Until recently, the highest recorded price paid for an non-game-used autographed baseball was $388,375, dropped in 2012 on a ball featuring the signature of Babe Ruth. That mark has now been shattered, to the tune of a whopping $623,369, by a baseball also adorned with the signature of Ruth.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that this ball was also autographed by Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, Walter Johnson, Connie Mack, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins and Pete Alexander. That’s the group of immortals, along with Ruth, who just happened to have been assembled for the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, imbuing the ball with invaluable historical significance.
Well, perhaps not invaluable, but the value far exceeded that of any previous item of its kind. As noted by SCP Auctions, which handled the sale, the ball has a particularly remarkable panel featuring a stack of signatures by the three players considered the greatest ever at the time in Cobb, Ruth and Wagner.
“The sheer greatness of this ball is simply unrivaled,” SCP Auctions president David Kohler said in a statement (via MLB.com). “Its historical importance compounded by the impeccable provenance and state of preservation elevate it to singular status as the most important and valuable autographed baseball in the world. The final price certainly proved this.”
According to SCP Auctions, the ball was one of two that a future Hall of Famer, Tigers great Hank Greenberg, brought to the opening ceremony, after having been selected to play in an all-star exhibition game. However, Greenberg was too cowed by the aura of the 11 icons to approach them for signatures, so he asked a former teammate also playing in the game, Marv Owen of the White Sox, if he would do it.
Owen complied, and received one of the balls for his efforts; it is not known what became of the ball Greenberg presumably kept. Owen was said to have kept his in a fur-lined glove in a safe-deposit box, allowing it to maintain its clear appearance, and the ball was accompanied at the auction by, per SCP, “Owen’s two-page typed signed letter from A.L. President William Harridge with the original mailing envelope inviting him to play in the HOF game.”
“With autographed balls, very few can you trace to the point of origin, the point of signing, where you know the circumstances of where it was acquired,” said Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions (via the AP). “It’s incredible. It almost puts you in that moment, which is very, very rare for a ball.”
“Ultimately, that panel of Cobb, Ruth, Wagner is what puts it over the top,” Kevin Keating of Professional Sports Authenticator, who verified the ball’s legitimacy, told the AP. “Those are the elite of the elite. The fact that he got those guys the way he did, in that perfect order on one panel, it’s almost as if it’s by design.”
The 11 players who signed the ball were the living representatives of the 25 members of the Hall of Fame at the time. The institution in Cooperstown, N.Y., began inducting members in 1936, with an inaugural class that consisted of Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Johnson and Christy Mathewson, and the building’s opening in 1939 allowed it to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Abner Doubleday’s purported invention of the game.
Ruth’s legendary Yankees teammate, Lou Gehrig, was inducted into the Class of 1939 later in the year, after his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ended his career. On the same day, June 12, that the ball was autographed, Gehrig was traveling to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he would receive the grim news.
According to Sports Collectors Daily, a ball autographed by Ruth after he hit it out of the park during the inaugural All-Star Game in 1933 fetched $805,000 at a 2006 auction. The most money ever spent on a baseball was the $3 million paid in 1999 for Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball.
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