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$1-million Ruth sale contract stars at Sotheby's/S

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With the distinctive “thwack” of the auctioneer’s gavel and a raucous cheer from a couple of hundred bidders and interested spectators, the contract that sent Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees was knocked down at a cool $1 million in the middle of the June 10 Sotheby’s/SportsCards Plus auction in New York City.

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The buyer was Pete Siegel, owner of Gotta Have It Collectibles (, the collectibles dealer in New York City who is no stranger to grabbing the spotlight at big-time auctions.

That exciting moment early in the afternoon session at Sotheby’s helped propel the sale to a $5,527,200 total, a staggering number for an auction of just under 400 lots. The Ruth contract, which reached a final bid of $875,000 (the buyer’s premium pushed it to $996,000), became the most expensive document ever sold in the hobby. In all, nine lots in the auction sold for more than $100,000.

The seller, Alan Feinstein, has said that the profits from the contract will benefit America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization.

Some of the other highlights included the first ball pitched at the opening of Fenway Park in 1912 ($132,000), a T206 Honus Wagner PSA 1 that brought $132,000, the 1917-21 signed Babe Ruth bat ($216,000), a 1915 M101-5 Sporting News Ruth rookie card ($120,000), a pair of solid-gold tennis balls from the estate of Arthur Ashe ($144,000), and a 1934-36 H & B “Small Signature” Lou Gehrig bat ($156,000), which was another of the treasures won by Siegel after spirited, in-the-room bidding with noted auctioneer David Hunt.

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More highlights: Babe Ruth’s 1938 Brooklyn Dodgers full uniform – $192,000; (9) Los Angeles Lakers NBA Championship rings – $90,000; a 1959 Ted Williams Red Sox full uniform – $66,000; Lou Gehrig’s Yankees pants from the 1920s-30s – $60,000; Bill Buckner’s 1986 Red Sox American League Championship ring – $51,000; Rocky Marciano’s robe from his 1952 heavyweight title bout with Jersey Joe Walcott – $48,000; a 1958-59 Boston Celtics NBA Championship trophy – $54,000; the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players signed lithograph – $54,000; a unique 1934 Tour of Japan signed display – $39,000; and a 1917 presentation cup from the estate of Honus Wagner – $36,000.

It was an auction where Ruth batted cleanup once again, accounting for almost $2 million of the sale, including a staggering assortment of pristine vintage cards, bats and single-signed baseballs. That last category included eight specimens all told, everything from three stunning Harridge balls (Siegel won the top one at $39,000; the other two sold for $27,000 and $22,800). In addition to the 1917-21 Ruth bat, a second inscribed bat from the slugger sold for $27,600.

The unofficial subtotal attributed to The Babe doesn’t include neat things like a Ruth/Gehrig signed ball that brought $39,000, or any of the spheroids from a record-setting array of team-signed balls that included seven Yankees clubs from his career.

The challenger who threatens to supplant Ruth as the No. 2 home run hitter of all time had a tougher day. Barry Bonds’ 700th home run ball, which sold for a reported $804,000 on less than a year ago, managed “only” $102,000, going to a London-based online gambling service.

* * * * *

Six bidders in all competed for the Ruth contract in the room and on the phone, with bidding starting at $200,000 and racing quickly to $450,000, jumping in increments $25,000 from the phones.

It was at that point, to the the delight of the crowd that had swelled to near capacity by that time, that Siegel first waved his paddle indicating a willingness to pay $475,000.

Lee Dunbar, who did a bang-up job with the auctioneers’ gavel in more than eight hours behind the podium, played along for a bit as the anonymous phone bidder shortened the increments from $25,000 to $10,000. After a bid of $485,000, Siegel got the bid to $500,000, at which point two phone bidders offered $510,000 and then $515,000.

Those shenanigans elicited a good-natured groan from Dunbar. “Oh, guys,” she said only half feigning exasperation. Given the rarefied air of the bidding, it continued at those odd increments, with the phone bidder pushing things ahead by $10,000, and Siegel in the room dutifully making up the difference with $15,000 waves of the paddle.

At one point he did take note of the odd system, but seemed to be prepared to put the whole matter to rest with a bid of $850,000, a stunning $90,000 leap from the phone bidder’s $760,000. There was an audible gasp from the crowd. After a few seconds, the phone bidder was heard from one more time: $860,000, but you had the feeling by then that it was kind of a fleeting, final gesture.

With little discernible hesitation, Siegel quickly lifted his paddle to $875,000. When the auctioneer made it official, the crowd erupted in applause, nearly a standing ovation, except that almost half of the room was already standing in the back of the room.

Within a couple of minutes, the media-savvy Siegel retreated to the back of the salesroom and was quickly engulfed by print, radio and television reporters. “Growing up as a Yankee fan, I am ecstatic to have purchased the contract selling Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees – it’s a true dream,” he told the throng under the bright lights of the TV cameras. “The contract is larger than life, a royal gem.

“This goes along with some of the other great items I have purchased over the years (he bought the “Happy Birthday, Mr. President “Marilyn Monroe dress eight years ago for $1.265 million) and these are going to be some of the pieces included in it,” Siegel continued.
“I was prepared to pay more. It’s not only one of the top items in sports history, but I think it tops some of the major historical pieces and the most historically significant item I’ve ever purchased. This is something that changed baseball history,” said Siegel, who created a similar splash at the Guernsey’s Mickey Mantle auction at Madison Square Garden in December of 2003.

As he did at the Sotheby’s sale, Siegel spent more than $1 million at that historic auction, buying a number of Mantle’s personal awards and equipment, and effectively grabbing the spotlight at the auction.

It was no different this time around, when the affable Siegel turned up after the morning session and quickly started a buzz within the room as long-time bidders and collectors recognized him. I asked him just before the afternoon session began at 2 p.m. if we could expect some excitement from his direction. “I might make some noise,” he told me with a smile, ever the master of the understatement.

Siegel also purchased the 1934-36 Lou Gehrig “Small Signature” bat that was part of a number of spectacular items from the estate of Hall of Famer Lefty Grove, a grouping that also included an oversized glove from the 1931 Tour of Japan ($8,400), the glove from Grove’s final game ($24,000) and his Hall-of-Fame ring ($18,000).

A reporter asked Siegel if he had come to the sale with a limit set in his mind about how much he would spend on the contract. “I do this for a living. You can’t go to an auction and have a set limit. If you want something and you don’t buy it – like the gentleman on the phone – then you will never own it.

“The adrenaline starts flowing and it doesn’t stop. It was reminiscent of the Mickey Mantle auction, when I had ideas about what certain things might go for, and I was pretty much right on, but here it was a little different. It was not just sports and baseball history, this was American history.

“I will tell you right now, I don’t care how much money someone might offer me, the contract is not for sale,” Siegel said.

“I will guarantee that I will get back to my store after the auction is over, and I will probably have a phone call asking me if I want to sell it. It’s worth more than I paid for it today.”

“And George, you can’t have it. It literally is not for sale,” Siegel said to a reporter’s questions about hypothetical overtures from the Yankees’ owner.

* * * * *

Lee Dunbar, director of Sotheby’s collectibles department and the auctioneer for both the morning and afternoon sessions, commented, “We are absolutely thrilled with the result of today’s sale. We’re extremely pleased that the Babe Ruth contract will go to a new owner, Peter Siegel, who is acutely aware of its special significance in sports history, and that the proceeds are earmarked for a worthy cause.”

David Kohler, president of SportsCards Plus, added, “We are ecstatic about the sale of the Babe Ruth contract, which reached almost $1 million, a record for a sports document at auction. We are feeling really good about the whole deal. This is obviously our biggest auction, and with the contract it was just over the top. There was definitely some drama there.

“It just shows you how much people love sports memorabilia. A lot of the key pieces either brought what we thought they would or in many cases even more. A lot of Wagners have sold, and this was a record for a PSA 1,” he continued.

“We treasure our great relationship with Sotheby’s and we look forward to another successful auction in the late fall. It’s a fantastic thing not just for us, but for the whole industry. When that contract sold, it was on the New York Times wire service within an hour, I got an e-mail from Sports Illustrated. That’s good for all of us.”

Kohler said SportsCards Plus will be doing another auction with Sotheby’s in the late fall, probably the end of November or early December.

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The first baseball pitched at the 1912 Grand Opening of Fenway Park commanded $132,000 and was purchased by noted auctioneer David Hunt, who was bidding in the room on behalf of a private client. On the ball, Tom Connolly, one of the first two umpires elected to the Hall of Fame, inscribed, “Fenway Park, First Ball Pitched, April 20, 1912,” along with adding the pitching batteries, umpires and attendants and the final score: “Boston 7, New York 6.”

The veteran Hunt also purchased the first ball pitched by President Woodrow Wilson from the Washington Senators opening day in 1916 ($33,000), a President Calvin Coolidge signed opening day ball from 1921 ($39,000) and an amazing 1934 Tour of Japan display signed by the American and Japanese teams.

Sotheby’s and SCP officials called the Babe Ruth signed game bat from 1920 arguably the most important of his storied career, used during his pivotal first season as a New York Yankee. It sold over the phones to a private collector in California. The bat had been signed and presented to Chicago Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson.

The T206 White Border Honus Wagner card that Kohler mentioned and the 1914 M101-5 The Sporting News Ruth rookie card in PSA 8 ($120,000) were the spiritual leaders of a stunning array of vintage cards and sets, made all the more notable by the inclusion of so many tough tobacco, candy and gum sets from Mike Cramer. Those cards, led by a 1911 T3 Turkey Red set, a 1909-11 E90-1 American Caramel set (each brought $33,000), a 1948 Bowman Baseball set at $48,000, and an amazing single lot of 2,472 Zeenuts that sold for $33,000. In all, items from Cramer’s acclaimed collection brought more than $400,000.

Memorabilia Highlights: Leroy Neiman original artwork of Mickey Mantle – $24,000; 1965-68 Mickey Mantle game-used bat – $20,400; a scorecard from Cy Young’s 1904 perfect game – $19,200; a 1912 Fenway Park Opening Day ticket stub – $19,200; a 1934 Tour of Japan signed photo – $15,600; 1924 Yankee Stadium Opening Day program – $14,400; 1969 Merlin Olsen Rams jersey – $14,400; 1916 Red Sox Harry Frazee stock certificate – $13,200; Ernie Lombardi’s 1940 World Series ring – $13,200; Arthur Ashe’s necklace from his historic 1975 Wimbledon finals win over Jimmy Connors – $13,200; 1916 Tris Speaker trophy – $11,400; home plate from 1964 closing of the Polo Grounds – $10,200; 1968-70 Willie Mays Adirondack game-used bat – $9,600; Ernie Lombardi’s 1938 All-American Certificate – $9,000; a 1901 Pittsburgh Pirates team photo – $9,000; signed copy of Ty Cobb’s book Idol of Fandom – $8,400; 1939 Jimmie Foxx half bat signed by the Red Sox – $8,400 (from the Grove estate); congratulatory telegram from Jackie Robinson to Arthur Ashe – $7,800; 1969 Willie McCovey All-Star bat – $7,200; Ty Cobb handwritten letter – $6,000; Tommy Connolly’s 1910 World Series pendant – $6,000; a trio of stunning original Ruth photos, including one each from legendary photographers George Burke and Charles Martin Conlon – $7,200 each; a Polo Grounds restored figural seat – $4,500; and a Polo Grounds unrestored figural seat – $3,600.

Single-signed Balls: Jimmie Foxx – $44,400; (3) Ruth (Harridge ball) – $39,000, $27,000 and $22,800; Cy Young 511th win – $27,000; Honus Wagner – $20,000; Ruth home run ball – $18,000; Ty Cobb – $14,400; Ruth (Western League ball) – $13,200; Tris Speaker – $12,000; Grover Cleveland Alexander – $11,400; Ruth (Ruth Special ball) – $8,400; Everett Scott’s 1,000th game inscribed ball – $7,200; Connie Mack – $7,200; Ruth (Ban Johnson ball) – $5,700; Ruth (Ford Frick ball) – $5,400; and Satchel Paige – $3,900.

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Team-signed Balls: 1927 Yankees – $63,000; 1923 Yankees – $63,000; 1933 American League All-Stars – $27,000; 1927 Yankees – $24,000; 1955 Dodgers – $18,000; Home Run Derby signed ball – $18,000; 1932 Yankees – $15,600; Maris/Mantle – $10,800; 1922 Giants – $9,600; 1921 Giants – $9,600; 1933 Giants – $7,200; Ruth/Gehrig – $7,200; multi-signed ball with Ruth – $7,200; 1932 Yankees partial – $6,600; 1931 Yankees – $5,100; 1925 Senators – $5,100; 1923 Giants – $4,800; 1934 Cardinals – $3,900; and Dizzy and Paul Dean – $3,600.

Card Highlights: 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 8 – $51,000; 1914 M101-5 The Sporting News Ruth rookie card in PSA 6 – $30,000; 1933 Goudey Ruth No. 181 PSA 8 – $27,000; 1933 Goudey Ruth No. 53 PSA 8 – $24,000; 1933 Goudey Ruth No. 144 PSA 8 – $22,800; 1914 Cracker Jack Ty Cobb PSA 8 – $22,800; 1915 Cracker Jack Joe Jackson PSA 7 – $20,400; 1933 Goudey Gehrig No. 92 PSA 8 – $15,000; 1934 Goudey Gehrig No. 37 PSA 8 – $14,400; 1934 Goudey Gehrig No. 66 SGC 84 – $14,400; 1955 Topps Sandy Koufax rookie PSA 9 – $10,800; 1938 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio PSA 9 – $11,400; 2001 Upper Deck SP Authentic Sultan of Swat Signature Cut and Swatch No. 3/3 – $10,200; 1956 Topps Mantle GAI 9.5 – $10,800; 1911 T206 White Border Hoblitzell “No Stats” – $10,200 (from the Mike Cramer Collection); 2001 Upper Deck Hall of Fame Autograph Cut Signature Ruth – $9,000; 1887 Allen & Ginter Cap Anson PSA 8 – $8,400; 1916 Zeenuts Jimmy Claxton GAI 3 – $7,200 (Cramer Collection); 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle All-Star PSA 10 – $6,600; 1909-11 T206 White Border Sherry “Magie” error GAI 2.5 – $5,400; and a 1915 Cracker Jack Walter Johnson PSA 7 – $6,600.

Sets or Near Sets: (all from the Cramer Collection, unless indicated with an asterisk) 1948 Leaf – $48,000; single lot of 2,472 Zeenuts – $33,000; 1911 Turkey Red set – $33,000; 1909-11 E90-1 American Caramel set – $33,000; *1952 Topps Baseball near set 405 of 407 cards – $30,000; *(7) 1-of-1 Ruth Jersey Cards from Donruss’ cutting ceremony in Times Square in New York City in October of 2003 – $30,000; *1968 Topps Basketball Test set – $26,400; 1909-11 T212 Obak Collection of (418) – $22,800; 1912 T207 Brown Background set – $21,600; 1909-11 T206 White Border near set of (520) – $19,200; 1911 T205 Gold Border set – $18,000; *2003 Donruss Timeless Treasures Hall of Fame Cuts set of (4) – $15,600; 1963 Topps Baseball near-mint to mint set – $14,400; 1933 Goudey set – $10,800; 1934-36 Diamond Stars set – $10,800; 1934-36 Batter Up set – $10,200; 1911 Mecca Double Folder near set (49/50) – $10,800; 1949 Bowman Baseball set – $9,600; 1933 Delong set – $9,600; 1933 Canadian Goudey set – $9,600; 1909-13 The Sporting News Supplements near set – $8,400; 1913 T200 Fatima Team set – $7,800; *1986-87 Fleer Basketball set – $7,800; 1950 Bowman Baseball master set – $7,200; 1955 Topps Baseball set – $6,600; 1910 Sweet Caporal Pins near set (203/205) – $5,100; 1951 Bowman Baseball set – $4,800; 1952 Coke Tips set – $3,600; and a 1958 Hires Root Beer set – $1,800.

Highlighting the Arthur Ashe estate was a pair of Haggar solid-gold presentation trophy tennis balls, weighing 372 ounces, which brought $144,000. Purchased by longtime fan John L. Raybin of Raybin Management, a New York-based memorabilia dealer who met Ashe a number of times during his youth, the trophy tennis balls were awarded to Ashe by The World Championship Tennis Organization in 1975, the year he became the first and only African-American to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon when he defeated Jimmy Connors.

“This was something I wanted for a lot of reasons: because I am a big tennis player and I met Arthur many times. I talked to him many times as a kid and I had passes to the clubhouse at Forest Hills, which was the forerunner to the U.S. Open in Flushing.

“Arthur Ashe is one of the most undervalued sports icons. He was like Jackie Robinson. I think in 30-40 years he will be known more as a great American hero than as a tennis player,” said Raybin.

Highlighting the offering from Hall of Fame sports journalist Jim Murray was the typewriter that he used to write more than 10,000 columns for the Los Angeles Times from the early 1960’s through the late 1990’s, which brought $18,000. A letter to Murray from Jackie Robinson brought $9,000.

Murray, who was one of only four sportswriters to win a Pulitzer Prize, was named “America’s Best Sportswriter” by the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters 14 times.

It hardly raised an eyebrow at the time, given all the stunning prices and the Siegel-induced drama, but a handful of items, some of them quite prominent, failed to sell.

Passed items (usually indicates an unmet reserve) included a circa 1910 Ty Cobb Tobacco tin that reached $22,500 and an 1887 N172 Old Judge advertising display sheet that opened at $40,000 and got no bids from the room beyond that, despite a $100,000-$125,000 estimate. “I was surprised that the Old Judge sheet didn’t sell,” Kohler noted.

The William Kramer Collection of track and field items was passed at $14,000, a NASCAR 50 Greatest Drivers litho stalled at $10,000, Jerry West’s early 1960s Lakers home jersey got as far as $30,000, a 1969 Tony Conigliaro Red Sox home jersey stopped at $4,750 and a 1967 Lou Brock Cardinals home jersey was passed at $12,000.

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