Until retired players began getting paid for signing autographs on a regular basis, Babe Ruth undoubtedly signed more of them than any athlete in history. In fact, it wasn’t until his fame grew and Ruth’s generosity with the pen became well known in the 1920s that collecting baseball autographs became a popular pursuit among fans.
Most of those encounters between Ruth and autograph seekers came at a time long before most fans owned a “movie camera.” Films were barely out of the silent era and cameras weren’t cheap. There’s one baseball, though, that defies the odds. One that arrived in the auction market nine years ago to much fanfare, not so much for the quality of the ball, but for the stunning provenance that survived and came with it: a ball that shows The Babe actually taking the ball from a young man and signing it. It is perhaps the only Babe Ruth autographed baseball documented by actual video of the event itself.
That baseball is now up for bids at Memory Lane, where it’s one of the featured items in the remarkable collection of the late Dr. Thomas Newman. With a signature authenticated by PSA, it’s expected to bring a six-figure price.
Tom Newman knew a good thing when he saw it. A passionate collector who chased the best of the best, the Florida doctor pounced at the chance to bid the first time Memory Lane auctioned the Ruth ball in the fall of 2012.
The story combines the Babe’s legendary generosity toward autograph seekers with a youngster’s love of baseball.
James Tonking’s father was employed by Eastman Kodak where he tested prototype cameras. One day in 1929, the two took a trip to Yankee Stadium, camera in tow. With attendance fairly sparse, they set up near the Yankees dugout. Ruth was standing nearby as his teammates warmed up prior to the game. The now 92-year-old footage then chronicles the scene.
Young James approaches the great slugger with a Ruth foul ball the two had snared during batting practice. The Babe carefully signs it and hands it to another man standing on the other side of the railing and that man quickly relays the ball to the boy. The film shows James, smiling ear to ear, showing the ball to his father as he returns to the camera.
In the video, a player believed to be a young Leo Durocher is pictured directly behind Ruth, casually tossing a ball to an unseen Yankee. The incredible video also shows Ruth belting what appears to be a three-run homer later in the day and follows him around the bases.
For decades, James Tonking treasured the ball Ruth signed for him that day. In the 1940s, his father added a coat of shellac to try and preserve it. The shellac has chipped and faded a bit over the years, but Ruth’s signature remains strong.
In 1993, the ball was purchased directly from Tonking by Steve Kittredge, who owned a sports memorabilia store in Florida at the time and could scarcely believe the good fortune that not only had he acquired a Ruth autographed baseball to display in his shop, but also the historic video.
“James’ eyes filled up as he was showing me the recording,” Kittredge recalled prior to the 2012 auction. “It was his fondest memory. However, he was enthusiastic about selling the ball to me to display in our store for collectors and new generations of baseball fans to admire.”
Kittredge sold the business later, but kept the ball until he consigned it to Memory Lane’s auction in 2012 where Dr. Newman purchased it. Now, collectors with a special appreciation for history will again get a chance to own it.
Memory Lane will be offering more than 950 vintage and modern baseball, football and hockey trading cards and other sports memorabilia from Dr. Newman’s estate. The Auction is live and runs through July 10.
More information is available at MemoryLaneInc.com.