The wool jersey Babe Ruth wore the first year he played for the New York Yankees sold at auction today for $4,415,658, the highest price ever paid for a piece of sports memorabilia. The previous record was set in December of 2010 when James Naismith’s founding rules of basketball sold for $4,338,500. It was sold by online auction specialists SCP Auctions to sports memorabilia specialists Lelands.com who plan to resell it privately.
Doubtless several of their deep pocketed clients will be keen to spend even more millions to secure the jersey. Babe Ruth memorabilia is the Holy Grail of sports collecting, and Babe Ruth jerseys are the Holy Grails of the Holy Grail. There are only four unrestored jerseys extant that are known to have been worn by the Sultan of Swat, and this one is the earliest of them all. Manufactured by Spalding, the jersey is in exceptionally good condition, complete with all the details of the 1920 style, like the “Y” in New York embroidered on the button placket between the second and third buttons and the “sun collar” that slopes up the side of the neck and around the back. Inside the collar is the name “Ruth G.H.” (for George Herman Ruth) stitched in what was once red thread but which has now faded to a lovely shade of raspberry.
The only change made to the jersey after its manufacture was its sleeves were cut shorter. This isn’t a negative, however, because there are pictures of Ruth wearing the jersey in 1920 and the sleeves are already short. It’s therefore likely that he had them altered to his preference, which makes the cut sleeves a point in favor of the jersey’s authenticity.
Its provenance is impeccable. It’s been in the possession of a northeastern private collector for decades. He loaned it to the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore where it was on display from 2004 to 2009. It has never before been offered for public sale.
Then there’s the year, a momentous, even legendary year in baseball history whose repercussions were still being keenly felt as recently as 2004. On December 26, 1919, Harry Frazee, theatrical impresario and owner of the Boston Red Sox, sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000. According to the urban legend that grew around this disastrous trade, Frazee made the sale to finance the Broadway musical No, No, Nanette, but that show debuted in 1925. He did use money from the Ruth sale to finance a play called My Lady Friends from which Nanette was later derived, but that’s not why he sold Ruth, or at least it’s not the sole reason.
Ruth was a giant pain in his ass, not to put too fine a point on it. His salary demands were outrageous (after the 1919 season he refused to play again unless his salary was doubled to $20,000), he partied all the time, sometimes showing up at the field on game day still drunk, and he was a no-show at important games. Ruth was delighted to be sold to the Yankees. He got what he wanted salary-wise — a two-year $41,000 contract — and he became the toast of the town.
The Boston Red Sox did not fare so well. Before the sale they had won a third of all the World Series, five out of 15. After the sale they wouldn’t win a pennant again until 1946, and they wouldn’t win a World Series again until 2004. The Yankees, on the other hand, would play in 39 World Series and win 26 of them after they bought Babe Ruth.
So this jersey isn’t just the first shirt Babe Ruth wore as a New York Yankee when he showed up for spring training in March of 1920; it’s also the jersey that inaugurated the Curse of the Bambino. Given that, it’s actually rather surprising that it made less than a hundred thousand more dollars than Naismith’s basketball rules.