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Big League Stew

Babe Ruth and Al Capone: Pals’ autographed baseball is up for auction

David Brown
Big League Stew

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(Mile High Card Co.)

It was neat enough, getting the likes of New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth and "Scarface" Al Capone, icons of 1920s America, to autograph the same baseball. Hall of Fame pitcher Herb Pennock, a longtime teammate of Ruth's, somehow made it happen during the the 1931 season — right before Capone was sent up the river for tax evasion.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports decades later that Pete Collins — a grandson of Pennock and another Hall of Famer, Eddie Collins — has put the ball up for auction via the Mile High Card Company. It could fetch $200,000 seven days from now. Not an unreasonable sum, when you consider what other autographed memorabilia goes for, and the backstory of how Ruth and Capone knew each other. And that Capone schemed to buy the Chicago Cubs from the Wrigley Family — off the record, using blackmail — and to later purchase Ruth from Colonel Jacob Ruppert and the Yankees and make him player-manager of the Cubs.

Sound fantastic? Perhaps, but that was Capone's dream as published in "Uncle Al Capone, The Untold Story From Inside His Family" by Deirdre Marie Capone.

On page 46, she quotes Al's brother Ralph Capone:

"I could run the organization better than Wrigley can," Al boasted. "If I don't take it off his hands, he'll run it into the ground before long."

Al did know baseball well. And he already had a number of ideas for making the Cubs the next great American team. He had devised a plan to trade for Babe Ruth by paying Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert — who wasn't really a colonel but a former brewer — $500,000 in cash. According to Al, he had already talked to the Babe about using him as both a player and a manager. The Babe was very excited about the idea; he had always wanted to be a manager, but Colonel Ruppert wouldn't give him the chance.

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(AP)

We know it's true that the Yankees never let Ruth manage, which is part of why he eventually left the franchise. But even if Capone could have stayed a step ahead of Eliot Ness and his Untouchables, could he have bought the Cubs under the table? What did Capone "have" on William Wrigley? What would he pay? The book's answer:

"What would you offer him for it?" Ralph finally asked [Al].

And then, as he told me the story, Ralph broke into a big grin. "I swear, Deirdre," he said. "Al said to me, 'I'll make him an offer he can't refuse.' "

OH, COME ON, IT DOES NOT SAY THAT. (Yes, it does.)

Capone could have been boasting of course, blowing hot air. And he would have had to hurry, too. By 1932, not only was Capone in prison, but William Wrigley had died.

And Capone's characterization of the Cubs was off. They had won the NL pennant in 1929 and proceded to reach the World Series in '32, '35 and '38. Didn't win it, of course. But with Capone's bankroll and attitude, who knows how history might have been different. Keeping such a deal from baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis would have been tough, seeing that he was headquartered in Chicago as well. And if Capone's Cubs had won the World Series, he'd be bragging all over the place.

Deirdre Capone's book also talks of Capone's vision to buy players from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a Negro League team owned by Al's friend Gus Greenlee. Satchel Paige and another star might have beaten Jackie Robinson to the majors by 16 years. If only Capone had paid his taxes (and a few other things had happened).

As a baseball owner, Capone would have been something like a murderous Mark Cuban. Full of challenging ideas, gumption and money. And yet, Mark Cuban can't seem to buy his way into Major League Baseball, either.

Ruth and Capone might never have gotten together in employment, but they are together on the ball. It was rare for Capone to sign anything, much less a baseball, but Pennock took a breath and got it done one day at Comiskey Park back in '31. He also got reprimanded by the league for chatting up a gangster — the gangster — in public. Later on, he got Ruth to add his signature and a one-of-a-kind item was born. I'd buy it, if I had $200,000 laying around.

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