In the world of autographs, there is sometimes a leap of faith involved. If you didn't see it happen, did it really happen? As skilled as authenticators may be, when it comes to items signed decades ago, actual provenance is often elusive. That is not the case with the signed Babe Ruth baseball being offered by Memory Lane in its upcoming catalog auction, appropriately headlined "The Find".
Incredibly, the ball carries not only the certification of autograph authenticator PSA/DNA, but is also accompanied by actual video of the ball being signed for the original owner—a young boy who approached the Babe at Yankee Stadium in the summer of 1929. It is perhaps the only Babe Ruth autographed baseball documented by actual video of the event itself.
The story combines the Babe's legendary generosity toward autograph seekers with a youngster's love of baseball and a father whose job put both in a spotlight they could never have imagined would be so important so many years later.
James Tonking III's father was employed by Eastman Kodak where he tested prototype cameras. One day, James II took his young son to the ballpark. With attendance fairly sparse, they set up near the Yankee dugout. Ruth was standing nearby as his teammates warmed up prior to the game.
With the camera cranking out black & white film, James II approaches the great slugger with a Ruth foul ball the two had snared during batting practice. The Babe carefully signs it and hands it to another man standing on the other side of the railing and that man quickly relays the ball to the young Mr. Tonking. The film shows the young boy, smiling ear to ear, showing the ball to his father as he returns to the camera.
In the video, a player believed to be a young Leo Durocher is pictured directly behind Ruth, casually tossing a ball to an unseen Yankee. The incredible video also shows Ruth belting what appears to be a three-run homer later in the day and follows him around the bases.
For decades, James Tonking III treasured the ball Ruth signed for him that day. In the 1940s, his father added a coat of shellac to try and preserve it.
In 1993, the ball was purchased directly from Mr. Tonking by Steve Kittredge, who owned a sports memorabilia store in Florida at the time and could scarcely believe the good fortune that not only had he acquired a Ruth autographed baseball to display in his shop, but also the historic video.
"James' eyes filled up as he was showing me the recording," Kittredge recalled. "It was his fondest memory. However, he was enthusiastic about selling the ball to me to display in our store for collectors and new generations of baseball fans to admire."
Kittredge sold the business later, but kept the ball. He has now consigned it to Memory Lane for their final auction of 2012 with the hope that another collector with a strong appreciation for history will buy it. The ball carries an opening bid of $3,500 but is expected to sell for much more. The shellac has chipped and faded a bit but Ruth's signature remains strong.
The Ruth ball is one of several 'finds' Memory Lane will unveil in the auction. It's joined by a high-grade Ruth signed ball with a $20,000 minimum bid, a newly uncovered collection of 1887-88 Scrapp's Diecuts and the second best set of 1916 M101-5 baseball cards on PSA's Set Registry as well as a PSA 5 Eddie Plank with Sweet Caporal back that carries a $50,000 opening bid.
The auction is live and ends December 15 at MemoryLaneInc.com.