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In November 2022, the Houston Astros were the talk of the baseball landscape after capturing the World Series. Still, they weren’t the only diamondball story making headlines, as two Ty Cobb bats garnered more than a million dollars each in auctions.
Grey Flannel Auctions made headlines when it sold Ty Cobb’s rookie year bat for just under $1.075 million. The bat, certified authentic by PSA/DNA with a perfect GU 10 rating, attracted 24 bids following the achieved minimum of $100,000. As described by Grey Flannel, many usage marks are found on the piece.
“The bat shows evidence of outstanding use with a slight crack on the upper handle. Ball marks can be seen on the right and back barrel. Cleat marks can be seen on all sides of the upper barrel,” the description states, adding that tape marks are also evident.
That bat was joined later in the month by a second Cobb bat. This time, it was a Heritage Auctions lot that garnered seven figures, as their piece, used from 1910 to 1914, sold for $1.6 million.
The Cobb bats are two of many auction lots that have achieved seven figures this year. Another was a Jackie Robinson bat from 1949. That bat, which the legendary baseball player used during his lone MLB MVP season, sold at the end of April for $1.08 million.
These are exceptions; most collectibles in the seven-figure club are sports cards or jerseys.
Still, there are other examples of mighty big-dollar auctions. Yes, they are few, but other items from the sports world broke the million-dollar plateau.
Rules of sport
From a historical standpoint, there may be no greater prize for any sports enthusiast than founding rules documentation.
It seems farfetched for any person to hold such an item. After all, such legendary laws feel like the cornerstone of a sports museum. Yet irreplaceable pages are sitting in homes rather than in a hallowed hall.
Perhaps the most famous of these are the original basketball rules. Dr. James Naismith, the unquestioned inventor of the sport, penned the first iteration of the game’s rules on two sheets of paper. This simple yet irreplaceable memoir of the innocent days of one of the most prominent competitions in the world.
As documented by the Associated Press, those pages were sold for more than $4 million in 2010 by the Naismith International Basketball Foundation via Sotheby’s as a fundraiser. That same auction saw Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation sell for $3.8 million.
The basketball rules documents aren’t the only publication that have reached the auction block. In April 2016, the Laws of Base Ball document sold for $3.26 million in a lot from SCP Auctions. Created in 1857 by Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, the multi-page document outlined the rules of play that are still in use today. For example, the distance between bases, the number of innings, and the number of players on the field are foundations still in place today.
The “Laws of Base Ball” auction set a precedent for all baseball artifacts. “This is a document of unparalleled importance in the history of America’s National Pastime,” said SCP Auctions Vice President Dan Imler in a release at the auction’s close. “Its gravitas was recognized by a diverse collection of astute bidders who pushed the bidding to a record level.”
Rules of the game were also responsible for the second-highest soccer (or, if you prefer, football) auction. As cited by Khelnow.com, a guidebook from Sheffield United Football Club reached $1.24 million at auction. The first-established football club created the rules and regulations for its conduct, and those same guides guide soccer today.
Most impressive, however, is the manifesto that guides the modern Olympics. Crafted in 1892 by Pierre de Coubertin, the 12-page document sold by Sotheby’s in 2019 is the only known copy to exist. This autographed document sold for more than $8.8 million.
As described by Sotheby’s associate editor Halina Loft, the document changed how the world viewed sporting competition. “He (de Coubertin) posited that new ideas, technologies, and systems (specifically the telegraph, railways, and developments in scientific research) were propelling human progress and innovation to unfathomable heights–and in this vein, athletic endeavors should no longer exist primarily as military pursuits,” she wrote.
In another paper realm are contracts. While every player has a contract with their club (usually with one copy that the athlete (or their agent) keeps and the other staying with the team), these signed pieces have occasionally made it to the public marketplace.
Most valuable among these is Babe Ruth’s first Major League Baseball contract. The document, signed by Ruth and officials from the Boston Red Sox and the American League, sold for over $1 million in 2014. Ruth also hits the high mark for his sale by the Red Sox to the Yankees. That document sold in a 2017 auction for over $2 million.
Staying with The Babe, championship rings are a huge part of sports auction lore. These, most often, will come up for bid after a player has passed and the family chooses to put the prize up for public dollars or in an unfortunate situation where an athlete has come on hard times.
Championship rings have been around for centuries. While the Super Bowl ring is the most talked about piece of jewelry, every sport has rings for championship seasons and other such creations for runners-up or other commemorations.
The most expensive championship ring has a bit of extra cache. Yes, it’s a Babe Ruth ring, but its one-time owner has a supporting role in its mythology. In 2017, Charlie Sheen, the bad boy actor who fittingly starred in the Major League series of films, put his 1927 Ruth prize up for bid, and it garnered more than $2 million. We can say that Sheen was “winning” in this case; he originally purchased the ring from Leland’s founder Josh Evans for $225,000.
Another award was also the subject of a seven-figure auction: the Jesse Owens gold medal. SCP was the house associated with this sale that reached nearly $1.5 million, thanks to its final bidder, Ron Burkle.
Outside of these documents, the options are scarce, and they will most often be associated with the absolute best in their sport, starting with “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali.
As you might expect, Ali memorabilia is in the upper echelon of sports memorabilia realized pricing. It’s not uncommon to see an auction end in the six figures for his gloves, robe, or other fight gear. The most expensive sale came in 2012 and eclipsed the million-dollar plateau. This particular set of gloves was from his victory in 1965 over Floyd Patterson. The reason for its high sale can be, at the very least in part, attributed to the heavyweight battling with the auction paddle: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and then co-owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship Lorenzo Fertitta.
As I talked about earlier in the fall, the most famous million-dollar ball was the 70th home run baseball from Mark McGwire. The ball, by most accounts, was an overspend by Todd McFarlane, but that is primarily due to McGwire’s steroid scandal.
The McGwire isn’t the only ball to reach this mark, though. One other—a game ball signed by Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates—came up for bid in an eBay auction in 2020. That ball went for just under $2.9 million.
And by all accounts, those two balls will soon be joined by Aaron Judge’s 62nd home run baseball. Earlier this month, I talked about the ball eventually going to market. That “eventually” is happening much sooner than most expected. Cory Younmans, the owner of said ball, announced in mid-November that he would auction the ball with Goldin. Younmans previously rejected a $3 million offer.
We’ll soon find out if that ball will join this elite million-dollar club.
Jon Waldman is a Winnipeg-based writer. He has written for Beckett, Go GTS, Canadian Sports Collector, and several other hobby outlets over his two decades in the hobby. His experience also includes two books on sports cards and memorabilia. Connect with Jon on Twitter at @jonwaldman.
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