The 92-year-old professional-grade wool flannel jersey has enough soiling, stains and fabric repairs to establish that its owner tumbled after fly balls and slid into second base. More often he trotted around the bases in his signature choppy steps.
The Y in the words "NEW YORK" is embroidered on the double-thick button placket, proof to experts that the road jersey was made circa 1920. Stitched next to the Spalding manufacturer's label on the collar are these letters in faded pink script:
Since one George Herman Ruth was purchased by the New York Yankees from the Boston Red Sox on Jan. 5, 1920, and first wore the uniform of his new team two months later, top authenticators are confident the jersey likely was worn by Ruth that season, making it perhaps the most valuable piece of baseball memorabilia ever.
And that season was landmark. On the strength of Ruth, the Yankees drew nearly 1.3 million fans at the Polo Grounds, becoming the first major league team to exceed a million in attendance. World War I was over, prohibition began, the '20s began to roar, and Ruth swiftly became an alluring national symbol of power, excess, intemperance, exuberance and excellence. He hit 54 home runs in 1920, obliterating his own major league record of 29 set a year earlier with the Red Sox. No other team in baseball hit more than 50, and no other individual hit even 20.
Ruth, 25, would emerge from his lavish apartment at the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway and 73rd Street, ignore traffic laws as he drove his roadster to the Polo Grounds and then cheerily wade through a throng of admirers and disappear into the clubhouse, where he'd pull his jersey over a taut torso that eventually would become bloated by an abundance of beverages and animal protein, button it up and begin another day as the best baseball player in the world.
Here it is 2012, and the jersey endures as a memento of a life and a time etched deeply in Americana. It was privately owned for decades and made public at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore from 2004 to 2009. It then was sold to a collector, who in late April will put the jersey up for auction. Experts say the price ought to exceed the $2.8 million paid in 2007 for a pristine T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco baseball card.
"This is simply the finest sports artifact we've handled in our 30-year history," said David Kohler, president of SCP Auctions, the online firm handling the sale. "The historical impact of Ruth's emergence in the Big Apple in the early 1920s, combined with the jersey's superb original condition, makes this a sports treasure of the highest order."
Sports memorabilia auctions are big business, and some of SCP's recent online baseball sales included the bat the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson used to hit his historic home run in the 1988 World Series ($576,000), Lou Gehrig's last home run bat ($403,000) and a program honoring colorful 19th-century Red Sox hero King Kelly ($215,000).
But memorabilia experts say nothing captures the imagination – and opens the checkbooks – of collectors like Babe Ruth. The bat Ruth used to hit a home run in the first game at Yankee Stadium, on opening day in 1923, sold for almost $1.3 million in 2006. The contract of his sale from the Red Sox to the Yankees sold for $996,000 in 2005. And the price paid for this jersey will dwarf them all, Kohler said.
A reason, of course, is that Ruth transcended baseball. In the first era of American celebrity, in the city that seemed the center of the universe, his exploits on and off the field made him a folk hero even during his career. And it all began in 1920, seven years after he escaped a childhood spent mostly in a Baltimore reform school and broke into the big leagues with the Red Sox as a dominant left-handed pitcher.
He soon established himself as too valuable a slugger to stay on the mound, and it turned out he was too valuable to stay in Boston, too. The owner of the Red Sox, Harry Frazee, was overleveraged and periodically raised cash by selling players – usually to the Yankees, a chronic second-division team that got a taste of winning by finishing third in the American League in 1919.
Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston recognized that the outsized slugger who had bashed an unthinkable 29 homers in 1919 would be a drawing card. They purchased Ruth for $100,000 – double the previous record paid for a player – and Ruppert also gave Frazee a $300,000 loan secured by a mortgage on Fenway Park.
Ruth, for his part, was unhappy with his Red Sox contract that was to pay him $10,000 a year through 1921. He negotiated a total of $41,000 for two years with the Yankees, and the deal was completed. Ruth reported to spring training in Jacksonville, Fla., in March, and his new uniform was waiting in his locker.
The sale set in motion the supposed Curse of the Bambino. The Red Sox had won all five World Series they reached before selling Ruth, including three with the big left-handed hurler on the roster. Ruth had a record streak of 29 consecutive scoreless innings in the 1916 and 1918 World Series.
The Yankees reached their first World Series in 1921 and made six more appearances during Ruth's career, winning four. They've added 23 more World Series titles since. The Red Sox didn't win another World Series until 2004.
The nickname “Babe” had come from older teammates when Ruth was a naïve minor leaguer playing for Baltimore in 1914. The “Bambino” moniker originated six years later from Italian immigrants living in Manhattan, according to Robert W. Creamer's splendid biography of Ruth titled, "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life."
"The rhythm and alliteration and connotative impact of the Italian word for babe, bambino, made the nickname a natural," Creamer wrote. "In time, headlines would say simply, 'BAM HIT ONE.' "
The bat Ruth used to hit No. 50 in 1920 he allowed auctioned to raise money to help starving Armenians in Turkey, according to Creamer. No. 54 came in the season's last game. The record lasted only a year: Ruth hit 59 homers in 1921 and 60 in 1927. He hit 714 home runs in his career, a record that stood until Hank Aaron broke it in 1974.
Only a few pieces of Ruth memorabilia have survived; the jersey to be auctioned at www.scpauctions.com is one of four of his unrestored game jerseys known to exist. Call it a Ruthian opportunity for a collector with deep pockets and as deep an appreciation for baseball lore.
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- Babe Ruth