On Sunday, August 11, 1929, the New York Yankees visited Cleveland’s League Park to take on the Indians. Babe Ruth, batting cleanup, led off the second inning of a scoreless game. On the first pitch he saw from Willis Hudlin, Ruth belted a home run that cleared a 40-foot-high fence in right field. The blast marked Ruth’s 30th round-tripper of the season, but, more importantly, it was The Bambino’s 500th career home run.
At the time, the hallowed halls of Cooperstown were still 10 years away from opening, so the practice of saving and preserving significant bats – ones used for milestones like this – was not even a part of baseball’s culture. And the now coveted 500 home run plateau didn’t exist as Ruth was the first MLB player to reach it. Following an at-bat, batboys simply retrieved the bats and slid them back into the team’s bat rack area to await a subsequent turn for the player to tattoo another pitch.
As the story goes, Ruth retained many of his most highly prized pieces of memorabilia including this bat. According to PSA/DNA bat expert John Taube, Ruth was also a “prolific gift giver.” Many of the documented bats in the PSA database were given to the lucky recipients personally by Ruth. One such exchange took place in the mid-1940’s when Ruth was visiting the home and family of Jim Rice, a local businessman who was the reigning club champion at the Houvenkopf Country Club in Suffern, NY. The two men often golfed and bowled together, which was well chronicled in period newspapers. One day Babe showed up and handed Rice one of his game-used professional model bats and said something to the effect of: “I want you to have this. It’s the bat I hit my 500th home run with.”
Rice, who would later become the longstanding mayor of Suffern (1957 to 1973), took the bat and put it in his house. For the longest time, it took up space in the family den behind the television set. “It was always there; it was part of life,” recalled Terry Rice, 69, one of three children and the only son of Jim and Ethyl Rice. After Jim died in 1983, Ethyl took possession of the bat until her death in 1997. Upon her demise, it went to Terry who kept it tucked away in a closet. Now, nearly 75 years after Ruth gave the bat to his family, Terry and his two older sisters have decided to sell it. “You couldn’t leave it out,” he said. “It got to the point where we were worried about it.”
The prized bat goes up for auction starting Wed., Nov. 27, at SCP Auctions with the online bidding set to conclude on Sat., Dec. 14. SCP Auctions estimates that the bat could sell for more than $1 million. To understand the process of identifying the bat, we checked in with Taube himself, the man who authenticated it to the proper labeling period (1928-29) and found certain characteristics that qualify it as a true Ruth gamer. It received a mark of GU 10, PSA/DNA’s highest grade.
The process of drilling down to any bat’s origin is a painstaking one, and the team at PSA/DNA provides thoughtful analysis of every bat they inspect. They follow a stringent checklist that starts with the player’s Professional Bat Ordering Records (PBOR), the originals of which are on file at the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, KY. Even as far back as Ruth, major leaguers ordered bats from the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. that were made to certain specifications. In this case, the bat in question measures 35.25 inches long, weighs 38.4 ounces and is made of ash wood. It’s also from the labeling period of 1928 and though it is absent a model number on the knob or face of the barrel, PSA/DNA’s Authentication Team narrowed it down to model number R34.
According to the PSA/DNA Letter of Grading and Authenticity that accompanies the bat: “The labeling period of this Babe Ruth professional model bat is defined by the center brand, the ash wood of which it is composed, and the model. The schematic of the R34 model includes 18 points of measurement that define the dimensions of the knob, handle and barrel.” Each of these characteristics checks out.
Regarding its game use, the model displays two notable Ruth traits: a left-barrel contact area and cleat impressions on the upper barrel. Throughout his 22-year Hall of Fame career, Ruth gripped the bat with the center brand (“Hillerich & Bradsby”) turned away from him, resulting in the left barrel above his branded, engraved name contacting the ball. This bat has a well defined left barrel contact area, so much so that a fair amount of grain swelling can be seen. Furthermore, Ruth had a habit of knocking the dirt out of his cleats with the barrel of his bat, leaving small cleat impressions on the barrel. This bat has a few of those cleat impressions on its back barrel.
Additional research reveals that Ruth ordered R34 model bats exclusively from May 14, 1927 through July 8, 1931. In 1927, the bats he ordered were composed of Hickory or Cuban Managua wood. In 1928 and ’29, however, ash orders appear on Ruth’s PBOR with requested weights of 39 to 42 ounces. Seven orders placed during that time include references to 40 ounce bats with one order calling for 39-ounce bats. The subject bat, at 38.4 ounces, qualifies for any of the orders placed for the 1928 season. It is well known that Ruth often used bats for several seasons.
The sky is the limit as to how much the prized bat might fetch at auction. Check out the online bidding activity over its 18-day period starting on Nov. 27 at SCP Auctions and ending on Dec. 14. It could be another home run launched by The Great Bambino.