September 29, 2016
Babe Ruth's extraordinary talents on the field and his prodigious appetites off the field, especially with regard to wine, women, and food (not necessarily in that order), are marvelously interwoven in this extraordinary and, in many ways, unique piece, making it, in our opinion, the finest Babe Ruth autographed game-used bat in the hobby.
While both the bat itself and Ruth's signature are of the highest order, it is the bat's remarkable provenance that bridges the gap between the ball field and New York's elite cafe society, venues where Ruth ruled supreme during the early 1930s. Ruth presented this bat as a gift to his friend Matty Martin, who was a doorman at the chic Stork Club in New York City. For nearly three decades, beginning in 1929, the Stork Club was the place to be seen in New York City and the center of celebrity nightlife. Famed New York City gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who held court at the club from his private table during its heyday, called the Stork Club "New York's New Yorkiest place." And it was. A golden rope in front of the club's entranceway was the most formidable barrier to elite society one could encounter at the time, as every top celebrity, politician, musician, athlete, and aristocrat vied to be seen there, including the Kennedy and Roosevelt families, the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor, Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Ernest Hemingway, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra. As one of the gate keepers to the Stork Club, Matty Martin obviously wielded great influence, so it is not surprising that he became friends with many of the patrons. Babe Ruth was no exception, and it has been well documented that the Stork Club was one of Ruth’s favorite night spots in the Big Apple. In the book New York Café Society: The Elite Meet to See and Be Seen, 1920s-1940s, author Anthony Young wrote:
“Nevertheless, Ruth’s legend had grown to such an extent by the early 1930s, Vanity Fair put him on the cover with a color illustration by Miguel Covarrubias for the September 1933 issue. With that distinction added to many sports achievements, Ruth technically fit with the description of a member of Café Society, but he felt uncomfortable in the 21 Club and even more in El Morocco. He felt more at home in Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club.”
The affinity between Ruth and Matty Martin is well documented by the large number of Ruth-signed items that have originated from Martin's estate, including personalized photos, Christmas cards, and the greatest prize of all: this H&B Babe Ruth signature-model (pre-dating model numbers) bat signed by Ruth on the barrel.
Although we do not know exactly when Ruth presented this bat to Martin, it was most likely during the early 1930s, because its date of manufacture can be pinpointed to 1931. (The precision dating was determined by nuances in the design of the center brand and the "Powerized" stamping.) The bat, which has achieved a lofty grade of GU 9 by PSA/DNA, is also notable for its rarity. This is the only 1931 Ruth game-used bat that we have ever offered, and we cannot recall having seen another example dating specifically from that year. The bat is not cracked and displays evidence of excellent use along its entire length, including several ball marks and cleat impressions on the left barrel, and blue bat-rack streaks on the top of the barrel. Although H&B did not begin the practice of stamping model numbers onto bats until 1943, PSA/DNA was able to determine the model number through an analysis of the H&B ordering records:
Referring to Ruth's Professional Bat Ordering Records (PBOR) on file at the Louisville Slugger Museum, and of which we have copies, we see that Ruth ordered two models, "his 5-14-27" (R34) and a "4-26-28 Spencer Harris Model," during the 1931 season. Ruth's PBOR includes a schematic of the 5-14-27 (R34) model, featuring 18 points of measurement for the knob to the top of the barrel. We executed caliper measurements as directed by the PBOR, and found they do not coincide with the subject bat. Therefore, we can place this white hickory bat, to one of two orders placed by Ruth in July and August, for white hickory Spencer Harris models.
In addition to the apparent use, PSA/DNA also points out that the bat displays an important characteristic specific to Ruth game bats: an area of repeated contact on the left barrel (both the aforementioned ball marks and cleat marks appear in this contact area). The bat's weight of 35.3 ounces is also within acceptable limits of its factory recorded weight of 37 and 38 ounce bats. (Bats tend to lose weight over the years due to moisture loss.) Ruth was once again at the top of his game in 1931, as he led the American League in home runs for the sixth consecutive year with 46. He also knocked in 162 runs, batted .373, and led the league in both slugging (.700) and on-base (.495) percentage.
Ruth has signed the bat in black fountain pen on the back of the barrel, with the inscription reading "To my friend/Matty Martin/From/Babe Ruth." Both the inscription and signature grade "7/8," and remain clearly legible against the light background of the wood. A light layer of protective shellac has been unevenly applied to the signature area. As was common for Ruth, it appears that he lightly sanded a small area of the bat to help facilitate its signing. It is interesting to note that the sanding of the bat was probably necessary in this case, because the partially legible remains of a prior black fountain-pen inscription, that appears to read "To my friend," are evident above the legible inscription. Obviously, when Ruth first began signing the bat he realized that the ink was not taking to the finished surface, so he stopped, sanded the barrel, and began anew. It should be noted that the initial personalization is very light and not visible when the bat is properly displayed.
Within the hierarchy of Ruth-signed items, bats have always held the top spot on the list, not just for their inherent presentation value, but their rarity as well. Fans seldom had a bat handy when they met Ruth, plus the cost of a bat made it extremely prohibitive for autograph collectors. Also, as we see with the offered piece, the barrel of a bat was not the most conducive writing surface, so it was always easier for Ruth sign a ball, a photo, or an album page, if given the choice between one or the other. Even rarer than Ruth signed bats are Ruth signed game-used bats. The reason for that, obviously, is that unlike Ruth store-model bats, which were readily available, game-used bats were produced in limited numbers based upon how many Ruth needed during the year. Most importantly, game-used bats had to originate from Ruth. Of the few Ruth signed game-used bats we have seen over the years, most are personally inscribed to close friends. As such, they represented one of the highest tokens of his esteem. The fact that the offered bat is a high-grade example should not be overlooked. Normally, players gave away cracked bats, which were no longer usable. Instead, Ruth deliberately chose to give Martin a perfectly good gamer, right out of the rack, which truly shows how close the friendship was between the two men. We will never know the circumstance of how or when Ruth presented this bat to Martin, but if it were during one of his many visits to the Stork Club, one can only imagine that it made it into Walter Winchell's column the next day. This is easily one of the finest Ruth signed game bats in the hobby today, distinguished not only by the quality of the bat and autograph, but by its unique connection to Ruth's fabled New York City night life. Accompanied by separate full LOAs from PSA/DNA for the bat and autograph, respectively.