Apr. 14—When it comes to coveted sports memorabilia, an autographed Babe Ruth baseball is considered a treasure among collectors.
For Johnstown attorney Tim Burns, the opportunity to purchase a Babe Ruth-autographed baseball that local lore says was hit out of Point Stadium during batting practice nearly 100 years ago made a special find even more valuable.
“The fact that it was in Johnstown, that’s what did it for me,” said Burns.
Burns recently bought the authenticated baseball, signed by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other New York Yankees stars, as well as the Johnstown Johnnies team that faced the “Murderer’s Row” Yanks in an exhibition game at Point Stadium on July 25, 1927.
The Johnnies won 7-5 against a Yankees team that didn’t play all its regulars. A crowd of nearly 10,000 fans packed the Point.
Ruth didn’t hit a home run in the game. The New York slugger launched one over the fence into the short corner of the right field seats — officially a double back then.
The Johnstown Tribune game story featured headlines stating: “Johnnies Beat New York Yankees in Exhibition; Ruth Fails to Hit Homer. However, Bambino Crashes Sphere Over Right Field Fence in Practice.”
“This is Johnstown history,” Burns said. “It’s like we’re bringing the ball back home.
“Babe Ruth hit the ball out of the stadium almost 100 years ago.”
Tony Penna Jr. of Main Street Hobby in Johnstown helped coordinate the deal between Burns and a local family that had the ball for nearly a century. The family didn’t want to be named publicly.
Burns didn’t list the price he paid for the baseball, although Penna said it had been insured for $13,500. Similar baseballs autographed by Ruth and Gehrig during the Yankees’ 1927 barnstorming tour have been valued at prices ranging from $3,000 to nearly $10,000 on sports memorabilia-related websites.
“The value of the ball is more to a Johnstown person than someone from New Jersey or New York who loved Babe Ruth,” Penna said, noting that the insured value was not the actual sale price. “It was really neat to be a part of the history.
“There is some great paperwork to go with it.”
Burns said signatures of right fielder Ruth, first baseman Gehrig and other Baseball Hall of Famers center fielder Earle Combs, second baseman Tony Lazzeri and manager Miller Huggins are on the ball, as well as the majority of Johnnies players who participated in the 1927 game.
“A national sports authentication service has authenticated the signatures,” Burns said.
“For the last nearly 100 years, the ball has been passed down through an area family.
“Besides taking very good care of it, my goal is to share the ball with the community — maybe at some sporting events — so people can see it and appreciate its history.
“Hopefully, this will raise awareness of the proud, rich history of Johnstown’s Point Stadium. How many stadiums can say Babe Ruth played there?”
‘Out of the park’
Burns is a regular at Penna’s downtown Main Street Hobby store.
“Tony had mentioned this baseball almost two years ago,” Burns said. “I go to Tony’s shop every week. I collect Johnstown sports memorabilia and autographs. He mentioned that he knew of the ball that Babe Ruth supposedly hit out of the park.
“It had been with the family for almost 100 years. They were ready to part with it. Tony knew I loved to collect. We had a meeting at his shop a couple weeks ago. A representative of the family was there. I was there. We agreed on a fair price.”
Ruth hit 714 career home runs, a record that stood until Henry Aaron passed him on April 8, 1974. Barry Bonds later passed Aaron’s career 755 homers and holds the all-time mark of 762.
‘Like Michael or Tiger’
“Babe Ruth was like what Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods is today,” Burns said. “He was the first athlete that transcended sports. Everyone knew Babe Ruth back then. He was a bit of a hell-raiser in his private life — but when it came to kids and autographs, he would sign anything. He was big with children.”
Ruth’s brief but memorable stop in Johnstown backed that assessment.
“The Babe was very busy before and during the game, meeting with local fans and in autographing baseballs and programs,” The Tribune reported on July 26, 1927. “Ruth proved himself a genial fellow and was glad to shake the hand of every kid who could get near him. He visited the local hospitals yesterday morning. From the time of the arrival of the New York club in this city until its departure, Ruth was the center of attraction.”
Ruth, Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Mark Koenig were Yankees regulars who competed at the Point against the local team.
Other key players rested.
Johnnies manager Chief Bender’s team benefited from center fielder Nat Hickey’s three-run home run in the first inning and second baseman Lafe Byard’s three-run homer in the second. Hickey played professional baseball and basketball, batting .316 with the 1927 Johnnies, and was inducted in the inaugural Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame Class of 1965.
Ruth didn’t have a hit during his first four at-bats, until he finally ripped his double into the short corner of the right-field stands. Gehrig had a pair of doubles and three ground outs.
“Everybody was prepared to see Babe Ruth knock the ball about a mile,” The Tribune reported. “But the Babe’s best effort during the game was a long, high fly to the extreme corner of the right-field bleachers, which was good for only two bases. However, those fans who arrived at the park a little early were privileged to see the Bambino clout the sphere clear of the distant right field fence in batting practice.
“Ruth connected for a liner which disappeared over the brick wall near the scoreboard, a distance of more than 400 feet and about the longest drive ever seen on The Point.”
Point Stadium had opened in 1926. But baseball had been played on the site since the latter part of the 19th century.
“This is the first Babe Ruth item in my collection,” Burns said. “I’ve got a baseball from the 1950s signed by the entire Brooklyn Dodgers, including Jackie Robinson. I’ve got a Hank Aaron ball. Nolan Ryan. Mike Trout. Quite a few baseballs.
“Dennis Rodman is one of my favorite athletes. I’ve got a dozen Dennis Rodman autographs. I love football. I’ve got a lot of football autographs.
“I have a lot of Johnstown Jets memorabilia. A little bit of the Johnstown Blue Birds,” he said. “I’ve got a Blue Bird hockey stick and a Blue Bird poster. That stuff is very hard to get. A Johnstown Jackals football from first field goal, autographed by the kicker.”
Add one legendary batting practice home run ball hit by the Sultan of Swat.