The first World Series Championship rings were given to the New York Giants in 1922 after they defeated the New York Yankees, who were actually their tenants at that time, paying extortionate rent to use the Giants’ Polo Grounds as their home field. The next year’s World Series would be a rematch with a very different outcome. For one thing, the Yankees weren’t their opponents’ tenants anymore. Yankee Stadium opened to a record crowd of 74,000 on April 19th, 1923, and when the New York teams went to the World Series, Babe Ruth inaugurated their new home with a home run in game one. He hit two more home runs in the remaining games of the series and finished the season with a phenomenal .368 batting average, the highest of his career and still to this day the highest batting average in Yankees history. The Yankees won in six, their first World Series win.
The Yankees received a pocket watch for their victory in the 1923 World Series, then a common gift. The Yankees would continue to receive watches until 1927 after which they switched to rings too, and in the next decade all the other teams followed suit. Now rings are de rigeur and watches are artifacts that only rarely appear on the market. It’s a 14 karat gold Gruen Verithin watch made in Cincinnati. It has an unusual pentagonal shape and is engraved on the back with a scene of a pitcher throwing a ball at a hitter while a catcher crouches behind him. Above them writ large is “YANKEES” and below the field is “World’s Champions 1923.”
Babe Ruth’s 1923 World Series watch was one of his most prized possessions, representing the dawn of Yankee dominance, his personal best batting average and the opening of the stadium that would become known as The House That Ruth Built. In 1946, Ruth was diagnosed with cancer at the base of his skull and in his neck. His doctors tried everything — experimental drugs, radiation — but despite a brief remission in 1947, the Babe’s health rapidly deterioration. During this time, his friend Charles Schwefel, manager of the Gramercy Park Hotel whose bar Ruth had been a regular at since the 1930s, was constantly by his side as the cancer took its inexorable toll in 1947 and 1948.
His doctors and family hid his cancer from Ruth, but he could see the writing on the wall. Sometime in those last two years of his life, Ruth asked Schwefel if he’d like to have anything from his collection as a memento. Schwefel asked for the 1923 watch. Ruth had his name engraved on the upper edge of the back of the watch, added a line to the engraving on the inside rear case “To My Pal Charles Schwefel,” and gave his pal the watch.
Schwefel only kept it for two years after which his wife gave it to Charles’ nephew Lewis Fern saying that it should have been his all along. Fern had caddied for Ruth for years, including on May 6th, 1937, when they saw the Hindenburg pass overhead on the way to its tragic fate while they were playing at St. Alban’s Golf Club in Queens. Lewis Fern kept the watch for almost four decades. In 1988, he sold it to an anonymous private collector (sigh) for $200,000. Said collector apparently has one of the greatest sports memorabilia collections in the world, but he keeps it hidden and unpublished. Once the watch was sold to him, it disappeared off the face of the earth and was considered lost.
Now it emerges again, for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Sports Platinum Night Auction in Manhattan on February 22nd. Online bidding has already begun with the current bid at $240,000. The pre-sale estimate is $750,000+, but for such an important artifact from baseball’s most legendary player and most dominant franchise, the sky is the limit.
“As the Babe’s personal award for the first World Championship in New York Yankees franchise history, I believe that this is the most important piece of New York Yankees memorabilia that exists,” said Chris Ivy, Director of Sports Collectibles at Heritage Auctions. “This championship watch, which was thought lost to time, will now take its rightful place as one of the crown jewels of sports memorabilia. Based on prices realized for similar historic championship hardware, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it far exceed our preliminary auction estimate.”