Babe Ruth's first Yankee Stadium home run bat up for auction
NEW YORK -- The greatest worry about the auction of the bat Babe Ruth swung to hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium -- against the Boston Red Sox, of all teams -- is that this brown beauty of a Louisville Slugger could wind up in the wrong hands.
That would be anyone superstitious enough to destroy the bat in a harebrained attempt to end the so-called "Curse of the Bambino" against the Red Sox, 4-1 losers at the start of the Yankees' first world championship season.
The wrong hands also would be anyone greedy enough to chop the bat into pieces to sell it chip by sorrowful chip.
"That would be a tragedy," said Lee Dunbar, director of collectibles at Sotheby's.
Whether this "Holy Grail of sports memorabilia" fetches as much as the $3 million paid for the Mark McGwire 70th home run ball or at least $1 million, as Sotheby's and SportsCards Plus believe it will at their joint auction in New York on Dec. 2, the bat deserves a proper home.
George Steinbrenner ought to buy it for display at Yankee Stadium.
There's history and more than a touch of magic in this bat, which has been stuffed in a closet or hidden under a bed all these decades since Ruth donated it to a Los Angeles high school batting champion as a newspaper-sponsored prize.
Lift the bat from its new, padded, blue velvet-lined, cherry wood box -- slip on soft, white gloves first, please -- and come in touch with the near mythic man who once swung it.
Feel the weight, a hefty 46 ounces. It's thick-handled but top heavy. Take measure of the size, a full 36 inches of solid ash. Scan the gleaming finish and read the script written indelibly in fine penmanship with a fountain pen on the barrel:
"To the Boy Home Run King of Los Angeles, 'Babe' Ruth, N.Y. May 7, 1923."
Look at the brass plate affixed to the middle of the bat:
"Presented to Victor Orsatti at Manual Arts H.S. by the Los Angeles Evening Herald."
The lathe marks are still visible under the knob of the handle. The bat model number, 125, is still clear.
On April 18, 1923, opening day of "The Yankee Stadium," as the grand $2.5 million ballpark was called then, Ruth said before the game, "I'd give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in the first game in this new park."
He got his chance with two runners on in the third inning.
"Boston pitcher Howard Ehmke tried to fool Ruth with a slow pitch," according to Harvey Frommer, author of "The New York Yankee Encyclopedia."
"The Sultan of Swat turned it into a fast pitch, hammering it on a line into the right-field bleachers. Ruth got his wish. The huge crowd was on its feet roaring as Ruth crossed the plate, removed his cap, extended it at arm's length in front of him, and wave to the ecstatic assemblage -- witnesses to baseball history."
The announced attendance was 74,217, later changed to 60,000, Frommer said. Many wore heavy sweaters, coats and hats on the 49-degree afternoon. Some sported dinner jackets. More than 25,000 were turned away.
Inspired by Ruth's homer, sports writer Fred Lieb tagged the new park with the nickname that would endure: "The House That Ruth Built."
"Some might say that home run represented the final transfer of power from the Red Sox to the Yankees," said Dan Imler, auction director for SportsCards Plus.
The Red Sox had sold Ruth to the Yankees following the 1919 season after winning the World Series three times in five years. The Red Sox haven't won the World Series since, giving rise to stories about "The Curse of the Bambino."
Ruth's bat essentially bankrolled the building of Yankee Stadium, which was built to accommodate all the people who wanted to see him play. A star pitcher for much of his career in Boston, the Yankees let him loose as a slugger and outfielder. Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920, then 59 and 35 the next two years. In 1923, in his new house, he had what he regarded as his finest season, a league-leading 41 homers, .393 batting average, 131 RBIss, 151 runs, 170 walks, and a .764 slugging percentage.
The contest to give away the bat Ruth used for his first home run of the season, starting in 1923 and running for six years, was the brainchild of Christy Walsh, who had worked for the Los Angeles Evening Herald.
"Ruth was always supportive of young boys, particularly young ballplayers, so he was interested in participating in the contest," Imler said.
Orsatti, the captain of his school's baseball team, was 16 when he won the bat. He went on to star in baseball and football at USC, where one of his football teammates was John Wayne. Orsatti had tryouts with the St. Louis Cardinals, where his brother Ernie had a long career that included the 1934 championship.
Rather than pursuing sports, Victor Orsatti became a Hollywood talent agent. Among the stars he represented were Jean Harlow, Mickey Rooney, Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Edward G. Robinson, Sonja Henie and Frank Capra.
Orsatti had a live-in caretaker in Southern California for the last six years of his life before he died at 78 in 1984.
"Toward the end when his health was failing, he instructed the caretaker to go to a closet in his room," Imler said. "He told her the story of how he won the bat. He became very close to her and regarded her as family. Upon his death, he willed it to her along with his scrapbook and other personal effects."
The scrapbook, which will be included in the sale of the bat, contains a telegram from Ruth:
"To Vic Orsatti ... Glad to hear you win Evening Herald home run bat but sorry there was not a trophy for all the boys. In my home run experience I have found a fellow frequently fails when he tries hardest. Therefore send my regards to the ones who tried and congratulations to you for winning. George 'Babe' Ruth."
The caretaker, who has asked to remain anonymous, kept the bat under her bed for more than 10 years and recently asked SportsCards Plus to represent her in the sale of it.
"It was something she was very proud of," Imler said. "She shared it with people in her family and close friends. She's originally from New England. Ironically, she's a Red Sox fan."
The caretaker's intentions, Imler said, are to contribute a portion of her proceeds to help orphan children, much in the same way Ruth himself did after growing up in a school for boys in Baltimore.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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