It may have been the most famous autographed baseball of the time.
The ball auctioned at the Polo Grounds 100 years ago this week carried not just the signatures of some baseball stars, but the president and vice-president of the United States–and Babe Ruth. Now, a photo of that ball taken by legendary baseball photographer Paul Thompson, is among the headliners in RMY Auctions’ latest online catalog.
It might be the earliest known image where a signed baseball is actually the primary subject of the photo.
The 6 1/4″ x 8 3/4″ photo is among nearly 700 items in RMY’s Collectors Auction, which runs through October 9. The back includes a handwritten note on the back regarding the subject of the image, “Matty’s Benefit Game.”
The ball, signed by President Warren G. Harding and Vice-President Calvin Coolidge, along with Christy Mathewson and 1921 home run leaders Babe Ruth and George Kelly, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and National League President John Heydler, got plenty of attention in newspapers leading up to an auction.
The ball was the centerpiece of a benefit fundraising game designed to raise money for Mathewson’s medical expenses as he tried to recover from tuberculosis contracted when he was exposed to poison gas during a World War I training exercise. It was sold during the September 30, 1921 affair for what was then the astronomical sum of $750 (over $10,000 today). The buyer was Truly Warner, a local sportsman and hat manufacturer. Warner is mentioned on the back of the photo as the buyer.
The extensive publicity the game and the auction received no doubt helped the cause. President Harding told Heydler that he was happy to sign the ball, since Mathewson “typified all that is best in the national past time.”
While Warner got a unique piece, those who ponied up to buy single-signed Mathewson baseballs that day for $5 each got quite a deal. Over 100 of them were sold according to various newspaper reports that day.
The ball currently resides in the Baseball Hall of Fame.