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With One Swing (of the Gavel), Ruth's Bat Hits $1.26 Million

December 03, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Minutes after he entered newly built Yankee Stadium in 1923, Babe Ruth shared a dream with reporters gathered around him: "I'd give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in the first game."

The Bambino delivered on opening day, smacking the first home run at the new ballpark. On Thursday, an East Coast collector paid $1.26 million for the bat Ruth used that day. It's one of the most famous pieces of memorabilia in baseball history.

Eight decades ago it ended up in private hands, won by a Los Angeles high school slugger as the top prize in a home-run-hitting contest sponsored by a newspaper. The bat Ruth sent to Victor Orsatti of Manual Arts High School was inscribed: "To the Boy Home Run King of Los Angeles."

In a separate telegram, Ruth wrote, "In my home run experience, I have found a fellow frequently fails when he tries hardest. Therefore, send my regards to the ones who tried and congratulations to you for winning."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Babe Ruth's bat -- A photo caption with an article in Friday's Section A about the auction of the bat Babe Ruth used to hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium misidentified a man holding the bat as a worker at Sotheby's. He is David Kohler, president of SportsCards Plus, which presented the auction with Sotheby's.

Thursday's winning bid was the highest price paid at auction for a baseball bat -- yet fell short of the $3 million-plus paid by a collector five years ago for the ball that St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire hit for his record-setting 70th home run in the 1998 season.

As a packed crowd at Sotheby's looked on Thursday, Doug Allen -- representing a Chicago sports collectibles auction house -- won the fast-paced bidding for Ruth's 45-ounce bat. He said his client, who asked not to be identified, was "thrilled to be part of such an important part of baseball history, given the bat's historical significance."

Ruth hit the home run in the third inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox on April 18, 1923. An account by sportswriter Heywood Broun summed up the action for the World newspaper: "All records for attendance were broken," he wrote. "The Yankees beat the Red Sox. Babe Ruth busted the ball."

The bidding for the 36-inch bat began at $400,000 but slowed at the $1-million mark. Allen said his firm, MastroNet, was prepared to pay "considerably more money" for the bat, which fetched the highest price at the auction of more than 200 baseball items.

Memorabilia ranged from the glove Sandy Koufax used when pitching his second no-hitter in 1963 -- it sold for $130,000 -- to a handwritten letter Ruth wrote on hotel stationery to his mistress in 1922, which a collector bought for $75,000.

In the letter, Ruth told Nell Wilson, a Philadelphia woman, that his wife was watching him "so don't get mad and I will see you Monday night. The club is watching, so the only way I will be able to see you all night is for you to stop in at the Aldine Hotel and I can see you -- Babe." The postscript reads: "Don't call me up."

Al Tapper, a writer and composer who bought the item, said letters written by Ruth periodically came up for auction. "But nothing like this," he said, shaking his head, as people congratulated him. "This one is special."

Bidders also snapped up vintage items belonging to Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, and memorabilia from the New York Giants baseball team. Dodger owner Frank McCourt bought Reese's World Series ring for $72,000.

But most attention was focused on Ruth's bat and the price it commanded.

"Baseball doesn't get better than this," said Robert Klein, a New York accountant and Yankee fan who said he wanted to be in the room when the bat was up for auction. "The story of that opening day, and what Ruth did, is so famous," he said.

Others were fascinated by the story behind the bat.

Months before Ruth hit the home run, an editor at the Los Angeles Evening Herald convinced him to participate in a local athletic promotion: The slugger agreed to donate the bat he used for his first stadium home run to the high school student who hit the most home runs that season.

The winner was Orsatti, who went on to become a well-known talent agent and producer, representing Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Edward G. Robinson and Jean Harlow, among others.

He owned the bat for 61 years. Upon his death in Newport Beach in 1984, Orsatti bequeathed the bat and other memorabilia to his private nurse and caretaker, Marcia Napoli-Tejada.

"I was very honored by all the things he left me because they were valuable, and years later they enabled me to open a cafe in Rosarito Beach," Mexico, said Napoli-Tejada, who sat several rows in front of Allen as he placed the winning bid.

For nearly 18 years, Napoli-Tejada kept the bat under her bed as a memento. It looked like a "commemorative souvenir," she said, with little or no monetary value. Then friends convinced her to have memorabilia experts take a look at it.

Although she declined to discuss details, Napoli-Tejada said she entered into a "financial partnership" with SportsCards Plus, a sports memorabilia company in Southern California.

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