Bat hit first homer in Yankee Stadium history

NEW YORK -- Going, going, gone. The massive 46-ounce Louisville Slugger used by Babe Ruth to drill the first home run in Yankee Stadium history sold Thursday for a record $1.26 million to an unidentified private collector.

The bat, 36 inches of solid ash billed as "the Holy Grail of sports memorabilia," sold after about one minute of high-stakes bidding at Sotheby's auction house in Manhattan, fetching a Ruthian price above its presale estimate of $1 million, said Sotheby's spokeswoman Lauren Gioia.

The bat was only the third piece of sports memorabilia to break the $1 million mark at auction, joining Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball ($3 million) and a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card ($1.265 million), the auction house said. It was the most ever paid for a baseball bat.

The winning bid -- about half the $2.5 million it originally cost to build Yankee Stadium -- came from Doug Allen, president of the Chicago-based auction house MastroNet, Inc., on behalf of an East Coast collector who preferred to remain anonymous. The hammer price was $1.1 million, with a 15 percent commission added.

"It was a blur," Allen said after the gavel fell on a final sales price of $1,265,000. "It was exciting sitting in the room, lots of adrenaline pumping."

Ruth lugged the historic lumber with him to the plate on April 18, 1923, the first game inside "the house that Ruth built." With 74,000 fans looking on, Ruth christened the new ballpark with a third-inning blast into the right field bleachers as his New York Yankees dispatched the Boston Red Sox 4-1.

The bat didn't get out much after Ruth's blast. The Bambino, back in the days when the concept of a million-dollar bat was insanity, donated it to The Los Angeles Times as the top prize in a high school home run hitting contest. The barrel still bears Ruth's inscription: "To the Boy Home Run King of Los Angeles, 'Babe' Ruth, N.Y. May 7, 1923." One month later, high school slugger Victor Orsatti was presented with the bat; he kept it until his death 61 years later.

The bat was willed to Orsatti's caretaker, who stored it beneath her bed until putting it up for auction. A portion of the sales price will go toward a youth baseball program at a Mexican orphanage, the auction house said.

The auction also included several items dating to the Brooklyn Dodgers, producing an odd bit of business -- the current owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers was snapping up memorabilia from the borough so memorably abandoned by Walter O'Malley in 1957.

The franchise that broke Brooklyn's heart, owned since February by Boston real estate developer Frank McCourt, wanted the items as part of a plan to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers' 1955 triumph over their bitter Bronx rivals, the Yankees -- their only title while in New York City.

"It is a little ironic," said Travis McCourt, 21, a student at Georgetown University who handled the bidding. "But regardless of where we are now, it's the same team. And this 50-year heritage is still the same heritage."

The younger McCourt said the items would likely go on display at Dodgers Stadium next year to mark the 50th anniversary.

McCourt made the winning bids for team captain Pee Wee Reese's 14-karat gold 1955 World Championship ring with an accompanying team picture, mounted on a wood plaque, that hung for years in Reese's home ($72,000); for 1955 game-worn Dodgers jackets from Reese ($9,000) and pitcher Billy Loes ($1,680); and an engraved silver platter given to Reese by his 1955 teammates ($13,200).