The Photo Match Guy continues to hit the jackpot.
Justin Cornett, who owns an oil brokerage firm in Houston, has photo-matched a Babe Ruth bat he bought at an auction two years ago to a famous International News Service image that was used for six different baseball cards produced from 1926 to 1937.
“It’s like a lead pipe,” Cornett, 44, said of the bat, which measures 36 inches long and weighs a hefty 44.6 ounces.
It was one of the sticks Ruth ordered from Hillerich & Bradsby, and it was manufactured between Sept. 4, 1920, and March 22, 1922. It was used at the Polo Grounds in New York sometime between 1920 and 1922, when the Yankees shared the ballpark with the New York Giants. In 1920, Ruth smashed all major league home run records by hitting 54 and then topped it in 1921 with 59 round-trippers.
In the INS photo, Ruth is seen following through as he hits a long drive at the Polo Grounds. The image would be used on baseball cards from these sets: the 1926 Kut-Outs Giants/Yankees Die-Cuts; the 1930 Rogers Peet Sport Album, one of the scarcest multi-sport issues of the 1930s; the 1932 Sanella Margarine set, which was produced in Germany; the 1933 Astra Margarine set, also produced in Germany; the 1933 C.A. Briggs, a candy issue card that featured the photo in a cartoon-like drawing; and the 1937 Donut Co. of America Thrilling Moments, another cartoon drawing featuring on doughnut boxes.
Cornett paid $400,800 (including buyer’s premium) for the bat at Heritage Auctions Platinum Night Sports Collectibles sale in Dallas in February 2018.
“I hadn’t had a Babe Ruth bat,” Cornett said. “I wanted an early Ruth bat, I wanted one when he was with the Yankees, and I wanted one that was heavy.
“This bat matched all three criteria.”
Cornett immediately set out to try and find a photo match.
Photo-matching baseball memorabilia has been a passion for Cornett. In July 2018, he photo-matched a game-used bat of Ty Cobb with an iconic image of the Georgia Peach and Shoeless Joe Jackson. In February 2019 he photo-matched a Ted Williams glove he’d bought at auction several months earlier. The glove was one the Splendid Splinter used during his rookie season with the Red Sox in 1939.
So, he wanted to see if he could narrow down the time frame for the Ruth bat. He contacted PSA bat expert John Taube and they looked at “100 photos.” Six months ago, Cornett called Henry Yee, a photo authenticator for PSA, who pored through 200 or so photographs of Ruth from 1920 to 1922.
Yee finally gave Cornett the good news this week.
In his supplemental letter of grading and authenticity, dated Feb. 12, 2020, Yee tried to put the amount of Ruth photographs he viewed into perspective, because finding a match proved to be lucky.
“A modern-day superstar like Aaron Judge or Tiger Woods could easily have over 200 images captured of them in a single day,” Yee wrote. “This would include those captured by a professional army of paparazzi and countless press photographers, as well as the tens of thousands of amateurs in the stands with their hand-held smartphones — the fans.”
Yee was able to eliminate nearly half the images he examined because they were off-the-field shots. Of those photos remaining, only 25 showed Ruth with a bat. Yee estimated that two-thirds of the 25 photographs were inconclusive because the details of the bat were either illegible or obscured.
That left maybe one or two that were usable candidates.
“The chance of a photo match (was) slim to none,” Yee wrote.
However, the authenticator got lucky when he viewed the INS photo. Yee said the decorative frieze of the Polo Grounds’ upper deck façade can be clearly seen, which sets the scene between 1920 and 1922. Ruth is wearing a white pinstripe hat, which, according to Mark Okkonen’s 1991 book, Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century, was worn by Yankees players in 1920 and 1921.
“That was a remarkably clear photo for an active shot in 1921,” Cornett said.
Yee went a step further, noting the bat Cornett owned matched five key points of the bat in the INS photograph: Four V-shaped “witches’ peaks” that extend down the bat’s center brand, and one grain pattern by the bat handle.
“Every bat’s wood grain is unique as it was shaped by the natural longitudinal arrangement of its fibers and serves as its fingerprint,” Yee wrote.
Ruth’s fingerprints are all over the power surge that took over baseball during the 1920s.
While 1927 is memorable for Ruth’s 60 home runs, his performance in 1921 was much more dominant. In addition to his 59 home runs, Ruth led the American League with 177 runs scored and 168 RBI. He also led the AL with 145 walks, 457 total bases, a .512 on-base percentage and an .846 slugging percentage. His .378 batting average was third in the AL behind Detroit Tigers stars Harry Heilmann (.394) and Ty Cobb (.389).
The only other season comparable for the Babe is his 1923 season, when he led the league in 10 offensive categories. Still, Ruth led the league in nine offensive categories in 1921 as he led the Yankees to their first American League pennant.
“It is our opinion the bat is authentic as described,” PSA authenticators Taube and Vince Malta wrote in PSA’s letter of grading authenticity after grading the bat a GU 10. “The bat exhibits heavy use and possesses identifiable player use characteristics.”
The first owner of the bat (after Ruth) sold it to Taube in 1993. During the early 1940s, the bat was part of a display of game-used bats and uniforms at the Polo Grounds.
“He was given the bat as a summer bonus when he was 14 years old,” Taube said in a news release. “His boss, knowing his love and adoration for the Babe Ruth bat on display at the Polo Grounds by his many references to the bat over the summer, bought the bat and presented it to him for a job well done. This bat remained with the boy for over 50 years.”
Now the Ruth bat belongs to Cornett, who, in addition to the Cobb and Williams memorabilia, also has a photo-matched bat that was used by Hall of Famer Honus Wagner.
“Oh man, it’s like history,” he said. “You’re holding the best bat ever used by the best player in his best season.”