December 2, 2004 – Sotheby Auction, New York City: More than 300 people filled the large auction hall at Sotheby’s Auction House. They had come for a huge sports memorabilia auction. Babe Ruth’s home run bat, which christened a brand new Yankee stadium in 1923, was the auction’s centerpiece.
The excitement in the room was palpable. And as the bidding began for her old bat, Marcia Tejada sat a few rows back from the auctioneer and watched the action in amazement. It started fast at $400,000 and within a minute, the bat sold for $1.26 million, the most money ever paid for a baseball bat. An anonymous East Coast investor purchased it.
Babe Ruth was born in 1895 in Pigtown, a poor waterfront neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland. His father ran a saloon, and the family lived in a small apartment upstairs. Neither Ruth’s busy father nor his sickly mother had much time for the mischievous youngster who skipped school, roamed the streets and stole from merchants.
At 8, after several incidents with the police, Ruth landed in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a Catholic reformatory and orphanage. He spent 12 years there. Father Mathias, one of the teachers, first introduced Ruth to baseball as a young teen. A big-league scout discovered 18-year-old Ruth playing baseball at the orphanage and signed him to a contract.
Ruth pitched for the Boston Red Sox from 1914 to 1919. Although he was an outstanding pitcher, he was an even better hitter. After being traded to the New York Yankees in 1919, Ruth became the best home run hitter in baseball.
Before the first game ever played in Yankee Stadium, April 18, 1923, Ruth told reporters, “I’d give a year of my life if I could hit a home run in this new ballpark.” It happened in the third inning against Boston. Ruth’s towering home run, a 3-run shot, christened the new stadium, which was later dubbed ‘The House That Ruth Built.’ The home run was the climax of a spectacular grand opening and set the stage for the Yankees first of 27 World Series championships
A few weeks later, Ruth, who always had a heart for children’s causes and young ballplayers, donated the bat to the Los Angeles Evening Herald. He signed it, ‘To the Boy Home Run King of Los Angeles,’ Babe Ruth, May 7, 1923. The bat was awarded to young Victor Orsatti, a high school senior, who led the city in home runs.
Orsatti treasured the bat for more than 60 years. Before his death in 1984, he willed the bat, along with some of his personal items, to Marcia Tejada, his home healthcare nurse. Clueless to its value, Tejada stuck the bat under her bed, where it remained for 18 years.
In 2004, she discovered the bat and took it to a sports memorabilia store in Los Angeles. The shocked owner suggested that Tejada auction off the long-time missing bat and put her in touch with Sotheby’s.
Tejada used several hundred thousand dollars from the auction proceeds to start a restaurant, a life-long dream. However, she donated most of the money to a children’s charity to honor the home run king.
Babe Ruth was the first player to hit 60 home runs in a season, and his career record of 714 home runs stood for 34 years until Henry Aaron broke it in 1974. Ruth signed hundreds of baseballs for kids during his career, but he signed less than a dozen bats. More than 80 years after his dramatic opening day home run, his missing bat, a 36-inch, 46-ounce Louisville slugger, fetched more than half of what Yankee Stadium cost to build in 1923.
The Babe loved kids and they loved him. He was always happy to sign autographs, take pictures with children and visit them in hospitals. According to Tejada, “The bat was only valuable because Babe Ruth’s name was on it. The only reasonable thing to do was something that would honor his life.”
“I’ve seen them. Men, women, kids who were hoping to get his name on a torn, dirty piece of paper, or hoping for a grunt of recognition, when they said, ‘Hi Babe.’ He never let them down. Not once. He was the greatest crowd-pleaser of them all.” Waite Hoyt