No matter how many stories have been spun about Babe Ruth, there always seems to be another one waiting to be told.
Here’s one with an intriguing history.
The bat used by Ruth when he hit his first home run of the 1924 season was awarded to a high school senior who won a batting title in the Los Angeles area. The bat was an heirloom that was bought by a relative when the man’s family held an estate sale after his death. Then, it was stolen after an act of good faith went awry, only to pop up again nearly 30 years later.
After a lawsuit and settlement over ownership of the bat, the Louisville Slugger model is being offered by Milwaukee-based MEARS Online Auctions. Washington state resident Mike Robinson is hoping for big payday from a bat that once belonged to his uncle.
“Over $10 million,” Robinson told Sports Collectors Daily.
“Look, Muhammad Ali is cool. Thomas Hearns is cool. Nolan Ryan is cool. But we’re talking about Babe Ruth,” Robinson said. “People know about him in India and Japan, all over the world. There’s no comparison.”
This is a tale of lost, then found.
The story begins in 1924, when Phil Grossman starred for Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Grossman was 17 and played the outfield for the Democrats. He was having a good year at the plate, but there was added incentive to win the league batting title. The player with the highest average would receive an autographed Babe Ruth bat. Not just any piece of lumber, either — it would be the bat he used to hit his first home run of the 1924 season.
That came on Sunday, April 20, 1924, at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators was cruising to victory against the New York Yankees. The Big Train held a comfortable 10-1 lead against the defending World Series champions when Babe Ruth connected in the eighth inning for his first home run of the year over the right field fence. It wasn’t enough, as the Yankees lost 12-3.
From 1923 to 1925, Ruth had an agreement to sign a game-used home run bat and give it to the Los Angeles Evening Herald. The newspaper then held a contest for high school baseball players. In 1923 the Evening Herald held a home run contest, and the winner received the bat Ruth used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium. That bat sold for nearly $1.3 million in a 2004 Sotheby’s auction.
In 1924, the high school batting champion in the Los Angeles area would win the 36-inch, 42.1-ounce bat Ruth used to hit the first of his major league-leading 46 home runs that season, and No. 239 of his career. Grossman got a hit in his final at-bat of the season to win the batting crown — and the bat — with a .530 average and lay claim to the bat. A photograph of Ruth signing the bat was taken, and a sign was hung off the barrel of the bat that read “High School Batting Champion, Los Angeles, 1924.”
Memorabilia collectors would drool for such provenance, since it placed Ruth and the bat at a precise time and place.
After the 1924 World Series, Ruth and Johnson embarked on a 15-game barnstorming tour. In the Los Angeles area on Oct. 31, the two squared off as pitching rivals in the tour’ finale — Johnson for the Anaheim Elks and Ruth for a team of all-stars. Ruth’s squad completed a 15-0 record on the tour with a 12-1 victory, with the Bambino connecting twice off Johnson for home runs. There was some dispute about the crowd size — the Santa Ana Register reported that 5,000 people packed the Brea Bowl, while The Los Angeles Times estimated the crowd at 15,000.
There was no doubt about Ruth’s home runs.
“The mighty Babe twice hammered the ball so far that souvenir-hunting youngsters were still pursuing it a late hour last night,” Times writer Frank B. Howe reported.
Grossman got to meet Ruth during that barnstorming tour, on Oct. 22, 1924, and even had his photograph taken with the slugger. He received the bat, signed by Ruth with a fountain pen. The bat had a gold plate affixed to it by the Evening Herald with Grossman’s name in block letters. Ruth also gave the teen one of his gloves and a signed baseball that also was autographed by Johnson.
“He met (Ruth) in L.A., how cool is that?” Robinson said.
Grossman went on to letter one year at USC before entering the business world.
Robinson, who grew up in Washington, said that when he was a youth his family would visit Grossman. But the Southern California scenery did not interest the young, fanatical baseball fan.
“They could have all gone to Disneyland for all I could care,” said Robinson, who preferred to play catch with his uncle.
The major attraction for Robinson was stored underneath his uncle’s staircase.
“My uncle would pull out his memorabilia chest, and the bat was the crown jewel,” Robinson recalled.
Grossman also had a signed Ruth baseball and glove, plus the ball from the game where he won the batting title, Robinson said. The ball from Grossman’s high school career was given to Robinson in 1982.
“The (Ruth baseball) was interesting because it had a red spot on it,” Robinson said. “My uncle told me that Babe Ruth hit the ball so hard that he made it bleed.”
Robinson remembers holding the bat as a kid. “It was so heavy,” he said. “It was like a mammoth Thor hammer, it was overwhelming.”
Now the story turns, overwhelmingly, in a legal sense.
Thanks to documents filed in Robinson’s May 10, 2017, lawsuit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Civil Division, against Milwaukee-based MEARS and a defendant known at time only as “John Doe,” a clearer picture emerges.
Grossman died on July 21, 1986. Robinson, then 32, learned on Nov. 25, 1986, that he had submitted a winning bid of $3,028 at his uncle’s estate sale to buy the bat and his uncle’s scrapbook, according to the injunction.
Several years later, at the dawn of the memorabilia boom, Robinson began to wonder how much the Ruth bat might be worth. A friend put him in touch with someone who told Robinson he could have the bat appraised in Los Angeles, according to court records.
“I said, ‘Go ahead and take it down there and let me know what somebody’s willing to offer for it and then I’ll decide what I want to do with it,’” Robinson told KOMO, a Seattle television station.
But the man never returned Robinson’s telephone calls and the bat and scrapbook were considered stolen, according to court records. Robinson reported the theft to the Bellevue, Washington, Police Department, but the items were never recovered, court records show.
“I was devastated,” Robinson said Wednesday. “I was mad at myself for trusting him.
“I didn’t see (the bat) again for 28 years.”
Meanwhile, the bat was sold for $900,000 as part of a collection to a Wisconsin man by a broker in 1999. In 2017 the man’s sons, George and Steve Demos of Kenosha, had possession of the relic when they decided to sell it, according to KOMO.
The brothers recently told Milwaukee television station WISN they had no idea the bat had been stolen, but when MEARS put the bat up for sale in March 2017, Robinson saw it on a Google alert he had set up on his phone. Coincidentally, he saw the notice on March 10, which was his birthday.
Robinson estimated he had received approximately 10,000 alerts through the years. Finally, he had hit pay dirt.
“There it was,” Robinson said. “I hit the deck and flopped like a fish.
“I could hardly believe my eyes.”
In May 2017, Robinson filed a lawsuit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court to stop the sale.
After some legal motions the lawsuit was settled. Both parties agreed that Robinson and the Demos brothers would share in the proceeds when the bat was sold.
“We all agreed to it,” Robinson said Wednesday. “The Demos brothers did not know this was a stolen bat.
“We all win as we should. We are all happy.”
The bat also fell into the hands of a notorious hobby criminal for a short period of time.
Several years ago, the Demos brothers had entered into an agreement with John Rogers, the Arkansas-based owner of the world’s largest collection of private photographs. The purchase price was $3 million but Rogers, who would eventually wind up in prison on federal fraud charges after a lengthy FBI investigation, never paid the money. The Demos brothers were able to negotiate the bat’s return and decided to sell it, creating the Google alert Robinson had received.
It’s not likely any charges will be filed in connection with the theft in the 1980s. The broker who came into possession of the bat and sold it to the Demos brothers is no longer living.
Robinson was reunited with the bat again when MEARS recently shipped it to him. Now, it’s about to go up for sale once again.
“I had mixed emotions about it. Of course, I have to split the money, it stinks,” Robinson said Wednesday. “But the fact is, I got to hold the bat again.”
Robinson and the Demos brothers could be raking in a large amount of money, although whether it fetches the $10 million Robinson predicted remains to be seen.
The autograph and inscription have been professionally authenticated and bat expert John Taube of PSA/DNA assigned the bat a perfect GU 10 grade.
MEARS President/CEO Troy Kinunen thought so last year.
“I would not be surprised if a collector offers a never-seen-before price for this historic masterpiece,” Kinunen stated then. “Rarely, if ever, does an artifact of this caliber have the provenance and documentation that this bat has.”
The auction opened Friday with a $3 million minimum bid and is being sold without a buyer’s premium.
Robinson said Wednesday that he would like the bat to be viewed at museums and at major-league ballparks, and he has made a rough draft for a display. He also created a website that contains a book, press release and photographs.
“It’s not just the bat. It’s the baseball, the glove, the scrapbooks,” he said. “I consider it fine art.
“I want to see the bat and other articles on display at the Smithsonian, at the Baseball Hall of Fame, and at every major-league stadium for a couple of weeks.”