The signed baseball famously inscribed with the promise of a home run and given to an injured boy by Babe Ruth in 1926 sold early Friday morning for $250,641. The buyer was long-time collector/dealer Pete Siegel, President of New York-based Gotta Have It! Collectibles, who also purchased the second of two letters written by Ruth to 11-year-old Johnny Sylvester.
The hammer price was $208,868 with the usual buyer’s premium tacked on to the end of the winning bid.
“We’re very excited to have this,” Siegel told Sports Collectors Daily on Friday. “It’s a great piece of history.”
The ball and letter will join more than 200 other items in a collection Siegel plans to turn into a New York museum open to the public. He also owns the earliest known Babe Ruth game bat and also recently purchased the jersey Don Larsen was wearing when he hurled the only perfect game in World Series history in 1956. Over an 18-year-period Siegel has also acquired numerous items relating to the careers of Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Derek Jeter and other Yankee greats and says he’s hoping to acquire more items.
Ruth and five other Yankees autographed the baseball given to Sylvester. Ruth’s immortal promise – “I’ll Knock A Homer For You” – appears on one panel, and an inscription from the Yankees appears on another. It’s one of two baseballs given to the boy just prior to the Series in an effort to cheer him up.
“Little Johnny” as Sylvester became known in the legend told by writers for years, was hospitalized near his home in Essex Falls, New Jersey in the fall of 1926. He had been seriously injured that summer after falling off a horse and being accidentally kicked in the head by his mount. Learning of the incident and Sylvester’s devotion to the Yankees, two signed baseballs were sent from St. Louis–one by the Cardinals and one by several Yankees including Ruth. The two teams were engaged in the 1926 World Series there.
Three of the “Johnny” homers came in Game 4. It was the first time Ruth had ever belted three in a game, and in so doing, he became first player to do so in a World Series.
The young patient’s spirits were lifted, and three days later on the afternoon of Game 6, Ruth sent a hand-written letter stating that he would try to hit another homer for little Johnny, “maybe two.” The letter sold for $71,553 in the auction.
The day after Game 7, which the Yankees lost, Ruth personally visited the boy in New Jersey.
News of the promise–and Ruth’s personal visit–became one of the top human interest sports stories of the time, although the tale was sometimes embellished by writers.
On December 16, 1926, Ruth penned another letter to Sylvester, inquiring about his recovery and inviting him to Yankee Stadium for the 1927 World Series “to help win another pennant.”
The second letter sold to Siegel for $76,747.
Ruth wasn’t the era’s only sports celebrity to reach out to the ailing Sylvester. “Big Bill” Tilden, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, sent Johnny three hand-written letters wishing him well, and even sent the boy an autographed tennis racquet he had used in the U.S. National Championships (now known as the US Open).
Hall of Fame halfback “Red” Grange, a friend of Ruth’s, also sent a letter to the kid, promising to score a touchdown just for him in his first game at Yankee Stadium. In his letter, Grange invites Johnny and his father to the game, and also gifts the boy with an autographed football. The now-deflated ball sold for $3,300.
Baseball Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby was another high-profile athlete who sent Little Johnny a letter. It brought $3,000.
“Little Johnny” went on to become a submarine commander in World War II and the owner of a packaging machinery company. He died in 1990 at age 74 and rarely spoke of the hubbub surrounding his relationship with The Babe.
The autographed items have passed by descent through the Sylvester family and spent the last 25 years on loan to the Babe Ruth Museum. The items were consigned by John Sylvester Jr., the son of “Little Johnny”.
Other items sold in the auction included a pair of Lou Gehrig game worn pants dating from 1937 ($37,668) and a 1935 Ruth single-signed ball ($30,343).
I chatted with ESPN about the baseball. Watch below:
To see authenticated Babe Ruth cards and more on eBay, click here.