When collector Steve Kittredge agreed to purchase a baseball signed by Babe Ruth in 1929, he couldn’t wait to acquire the ball for his baseball card shop in Boca Raton, Fla.
But when Kittredge discovered what came with the historic ball and the story behind it, he was even more excited. The ball was owned by 71-year-old James B. Tonking III of Ft. Lauderdale, and it came with a video of Ruth signing the ball for a young Tonking at Yankee Stadium and belting a home run on the same day.
Tonking’s father, James Tonking II, worked for Eastman Kodak at the time and part of his job was to test new prototype cameras. Tonking II took one of the cameras to Yankee Stadium that day and set it up near the Yankee dugout. During practice, Ruth belted a foul ball that was caught by the young Tonking. When he took it to be autographed by Ruth, his father used his camera to capture the moment on video.
Tonking II also filmed Ruth smacking two home runs that day. Decades later, Tonkin III’s daughter converted the footage to VHS and set it to an instrumental version of “The Way We Were.”
When Kittredge purchased the ball from Tonkin III in March of 1993, the video of Ruth signing the ball came with it.
“The signature I thought was good, but I became increasingly more excited as I heard the story about the ball,” Kittredge said. “James' eyes filled up as he was showing me the recording. 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.”
The baseball and video were purchased from Kittredge in 2012 by noted collector Dr. Thomas Newman and is now up for bid at Memory Lance Inc. as part of the Thomas Newman Collection, which is being auctioned through July 10. The Ruth-signed ball in Lot #277 has been authenticated by PSA and, along with the 92-year-old video, is expected to attract six figures from bidders.
While there are numerous Ruth autographs in existence, this one is rare because of the video, which combines a special moment with an important time in history.
As Memory Lane points out, Ruth likely signed more autographs than any athlete in history, setting the standard for the value and pursuit of autographs and for future athletes earning income from their signatures.
But most of Ruth’s encounters with fans and autograph seekers came in the 1920s, shortly after the silent movie era and before most fans had even heard of a “movie camera.”
The video shows Ruth taking the ball from Tonking III and carefully signing it before handing it another man, who relays it to the young boy. James is then shown smiling from ear to ear as he turns toward the camera and shows the ball to his father.
According to Memory Lane, the ball is perhaps the only Ruth-autographed ball documented by video of the actual signing.
“The story combines the Babe’s legendary generosity toward autograph seekers with a youngster’s love of baseball,” Memory Lane says in its release on the lot.
The video also shows Yankee great Leo Durocher and another player tossing a ball behind Ruth near the Yankee dugout. It then shows Ruth belting a home run and rounding the bases during the game.
In the 1940s, Tonking’s father added a coat of shellac to the ball to try and preserve it. Tonking III treasured the ball for decades before selling it to Kittredge in 1993.
Kittredge later sold his business but kept the ball until he consigned it in 2012 to Memory Lane, which auctioned it off to Newman for his valuable collection.
Newman, who passed away in January at age 73, left behind one of the most valuable and impressive sports card and memorabilia collections in the world. His vast collection of both vintage and modern cards is estimated to be worth more than $20 million and features several rare Ruth artifacts, including the highest-graded 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53, which Memory Lane believes could break the all-time record for sports cards.
The Thomas Newman Collection is now up for bid in a special stand-alone auction that runs through July 10. The auction features more than 950 vintage and modern sports cards that represent some of the highest-graded and most iconic cards in the hobby.
For more information, visit MemoryLaneInc.com.