Pitchers

  1. Chris Morey on said:

    I read your article. VERY well written and its a pleasure to read an article written by a person who knows what he is talking about.
    Thanks

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