BOCA RATON, Fla. — It is common knowledge that Babe Ruth hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium the day it opened in 1923.
It may come as a surprise that the great slugger hit one into the seats a couple months before then. And that the historic ball, still bearing the scar from the Babe’s bat, has been in the possession of the owner of a remarkable museum of sports memorabilia in Boca Raton for the past six decades.
The memento is the No. 1 item of 126 that will be up for bid Saturday in Baltimore at an auction commemorating the 100th anniversary of Ruth’s debut season in the major leagues. (View them all at GoldinAuctions.com.)
Sports Immortals Museum proprietor Joel Platt, who purchased the ball from the family of the construction worker who retrieved it from the bleachers in right field on a snowy day in February 1923 for “several thousand dollars,” expects if to fetch well into seven figures.
“I think it could go as high as $3 million or $4 million,” Platt said. “I think the value of what this could go for is limitless, for its historical significance and the fact that it’s Babe Ruth and Yankee Stadium. It’s the first baseball ever hit for a home run at Yankee Stadium.”
Unofficially, that is. The tale, though, is more intriguing than the first homer that counted, as documented by Marshall Hunt of the New York Daily News and recounted in Leigh Montville’s 2006 tome about the Babe, “The Big Bam.”
Hunt coaxed Ruth out of his hotel on Valentine’s Day to take some shots at the home run porch in right field at the new ballpark. After snow was cleared in the approximate location of home plate, Ruth removed his fur coat and hit the third or fourth pitch into the stands.
The stadium that would become known as “The House That Ruth Built” hadn’t yet been formally named, so when the worker brought the ball in to be signed, Ruth wrote, “New Yankee Field Feb 14-23 Babe Ruth.”
The inscription has been certified by James Spence Authentication. The scuff mark on the panel above Ruth’s writing is believed to be where the bat impacted the ball.
“A lot of things go into the value (of sports memorabilia). The most important thing is the provenance, the authenticity, and the story behind it,” Platt said.
“What really makes this baseball is when you read the story. You can just visualize Ruth pulling up in a limo on a snowy day, ripping off his fur coat and getting up to bat.”
The ball that Ruth hit for the first authentic homer at the stadium, a three-run clout off Howard Ehmke of the Boston Red Sox that April 18, sold in 1998 for $126,500. The bat he used brought $1.265 million in 2004.
Platt, who claims the largest and most valuable sports memorabilia collection in the world with more than a million items, started long before it was big business. Babe Ruth was his inspiration.
Now 75, Platt was nearly killed in a gasoline explosion when he was 4. To keep his spirits up during a year of convalescence, his father brought him baseball cards and told stories about the great players of the day.
While still in the hospital, Platt had a dream in which he was visited by the Bambino.
“He said, ‘Kid, don’t give up, you can get better and someday be a Major League Baseball player and build a museum for sport heroes,’ ’’ Platt said.
Although he played shortstop in college, an arm injury short-circuited his ambitions as a big-leaguer. Platt devoted his life to the other part of the dream on a journey he calls “a million miles for a million mementos.”
If Platt’s story sounds like a movie script, one has in fact been written. The Velocity Channel also produced an episode about his collection.
There are plenty of tales to tell from countless encounters with famous athletes and their families in pursuit of artifacts. He spent a memorable afternoon in Kansas City visiting the legendary pitcher Satchell Paige. He developed a friendship with Muhammad Ali over six encounters. Franco Harris has visited Sports Immortals and wrote a foreward for a book about Platt’s pursuit of memorabilia.
He has a fascination with Jim Thorpe, and boasts the most mementos of the great American Indian athlete, including his scrapbook from the 1912 Olympics, which Platt received from Thorpe’s widow.
But all trails seem to lead back to the Babe. Platt tells of sneaking in the back entrance of the swanky New York apartment building where Ruth’s widow lived and charming her with a gift he made in honor of her late husband. She in turn gave him a uniform from Ruth’s final season, an autographed bat and a plaque he’d received the year before his death.
Parting with the 1923 Ruth ball is difficult. Pratt has had it since he was 16.
“We have about 500 items of Babe Ruth. We felt because I really was inspired by the dream which set me on my million-mile journey that this was an opportunity for us to honor Babe Ruth in our own way,” said Platt, who runs Sports Immortals with his son, Jim.
A small fraction of the collection is on display at the museum (SportsImmortals.com), though it is an impressive tribute to many of the most historical figures from numerous sports. The majority of it is locked away in a vault.
Platt is hopeful that proceeds from the auction and the attention generated by it will help in his quest to establish a Sports Immortals International Hall of Fame with a much larger exhibit. He is in talks with Miami officials about the possibility of locating it at Museum Park, as well as with other cities.
“I look upon all the items in our collection — there are a million pieces, each one is like my baby,” he said. “For the most part, I’ve been able to hold onto my babies, and someday the world will get to appreciate everything.”