The autographed baseball as a fundraiser may not have originated with Babe Ruth but it’s pretty clear he spent a lot of time signing balls for that purpose.
Paging through some newspapers from a century ago, I stumbled on a few clippings that make it clear there were plenty of Ruth signed baseballs in circulation by the time he completed his first calendar year with the Yankees, many of them procured through fans’ participation in charity events.
In December of 1920, Ruth went to Havana, Cuba where he and a group of fellow big leaguers played some barnstorming games against local players and enjoyed a little post-season R&R.
Ruth’s fame had already spread beyond U.S. soil. Cuban fans called him “Babby” and followed him everywhere, according to newspaper coverage of his visit.
In between playing ball, losing money in the casinos and going shark fishing, the 25-year-old Babe purchased 48 baseballs which he autographed and sent back to his former home at St. Mary’s Industrial School.
The notion that sports memorabilia had no value a century ago isn’t quite accurate. Fans and early collectors were more than willing to pony up a few bucks to get what they wanted. According to the December 10 edition of the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Ruth baseballs were used as a fundraiser to construct more buildings at St. Mary’s and were a quick sell out (at what price, we don’t know). The paper did say it wasn’t the first time Ruth had sent signed baseballs to St. Mary’s. It also wasn’t his first brush with signing baseballs for religious charities.
Earlier that summer, Ruth sent a pair of signed balls to St. Peter’s Parish in Anaconda, Montana where the Reverend Father Tracy was planning on using them to raise money during the church’s annual fall fair and carnival.
There was a Wally Pipp connection.
The Yankees first baseman who would, in a few years, take his famous sick day and open the door to Lou Gehrig’s Hall of Fame career, had a brother who was also a clergyman. W.B. Pipp had visited St. Peter’s during Easter and his ballplaying brother came up in conversation. The good father relayed the church’s need for financial assistance to his brother Wally who had a front row seat to Ruth’s record-setting power that was the talk of the sports world. Wally secured Babe’s autographs on the two baseballs and sent them out west.
Good sport that he was, Babe promised to send ten more at a later date.
How many of those early Ruth signed baseballs have survived is anyone’s guess, but it’s probably safe to assume that even in the first five years of his career, he signed hundreds if not thousands of baseballs. Among the earliest is likely the 1915 Red Sox team signed ball that’s the headline item in the current Lelands auction. He signed his name simply “Ruth” on that one. Thankfully, he didn’t adopt that single name signature as his standard and continued to be a generous signer until his death in 1948.
Even in 1920, Father Tracy already knew a Babe-signed ball was a big deal.
“From the interest shown by the local fans, I feel certain the balls will find plenty of purchasers,” he said.