From the Bambino to Joltin’ Joe: baseball memorabilia that knocks it out of the park

The stories behind an outstanding collection of baseball memorabilia offered in New York, from Babe Ruth’s bat to a Lou Gehrig Yankees jersey, plus balls, cards, pennants, photographs — and a love letter from Marilyn Monroe to Joe DiMaggio

Lou Gehrig’s 1931 Yankees jersey

The New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig broke countless records across his career — and in 1999 even gained more votes than his old team-mate, Babe Ruth, when fans and experts compiled the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Perhaps the most famous of his records was that of playing 2,130 consecutive games between 1925 and 1939 (a streak that stood unsurpassed for more than 50 years).

Gehrig wore this jersey — with the Yankees’ iconic blue pinstripes — during the 1931 season, by which time it’s widely agreed he’d emerged from Ruth’s shadow to become the finest player in all baseball. During 1931’s campaign, he led the American League in four major categories: runs (163), hits (211), home runs (46) and RBIs (185).

Ruth and Gehrig in perfect harmony

For the decade between Lou Gehrig’s breakthrough in 1925 and Babe Ruth’s departure from the club in 1934, the duo helped make the New York Yankees serial winners. The two great sluggers had very different personalities: Ruth flamboyant and outgoing, Gehrig reserved and highly disciplined. ‘As complementary as ham and eggs’ is how one journalist described them. Initially very good friends, the pair would fall out in the 1930s — only to resurrect their friendship before Gehrig’s death, aged just 37, in 1941.

This picture harks back to happy times. Sitting beside the batting cage at a game against the Cleveland Indians in 1927, Ruth and Gehrig share an obvious rapport. The photograph is signed by both in fountain pen.

Signed by a baseball-loving president

Few American presidents loved baseball more than Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a young attorney in New York City, he almost lost his job for sneaking off to Giants games. In January 1942, he wrote one of the most significant sports-related documents in US history: the so-called ‘Green Light Letter’, which insisted that, despite American commitments elsewhere, baseball should continue to be played during the Second World War.

A rare, Roosevelt-signed ball — originally owned by the late Washington Senators pitcher Walter Stewart — is now coming to auction. It’s signed across the sweet spot in black fountain ink.

Letter to Babe Ruth: ‘Dear Madam’

On the face of it, this looks like a standard fan letter to the New York Yankees superstar Babe Ruth. The writer says he collects famous people’s autographs and would like to add Ruth’s to his collection.

Two things make it stand out, though. First that the writer is from England, a country not renowned for its love of baseball; and second that, for some reason, it is addressed ‘Dear Madam’. In his handwritten reply on the same sheet, Ruth duly provided his autograph — underneath which he wryly added: ‘A ball player not a girl’.

American icons: Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe

On 29 January 1954, two weeks after their wedding, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe boarded a Pan Am flight for Tokyo. DiMaggio, 39, was newly retired from Major League Baseball; Monroe, 28, was on the brink of superstardom.

The aim of the trip was twofold: Joe would coach Japan’s major teams, while the couple enjoyed a honeymoon far from the crowds back home. In the event, the honeymoon was hijacked when Monroe accepted an invitation to entertain 10,000 US troops in South Korea — where she sang Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend  in a skin-tight purple dress and mimicked swinging a baseball bat in honour of her absent husband.

The marriage was over by October. But DiMaggio remained devoted to the star, and it was he who organised her funeral in 1962. He continued to treasure his photographs from the trip, along with a poignant letter from Monroe signed ‘Your wife (for life), Mrs J.P. DiMaggio’, which is also in the sale, with an estimate of $50,000-100,000.


The inaugural game at Fenway Park

Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, is the oldest and second-smallest baseball stadium in the MLB, a charming landmark that John Updike famously described in 1960 as a ‘lyric little bandbox of a ball park’. Constructed on reclaimed fenland, it opened its gates on 20 April 1912 to 27,000 fans and a victory for the home team.

Fittingly, the opponents were the New York Highlanders — later the New York Yankees — who would become the Red Sox’s fiercest rivals. The spirit of this inaugural photograph is one of good sporting fun, however: two Red Sox players even appear twice, as they ran around to the Highlanders side after the first exposure.


A souvenir of the 1913-14 Baseball World Tour

On 6 December 1913, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants duked it out on a diamond at Keio University Stadium in Tokyo. It was the first time baseball was played by its biggest American stars on Japanese soil, and the first international game in a mammoth five-month-long world tour taking in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Colombo, Cairo, Naples, Rome, Nice, Paris and London.

The players were three days late to Japan after a typhoon knocked out the boiler and soaked the coal supply on their ship, the RMS Empress of Japan. But the 16-day journey across the Pacific allowed for adjustments to time zones, and within hours of docking — to shouts of ‘Howdy!’ from local fans — they played in front of thousands of spectators. 

This 30-inch red felt World Tour promotional pennant depicts the Giants’ celebrated slugger Christy Mathewson, who in the end couldn’t bring himself to undertake the long voyage and only participated in his team’s domestic games.


Autographed by the 1931 U.S. All-Star team

1931 U.S. All-Star Tour of Japan team autographed photograph. Rare postcard-size sepia-tone image signed by the respective players. Sold for $17,500 in Home Plate A Private Collection of Important Baseball Memorabilia on 16 December 2020 at Christie’s in New York

1931 U.S. All-Star Tour of Japan team autographed photograph. Rare postcard-size sepia-tone image signed by the respective players. Sold for $17,500 in Home Plate: A Private Collection of Important Baseball Memorabilia on 16 December 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Herb Hunter (1895-1970) was a minor player in Major League Baseball, but history remembers him for another reason. In 1920, 1922 and 1931, he organised three All-Star tours of American players to Japan, becoming ‘Baseball’s Ambassador to the Orient’ in the process.

The 1931 tour was the most successful of the three, with several future Hall of Famers among the names playing 17 games in front of half a million fans. Babe Ruth would join the tour in 1934, by which time Hunter had handed over to Lefty O’Doul (1897-1969) as organiser. Japan launched its first professional baseball league two years later.


Babe Ruth’s first Major League game

George Herman Ruth Jr., otherwise known as the ‘Babe’, is one of the greatest sporting heroes in American culture. But if you’d been sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park for his MLB debut on 11 July 1914, you wouldn’t have guessed it.

His Red Sox captain Harry Hooper described his debut approach to the pitching mound as ‘head down, pigeon-toed’ and ‘walkin’ with little short steps’. After surrendering only five hits and one run to the mighty Cleveland team, on the offensive side Ruth struck out in his first at bat. The unremarkable game’s date, positions, sites and subs were penned on this card by its umpire — the famous Tommy Connolly, who listed Babe near the bottom simply as ‘Ruth-P.’.

Six years later, to the dismay of Red Sox fans, Babe was sold to the Yankees for a reported $100,000 so the club’s owner could finance a Broadway musical. In New York, he hit more home runs than the entire Red Sox team across 10 of the next 12 seasons.


Christmas greetings from Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth autographed Christmas card, 1933. Sold for $25,000 in Home Plate A Private Collection of Important Baseball Memorabilia on 16 December 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Babe Ruth autographed Christmas card, 1933. Sold for $25,000 in Home Plate: A Private Collection of Important Baseball Memorabilia on 16 December 2020 at Christie’s in New York

At the height of his fame in the 1930s, the Bambino would commission custom-made Christmas cards for family, friends and teammates. This hand-coloured example reads: ‘May this Greeting be the biggest hit I ever make’ in gilt lettering. Underneath, in black fountain pen, the star autographed it: ‘Sincerely Babe Ruth 1933’. The following season would be Ruth’s last with the Yankees.