The payoff for good detective work is solving a mystery. That’s how a south Texas collector feels after he pinpointed the origin of a Babe Ruth photograph. What was a hefty purchase could someday bring much more down the line.
Jeff Prizner, 44, of San Antonio, bought a 4-inch by 5-inch photo of Ruth from a Memory Lane auction in January 2020 for $23,000. It was authenticated by PSA as a 1910s Type I photograph, which is a photo developed from the original negative. Ruth is shown following through in warmups wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform.
Since Ruth did not reach the major leagues until 1915, that “1910s” description was vague. Surely, there was a description that narrowed down the date.
Prizner, a longtime collector who is well-connected with people who specialize in prewar baseball material, set out to find out when it was taken. Ruth in a Boston uniform had always intrigued him, especially since his parents lived outside Boston and his father was a Red Sox fan.
“I was determined to locate the photo,” Prizner said.
So, Prizner began looking for images through Newspapers.com. After some searching, he found an image where the details lined up closely to the photo he had bought. It was basically the same type of shot of Ruth warming up, left wrist twisted as if he had just snapped off a curve.
“A lot of the shadows lined up,” Prizner said. “The grass stains on his pants looked unique.”
The photo was a wire image that probably ran in many newspapers around that time. This particular one was dated Sept. 24, 1915, and the description noted that Ruth was throwing on the sidelines at the Polo Grounds in New York. Prizner said he saw it displayed in a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, newspaper.
A quick look at Retrosheet.org shows that the Red Sox were not in New York that week. In fact, the Red Sox were in the middle of a 23-game homestand, and the last time Boston had traveled to New York was June 2. Boston had only played six games in New York to that point in 1915. However, it was not unusual for newspapers to use file photos of a particular player to illustrate a story. Photography was just coming into its own in major newspapers, so sports editors used what they could to break up what is called “gray type” — columns of printed words without photographs.
Action photos from the actual game were still in the future.
So, if one assumes the photo was taken before Ruth pitched a game at the Polo Grounds, there are two candidates if the Sept. 24 date on the newspaper wire photo was correct.
He was the losing pitcher on May 6, 1915, tossing 12 1/3 innings in a 4-3 loss. However, Ruth connected for his first major league home run in that Thursday afternoon game, a solo shot in the top of the third off right-hander Jack Warhop that gave Boston a 4-3 lead. The ball soared into the second tier of the Polo Grounds’ right-field stands.
The loss dropped Ruth’s record to 1-1.
Ruth pitched again at the Polo Grounds on June 2, improving to 2-4 as Boston took a 7-1 victory against the Yankees. He also hit his second career home run, connecting again off Warhop. This time, Ruth’s two-run shot in the second inning snapped a tie and gave the Red Sox 3-1 lead. Ruth pitched a complete game, allowing one earned run and five hits.
Potentially, that’s quite a slice of baseball history.
To verify the time frame, Prizner compared his photo to a 1915 shot of Ruth pitching that was on the block in an RMY Auctions sale. It was a Type IV photograph, which is a second-generation or later photo, developed from a duplicate negative or wire transmission.
Prizner said the photographs, while not the same, were certainly from the same time frame.
“I figured I can use that version to compare,” he said. “I focused on the details. The uniform’s folds and creases lined up. It was ironclad, 100%.”
Prizner was convinced. But PSA wasn’t so sure.
“A year ago I presented my findings to PSA,” he said. “But they said it was very circumstantial.”
Prizer kept at it until he compiled enough visual evidence. PSA, finally convinced, reclassified the photograph as “circa 1915.”
“They said, ‘As much as we hate to admit it, we were wrong,’” Prizner said. “PSA was reluctant. It still took some convincing.”
He sent the photo to PSA and he said he hopes to have it back, slabbed with a new description, sometime next week.
Not bad for a first-time photo match. And for a guy who started collecting pre-Yankees era Ruth memorabilia over the past few years, this was monumental.
“It looks like a pennant winner,” he said.
Prizner conceded he was not an experienced photo-matcher, but he was determined to try.
“It’s the first time I’ve done photo matching to this extent,” said Prizner, who has been a collector for 20 years and worked for the Love of the Game auction house in 2017 as the company’s West Coast consignment director. He was in Seattle at the time, but recently moved to San Antonio.
Prizner already has Texas roots, having earned a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Texas in 1999. He has been currently the manager of planning and inventory at H-E-B, a supermarket chain based in San Antonio, since March 2021.
Narrowing the time frame for the Ruth photo means it certainly will bring more than Prizner paid for it. But for now, he content to keep it.
“I’m going to hold onto it for now,” he said. “I like to showcase my collection online.”