This full-page newspaper ad – with the New York Giants endorsing R.J. Reynolds’ Camel cigarette brand – appeared in the New York Times and other papers in early October 1933.
In the annals of audacious tobacco advertising, the 1933 newspaper ad at right for Camel cigarettes ranks pretty close to the top. Indeed, the claims and endorsements made in this ad seem pretty outrageous by today’s standards — also stating that “21 of 23 Giants …smoke Camels.” In other words, an entire sports team – or very nearly that – was used in this ad to endorse the Camel cigarette brand. And this was no ordinary team, but rather, professional baseball’s Word Series champions that year, the victorious New York Giants.
Tobacco advertising in the 1930s was in its heyday – and from the 1920s through the 1950s there was little restriction on the over-the-top claims being made about tobacco’s safety or its human health effects. This ad, in fact, suggested health benefits – i.e., “healthy nerves,” with several endorsing stars making similar statements.
Baseball players and other sports figures had appeared in tobacco ads before, but in the 1930s their appearance in such ads became more common. It was also in the 1930s that tobacco companies began depicting medical doctors in ads, touting the safety of cigarettes. Still, to see an ad like the one shown here, invoking nearly an entire sports team to promote cigarette sales, and making health claims to boot, is pretty striking. Yet this was a much different era, and health-effects knowledge was not what it is today.
Enlarged section from above ad showing pack of Camel cigarettes.
A few years piror to this ad, R. J. Reynolds, the producer of Camels, had fallen to No. 2 among cigarette brands. Lucky Strike, a cigarette brand produced by the American Tobacco Co., was the No. 1. brand. The competition for cigarette sales and market share had become keen. It was in 1933 that R. J. Reynolds began using sports stars in its advertising. Baseball was then the nation’s most popular professional sport, with more than 10 million people attending games annually. Enlisting the World Series champs to your brand would indeed provide a helpful boost. In 1933, however, the Great Depression was ravaging the nation.
Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected president in the November 1932 elections, but was not sworn in until March of 1933, then the inaugural custom. Roosevelt faced an unemployment rate of more than 23 percent, thousands of bank failures, and a GNP that had fallen by more than 30 percent. FDR would launch his New Deal in the years that followed, with a flurry of actions and new agencies coming in 1933.
The official program for the 1933 World Series, depicting managers Joe Cronin of Washington, left, and Bill Terry of New York, right.
Despite the hard times, there was optimism that a “Roosevelt recovery” was on the way. Congress had also introduced a bill to repeal prohibition, meaning alcohol would flow again, as it did legally by year’s end. Baseball, meanwhile, continued pretty much as it always had, though adding for the first time that July, an All Star game with the best players from National and American league teams in an annual game against one another. Then that fall came the 1933 World Series.
1933 World Series
The 1933 World Series pitted the National League’s Giants against the American League’s Washington Senators, also known as the Washington Nationals. The Giants had 91 wins and 61 losses in the regular season that year, while the Senators had compiled a 99 – 53 record. The Senators were the surprise victors of the American League that year, breaking a seven-year hold on winning the pennant by either the New York Yankees or the Philadelphia Athletics.
The New York Giants’ venerable and long-standing manager, John McGraw, had retired the previous year, with the Giants’ regular first baseman, Bill Terry, taking on the manager’s job. For the Senators, the equally venerable Walter Johnson, the famous pitcher, had also retired from managing in 1932, as the Senators’ regular shortstop, Joe Cronin, became their manager. Both Cronin and Terry are shown at right on a game program from the 1933 World Series. The World Series games that year were carried on NBC and CBS radio.
Oct 5 1933: Franklin D. Roosevelt prepares to throw ceremonial baseball at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. at Game 3 of the 1933 World Series. Directly right of FDR is Washington manager Joe Cronin and New York manager Bill Terry. AP photo.
When the Series moved to Washington, D.C. for Game 3 after the first two games had been played at New York’s Polo Grounds, President Roosevelt threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Griffith Stadium. Throughout the Series, the Giants’ pitching proved the difference, with Carl Hubbell and Hal Schumacher turning in stellar performances. The Giants took the best–of-seven Series in five games, winning their first championship since 1922. The final game of the 1933 World Series was played on Saturday, October 7th at Griffith Stadium, with the Giants winning 4-3. Mel Ott hit two home runs that game, the final one coming in the top of the tenth inning, providing the margin for victory. Two days later, the Camel cigarette ad shown above began appearing in newspapers around the country.
The Camel Ad
Enlarged baseball with Camels endorsement from ad above.
The main headline in the Camel ad proclaims, “It Takes Healthy Nerves To Win The World Series,” with copy to follow that suggests cigarette smoking provided a beneficial help to the World Series victors. An enlarged baseball directly diretly left of the headline states, “21 out of 23 Giants – World Champions – Smoke Camels,” suggesting there must be some connection and/or advantage to smoking Camels and winning championship games, especially since nearly the whole team is involved. A Giants team photo also appears at the top of the ad, followed below by a series of photos of individual Giants’ stars making Camel testimonials. More on those in a moment. At the bottom of the ad, is the company’s narrative message, which runs as follows:
Well, the returns are in. Congratulations to the new World Champions—the Giants! Rated by the experts as a hopeless contender, this amazing team, playing under inspired leadership, fought successfully through one of the hardest National League races in years. . .and again the under dog, went on to win the World Series. It takes healthy nerves to play “better baseball than you know how.” It takes healthy nerves to go on winning day after day through crucial series after series. . .delivering time after time in the pinches. It means something when you discover that 21 out of 23 Giants smoke Camel cigarettes. These men, to whom healthy nerves are all-important, have found that Camel’s costlier tobaccos not only taste better, but also they never interfere with training. . .never jangle the nerves.
New York Giants’ players featured in the Oct 1933 Camel ad: Bill Terry top, and from left, ‘Blondy’ Ryan, Hal Schumacher, Carl Hubbell & Mel Ott.
At the center of this ad, below the team photo and the enlarged baseball, photographs of five of the Giants’ players appear, each offering a sentence or two endorsing the Camel brand, beginning with Giants’ player/ manager Bill Terry, shown in the circular photo. Considered one of the game’s greatest players, Bill Terry (1898-1989), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1954.
Terry is most remembered for being the last National League player to hit .400, a feat he accomplished in 1930, hitting .401. The Giants would retire Terry’s uniform No. 3 in 1984, and it is posted today at AT&T Park in San Francisco. In the Camel ad, Terry, then team manager, is quoted as saying: “Great Team Work and healthy nerves carried us to the top. A check-up of the team shows that 21 out of 23 of the World Champion Giants smoke Camels.”
Carl Hubbell would become one of the game’s great pitchers.
Next in the sequence of Camel endorsers, comes “Blondy” Ryan. John Collins Ryan (1906-1959) played shortstop in the major leagues from 1930to 1938, and is remembered primarily for his fielding and excellent play in the 1933 World Series. Ryan was also ninth in MVP voting for the 1933 regular season. In the Camel ad, he is the first player shown on the left offering his testimonial. “I long ago learned that Camels are the cigarette for me,” says Ryan in the ad. “I like Camels better, and they don’t get on my nerves.” Harold “Hal” Schumacher (1910-1993), one of the key Giants’ pitchers through the 1933 season and the World Series, comes next in the Camel ad: “I prefer Camels,” he says. “I am a steady smoker of Camels and they never give me jumpy nerves or a ‘cigarettey’ aftertaste.” Schumacher played with the Giants from 1931 to 1946, compiling a 158-121 win–loss record. He was also a two-time All Star selection.
Carl Hubbell (1903-1988), shown in the photo above, was a valuable left-handed pitcher for the Giants and a key player in their 1933 World Series championship. Hubbell comes next in the Camel ad. “I can’t risk getting ruffled nerves so I smoke Camels,” he is quoted as saying. “I like their mildness and I know they won’t interfere with healthy nerves.” Hubbell played with the Giants from 1928 to 1943, and remained with the team in various capacities for the rest of his life, even after the Giants moved to San Francisco. Hubbell, a nine-time All Star, was twice voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1947. Hubbell is also remembered for his appearance in the 1934 All-Star Game, when he struck out five of the game’s great hitters in succession – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin – setting a longstanding All-Star Game record for consecutive strikeouts. Hubbell was the first NL player to have his number retired, which is also displayed at AT&T Park.
The New York Giants’ Mel Ott, one of baseball’s greatest hitters.
Next in the line of five Giants’ players endorsing Camel cigarettes is Mel Ott (1909-1958), the hitting star of the 1933 World Series. In game 1 of that Series, he had four hits, including a two-run home run. In game 5, he drove in the Series-winning run with two outs in the top of the 10th inning, driving a pitch into the center-field bleachers for a home run. “Jumpy nerves and home runs don’t go together,” Ott is credited with saying in the 1933 Camels ad. “So I stick to my Camels when I get a minute to enjoy a smoke.” Ott played his entire career (1926-1947) with the New York Giants as an outfielder. At 5′ 9″and 170 lbs, he was a surprisingly powerful hitter. He was the first National League player to surpass 500 home runs. In his 22-year career, Ott compiled a .304 batting average with 2,876 hits, 511 home runs, 1,860 runs batted in (RBIs), a .414 on base percentage, and a .533 slugging average.
Top Celebrities. Baseball stars such as Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell – and other famous athletes of that era – were among the most publicly-visible and sought-after celebrities of their day. Broadway and Hollywood also had their share of stars, and these celebrities were also sought for product endorsements, including tobacco, and some of those are covered elsewhere at this website. Still, the “celebrity factor” in the 1930s wasn’t quite as intense or ubiquitous as it is today, as there was no television, no internet, no “Dancing With Stars” or “American Idol”– and no 24-7 media machine. In that era, in fact, World Series baseball stars were regarded as top-of-the-line celebrities, considered among the biggest “gets” of their day, prized by marketers.
Following the 1934 World Series, with the St. Louis Cardinals as champions, a similar Camel advertising pitch was used.
In fact, in the following year, 1934, the same “World Series baseball team” pitch for Camels was used again by R.J. Reynolds, this time featuring the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, who won the Series that year. As in the Giant’s ad, the “21-of-23-players-smoke-Camels” phrase was used, and five St. Louis players made endorsements, including” the famous pitching brothers, “Dizzy” Dean and Paul Dean; Joe “Ducky” Medwick, power hitter; and “Pepper” Martin and “Rip” Collins. Player Manager Frank Frisch provided the set-up in this ad, also given a by-line as if reporting: “They sure made it hot for us this year, but the Cardinals came through in great style clear to the end when we needed every ounce of energy to win. We needed it—and we had it. There’s the story in a nutshell. It seems as though the team line up just as well on their smoking habits as they do on the ball field. Here’s our line-up on smoking: 21 out of 23 of the Cardinals prefer Camels.” Pepper Martin added: “I like Camels because when I light one I can actually feel all tiredness slip away.” And Rip Collins claimed: “A Camel has a way of ‘turning on’ my energy. And when I’m tired I notice they help me to snap back quickly.” Dizzy Dean added: “A Camel sure brings back your energy after a hard game or when you’re tired, and Camels never frazzle the nerves.”
R.J. Reynolds, for its part, was then engaged in a fierce advertising battle with American Tobacco for the top spot of the cigarette market, and its move in the 1930s to use baseball players and other athletes endorsing the Camel cigarette brand, helped the company regain its top-of-the-market position.
Brooklyn, NY sculpture of Pee Wee Reese left and Jackie Robinson, commemorating Reese’s May 1947 "arm-around-the-shoulders" support of Robinson during racial heckling by fans at a Cincinnati Reds game. Photo: MLB.com.
On May 13, 1947 a professional baseball game was about to be played at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. A new ball player for the Dodgers named Jackie Robinson was taking infield practice with the rest of his mates before the game was about to start. Robinson, however, wasn’t just any player. He was the first African American to play on a professional baseball team. Baseball then was still an all-white affair, as black ballplayers played in the “separate and apart” Negro League, as it was called. Robinson, however, was chosen by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey, to be the first black player to play for a professional team in Major League baseball. Robinson had been signed by the Dodgers in 1945 and had played for the Dodger’s minor league team a year earlier in Montreal, Canada. He had made his major league debut with the Dodgers at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on April 15th, 1947. So this game in Cincinnati was among the earliest of the Dodgers’ road games that year, with Robinson being introduced for the first time to fans beyond Brooklyn. In Cincinnati that day, however, they were not particularly welcoming of Robinson.
The Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson monument is a work by sculptor William Behrends. Photo, Ted Levin.
During the pre-game infield practice, the fans were heckling and taunting Robinson, who was then playing first base. Robinson had also received death threats prior to the game, as he had elsewhere; threats that would continue to dog him for several years. But Reese on this day walked diagonally across the field and joined Robinson, engaging him in conversation and putting his arm around Robinson’s shoulders as he did. Reese then, according to sportswriter Roger Kahn, “looked into the Cincinnati dugout and the grandstands beyond,” as the slurs and heckling were coming both from the Cincinnati ballplayers and fans. Some of the players and fans were taunting Robinson, shouting out terms like “shoeshine boy” and “snowflake” and worse. Reese, however, did not call out at the taunters or the Cincinnati dugout. But he kept his arm around Robinson’s shoulder while talking to him, which soon helped quiet the crowd and defuse the hostility. It was a moment for many who saw it say they will never forget, as a hush fell over the field and stadium. For Robinson and Reese, the moment became an important bonding experience that helped forge a long friendship. Years later Robinson would tell Roger Kahn: ”After Pee Wee came over like that, I never felt alone on a baseball field again.”
Pee Wee Reese, Brooklyn Dodgers, on a 1953 Topps baseball card.
Reese, in many ways, was an unlikely candidate to ally with Robinson’s strife. He was born in 1918, in Ekron, Kentucky, and moved with his family to racially segregated Louisville when he about eight years old. Louisville, not far away from Cincinnati, was then part of the old south; the south that had practiced institutionalized racial discrimination with all its outward manifestations of separate “colored” facilities. As a boy growing up, Reese had seen and experienced racial discrimination. His father had memorably marked one particular spot for him as a boy, pointing out a local tree where lynchings had occurred. Reese, however, had little contact with blacks during his youth. “When I was growing up, we never played ball with blacks because they weren’t allowed in the parks,” he would later explain. “And the schools were segregated, so we didn’t go to school with them….”
Reese was still finishing up his World War II military tour in the U.S. Navy in 1946 when Jackie Robinson was signed to the Dodgers’ baseball organization. Robinson would begin his play that year with the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, Canada. But in 1947, when Robinson reported to the main Brooklyn Dodger’s spring training camp, Reese was the first Dodger to walk across the field and shake his hand. “It was the first time I’d ever shaken the hand of a black man,” Reese would later say. “But I was the captain of the team. It was my job, I believed, to greet the new players.”
Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jackie Robinson made his debut in major league baseball when he stepped onto Ebbets Field that April 1947 day in Brooklyn, New York. Branch Rickey had carefully selected Robinson for this day. Rickey thought he had found in Robinson a candidate who could weather the storm of taunts and abuse that was certain to come to the first black player in major league baseball. Rickey had the support of Happy Chandler, baseball’s commissioner, at the time. Chandler, in fact, had stated that if African Americans could fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal, and in the South Pacific during WWII, they could play ball in America. There was also political support for Rickey in New York, as both the city council and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on Baseball backed a resolution against discrimination in professional baseball. And in March 1945, the state of New York had passed the first state Fair Employment Practices law forbidding “discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin.” Jackie Robinson, meanwhile, was an exceptional athlete. At UCLA, he had become the first ever to earn a varsity letter in four sports in one year – baseball, football, basketball, and track. But Rickey selected Robinson not only for his athletic capability, but also for his character, competitiveness, and determination. Robinson, however, was no patsy; he had a strong rebellious streak in him and a temper that could be provoked.
Jackie Robinson & Brooklyn Dodger’s general manager, Branch Rickey, shown in a 1948 photograph.
Rickey knew the going would be tough for Robinson and he warned him early on that there would be few supporters for what they were about to do: “No owners, no umpires, very few newspaper men – and I’m afraid that many fans will be hostile,” Rickey told Robinson. “We can win,” he said, “only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman.”
Rickey wanted a candidate who had the guts not to strike back. He asked Robinson to promise he would not fight back for his first three seasons – even though he would surely hear every imaginable kind of slur and insult. However, Robinson’s first test at the major league level – he already had a season’s worth of taunts at the minor league level in 1946 – came not from fans, but from
his own Brooklyn Dodger teammates.
Jackie Robinson & Pee Wee Reese, circa 1950s.
A petition had been drawn up in early 1947 by a group of Dodgers that stated they would not take the field with a black man. Pee Wee Reese, however, refused to sign it. Reese later downplayed his role in the refusal. “I wasn’t thinking of myself as the Great White Father,” Reese would later tell a reporter. “I just wanted to play baseball. I’d just come back from serving in the South Pacific with the Navy during the Second World War, and I had a wife and daughter to support. I needed the money. I just wanted to get on with it.”
But Pee Wee Reese became one of the most popular players of his day, known among fans and teammates as the “Little Colonel.” Not only was he the Dodgers’ captain in those years, he almost appeared to be their manager on occasion, bringing out the line-up card to the umpires at the start of games, a practice usually reserved for managers.
Brooklyn Dodgers players on opening day, April 15, 1947, from left: John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jackie Robinson.
Robinson, meanwhile, was stepping into a very visible and very contentious arena. Blacks had struggled for decades against every imaginable kind of discrimination and indignity and had to use separate rest rooms, drinking fountains, and waiting areas; could not stay in most hotels or eat in public restaurants; and had designated seating areas on buses and trains. In the late 1940s, segregation and discrimination were common throughout the U.S., north and south. On Long Island, New York, returning WWII veterans in the late 1940s were snapping up Levittown homes, but not black veterans. Developers refused to sell to African Americans. In fact, in 1950 there were state laws and/or local ordinances in effect in 48 states and the District of Columbia that mandated racial segregation of some kind; laws requiring African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and/or Asian Americans to go to segregated schools, work at segregated jobs, and live in segregated parts of town. Racially motivated violence still occurred throughout the country during the 1940s and 1950s, as Congress had refused to pass an anti-lynching law to quell racial violence. But soon the modern civil rights movement had a new spark – and as some would come to believe, a prime moving event pushing civil rights ahead – when Jackie Robinson took to Ebbets Field in April 1947. Yet the indignities and prejudices would not yield overnight, and Jackie Robinson in the limelight, bore a heavy load over many, many games and too many years.
Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and pitcher “Preacher” Roe celebrating after beating the New York Yankees in game 3 of the 1952 World Series.
White fans, in particular, were upset that black fans would be coming to see Robinson play; coming into stadiums in which they had previously been denied admission. Players from opposing teams also heckled Robinson mercilessly. And on the field during games, he was purposely spiked and spit on, while pitchers sometimes threw at his head. He also received hate mail and threats from fans, like those in Cincinnati.
That first year for Robinson, his teammates, and the Dodger organization was a rough time. Reese, who was also Robinson’s roommate when they traveled, did what he could to help buoy Robinson through the worst of insults and hard times. But in the end, it was Robinson’s play that won the day and would gradually win fan support. Still, under great pressure in that first year, Robinson’s play was outstanding, and he won the Rookie of the Year award.
“Thinking about the things that happened,” Reese would later say of Robinson’s ordeal, “I don’t know any other ballplayer who could have done what he did. To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour. To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
“Pee Wee” Reese
Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Harold H. “Pee Wee” Reese began his baseball career in 1938 when he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing first with their Louisville Colonels minor league team. He then went briefly to the Boston Red Sox who sold him to the Brooklyn Dodgers where he made his big league playing debut in April 1940. That year Reese hit .272 in 84 games sharing shortstop duties with player-manager Leo Durocher. By 1942, he made National League all-star team at age 24. Then with World War II, he went off to the Navy for two years. Back with the Dodgers in 1946, Reese was named to the National League all-star team again, a distinction he would win in eight more consecutive seasons.
Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers, shown on 1957 Topps baseball card.
In 1947 and 1948, Reese led National League shortstops in double plays. In 1949, Reese topped the National Leaguers with 132 runs scored as the Dodgers won the pennant. He also led the National League that year in fielding average at .977. In the 1949 World Series, the Dodgers lost to the Yankees despite Reese’s .316 series batting average. In 1952, Reese led the National League in stolen bases with 30, and in the World Series that year compiled a .345 batting average with 10 hits, one home run and four RBIs. In Game 3 of that World Series, Robinson and Reese pulled off a double steal, with both later scoring on a passed ball.
In 1953 Reese again was an important player in the Dodgers’ National League pennant run, compiling a .271 batting average and scoring 108 runs. The Dodgers went 105–49 that year but again lost the world Series to the Yankees. In 1954, now 36 years old, Reese compiled a .309 batting average. The following year he scored 99 runs as the Dodgers won their first World Series with Reese garnering two RBIs in Game 2 while also making some outstanding defensive plays. By 1957, Reese was playing less as starter, and after moving with the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958 as a backup infielder, he retired. In 1959, he coached with the Dodgers, a year they won the World Series. After that, Reese enjoyed a broadcasting career for a time, working with CBS, NBC, and the Cincinnati Reds. He later became director of the college and professional baseball staff at Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of Louisville Slugger bats. Reese was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984. Reese passed away in 1999. At Reese’s funeral, Joe Black, another African American ballplayer who helped integrate baseball, spoke of how he and others had been moved by Reese’s support for Robinson when the insults were flying:
“…When Pee Wee reached out to Jackie, all of us in the Negro League smiled and said it was the first time that a white guy had accepted us. When I finally got up to Brooklyn, I went to Pee Wee and said, ‘Black people love you. When you touched Jackie, you touched all of us.’ With Pee Wee, it was No. 1 on his uniform and No. 1 in our hearts.”
Among other things, Jackie Robinson had been a track star at UCLA in 1940.
Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia . Robinson’s father left while young Jackie was still a toddler, and the family then moved to Pasadena, California where Robinson’s mother worked various odd jobs to support the family. At John Muir High School, Robinson became a star athlete in several sports – at shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, and guard on the basketball team. In track he won awards in the broad jump and also won a junior boys singles tennis championship.
Following high school, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College, where he continued his athletic career excelling in basketball, football, baseball, and track. After junior college, he transferred to UCLA, where he became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. In 1939, he was one of four black players on the UCLA football team, a time when mainstream college football had only a few blacks in the game. In 1940, Robinson won the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship long jump event, baseball then being his “worst sport.”
Jackie Robinson in his U.S. Army officer’s uniform, was acquitted in a court martial for a “back-of-the-bus” incident & false charges.
In 1941, Robinson played semi-professional football briefly with the racially-integrated Honolulu Bears in Hawaii, and had plans to continue with the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League. However, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Robinson’s football career ended as he was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to a segregated Army unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. At Fort Riley, Robinson and several other black soldiers applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School, but admission to the program was blocked until help came by way of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and others. Robinson was admitted to OCS school, and in January 1943 he was commissioned an officer, second lieutenant, in the U.S. Army. Then came an incident on a military bus where Robinson was ordered to sit in the back of the bus, which he refused to do, leading to an arrest, some trumped-up charges, and a court martial, in which Robinson was acquitted in August 1944 by an all-white panel of officers.
Jackie Robinson with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League, 1945.
By early 1945, while Robinson was serving as athletics director at Sam Houston College in Texas, the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team of the Negro baseball leagues sent him a written offer to play for the team. Robinson accepted a contract roughly equal to $4,800 a month in today’s money. In April 1945, Robinson also attended a tryout that the Boston Red Sox major league team had arranged for a few black players; a tryout that turned out to be a farce to appease an anti-segregation city councilman. At the tryout, with largely Red Sox management in attendance, there were racial slurs and epithets hurled at the black players, leaving Robinson and others humiliated.
Meanwhile, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers had been searching for a prospective black ball player to help break the color barrier in professional baseball, and in August after meeting with several prospects, he began meeting with Robinson. Satisfied that Robinson would commit to not fighting back, Rickey signed him to a contract of roughly the equivalent of $7,300 a month in today’s money. The deal was formally announced in late October 1945 that Robinson would be playing for the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals minor league team for the 1946 season.
Jackie Robinson at his first minor league game, Jersey City, N.J., April 18, 1946.
In his year with Montreal, Robinson faced racial difficulties from the start. In spring training in Florida local hotels refused to lodge him. But it wasn’t just Robinson who had problems. Some baseball parks in Florida at the time, typically eager to host spring training teams, refused to let the Montreal Royals use their parks. In March 1946 the Triple-A Royals were scheduled to play an exhibition against their parent club, the Dodgers. However, both Florida towns of Jacksonville and Sanford refused to allow the game to be played in their parks, citing segregation laws. Daytona Beach, however, agreed, and the game was played on March 17, 1946. The Dodgers didn’t forget the incident, as the following year they shifted their spring training from Jacksonville, their previous spring training home, to Daytona.
Jackie Robinson at his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15,1947.
Robinson, meanwhile, throughout his minor league season with Montreal, was taunted and heckled. His play on the field, however, was superior, leading the league in batting and fielding with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage, also named the league’s Most Valuable Player while helping set league attendance records. More than one million people attended minor league games involving Robinson in 1946, a very large number at the time. In fact, at one point in Montreal, after winning the league championship, Robinson was chased – in a good way – by a crowd of jubilant fans.
Next came the big leagues. But some of the Dodgers’ players weren’t happy to be playing with a black man, as some had signed a petition saying they would not play. Rickey delegated team manager Leo Durocher to address the problem head on, which he did in a locker room speech. “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a … zebra,” he told his players. “I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see
that you are all traded.”
Example of hate mail Jackie Robinson received, May 20, 1950, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: National Baseball Library.
On opening day with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in April 1947, Robinson did not have an exceptional playing debut, but more than 26,600 fans had come out, with about 14,000 of them black fans. But Robinson soon had an early test of his pledge to Branch Rickey when the Philadelphia Phillies came to Brooklyn that April for a three-game series. The taunts hurled at Robinson came from the players and the Phillies’ manger, Ben Chapman, most embellished with the “n” word. “We don’t want you here, n____,” and, “N___, go back to the cotton fields.” And worse. Robinson nearly lost it with the Phillies, and was ready to throw in the towel then and there, but some of his teammates began rising to his defense, a positive development that Durocher and Rickey were happy to see.
There were also lots of incidents on the road, like that at Crosley Field where Pee Wee Reese interceded. In August 1947 in St. Louis, Cardinals player Enos Slaugher purposely slid high into Robinson at first base, spikes first, slicing open Robinson’s thigh. Still, even with this onslaught of taunts, rough play, and death threats, Robinson finished the 1947 season with a .297 batting average, 125 runs scored, 12 home runs, and a league-leading 29 stolen bases. His performance earned him the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award, then a single award covering both leagues. Robinson’s play that year also helped the Dodgers win the National League Pennant, then meeting the New York Yankees in the 1947 World Series, though losing to the Yankees in seven games. The taunts and threats for Robinson, however, would continue for years.
Jackie Robinson appeared on “Time” magazine’s cover September 22, 1947.
In 1948, Robinson played second base with a .980 fielding average. He hit .296 that year with 22 stolen bases. In one game against the St. Louis Cardinals in late August 1948, Robinson “hit for the cycle,” a rare batting feat of a home run, a triple, a double, and a single in the same game. The Dodgers finished third in the league that year. By this time, other black players had joined professional baseball, including Larry Doby who joined the Cleveland Indians in the American League in July 1947 and Satchel Paige, who also played for Cleveland. The Dodgers, too, had added three additional black players.
In 1949, after working with retired Hall-of-Famer and experienced batsman George Sisler, Robinson improved his batting average to.342. He also had 124 runs batted in (RBIs) that year, 122 runs scored, 37 stolen bases, and was second in the league for doubles and triples. Robinson became first black player voted into the All-Star Game that year, and also the first black player to receive the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. A popular song was also made in Robinson’s honor that year – a song by Buddy Johnson that was also recorded by Count Basie and others – “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” The song became a pop hit, with the Buddy Johnson version reaching No. 13 on the music charts in August 1949. The Dodgers, meanwhile, won the pennant again, but also lost again to the Yankees in the World Series.
Jackie Robinson, once on base, was always a stealing threat, having very quick feet, a good sense of timing, and smart base running.
By 1950, Robinson was the highest paid Dodger, making nearly $320,000 in today’s money. He finished the year with a .328 batting average, 99 runs scored, and 12 stolen bases. He also led the National League in double plays by a second baseman with 133. A Hollywood film biography of Robinson’s life, The Jackie Robinson Story, was released that year as well, with Robinson playing himself in the film. Branch Rickey, then with an expired contract and no chance of replacing Walter O’ Malley as Dodger president, cashed out his one-quarter ownership interest in the team and became general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1951, Robinson had another good year, finishing with a .335 batting average, 106 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases. He also again led the National League in double plays made by a second baseman with 137. Robinson kept the Dodgers in contention for the 1951 pennant with a clutch hitting performance in two at bats in an extra inning game that forced a playoff against the New York Giants – that later game ending badly for the Dodgers with the famous Bobby Thomson home run giving the Giant’s the pennant.
Pee Wee Reese & Jackie Robinson featured on the October 1952 cover of “Sport” magazine turning a defensive “double play”.
In 1952, Robinson had what became for him an average year, finishing with a .308 batting average, 104 runs scored, and 24 stolen bases. Sport magazine that fall put Robinson and Reese on the cover, shown in “double play” action. The Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1952, but lost the World Series to the Yankees in seven games.
By 1953 Robinson began playing other positions, as Jim Gilliam, another black player, took over at second base. Robinson’s hitting, however, was a good as ever, compiling a .329 batting average, scoring 109 runs, and 17 steals. The Dodgers again took the pennant and again lost the World Series to the Yankees, this time in six games. A series of death threats were made on Robinson’s life during the 1953 season. Still, on the road, he would speak out and criticize segregated hotels and restaurants that poorly served the Dodger organization, including the five-star Chase Park Hotel in St. Louis, which later changed its practices. In 1954, Robinson had a .311 batting average, scored 62 runs, and had 7 steals. His best day at the plate that year came on June 17th when he hit two home runs and two doubles.
Jackie Robinson’s steal of home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series still angers Yogi Berra who claims Robinson was out. Photo: Mark Kauffman/SI.
In 1955, Robinson missed 49 games and his performance slipped below his usual standard, hitting .256 that year with 12 stolen bases. He was now 37, playing either in the outfield or at third base. The Dodgers took the pennant that year and finally beat the Yankees in the World Series. In the following year, 1956, Robinson hit .275, scored 61 runs, and had 12 stolen bases. Around this time, he also began to exhibit the effects of diabetes. After the season ended, the Dodgers started to arrange a trade of Robinson to their arch-rivals, the New York Giants. However, the deal was never completed, as Robinson retired, announcing his retirement in a pre-arranged exclusive story in Look magazine. Robinson had also arranged for a business position with the Chock-Full-o’-Nuts coffee company.
Over ten seasons, Jackie Robinson had helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants, taking them to the World Series in each of those years, winning the Series in 1955. He was selected for six consecutive All-Star games from 1949 to 1954, received the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and won the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1949. But Jackie Robinson’s career, of course, was marked by much more than his outstanding play; as he became a powerful impetus for, and one of the most important figures in, the American civil rights movement that grew through the 1950s and 1960s.
Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson statue at the entrance of KeySpan Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Ted Levin.
In the years following his retirement from baseball, Robinson was honored in innumerable ways for his pioneering role in breaking baseball’s color barrier. He also became a tireless civil rights proponent in baseball and elsewhere, but especially pushing baseball to do more minority hiring in the managerial and front-office ranks. Jackie Robinson passed on in October 1972. He was 53 years old. His life and legacy have since been commemorated on postage stamps and presidential citations; special anniversary commemorations and also having his playing numeral, 42, retired by all Major League baseball teams. In 1973, his wife Rachel created the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has since awarded higher education scholarships to more than 1,200 minority students and is also involved in other baseball history and leadership development programs.
In 1999, Time magazine named Robinson among the world’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century, while Sporting News placed him on its list of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Yet among all the Jackie Robinson commemorations and honors — and there are many others enumerated elsewhere — the recent 2005 Reese-Robinson sculpture in Brooklyn commemorating that moment in May 1947 when the two ballplayers made a powerful social statement by simply standing together, remains one of the more interesting and instructive honors, capturing a moment that stands out in baseball as well as the nation’s social history.
Reese-Robinson sculpture in Brooklyn sits atop a pedestal with descriptive engraving about the 1947 incident in Cincinnati. Photo Ted Levin.
The Reese-Robinson sculpture is located at the entrance to KeySpan Park, home of the New York Mets’ Class A minor league baseball team, the Brooklyn Cyclones. The likenesses of Reese and Robinson are eight-foot-tall bronze figures standing on an engraved pedestal with descriptive passages. The sculpture is the work of William Behrends. The monument was unveiled on November 1, 2005 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Rachel Robinson, Dorothy Reese, and a number of other VIPs.
The genesis of the project came about shortly after Pee Wee Reese’s death in August 1999, with some fans looking for a way to commemorate Reese’s playing career. Stan Isaacs, a columnist with Newsday, suggested that instead of naming a parkway or highway after Reese, that a statue in Brooklyn honoring the famous Reese-Robinson moment in 1947 would be a fitting tribute to Reese. Isaacs’ suggestion was subsequently mentioned during a TV broadcast of a Mets baseball game. Then New York Post writer, Jack Newfield, picked up the idea, writing about it in several columns. By December 1999, then Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani embraced the proposal and a committee was formed study the project. Giuliani became one of the lead donors for the project, making a $10,000 gift after he left office. The project then lapsed for a time following September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Close-up of Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson sculpture. Photo: “Mets Guy in Michigan” website.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg resurrected the project after taking office, with Deputy Mayor for Administration, Patricia Harris, taking lead on the project. The KeySpan Park location was chosen, with the monument erected on public parkland, making it accessible to everyone. Some $1.2 million was raised to build and maintain the monument, with 110 donors contributing – ranging from Ted Forstmann, senior partner of Forstmann Little & Co. and Bob Daly, former Chairman and CEO of Warner Brothers and former managing partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to the New York Mets and New York Yankees baseball teams and a group of students at P.S. 7 Brooklyn Abraham Lincoln school who contributed a portion of their collected pennies to the project. The largest gift of $200,000, which helped complete the fundraising for the project, was made by Bob Daly, who had grown up in Brooklyn and had been a Dodger fan as a young boy, had been impressed by both players and Reese’s friendship with Robinson.
On the pedestal of the sculpture are six panels, which include an engraved description with the following explanation:
“This monument honors Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese: teammates, friends, and men of courage and conviction. Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Reese supported him, and together they made history. In May 1947, on Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Robinson endured racist taunts, jeers, and death threats that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man. Reese, captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers, walked over to his teammate Robinson and stood by his side, silencing the taunts of the crowd. This simple gesture challenged prejudice and created a powerful and enduring friendship.”
At the dedication ceremony for the Reese-Robinson sculpture in 2005 are, from left: Rachel Robinson, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Dorothy Reese, and NY city councilman, Mike Nelson . Photo: Ted Levin.
At the dedication ceremony in November 2005, there were a number of speeches given by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, various baseball dignitaries, local officials, and Reese-Robinson family members. They all had good things to say.
“The Reese family is extremely proud to be able to share in the unveiling of this very special statue with the Robinson family,” said Reese’s wife, Dorothy. “Pee Wee didn’t see Jackie Robinson as a symbol, and, after a while, he didn’t see color. He merely saw Jackie as a human being, a wonderful individual who happened to be a great ball player. My husband had many wonderful moments in his life, but if he were alive today, I know he’d say this honor was among the greatest in his life. I share in that sentiment.”
“When Pee Wee Reese threw his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder in this legendary gesture of support and friendship,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, “they showed America and the world that racial discrimination is unaccept- able. Pee Wee and Jackie showed the courage to stand up for equality in the face of adversity, which we call the Brooklyn attitude. It is a moment in sports, and history that deserves to be preserved forever here in Brooklyn, proud home to everyone from everywhere.”
Jackie Robinson’s wife, Rachel, also spoke at the ceremony. “The Robinson Family is very proud to have the historic relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese memorialized in the statue being dedicated at KeySpan Park,” she said. “We hope that it will become a source of inspiration for all who view it, and a powerful reminder that teamwork underlies all social progress.”
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Reese & Robbie, 1945-2005,” PopHistoryDig.com, June 29, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
The late 1940s-early 1950s were the heyday of "stadium pins” or “pinbacks,” produced for sale at stadium concession stands to depict and support favorite players; collectables today. Jackie Robinson is shown in this 1947 Rookie-of-the-Year pin. According to one source, no player aside from Babe Ruth has been the subject of more pins than Jackie Robinson.
Newspaper coverage of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut by the black-owned “Pittsburgh Courier” (Wash., D.C. edition), Saturday, April 19, 1947.
CD cover of Natalie Cole’s version of “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?,” 1994 release, Elektra.; also used in Ken Burns “Baseball” film.
Sept 1953: Jackie Robinson & Pee Wee Reese, center, in the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout. Look Collection, U.S. Library of Congress.
Pee Wee Reese & Jackie Robinson turning a double play during March 1950 spring training in Vero Beach, FL. Photo Phil Sandlin, AP.
Tim Cohane, “A Branch Grows in Brooklyn,” Look, March 19, 1946, p. 70.
Close-up artist’s rendition of baseball great, Christy Mathewson, for John Hancock Insurance Co. ad, 1958.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the John Hancock Life Insurance Co. of Boston, Massachusetts ran a series of low-keyed advertisements that touted historic figures from the nation’s past, including some sports figures and other notables. These ads, which typically ran in large-size weekly magazines of that era, such as Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post, primarily laid out a short story about some significant person, place, or historic event of national interest. The company ran scores of such ads, sometimes venerating notable Americans – scientists, inventors, political leaders, historic events, and even the family doctor.
John Hancock, to be sure, was basking in a kind of positive association for telling the much-loved tales, and some of the ads ran with a shorter, adjacent-page column from a John Hancock official making a soft-sell pitch for life insurance. Still, the featured full-page ads were classy pieces of advertising; often done with a handsome original color illustration using known and unknown artists, some venerating history, individualism, character, etc., and most offering educational benefit as well. They appeared only once or a few times at most in the magazines of the day. Consequently, today, original copies of these ads are regarded as collector’s items, often showing up at auction houses or on E-bay. One of the John Hancock ads from the late 1950s features the famous baseball player Christy Mathewson, shown above. The image is a close-up from its full-page layout, which is shown below. In the narrative copy for this ad, also included below, John Hancock offers a commentary on Mathewson’s career and personality. Mathewson was one of the all-time great baseball pitchers who played most of his storied career with the New York Giants (also called the Nationals) between1900–1916. He was also one of the first five players to be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. More about Mathewson follows shortly, but first the John Hancock ad as it ran in 1958.
“He had more on the ball than a ‘fade away’…” Life magazine, September 22, 1958
In the 1940s and 1950s, John Hancock Life Insurance ads used history and famous people from sports, business, politics & the arts to help burnish its reputation.
The John Hancock ad on Mathewson features an artist’s rendition of the famous pitcher standing on the pitching mound in his distinctive hands-over-the-head wind-up preparing to deliver a pitch. Beneath that scene, and to introduce its story, the Hancock ad uses the tagline: “He had more on the ball than a ‘fade-away’….” The “fade-away” refers to a term used to describe a rare pitch known today as a screwball, or a reverse curve; a pitch that “breaks” or curves into right-handed batters, and away from left-handed hitters. Here’s the rest of John Hancock’s copy on Mathewson:
“Part of the story is in the record books. Oddly enough, it began in the football book. Walter Camp made an exception and put an 11th man known as “kicker” on his 1900 All-American [football team]. The name of the man filling the position was…Christopher Mathewson!
“He’s all over the baseball book, of course. A couple of no-hitters. The only man ever to pitch three shut outs in one World Series. An average of 17 big league victories a year for 12 straight years! … If you were a youngster in those years and dreamed of being a big league pitcher, you always imagined in your dream that you looked like Matty. For he was the image of all the story-book heroes rolled into one. You’d lean back on the haymow and close your eyes and see yourself on the mound… tall, trim, good looking, confident. Then, while the crowd hushed, you’d wind up and send one ‘swish’ right over the heart of the plate for strike three. Just like Matty.
Life magazine cover, Sept 22, 1958, featuring George & Gracie Allen.
“No one could control, as Matty could, the direction a baseball would go. They say he could stand 20 paces from a barn door and hit a knot in the door 9 times out of 10. In three games in one World Series he walked only a single batter. One season he pitched 391 innings and gave up just 42 base on balls.
“But Christy Mathewson also learned to control himself. And that was probably a bigger contribution to baseball than the figures he left in the record books. His clean life, his ideals, his religious scruples (he never played a game on Sunday) had tremendous influence on all baseball, and all America. He proved to millions of youngsters of his day that you didn’t have to be a rowdy to be a big league hero.”
“Christy died in middle age, his lungs damaged by poison gas in France during World War I. A few years later organized baseball built a memorial for him. The last word on the bronze plaque has a splendid message for every sports-minded boy in America. It reads… Christopher Mathewson: Athlete, Soldier, Gentlemen.”
- John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co.
John Hancock's "pitch"...
Then, on the facing magazine page, in a slender column directly opposite the full-page ad, comes a sales pitch from John Hancock’s president, Byron K. Elliott. It features a smaller Mathewson-on-the-mound picture along with the header, “The Cornerstone Character…” That column reads as follows:
“One quality seems to be common to most of the men who have been featured in our series about great Americans. In their lives, you can see CHARACTER. Most of these men who accomplished great deeds were also men of decency and honesty, and of perseverance.
“We have always believed that character is all-important in the life insurance business. Counseling a family on its life insurance needs is a serious affair. . . We go to great lengths to make sure that John Hancock agents have skill and knowledge. We are them with the finest, most modern policies. Above all, in their selection, we seek character.
“When a man buys life insurance for his family, this too is a mark of character. . . of how seriously he considers his family’s well being…how willingly he looks beyond today, to provide for tomorrow.” – Byron K. Elliott, President.
Photograph of a young Christy Mathewson, circa early 1900s, in his New York uniform.
The John Hancock Insurance Company, certainly, was in the business of selling its policies in 1958, riding on the good name and reputation of Christy Mathewson and others like him. Still, the company did well in choosing to highlight Mathewson’s career in one of its ads, for he was truly one of the all-time great pitchers in professional baseball. During a 17-year career, Mathewson won 373 games and lost 188 for an outstanding .665 winning percentage. His career ERA – earned run average – of 2.13 and 79 career shutouts are among the best all-time for pitchers. And his 373 wins is still No. 1 in the National League, tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Using his famous fade-away pitch, “Matty” won at least 22 games twelve straight years beginning in 1903 – winning 30 games or more four times. A participant in four World Series, Mathewson set an especially distinctive World Series mark in 1905 when he threw three shutouts in six days against the Philadelphia Athletics. He also set the modern National League record for most games won in a single season; 37 in 1908 – quite extraordinary, then and now.
1901 Bucknell University baseball team with Christy Mathewson in the back row, second from right.
Christy Mathewson, however, was not typical of the “rough-and-tumble” baseball era in which he played – a time when many players were known more for carousing and fighting than playing. For one thing, Mathewson was a college man; and a college man who had a range of interests beyond baseball. In fact, while attending Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University – in addition to playing football and baseball – he sang in the glee club and belonged to a literary society. A forestry major in his studies, Mathewson was also class president and a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Football, however, was Mathewson’s main sport in college, putting in three years as the team’s first-string fullback, punter, and drop kicker. And those were years when Bucknell played top football powers such as Penn State, Army, and Navy. Sports writer Walter Camp, the originator of the All-America team referenced in the John Hancock ad, called Mathewson “the best all-around football player I ever saw.” In fact, in 1902 after he had turned a pro baseball player with the New York Giants, he briefly played football as a “punting fullback” for the Pittsburgh Stars of the new national Football League. However, for whatever reason, he did not last the season there, either because the baseball New York Giants objected, or a better fullback took his place.
Christy Mathewson & spare mitt...
Mathewson had begun playing minor league baseball in the summer following his freshman year at Bucknell, and would continuing doing so in subsequent summers. He played first in the New England League and then Virginia-North Carolina League in 1900, where he posted a 20–2 record, drawing the attention of big league teams.
In his first years in the major leagues, he bounced around for a time between the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds, but finally settled in the with the Giants where he would remain until 1916. With the Giants, he played under manager John McGraw, one of baseball’s feistiest competitors, but a manager who also took a special liking to Mathewson. Through the years, though quite different, the two men became friends and would help change the game of baseball. Mathewson, for his part, would become a role model to young boys, a charge he took quite seriously, as noted in one statement he made:
“First of all, no one can live up to everything that’s been written or said about me. And, I keep to myself. I’m a private man. Yet, because I pitch for the New York Giants, I realize that I’m able to reach more young men than the President of the United States. That’s not due to the fact that I’m more popular than Mr. Taft – I don’t believe – but, it’s a fact boys would rather read about yesterday afternoon’s event at the Polo Grounds. Because of that, I feel very strongly that it is my duty to show those youth the good, clean, honest values that I was taught by my Mother when I was a youngster. That, really, is all I can do.”
Christy Mathewson, further along in his baseball career, in his New York Giants uniform.
Mathewson was a tall and handsome young man, with blond hair and blue-eyes. Many believe he provided the basis for a fictional character in a popular reading series of that day – an heroic character named Frank Merriwell who excelled at football, baseball, basketball, crew, and track at Yale University while solving mysteries and righting wrongs. Merriwell’s tenure, in fact, tracked quite closely with the early years of Christy Mathewson’s career. The popular Merriwell series – many featured in Tip Top Weekly, a popular weekly reader for youth – began in April 1896 and continued through 1912.
Mathewson was also a devout Christian, never pitching on a Sunday, and was sometimes called “The Christian Gentleman.” Others lauded Mathewson’s “model citizen” status and off-the-field contributions. Grantland Rice, the famous sportswriter whose work appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and elsewhere, noted: “Christy Mathewson brought something to baseball no one else had ever given the game. He handed the game a certain touch of class, an indefinable lift in culture, brains and personality.” Mathewson’s various character qualities, his college education, his good looks, and his moral stance on no Sunday pitching, gave him a much-admired standing in American public opinion.
Christy Mathewson at work.
But it was on the pitcher’s mound that Mathewson’s baseball reputation would rise. In his first full season for the Giants, 1901, he won 20 games. On July 15th that year, he threw a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals. Mathewson finished that year with a 20-17 record and a 2.41 earned run average (ERA). The Giants, however, finished in seventh place. At around this time, New York fans began calling him “The Big Six.” Mathewson believed the nickname came because of his height (6′, 1″, then on the tall side). But a sportswriter named Sam Crane once compared him to New York City’s Big Six Fire Co., described as “the fastest to put out the fire.” In any case, Mathewson’s “big six” nickname, as well as “Matty,” were used in later advertising, book promotions, and other product marketing endeavors.
In 1903, 1904, and 1905 Christy Mathewson won 30 or more games each year. In 1903, he had 267 strikeouts, a National League record that stood until Sandy Koufax broke it with 269 strikeouts in 1961. But 1905 was an especially impressive year for Mathewson, as he won the National League Triple Crown for pitchers that year – i.e., wins (31-9), strikeouts (206) and ERA (1.28). He also threw his second no-hitter that year. But in the World Series that fall against the Philadelphia Athletics, the 25 year-old pitching ace was even more impressive. He was the starting pitcher for the Giants in Game 1 and pitched a four-hit shutout for the victory. Three days later, with the series tied at 1–1, he pitched another four-hit shutout. Then, two days after than, in Game 5, he threw a six-hit shutout to clinch the series for the Giants. In a span of six days, Mathewson had pitched three complete games without allowing a run.
Baseball’s Christy Mathewson in his notable over-the-head windup.
As a national sports star in the nation’s most notable city, New York, Mathewson was a very popular figure. He received numerous offers to advertise and endorse products, ranging from tobacco, safety razors, bubble gum, and clothing to athletic equipment, Coca-Cola, and various other products. In later years, 1922-23, he also had an indoor baseball board game called “Big Six Baseball,” sold with his nickname and pitching image on the box lid. His name, image and endorsement also appeared in several Tuxedo tobacco ads – sometimes with other players in group endorsements. Tuxedo tobacco was used for pipe smoking or rolling one’s own cigarettes. Mathewson was a cigarette smoker himself, and said at that time he saw no harm in it. But he apparently drew the line at putting his name on a pool hall/saloon after his mother suggested he might not want to have his name “associated with a place like that.”
In 1906 Mathewson came down with diphtheria and nearly died. Still, he finished the baseball season that year with a 22-12 record. His best year was still to come. In 1908, he recorded his record-setting 37 wins in a single season, also claiming the Triple Crown that year. His ERA that year was an incredible 1.43. The Giants, however, finished behind the Chicago Cubs.
Christy Mathewson, circa 1916-17, with the Cincinnati Reds.
In the next six years, 1909-1914, Mathewson won 20 or more games each year; 25 or more in four of those years. His pitching during that six-year span helped the Giants win four more National League pennants. Famed Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack, who had felt the sting of Mathewson’s pitching prowess more than a few times, would later say of him: “Mathewson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He had knowledge, judgement, perfect control, and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch – when he wasn’t pitching against you.” Christy Mathewson compiled a lifetime win-loss record of 373-188, with an ERA of just 2.13. His last few playing appearances in 1916 were with the Cincinnati Redlegs, where he became manager in 1917 and 1918. Then, in August 1918 during World War I, Mathewson became the only manager in professional baseball history to volunteer for military service. He was 38. He served in the Chemical Services Division of the U. S. Army along with another baseball great, Ty Cobb. Mathewson served overseas as a Captain for that year. However, he was gassed in a training accident in France, exposed to mustard gas, with his lungs taking a terrible hit. He later developed tuberculosis.
In 1919-1920, he returned to baseball, serving as a coach for the New York Giants. At about this time, he also began spending time in upstate New York at clean-air “cure cottages” in Saranac Lake fighting his lung disease. In 1923, Mathewson served as part-time president of the Boston Braves. Two years later, in October 1925, he died at Saranac Lake. He was 45 years old. Christy Mathewson is buried at Lewisburg Cemetery in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Frank Deford’s book explores how Christy Mathewson and John McGraw influenced modern baseball.
Although Christy Mathewson played in what is sometimes known as the dead ball era – before home run hitting and offense generally became prominent in a more lively ball era – his pitching, combined with the managing of John McGraw at the New York Giants, helped produce what some have called the modern baseball era, and along with it, some of the game’s first stars and heroes. Mathewson was certainly among a handful of “star” players in those years; stars who were helping improve the popular appeal of baseball. This was occurring just as an American middle class was taking form. Baseball was becoming more of a bigger business by then — especially championship baseball. Between 1904 and 1913, Mathewson and McGraw took the Giants to five National League pennants, boosting attendance and revenue for the Giants’ franchise, suggesting new business possibilities for all of baseball. In those years, Mathewson and McGraw — as well as other “stars” then engaged in pennant races and World Series play — became famous Americans. McGraw would outdistance Mathewson in the game, completing a 31-year career as manager in 1933, taking his teams to 10 National League pennants and three World Series. But Christy Mathewson was McGraw’s shining star in the first part of that era. Between them — along with other stars of that era — they helped elevate baseball to its national pastime stature, and they also helped to make baseball more a part of popular culture, drawing more general interest in the game and its players. At least one book of recent vintage, The Old Ball Game by Frank Deford, displayed above, explores some of that history, and there are no doubt others as well.
The October 1949 issue of “Sport” magazine did a cover story on Christy Mathewson.
After his passing, Christy Mathewson would earn a range of professional kudos for his play. In 1936, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame – one of the famous “First Five’” inductees, along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner. Mathewson was the only one of the five who didn’t live to see his induction. But other recognition also came. In 1943, during WW II, a 422-foot Liberty Ship, built in Richmond, California, was named in his honor, the S.S. Christy Mathewson. And periodically, the sports press would do retrospective pieces on Mathewson’s career, such as an October 1949 piece in Sport magazine by Jack Sher entitled, “Christy Mathewson — The Immortal ‘Big Six’.” In 1957, the Christy Mathewson Little League was formed in District 17 of his home state and home town of Factoryville, Pennsylvania. Baseball historians, meanwhile, have marked him among the sport’s greatest players. In 1999, he was ranked No. 7 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, the highest-ranking National League pitcher on that list. ESPN selected his pitching performance in the 1905 World Series as the greatest playoff performance of all time. Today, in the left-field corner of the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park in San Francisco, a replica of his baseball jersey – which in his day, bore no numeral – is formally retired with the designation “NY.”
A somewhat weathered and worn cover to Christy Mathewson’s 1912 book, “Pitching in a Pinch,” G.P.Putnam & Sons edition.
Christy Mathewson also became something of a writer during his career – or at least had his name attached to several baseball books that appeared and sold quite well in the 1910s. In the winter of 1911 and 1912, Mathewson, wrote a series of baseball stories with the help of newspaper man named John Wheeler. That series was called “Baseball from the Inside.” In 1912, while still an active pitcher, Mathewson compiled the stories with Wheeler for publication as a book, Pitching in a Pinch. Mathewson had described pivotal points in a baseball games as “being in the pinch,” with the outcomes of games often decided on what pitchers especially would do in those moments, thus his book title, Pitching In A Pinch. The Mathewson book, at 304 pages, was first published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London. Grosset & Dunlap also did a 1912 dust jacket for the book – believed to be the one displayed at left. One reviewer in the New York Times noted when the book first came out: “Mr. Mathewson uses his pen with cleverness and tells a story remarkably well.” Pitching in a Pinch, in fact, is still in publication today, “rediscovered” in 1977 when it was published in hardcover and paperback editions by Stein and Day. It survives today as a baseball memoir from a professional player providing an inside perspective on the game in those years. Original editions of this book can sometimes do quite well among sports memorabilia collectors. According to Robert Edward Auctions of Watchung, NJ, a copy of a 1912 Putnam edition of Pitching in Pinch, with Christy Mathewson’s signature, sold for $26,437.00 in 2007. Certain vintage Christy Mathewson baseball cards have also been known to fetch substantial amounts at auction.
A promotional advertisement for Christy Mathewson’s 1911 book, “Won in the Ninth.”
Mathewson also wrote a series of other baseball books for young readers. Won in the Ninth, for example, is a fictional account of a college ballplayer whose supporting cast were modeled after real-life major leaguers. In this book, Mathewson drew from his college experiences at Bucknell, but he also included some instruction to his young readers on the finer points of playing the game.
Won in the Ninth was praised by the critics when it first appeared in 1911, and Mathewson intended the book to be the first of a series. Several others followed, including, First Base Faulkner, Second Base Sloan and Pitcher Pollock. However, these books appear to have been a collaboration between Mathewson and sports- writer W.W. Aulick, and were more the products of publishers capitalizing on Mathewson’s popularity than they were the writer’s works of art. The publishers, however, appear to have launched some considerable promotional efforts around these books, one example of which is displayed at right.
John Hancock, Inc.
The John Hancock Insurance Company, the sponsor of the 1958 Christy Mathewson ad which began this piece, is itself something of a historic entity. The company’s origins date to the 1860s in Boston, Massachusetts. The Hancock name derives from the famous American patriot and first signer of the Declaration of Independence, noted for his large “John Hancock” signature on that document – a term since used generically to describe anyone’s signature. The Boston-based John Hancock operated as its own company for many years, moving through a series of changes.
The John Hancock company logo as seen in 2010.
By 1976, the John Hancock company was one of the largest corporations in America, occupying the gleaming-glass, 62-story John Hancock Tower in Boston designed by I.M. Pei. By the late 1970s, the company was collecting more than $2 billion a year from its policyholders. In 1978, they were the nation’s fifth largest life insurance company. By 1990 they had slipped to ninth place, about to be passed by Northwestern Mutual. In 2004 the John Hancock company was acquired for $10 billion by Canada’s largest insurance company, Manulife Financial. Today, John Hancock continues to sell insurance and other services as a Manulife subsidiary.
John Hancock’s advertising and image-making, meanwhile, has its own history. In the 1860s, an early president of the company installed 1,000 tin signs at railroad depots and grocery stores touting the company’s business. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, John Hancock agents went door-to-door throughout America retailing their policies, collecting premiums and passing out booklets on American history. And during the 1940s-through-1950s period, its advertising “stories”– such as the one presented here on Christy Mathewson – could be found in mainstream magazines of those years.
Hancock’s Ad Series
Hancock's Frederic Remington ad & his art of the Old West; click for story.
By all accounts, the John Hancock 1940s-1950s advertising series that featured historic figures was a big hit in America. In the art and advertising worlds, too, the series had its admirers and supporters, praised by many. Today the series, or parts of it, can sometimes be found in museums and art auction houses. But even in its day, the John Hancock series brought positive reviews. Here’s one commentary by Ben Stahl of the McCann-Erickson New York advertising house that appeared in a 1949 McCann-Erickson advertisement on the importance of art in advertising, offered under the title, “Does It Belong.”
“Next time somebody asks you, “Does fine art have a place in advertising?” — show them the John Hancock Life Insurance campaign. Rarely in the history of advertising has a campaign more consistently held to the fine arts level. Rarely has one achieved more favorable recognition for the advertiser. These messages have been hung in schoolrooms, factories, and offices. Reprint requests have run into hundreds of thousands. Statesmen have commended them; citizens have been stirred by them. They have won awards. And they purchased readership at well below average cost for the insurance field. We see a moral in all this. It proves, we think, that everything which has the power to move people has a place in advertising’s kit of tools. The art of the cartoon belongs; so does the art of the museum; and so does every form of artistic expression in between. The craft of the art director lies in being able to pick, from his broad workbench of persuasion, the right tool for the job every time.”
Stay tuned to this website for more stories on the John Hancock advertising series, the history of magazine publishing, and other stories about publishing and popular culture. For additional story selections in Sports or Advertising, please visit those category pages or go to the Home Page or the Archive for other story choices. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle
Jimmie Foxx, 21 year-old baseball star of the Philadelphia Athletics, featured on Time magazine cover, July 29, 1929.
In the summer of 1929, the year in which the stock market crashed, America was a nation not expecting disaster. These were, after all, the “Roaring Twenties” and America was feeling pretty good about itself. A lot of change and prosperity had occurred during the decade. Radio was the emerging national media with about 10 million sets in use. On Wall Street, the stock of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was setting records in 1929, rising from $100-to-$500 a share — a little “irrational exuberance” well before the time the term would be used to suggest a frothy market. New businesses in the fields of commu- nication, publishing, news, and entertain- ment were then on the rise. CBS, Business Week, and Walt Disney were among the emerging enterprises of that day. Talking motion pictures, only a few years old, had become the dominant movie form. In May, Hollywood’s first Academy Awards were made in a ceremony that lasted less than a half hour. Wings took the Best Picture award. Across the nation, good times were still rolling along practically everywhere through mid-year. Although there may have been a few insiders on Wall Street who saw the economic storm clouds gathering, and there had been a jolt or two in the market in March, there was little hint of the prolonged ill wind to come, especially on Main Street. The market peril and crashing stocks would not arrive until late October. In fact, for most of the year, the nation was simply going about business as usual. And nothing was more business-as-usual than baseball.
Babe Ruth, left, in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sept. 21, 1932. Ruth had set the home run record in 1927 at 60, but in 1932, Jimmie Foxx almost caught him with 58. (AP Photo)
In late July, Time magazine ran a baseball cover story about the changing nature of the game, assessing teams and players at mid-season. Featured on the cover was a young player from the Philadelphia Athletics named Jimmie Foxx, who would also get a share of the ink in Time’s cover story. Baseball by then was the nation’s major national pastime and its biggest commercialized sport. But one concern in the game at the time was whether the ball had been juiced, as there had been a noticeable increase in hitting since the games of the 1910s. In 1912, “home run” Baker, as he was called, had set the record for round trippers at 13; in 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60. Spalding, the manufacturer of baseballs, insisted the juiced ball theory was a myth, but the debate continued.
Time‘s story also focused on some of the young players creating a sensation that year, among them, 19 year-old Mel Ott of the New York Giants. Up to that point in the season Ott had hit 26 home-runs with a batting average of .324, impressing fans with his speed, outfielding abilities, and strong arm. But Time reserved its strongest praise for Jimmie Fox, described as “even more sensational than player Ott.” Foxx that July was in a neck-and-neck race for the batting title, as he and rival Heine Manush of the St. Louis Browns, both of whom had averages at the time around the .400 level. Manush had won the American League batting title in 1926 when he was with the Detroit Tigers, hitting .378. But neither he nor Foxx would win the 1929 title. Lew Fonseca of the Cleveland Indians would take the prize, hitting .369. Still, Foxx hit a very good .354 average that year with 33 home runs.
Farm Boy Foxx
Foxx shirtless: farm-boy build
The year 1929 was Foxx’s first full year in the majors. He had come up to the Athletics in 1924 when he was about 16, from a minor league team in Maryland’s Eastern Shore League. Foxx proved himself a versatile player, handling any position except pitching. Although he preferred third base, with the Athletics in 1928 he became their first baseman, hitting .328 that season in 118 games.
Foxx was a strong farm boy, from Sudlersville, Maryland; he stood just under six foot weighing in at about 185-pounds with a good build. He described for Time, with some farm-boy bravado, how life on the farm prepared him for baseball:
…I worked on a farm and I am glad of it. Farmer boys are stronger than city boys. When I was 12, I could cut corn all day, help in the wheat fields, swing 200-pound bags of phosphate off a platform into a wagon. We had games on the farm to test strength and grip. A fellow had to plant both feet in half a barrel of wheat and then pick up two bushels of wheat or corn and balance them on his shoulders. Another trick was to lift a 200-pound keg of nails without letting the keg touch your body. I could do that easily but I never realized then it was helping me train for the Big Leagues.
Rare Hitting Feat
The year 1929 also marked another extraordinary hitting per- formance which occurred at Philadelphia’s other team, the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies had a player named Lefty O’Doul, acquired that year in a trade with San Francisco. For the Phillies in 1929, O’Doul hit .398 to win the National League batting title. He also had 32 home runs, 122 runs batted in and scored 152 runs.
But his extraordinary feat that year was his 254 hits in a single season — a rare feat equaled or exceeded only by four other players in professional baseball history: George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns in 1920 with 257 hits; Bill Terry with the New York Giants in 1930 with 254 hits; and Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, who holds the record with 262 hits set in 2004.
Foxx became known as a good hitter and also for his prodigious home run shots. He hit drives that soared over the roof of Philadelphia’s old Shibe Park Stadium, and was the only man up to that time to hit a ball over the centerfield wall there, 468 feet from home plate. He had also become the only man to hit two homers over the roof of Chicago’s Comiskey Park, both of which went some 500 feet, plus. In New York’s Yankee Stadium, Foxx sent one of Lefty Gomez’s pitches into the third deck. Time was right about featuring the up-and-comer on its July 1929 cover. Foxx would go on to have a Hall of Fame career.
In 1932, he walloped 58 homers and might well have matched or broken Babe Ruth’s record that year with 60 or 61, but he fell off a ladder at home and missed the last few games of the season. In 1933, he took the American League Triple Crown with 48 homers, 163 RBI and .356 batting average. When Jimmie Foxx retired in 1945, he ranked No. 2 on the all-time home-run list with 534 home runs, behind only Babe Ruth. He also had 1,922 runs batted in and a lifetime batting average of .325. He won three MVP awards and his 12 consecutive seasons with 30 or more home runs was a major league record that stood for more than 60 years until broken by Barry Bonds in 2004. He also held the record for the youngest player (32 years old) to hit 500 career home runs until eclipsed by Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees in August 2007, who was then a younger 32 year-old.
The A’s faced the Chicago Cubs in the 1929 World Series, including from left: Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler, and Riggs Stephenson, shown at Wrigley Field.
1929 World Series
In the 1929 World Series, Foxx and the Philadelphia Athletics, with their American League pennant-winning record of 104 wins and 46 losses, played the Chicago Cubs of the National League, with their season record of 98 wins and 54 losses. Both teams had sell-outs for their home games by late September 1929, with one report noting the Cubs organization had taken in $1.2 million for tickets for its games.
The first two games were played at Wrigley Field in Chicago on October 8th and 9th, and the last three at Shibe Park in Philadelphia on October 11th, 12th and 14th. Notable perfor- mances in that series came in Game 1 with aging A’s pitcher Howard Ehmke setting a record of 13 strikeouts that stood until 1953 when Carl Erskine broke it with 14. Jimmie Fox hit one home run in Game 1, and hit 2 more in Game 2, becoming the first major league player to homer in his first two World Series games.
A’s Al Simmons crossing home plate during the 10-run 7th inning of game 4 in the ‘29 Series. Jimmie Foxx, facing out, awaits his turn to hit.
But in game 4 of Series in Philadelphia, the famous “Mack Attack” of the A’s occurred, named for the A’s legendary manager, Connie Mack. In that game, the Athletics overcame an eight-run deficit by scoring ten runs in the 7th inning after Cubs’ center fielder Hack Wilson lost a fly ball in the sun resulting in a bases-clearing, inside-the-park home run.
The A’s went on to win that game and the World Series. It was perhaps one of the last big hurrahs for the “Roaring Twenties,” an era that had also been characterized by major sports accomplishments and major sports personalities.
Crowd forms on Wall Street after 1929 crash.
Ten days following the World Series, on October 24th, 1929 in New York, a day known in financial lore as Black Thursday, the Stock Market began its catastrophic plunge. The euphoria and financial gains of the great bull market were shattered that day, when share prices on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed and continued to fall at an unprecedented rate. On October 28 and 29 — Black Monday and Black Tuesday, as they came to be known — the decline was even worse, precipitating widespread panic. The stock collapse continued for a month, sending many investors to financial ruin and marking the onset of hard times. The country and much of the world then fell into a deep economic depression which continued for years. By 1932, Wall Street stocks were worth only 11 percent of what they had been in 1929.
As the hard times of the 1930s wore on, star players like Foxx with large salaries became prime trade fare. Foxx shown here after he went to the Boston Red Sox in 1936.
Baseball, meanwhile, would try to follow its seasonal rhythms, as the business of sport and life marched on — at least for a time. In February 1930, professional players were reporting to their respective camps for spring training. That fall, Jimmie Foxx and the Athletics would again make it to the World Series, this time besting the St. Louis Cardinals, four games to two.
But even baseball would feel the hard times. By 1933 the average per game national attendance had fallen to below five thousand. Baseball tried to raise interest that year by starting the All-Star game, played at mid-season, when the best players from each league were assembled to play against one another. But as the Great Depression ground on, some owners were unable to pay the salaries of their star players. The Athletics owner, Connie Mack, was obliged to sell off a number of his stars, including Jimmie Foxx. In late 1935, Mack sold Foxx’s contract to the Boston Red Sox. Foxx then played in Boston for a time, as a teammate of an up-and-coming youngster named Ted Williams. But Foxx himself still had a few good years ahead.
Jimmie Foxx shown in the late 1930s with Ted Williams.
With Boston in 1938, Foxx had a phenomenal year: he hit 50 home runs and drove in 175 runs with a batting average of .349. He narrowly missed the Triple Crown but did garner that year’s MVP award. In 1939 he had another good year, hitting .360. His 50 home runs at Boston would remain the single-season record for that team until David Ortiz of the Red Sox hit 54 in 2006. Foxx would finish his career in the 1940s with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951.
Portrait of Jimmie Foxx in his prime.
Foxx did some minor league and women’s baseball coaching in the 1950s, and was also head baseball coach at the University of Miami in 1956 and 1957. However, a series of bad investments left him broke in 1958. He died in Miami, Florida in 1967 at the age of 59. Still today, Foxx remains one of the all-time greats. In 1999, he was ranked No. 15 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. In July 2000, he was one of 20 players commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp in the “Baseball Legends” group.
Detroit Tigers infielder Don Wert watches Mickey Mantle circle the bases after hitting his 535th career home run, September 19, 1968.
America was not in the best of moods in the fall of 1968. The country was still convulsing from events near and far that would mark the year as one of the most tumultuous in the history the 20th century. The Tet offensive in Vietnam came in January. President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not run for re-election in late March. Martin Luther King was killed in April. Bobby Kennedy struck down in June. Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops crushed Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring” in August. The Democrats’ National Convention in Chicago that month became a spectacle of political ugliness, both inside the hall and on the streets, with clashes and confrontations over Vietnam and the nation’s future. But then, in the midst of all this, there was still baseball, the national pastime; the one constant thing; an oasis of predictable pace apart from the turmoil. Baseball was there in those dark days, in the background perhaps, but doing its thing; playing its games, day after day, from April thru October.
One of the game’s old lions at the time, Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees, was nearing the end of his storied career. On September 19th, as the regular season was winding down, the Yankees were playing the Detroit Tigers in Detroit. The Tigers had already won the American League pennant that year, propelled there in part by ace pitcher Denny McLain, and were headed to the World Series. But in this game, Mantle hit his 535th home run, then putting him on the all-time homer list at No. 3, behind only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Mantle hit this homer off Denny McLain, who still picked up his amazing 31st win that year, as Detroit beat the Yanks, 6-2. It was Mantle’s 17th home run of the 1968 season — not the 30 or more he would normally hit each year during his prime. Mantle’s final career homer — #536 — came the next day on September 20, 1968 off Boston’s Jim Lonborg. Mantle in those games, with his season-ending home runs, was in the last days of his career, though his official retirement announcement would not come until the following year, on March 1, 1969. These were his last games.
'Mickey Mantle: Born for The Majors,' cover story, Time, June 15, 1953.
In later years Mantle would joke half heartedly about his hobbled, late-career performance: “Hitting the ball was easy,” he’d say. “Running around the bases was the hard part.” Those who played with Mantle, however, knew it wasn’t funny. In the above photo, you can almost see him wincing as he ran the bases.
Mantle had been a baseball sensation when he first came up in the early 1950s, a player with a rare combination of speed and switch-hitting power the game had not seen in years. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, he became one of baseball’s most feared hitters, and his speed on the base paths and in the outfield made him an all-around player, especially in his early years. Mantle played his entire 18-year career with the Yankees, winning three American League MVP titles. He was also selected to play on 16 American League All-Star teams. With the Yankees, Mantle played on 12 pennant winners and 7 World Series champions. As of 2007, he still held the records for most World Series home runs (18), RBIs (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26), and total bases (123).
“The Kid From Joplin” (From David Halberstam’s October 1964)
The Mantle legend, which began with his signing, grew during a special rookie camp the Yankees had…in 1950. There, some of the old-timers in the organization got a sense that they were seeing something rare; a true diamond in the rough. Mantle’s potential, his raw ability, his speed, his power from both sides of the plate, were almost eerie. If his talent were honed properly, they thought they were quite possibly looking at someone who might become the greatest player in the history of the game. There were some fast players in that camp, and one day someone decided that all the faster players should get together and have a race. Mantle, whose true speed had not yet been comprehended, simply ran away from the others. What had made some of the stories coming out of the camp so extraordinary was the messenger himself, Bill Dickey — the former Yankee catcher, a Hall of Fame player, and a tough, unsentimental old-timer who had played much of his career with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and [Tommy] Henrich. He was not lightly given to hyperbole. Dickey started talking about Mantle to Jerry Coleman, the veteran second baseman, with superlatives that were unknown for him: “Jerry, he can hit with power righty, he can hit with power lefty, and he can outrun everyone here.”. . .
“He’s going to be the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” Dickey added. A few days later Dickey grabbed his old teammate Tommy Henrich. “Tom, you should see this kid Mantle that played at Joplin. I’ve never seen power like that. He hits the ball and it stays hit. He’s really going to be something.” Even the sound of his home runs, Dickey said, were different, mirroring something Ted Williams would say years later: the crack of the bat against the ball when Mantle connected was like an explosion. Henrich simply shook his head — it was one thing to hear about a coming star from an excited journalist, but quite another to hear it from someone like Bill Dickey.
With Two Good Legs?
Some of Mantle’s teammates and competitors, as well as sports writers and fans, have often wondered what he would have been like had he not been plagued by injuries throughout his career — especially the leg injuries. Mantle had collected some of his injuries early in life, beginning with a leg infection as a high school football player that nearly resulted in an amputation. Still, when he reached the major leagues in 1951, his running speed was among the best in baseball and his power simply awesome. In his early career, some thought him a rare kind of baseball god, possessing both power and speed.
In 1951, when Mantle was first coming up with the Yankees, his prowess was fully apparent. In an exhibition game at the University of Southern California during his rookie spring training season that year, batting left-handed, he hit a home run ball that left Bovard Field and crossed an adjacent football field, traveling an estimated 656 feet. Some cite it as the longest home run in baseball history. Mantle, in fact, hit two home runs that game — a second, right-handed shot cleared the left-field wall and landed on top of a three-story house well over 500 feet away. Throughout his career, Mantle would hit other memorable shots — including a 565-foot home run at Griffith Stadium in Washington in April 1953 (said to have coined the term “tape measure home run”); a 643-foot homer at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium in September1960; and one that almost left Yankee Stadium, which no hitter has ever done. But those who saw Mantle hit during his rookie spring training year of 1951, remember the distinctive crack of the bat when he tore into the baseball; they knew there was something special about this “hayseed from Oklahoma,” as some called him.
Mickey Mantle, 1950s. Photo by Bob Olen.
But leg injuries plagued him from nearly the beginning of his Yankee career. As a 19 year-old rookie in his first World Series game in 1951, Mantle tore the cartilage in his right knee while running for a fly ball when his cleats caught a drainage cover in the outfield grass. His knee twisted awkwardly and witnesses reported him going down “like he had been shot,” hitting the ground instantly. He was carried from the field on a stretcher. Mantle would never play pain-free after that, but play he did — and play well. In 1952, he took over center field duties from retiring Joe DiMaggio, and completed one of his best seasons at the plate. But as the years went by, he would have knee surgery four times, and would apply thick wraps to both of his knees in something of a pre-game ritual. By the end of his career, simply swinging a bat caused him to fall to one knee in pain.
Still, even with his injuries and impaired performance, Mantle managed to compile a record that most professional players can only dream about. During his career with the Yankees, he played more games as a Yankee than any other player (2,401), won three Most Valuable Player awards (’56, ’57 and ’62). In 1956, he won baseball’s Triple Crown with a .353 batting average, 52 homers and 130 RBIs. He led all of major league baseball that year in all three categories. His 536 career home runs was the third highest ever when he retired, behind only Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx, and the most ever by a switch-hitter.
Mickey Mantle with U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) on Sept 18, 1965, ‘Mickey Mantle Day,’ when Mantle played his 2,000th game. Photo by Martin Blumenthal of SPORT magazine.
Indeed, with two good legs, Mickey Mantle might have been a good bet to have broken Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs, and perhaps sooner than 1961 when Roger Maris did it. Mantle may have also compiled a career home run total closer to, if not exceeding 600. His career batting average would probably have bettered .300 as well; with more runs scored and RBIs up too, and perhaps a Gold Glove or two for fielding. All speculation, of course, and “what might have been.” Yet many of his admirers wish it could have been so; that the fair-haired kid from Oklahoma might have had a bit more luck with the health of his legs.
Jack Doyle, “Mickey Mantle’s 535th–September 19, 1968,” PopHistoryDig.com, June 18, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Mickey Mantle – here in his young “Greek god” body – captured by Life magazine during a celebratory locker room scene, October 1952.
Life magazine cover story, June 25, 1956: “The Remarkable Mickey Mantle,” with story inside: “Prodigy of Power: Mickey Mantle Comes of Age As a Slugger.”
Young Mickey Mantle shown here with wife Merlyn and their two young boys. They would have four sons.
1965 Life magazine photo of Mantle throwing batting helmet in frustration – but check out those forearms!
Mickey Mantle on the cover of Life magazine, July 30, 1965, then at age 33 and in his 15th season with the NY Yankees. “Mantle’s Misery,” read the cover tagline, “He faces physical pain and a fading career.”
Mickey Mantle winces in pain during batting practice at spring training, 1967.
Maury Allen, Memories of the Mick, Taylor Publishing: Dallas, Texas, 1997, 183 pp.
David Halberstam, October 1964, Villard Books, New York, 1994, 380 pp.
“The Remarkable Mickey Mantle,” cover photo, and story: “A Prodigy of Power: Mickey Mantle Comes of Age As a Slugger,”Life, June 25, 1956, pp. 99-102, 105-107.
Roger Kahn, “Remembering Mickey” (cover story), The Sporting News, August 21,1995.
Shirley Povich, “Mantle’s Critics Swing, Miss,” Washington Post, June 19, 1995.
Note: Many of the news stories below mention Mickey Mantle injuries in their headlines, underscoring his hard times with injuries that often took him out of play.
“Mantle to Miss Finale in Boston and Yanks’ Game Here Tomorrow,” New York Times, Monday, May 26, 1952, Sports, p. 28.
“Mantle Rejected for Draft Again; Yanks’ Outfielder Ruled Unfit Because of Injury to Knee Suffered in ’51 Series,” New York Times, Tuesday, November 4, 1952, Sports, p. 34.
Joseph M. Sheehan, “Mantle Is Lost for Final Drive; Skowron Also Sidelined by Injury Suffered Friday. . .,” New York Times, Sunday, September 18, 1955, Sports, p. 2.
John Drebinger, “Ford’s 5-hitter Halts Boston, 7-1; Mantle Clouts 3-Run Homer for Yanks Before Leaving Game With Leg Injury. . .,” New York Times, Saturday, April 21, 1956, Sports, p. 12.
Deans McGowen, “Mantle Injury Held Not Serious, But He’ll Be Out 2 or 3 Days; Sprained Knee Ligaments Troubling Yank Slugger; Physician Orders New Brace; Mickey’s All-Star Role in Doubt,” New York Times, Friday, July 6, 1956, p 24.
“Mantle Hospitalized Five Days For Treatment of Shin Splint,” New York Times, Saturday, September 7, 1957, Sports, p. 27.
John Drebinger, “Braves Have Health and Hitting; Yanks Face Series, With Doubts About Mantle, Skowron,” New York Times, Monday September 30, 1957, Sports, p. 49.
Louis Effrat, “Bombers Face Prospect of Losing Mantle for Fifth Series Contest; Shoulder Injury Handicap to Star; Mantle’s Inability to Throw with Usual Strength Leads to Removal in Tenth,” New York Times, Monday, October 7, 1957, p. 31.
Louis Effrat, “Mantle to Stay out of World Series Opener Unless His Condition Improves; Yankee Slugger Weak and in Pain; Club Doctor Says He Thinks Mantle Can Play, However; Houk Also Confident,”New York Times, Tuesday, October 3, 1961, p. 47.
“Mantle’s Thigh Injury Expected to Sideline Him 2 to 4 Weeks; Star Center Fielder Resting Comfortably but Bombers Are Uncomfortable; Injured Mantle Out 2 to 4 Weeks,” New York Times, Sunday, May 20, 1962, Sports, p.1.
“Mantle on Bench With Knee Injury; Yankee Star Doesn’t Know When He Can Play Again,” New York Times, Tuesday, July 31, 1962, Sports, p. 21.
Louis Effrat, “Mantle Is Forced to Quit in Third; Injury Still Hobbles Star; Bombers Get 14 Hits off 4 Hurlers; Lopez Excels,” New York Times, Saturday, August 4, 1962, Sports, P 13.
John Drebinger, “Mantle Is Hurt in 6-to-1 Victory; Yank Ace Reinjures Muscle in Side,”New York Times, Sunday, April 14, 1963, Sports, p. 167.
Gordon S. White Jr., “Mantle Fractures Left Foot in Yank Victory at Baltimore; 4-3 Game Marred by Star’s Injury Mantle Crashes into Fence Chasing Oriole Homer and Will Be out a Month,” New York Times, Thursday, June 6, 1963, Sports, P. 56.
Leonard Koppett, “Mantle Sidelined Indefinitely with Knee Injury; Yanks Bow to Angels, 5-0; Star Could Miss Rest of Season; Loose Cartilage in Mantle’s Knee Probable Aftermath of Foot Injury on June 5; Injuries Plague Career,” New York Times, Friday, July 26, 1963, Sports, P. 17.
Leonard Koppett, “New Role for Mantle?; Full Time as Pinch-Hitter Is Urged For Ailing Slugger of the Yankees,” New York Times, Sunday, January 23, 1966, Sports, p. 182.
Leonard Koppett, “Mantle Suffers Pulled Muscle after Hitting His 475th Homer; Yankees Bow, 4-2; Mantle Injured,” New York Times, Sunday, May 15, 1966, Sports, P.1.
Joseph M. Sheehan, “Mantle Suffers Injury to Left Leg as Yankees Are Beaten by Red Sox, 5-2; Bomber Slugger Is Hurt Sliding; Injury Termed Not Serious but First Baseman Will Miss Couple of Games,” New York Times, Thursday, March 23, 1967, Sports, p. 41.
“Mantle Ends 18-Year, Injury-Ridden Baseball Career,” New York Times, Sunday, March 2, 1969, p.1.
Close-up of 1909 trading card show- ing a young Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.
In early September 2007, a rare sports trading card was sold at auction for $2.8 million, then a record price. The 1909 card, depicting the famous Pittsburgh baseball player, Honus Wagner, was sold to an anonymous private collector. It had been sold only six months earlier, in February 2007, for a record $2.35 million. But that’s only part of the story. Escalating amounts of money, along with various luminary and ordinary owners, plus a measure of controversy, have followed this card around for nearly a century. More on that in a moment. First, the player whose image is on this highly-valued piece of baseball history.
Honus Wagner was a legendary baseball player who began his professional career with the Louisville Colonels of the National League in 1897. Wagner hit .344 during his rookie year and quickly became one of the best hitters in the National League. However, in 1899, the NL reduced its membership from twelve to eight teams, and the Colonels were eliminated. Thereafter, and through his remaining career, Wagner played with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In Pittsburgh, he compiled a stellar record through 1917. He played the infield, primarily shortstop. Wagner had grown up in the Pennsylvania coal fields and worked in the mines as a 12 year-old. His mother called him “Hans,” which over the years became “Honus.” Babe Ruth once said there was no one who could replace him at shortstop, noting his big hands, that “drew the balls to him.” Former U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, growing up in Kansas, used to daydream and tell his friend about becoming a baseball player like Honus Wagner.
An inscription on this photo reads: “I hold out for Hans Wagner as the greatest of them all. Wagner was a great ball player at 20. He was still a great ballplayer at 43. In all my career I never saw such a versatile player.” John McGraw, mgr., NY Giants, 1931.
Honus Wagner is generally considered one of the finest all-around players in the history of National League baseball, and for some, the greatest shortstop in baseball history. Others regard him as the second-greatest baseball player of his era, behind Ty Cobb. He hit for an average of .300 or better for 17 consecutive seasons, winning eight National League batting titles. He was also a good runner, dubbed “the flying Dutchman,” and excelled at base stealing. When Honus Wagner retired in 1917 he had more hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, triples and steals than any National League player. In 1936, at the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was among the first class of elite players inducted, along with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson — sometimes called “The Fabulous Five.”
‘Holy Grail’ of Cards
The 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card, therefore, honors a great player. But there’s a lot more to this baseball card story than Wagner’s impressive career achievements. The Wagner card — sometimes called the “Mona Lisa” or “Holy Grail” of baseball trading cards — was originally published and released by the American Tobacco Trust in 1909. Only 50 to 60 other Honus Wagner cards are believed to exist (some estimates run as high as 100, though collector quality is a limiting factor). Yet the Honus Wagner card that sold in September 2007 for $2.8 million, was especially rare and in very good, near mint condition.
Original portrait photo of Honus Wagner in his Pittsburgh uniform taken by Carl Horner in 1905, from which an artist’s version was later made, adding 'Pittsburgh' to his jersey.
The Wagner card is one of 523 baseball player trading cards that were issued by the American Tobacco between 1909 and 1911. American Tobacco was using the cards and the players to promote its various brands of cigarettes, primarily two at the time — Sweet Caporal and Piedmont. On the reverse side of the near mint-condition Wagner card is a Piedmont cigarette ad. The Wagner cards generally became a rarity, in part, because Wagner himself stopped their production, although his exact objection remains unclear. Some say Wagner did so because he wanted a bigger promotional fee from American Tobacco. Others say he didn’t want children buying and smoking cigarettes to get his picture. But Wagner did deny the tobacco company permission to use his image, responding to their recruitment efforts in one circa 1908-09 letter saying, “I don’t want my picture in any cigarettes.” To be clear, Wagner also threatened legal action to stop the company. So American Tobacco stopped production of the card.
According to his granddaughter, Leslie Wagner Blair, Honus Wagner did care about his fans, and especially young fans. Blair, who knew her grandfather as “Buck,” says in one account that “[h]e loved children. He wanted to teach kids good sportsmanship. When it came time for that card to come out, it wasn’t that he wasn’t paid. He didn’t want kids to have to buy tobacco to get his card.” Yet Wagner himself chewed tobacco, and he had also appeared in or lent his name to tobacco advertisements and products, including a cigar baseball trading card in 1899 and a newspaper ad for Murad cigarettes during the 1909 World Series. It’s possible, of course, that early in his career Wagner did endorse and use tobacco products, but later, changed his mind about endorsements.
Another Wagner card showing the backside Piedmont cigarette advertisement.
Whatever the reason for Wagner’s refusal, American Tobacco could not stop the trading cards it had already produced. So today it is believed that 50-to-60 collector-worthy Honus Wagner T206 cards are still in existence. Most of these cards are backed with a Sweet Caporal cigarette ad.
However, only three, it is believed, carry a Piedmont cigarette ad, making them the rarer and most valuable. And one of the best of these three has been dubbed “the Gretsky card” since it was owned in recent years by famous ice hockey star, Wayne Gretsky. This particular card has changed hands four times in the last 10 years (1997-2007), doubling in value on three of those occasions.
Star baseball players in the 1890s and early 1900s — the sports celebrities of their day — were sought after for product endorsements and testimonials. Honus Wagner, either by word or likeness, appeared in advertisements for chewing gum, gunpowder, soft drinks, Gillette razor blades, cigars, and other products. In fact, Wagner is believed to be among the first professional athletes to receive endorsement money for allowing the use of his name on a product. He was also among the first professional players to make commercial ties with a sporting equipment company — in this case, Louisville Slugger baseball bats.
Wagner first played with the Louisville Colonels professional team in Louisville, Kentucky. There he met and befriended Bud Hillerich, who in 1894 had begun producing a trademarked baseball bat containing the engraved name, Louisville Slugger. Many ball players of that day began to use only Hillerich’s bats, who would also engrave their names on the bats so they could determine which bat was theirs. One of those players was Honus Wagner.
When Wagner left Louisville to play for Pittsburgh, he and Hillerich kept in touch and maintained their friendship. In 1905, Wagner signed a contract with Hillerich which allowed him to use Wagner’s signature on baseball bats to be sold in stores. And with that, Wagner became one of the first professional athletes to receive endorsement money by allowing the use of his name on a product for general sale.
Photograph of a 'Honus Wagner' cigar box.
The Card’s Trail
As early as 1933, a Honus Wagner baseball card was listed in The American Card Catalog of a collector named Jefferson Burdick at a price of $50, making it even then the world’s most expensive baseball card. But the special, mint condition card of recent $2.8 million fame, appears to have surfaced in 1985, when a Long Island, New York sports memorabilia dealer named Bill Mastro purchased it along with 50-to-75 other old cards also in the T206 series. Mastro bought the “package deal” from a Hicksville, New York collector — Wagner card included — for $25,000. Mastro then sold his card in 1987 to Jim Copeland, a San Luis Obispo, California sporting-goods chain owner and baseball card collector, for $110,000 — a transaction credited with raising interest in baseball card collecting. Copeland, in turn, decided to sell his entire baseball card collection in 1991 — some 873 pieces, including the rare Honus Wagner card. That sale occurred at the Sotheby’s auction house in New York, where separate action focused on Copeland’s Wagner card. Bidding rose swiftly, jumping from an opening price of $114,000 to $228,000, then $300,000, and finally, $410,000. The full price for the card, with Sotheby’s charge added, was $451,000.
Wagner at left in 1912 photo with Pittsburgh teammates Mike Donlin, manager Fred Clarke and Marty O’Toole.
The winning bidder — who had done so by phone — turned out to be National Hockey League star Wayne Gretzky, who had some financial assistance from partner Bruce McNall, the owner of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. Once again, publicity surrounding the Sotheby’s auction of the Wagner and other old cards, elevated interest in the baseball card collecting and the sports memorabilia business.
Sold To Wal-Mart
Wayne Gretzky, however, was not a baseball card collector. He bought the Honus Wagner card for investment purposes. Three years after he acquired it, Gretzky bought out his partner’s share. He then sold the Honus Wagner card in 1995 to Wal-Mart for a reported $500,000. Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment, an Atlanta, Georgia printing company, used the card as the grand prize in a nationwide contest to promote the sale of new baseball trading cards. They took the highly-prized Wagner card on road tour across the U.S.
Honus Wagner, circa 1910s.
In February 1996, on the 122nd anniversary of Honus Wagner’s birthday, a grand prize drawing was held for the Honus Wagner card. The ceremony and drawing were broadcast on CNN’s Larry King Live Show. Brooks Robinson, former Baltimore Oriole baseball star third baseman and Hall-of-Famer, came on the show to select the winning contestant. A Florida postal worker named Patricia Gibbs was the grand-prize winner. Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment officially awarded the card to Gibbs later at a Wal-Mart store in Florida, reportedly delivered by two armed guards. Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment by this time were reaping the returns of their baseball-card publicity campaign, selling more than 30 million baseball card packs in a matter of months.
Patricia Gibbs, however, could not afford to pay the taxes on the Honus Wagner card she won in the drawing, and decided to sell the card at Christie’s auction house in New York. In September 1996 and the card was sold for $640,500 to an anonymous buyer (later revealed to be Chicago collector, Michael Gidwitz) whose agent said he expected it would soon fetch $1 million or more in later bidding. Sure enough, in the year 2000, Brian Seigel, the CEO of an asset management company, paid a record $1.265 million when he bought the card at auction on e-Bay.
By the year 2000, it was clear that Honus Wagner had real value in the sports memorabilia world. And it turned out that Wagner’s granddaughter, Leslie Wagner Blair, still living in Pittsburgh, had an attic full of her grandfather’s baseball mementos. But Blair, then moving her residence, no longer had room to keep all the treasures, nor heirs to pass them along to. So she decided to sell some of her grandfather’s keepsakes. In June 2003, a number of items from her collection were designated for auction, along with a few other Wagner items added by others. The auction was held in August 2003.
1909 World Series: Honus Wagner at center, Ty Cobb of Detroit at right, and Davy Jones of Detroit with back to camera.
Among the Wagner items auctioned from Blair’s collection was an 11-inch Tiffany sterling chalice, or loving cup, that was presented to Wagner in December 1907 by National League president Harry Pulliam. The cup is engraved with HonusWagner’sname, given him to commemorate the five National League batting titles he had won to that point. He would proceed to win three more batting titles. Legend has it that Wagner was then in an off-season contract dispute and was called to Pulliam’s office in New York to receive the award as a way of placating him. At the auction, the Loving Cup went for more than $93,000.
Also in this auction was a baseball hit by Wagner in the final game of the 1909 World Series — a championship series in which Wagner was matched against rival Ty Cobb and his Detroit ball club. An inscription on the ball reads: “Ball hit by Honus Wagner of Pittsburgh Nationals winning game and championship from Detroit American, Oct/1909. Kindness of Umpire William Klem.”(who apparently gave the ball to Wagner). The 1909 season and that Word Series may well have been the pinnacle of Wagner’s career. He led the Pirates to 110 wins that year, and in the World Series games he outshone rival Ty Cobb and helped Pittsburgh win their first World Series.
The famed 'Wayne Gretsky' Wagner card, graded & framed.
The August 2003 auction also included a large swatch of material from the sleeve of one of Wagner’s 1908-1909 tattered baseball jerseys — a swatch which contained the Pittsburgh Baseball Club logo “PBC”. It sold for $16,000. There was also a Honus Wagner baseball card in the collection — a more worn and tattered card that ranked much lower than the Gretsky card, but which nonetheless sold for more than $92,000.
A number of other Honus Wagner cards have surfaced in recent years, some fraught with controversy over their authenticity and/or quality. The Honus Wagner card highlighted here, however, was graded in the 1990s when Wayne Gretsky owned it. The card was graded by the Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA), a firm which came into existence about that time, and has since become one of the nation’s leading third-party, sports- card grading services. The Wagner card, in fact, was the first baseball card to be PSA-graded, and it received a NM-MT 8 from PSA, which is a “near mint – mint” rating, the highest given to a T206 Wagner so far.
Honus Wagner in the infield.
The PSA grades sports cards based on a 1-to-10 scale and has instituted the PSA Sports Card Grading Standards. PSA has authenticated, graded and encapsulated 28 of the known T206 Wagner cards. Of those, only two have earned grades of 4 (VG-EX) or better, three have earned 3 (VG) status, with the remainder garnering either a 1 or 2 due to substantial wear or significant physical imperfections. Other Honus Wagner cards have been sold in the 2000-2005 period bringing prices in the $75,000 to $460,000 range. None of these cards, however, have received the 8 rating of the “Gretsky card,” with most receiving between a PSA 2 and 4. Dan Imler, managing director of SCP Auctions, one of the auction houses that has handled Wagner cards, among other memorabilia, has stated: “For many collectors, owning any example of a T206 Honus Wagner card is the crowning achievement of baseball card collecting.”
“The Card”: New Heights
By 2007, meanwhile, the “Gretsky”card, was about to reach new heights in value. Brian Seigel of Las Vegas, the CEO of Emerald Capital LLC, an asset management company, decided to sell the Gretsky card. In July 2000, he had paid a then-record $1,265,000 for the card at public auction. During his ownership of the card, Seigel had shared it with the public.
“Previous owners usually kept it locked up,” explained Seigel, “however, I displayed the card as frequently as possible at major sports collectibles shows around the country. When I lived in Orange County California I even took it to several Cal State Fullerton baseball games and to elementary schools to teach children about baseball card collecting.” The card was also displayed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California in March 2003.
Seigel said he enjoyed owning the card for over six years, and added that during that time it was never for sale. “But I received an unsolicited call out of the blue late last year  from a California collector who wanted to buy it. After thinking it over for a while, I decided to sell, and the two of us agreed on a price.” That price, paid in February 2007, was $2.35 million. Six months later, in September 2007, it was sold again, when another California collector paid $2.8 million for the card, now the most valuable baseball card in history.
2007 book by Michael O’Keefe & Teri Thompson, published by Wm. Morrow.
As the value of the Honus Wagner baseball trading card has escalated over the years, so have claims about finds of other cards — some of which have generated considerable controversy and in a few cases, have become quite messy and nasty battles. Two African American card collectors from Cincinnati, Ohio named John Cobb and Ray Edwards tried to sell a Piedmont-backed Honus Wagner card in 2002 on e-Bay, but ran into a battle over authentication which included various expert reviews, police investigations, charges of fakery and racism, coverage by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and attempted sales and shuts downs by e-Bay. That card, and its history to August 2006, however, is still posted on some auction sites.
Photo of 'Hans Wagner' dated October 1st, 1914.
But even the famed “Gretsky” card has generated controversy, with some charging it was cut from a sheet and did not come from an ordinary cigarette pack- age. These charges and other history are covered in a 2007 book and subsequent reporting by New York Daily News writers Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson. Their book is titled, The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired BaseballCard.
The Wagner card saga continues to generate much interest in the world of card collecting and beyond. And to keep things interesting, there is always the possibility of “old card” finds, not only in the T206 American Tobacco collection, but also in a range of other notable “old card” series and their commercial sponsors. In January 2008, a man living in the southeast U.S. discovered 550 old baseball cards in his attic — all from the legendary 1909-1911 T206 series issued by American Tobacco. Among those cards was a Honus Wagner card – a card not in the best of shape and receiving a low grade, but still expected to sell for at least $100,000.
Honus Wagner statue at entrance to Pittsburgh Pirates home stadium, PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA.
The Genuine Article
The baseball player at the center of all this, however, Honus Wagner, is the real deal and the genuine item — a great ball player who leaves behind some still amazing achievements. Not only did he hit for an average of .300 or more for 17 consecutive seasons, but in seven of those seasons he hit for .350 or better, finishing his career with a .329 lifetime average. And although he played in an era when “small ball” was the prevailing method of play — with low-scoring games of 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2 being the norm — Wagner still had nine seasons with 100 RBIs or more, winning five RBI titles and six for slugging. He also led the National League in stolen bases on five occasions.
Some baseball historians rank Wagner as the second-best player of all time, behind only Babe Ruth. He was also a decent person by many accounts, respected by those who knew him. Says historian Bill James: “He was a gentle, kind man, a story teller, supportive of rookies, patient with the fans, cheerful in hard times, careful of the example he set for youth, a hard worker, a man who had no enemies and who never forgot his friends. He was the most beloved man in baseball before Ruth.”
U.S. postage stamp issued in 2003 as part of the 'Legends of Baseball' group.
In 2003, Wagner was among those baseball greats honored with a commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. In July 2003, the USPS issued its “Legends of Baseball” 33-cent commemorative stamps, honoring a collection of players, including Wagner — a group named the previous year to Major League Baseball’s “All-Century Team.” Among those in addition to Wagner were: Dizzy Dean, Lefty Grove, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Josh Gibson, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, Pie Traynor, and Cy Young.
Detailed close-up of Wagner statue at PNC Park. Photo by Jeff Hecker at pbase.com.
One story about Wagner in 1909 has it that he was ready to call it quits that season. Arthritis in his legs had begun, and he felt he was slowing down. But then-manager Fred Clarke and owner Mr. Dreyfuss convinced him that he was still essential to the team’s success. So he continued playing. But after the 1917 season, at the age of 43, he hung up his glove and spikes for good. He managed a few games for the Pirates that year, but then moved on to other things. He later returned to the Pirates in a coaching capacity, serving as a general instructor with the team from 1933 to 1951, and becoming a favorite among the players. Shortly before his death at age 81 — on December 6th, 1955 — a statue in his honor was erected in Schenley Park, not far from Forbes Field. When Forbes Field was razed and the new Three Rivers Stadium was built, the statue came with it, and today, it now stands at the entrance of the new PNC Park that replaced Three Rivers.
See also at this website, “Baseball Stories, 1900s-2000s,” a topics page with links to 12 other baseball-related stories. For additional sports-related stories at this website see the Annals of Sport category page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “$2.8 Million Baseball Card — 1909 Honus Wagner,” PopHistoryDig.com, May 28, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Honus Wagner jumping off the ground to field a ball, undated.
Ralph S. Davis, “Wagner A Wonder: One Player In Game Who Is Not Money Mad,” The Sporting News, October 12, 1912.
Alexandra Peers, “Baseball’s Card of Cards Is Up for Grabs,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1996.
Dan Barry, “Baseball’s Card of Cards Is Auctioned for $640,500,” New York Times, September 22, 1996.
Dennis DeValeria and Jeanne Burke, Honus Wagner: A Biography, New York: Holt, 1996.
Michael O’Keeffe and Bill Madden, “Wagner’s Wild Card: Mystery Has Surrounded Honus T206 Since 1909″, Daily News (New York), March 25, 2001.
Shelly Anderson, “Honus Wagner’s ‘Honey’ to Offer Rare Memorabilia at Auction,”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 13, 2003.
“Honus Wagner Original T206 Pose Carl Horner Photograph sold for $18,560,” Description written by T206museum.com, May, 2005. (Robert Edward Auctions offered a Honus Wagner Original T206 Pose Carl Horner Photograph at auction and it sold for $18,560 on April 30th, 2005).
“PSA Reports Record $2.35 Million Sale of NM-MT T-206 Honus Wagner Card,” PSAcard.com, February 27, 2007.
Bob Pool, “Honus Wagner Card Sells for $2.35 Million,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2007.
Associated Press, “Rare Honus Wagner 1909 Baseball Card Sold for Record $2.8 Million,” September 6, 2007.
Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card, New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
Michael O’Keeffe, blog, “Collector Finds $300k in Baseball Cards in His Attic.” New York Daily News, January 16, 2008.
For an excellent site on Honus Wagner history, photos, and card collecting see Honus Wagner Blog.
“Wagner & Louisville Slugger,” Research Paper, University of Maryland.
Bob Diskin, “Easy-Going Honus Was a Pirates Icon,”ESPN.com
For more detail on vintage baseball card collecting, auctions, valuations, etc. see, for example: www.T206.org and www.T205.org
“The Legend of Honus,” (The Brian Seigel Collection), in Stephen Wong and Susan Einstein, Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections [ a lavishly illustrated book on baseball card collections], HarperCollins, 2005, pp.59-65.
Front page story, New York Times, April 28th, 1947.
It was April 1947. America was about to begin its post-World War II economic boom. A few months earlier, Edwin Land had demonstrated his “instant camera”, the Polaroid Land Camera. Radio was still the principal communications medium, with more than 40 million strong. Television, at a scant 44,000 sets nationwide, was just starting. As a new baseball season began, a special day was set aside to honor former New York Yankee baseball star, Babe Ruth. More than 58,000 fans packed Yankee stadium on April 27th to honor Ruth, along with American and National League baseball officials, Catholic Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman, and other VIPs who were also in attendance. The ceremony and speeches were piped into all Major League and many Minor League baseball parks that day. Babe Ruth was then 12 years retired from active play; a new generation of players had taken the field such as Joe DiMaggio. Still, Ruth had set baseball’s most revered record 20 years earlier — hitting an unheard of 60 home runs in one season. In the intervening years a few players had hit as many as 58 home runs in one season, but no one had broken Ruth’s record. And his career total of 714 home runs appeared to be invincible.
Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth Day, April 27th, 1947.
In June 1948, at a second celebration commemorating the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium — known as “the House that Ruth Built” — the slugger was again honored (see photo below). His Yankee uniform playing numeral, No. 3 was formally retired that day.
Babe Ruth, throughout his career, had made important contributions to the Yankees, New York city, and all of professional baseball. In the 1920s, his hitting prowess not only made millions of dollars for the New York Yankee franchise, but also “saved” baseball from national disgrace. The 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal — when players took bribes to throw the World Series — had badly tainted all of baseball. But Babe Ruth, with his home runs and out-sized personality, came along at just the right time. He wasn’t the only factor in the revival, certainly, but his power and celebrity helped energize the game, reclaim its respectability, and renew and expand the fan base. In so doing, he helped to elevate baseball’s place in American culture and to make it a much bigger business.
In the go-go 1920s, before the Stock Market crash, Ruth had been something of a symbol of American optimism; the sports hero with the big smile and big appetite who seemed to make anything possible. By 1947 and 1948, of course, a lot had changed. WWII and the Great Depression were then in the past. But the fans who came out to give their final cheers for Ruth at Yankee Stadium in 1947 and 1948, were also cheering for the 1920s American optimism and derring-do that Ruth stood for, as well as his awesome accomplishments.
June 13, 1948: Babe Ruth in his last appearance at Yankee Stadium, captured in Nat Fein's Pulitzer Prize winning photo.
George Herman Ruth, born in 1895, had come to baseball via the school of hard knocks. A Baltimore saloonkeeper’s son, Ruth had been something of a problem child, and at the age of 7, his parents placed him in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys for his “incorrigible” behavior. The school was run by Catholic Xaverian brothers, and Ruth spent almost his entire youth there. The school became the place where Ruth — with the help and encouragement of Brother Matthias Boutlier — developed into a promising baseball player. By 1914, he was signed briefly to a minor league team before being sold with others to the Boston Red Sox.
Babe Ruth with the Boston Red Sox, circa 1917-1918.
In Boston, the left-handed Ruth became a formidable pitcher as well as a promising hitter. His pitching, in fact, helped Boston win two World Series in 1916 and 1918. He was later converted to an outfielder in Boston so he could play more often, making use of his hitting power. He did not disappoint.
In 1919, his last year with Boston before coming to the Yankees, he hit 29 home runs, breaking the existing record. Before that, no one had ever hit more than 25 home runs in one season. News of Ruth’s batting feats in Boston spread. Wherever he played, large crowds filled the stands.
In the winter of 1919, however, Boston’s owner Harry Frazee, in need of money to finance his business interests on Broadway, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for about $100,000 and a $300,000 loan. With the Yankees, Ruth would soon become the dominant player in all of professional baseball.
“Small Ball” No More
In the decade preceding the 1920s, baseball was not a game of home runs and high drama. Rather, it was a game of singles, bunts and stolen bases; what might be called “small ball” in today’s lingo – a game of hustle with batters hitting for direction, not distance. Few players ever hit more than a dozen or so home runs per season prior to 1919. Pitchers dominated, then using the spitball, often aided by tobacco-juice. In those days, only one ball was used for the entire game – a time known as “the dead ball” era. By 1920, some rule changes had come to the game. The spitball was outlawed along with unorthodox pitching deliveries and the ball began to be replaced regularly during a game. One player, in fact, had been killed after being hit in the head with a dirty, darkened ball.
Ruth in his early days with the NY Yankees.
When Ruth began play with the Yankees in 1920, the team then shared the Polo Grounds stadium with the neighboring New York Giants of the National League. On May 1st that year, Ruth hit his first Yankee home run, a ball that left the Polo Grounds. By year’s end, Ruth had hit a prodigious 54 home runs, nearly doubling the existing record. No other player that year had hit more than 19 home runs. Ruth also batted for a .376 average with a slugging average of .847 – the latter a record that would stand for 80 years. The Yankees that year also shattered the league’s annual attendance mark, drawing 1.3 million fans, breaking the old mark of 900,000 set in 1908. In the following year, 1921, Ruth hit 59 home runs. Only the Philadelphia Phillies – as an entire team – hit more at 64. The “small ball” era was long gone.
A Good Investment
In the Yankee front office, meanwhile, Ruth was proving to be a very good investment. Home receipts more than doubled in each of the years 1920-1922, and the Yankees also appeared in the 1921 and 1922 World Series, producing an additional $150,000 in revenues. The Yankee share of road receipts more than doubled in each of those years as well. In 1923, Ruth continued to excel. He set a career-high batting average of .393 that year and led the major leagues with 41 home runs. The 1923 season also saw the opening of Yankee Stadium, with Ruth hitting the stadium’s first home run in the opening game, prompting sportswriter Fred Lieb to nickname the place, “The House That Ruth Built.” In 1923, for the third straight time, the Yankees faced the Giants in the World Series. Ruth hit .368 for the series, scored eight runs, and hit three home runs. The Yankees won the series 4 games to 2.
1924: Babe Ruth with George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns, one of the game’s all-time greats, who in 1922 had hit safely in 41 consecutive games and complied a .420 batting average.
In New York, and on the road, fans were turning out see Ruth in droves. One reporter wrote, “This new fan didn’t know where first base was, but he had heard of Babe Ruth and wanted to see him hit a home run. . .” Ruth was also generating a lot of attention with his outsized personality and off-the-field carousing. He had larger-than-life appetites and eventually became one of the enduring personalities of the roaring ’20s. The large New York Italian immigrant community gave him the nickname “bambino.” To many people, Ruth was more than a baseball player, he was a national icon. Yet some say Ruth never quite grew up as person; at times he could be down right crude. He drank, gambled, scoffed at training rules, and would argue with umpires and abusive fans. Still, New York City proved the perfect place for Ruth — the big star on a big stage, with big crowds and big media coverage. He lived large and earned over $2 million, most of which he spent. Yet Ruth could be very generous and caring, and would go out of his way for some people, and especially for sick children and orphans.
By December 1925, however, Ruth’s high living was beginning to show; he was overweight at 254 pounds, had a high pulse, fat stomach, and was generally out of shape. With the help of fitness coach Artie McGovern, Ruth changed his diet and got back into shape. He also kept McGovern as his trainer. In 1926, Ruth compiled an impressive .372 batting average with 47 home runs and 146 RBIs, leading the Yankees back to the World Series. Though they lost the Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, Ruth hit three home runs in game 4.
In 1927, Lou Gehrig & Babe Ruth combined for 107 home runs and 339 RBIs, helping compile a team win-loss record of 110-44.
By 1927, the New York Yankees had built one of the greatest teams of all time, compiling a 110-44 record, sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. That was the year Ruth hit his record-setting 60 home runs, a time when teammate Lou Gehrig was also becoming a powerhouse. In addition to Ruth’s record 60 home runs that year, he also batted .356, drove in 164 runs, and complied a slugging avg of .772 – all phenomenally impressive baseball feats.
In the following year Ruth had 54 home runs. In fact, from 1928 through 1934, Ruth continued to produce at that level, with very good numbers: batting averages of .300 or more every year except 1934, and hitting 40 or more home runs in each of those years except 1933 and 1934 when he hit respectively, 34 and 22 home runs.
In 1930, during spring training in Florida, when Ruth was negotiating for a higher salary — he wanted $100,000 a year, but signed for $80,000 — a reporter pointed out that he was now making a higher salary than President Herbert Hoover. Ruth replied, “I had a better year.”
Although not a person active in politics, Babe Ruth supported NY Governor Al Smith (D) for President in 1928, shown here with Smith in an undated photo.
During the prime of his career, Babe Ruth was one of the most sought-after celebrities of his day. Sportswriters and newsmen, of course, wanted Babe Ruth in their stories. But advertisers and politicians also wanted Ruth to back their products or endorse their political campaigns. He appeared in numerous print ads for products ranging from breakfast cereals and shaving cream to sporting goods and tobacco products.
Although he rarely if ever voted, he supported the 1928 presidential candidacy of New York Governor Al Smith (D), speaking on radio a few times on Smith’s behalf, and also attending at least one political convention where he introduced fellow Yankee ballplayers Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri, who supported Smith as well. Ruth, in fact, refused to appear with then sitting U.S. President Herbert Hoover at a baseball game in Washington, DC in September, saying he was “an Al Smith man,” although he later apologized for the slight. In later years, Ruth did appear in a photograph with then former President Herbert Hoover, taken on November 11th, 1933 at a Stanford-USC football game. Ruth also had roles in a number of short films during the late 1920s and early 1930s, and would often appear in promotional photos with various movie and entertainment stars.
By 1935, as Ruth’s career was coming to an end, the New York Yankees traded him to the National League’s Boston Braves. But Babe Ruth still had one last hurrah left.
The Last Hurrah
On May 25,1935, against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field, the 41-year old Ruth had four hits in the game, a rare feat on its own. But three of Ruth’s hits that day were home runs: one in the first inning that went over the right-center field wall; a second in the third inning to deep right field; and a third, monster drive in the ninth inning that the Associated Press then described as “a prodigious clout that carried clear over the right field grandstand, bounded into the street, and rolled into Schenley Park.” It was the first baseball ever hit out of Forbes Field. That homer brought a standing ovation for Ruth from the sparse crowd of 10,000 that day as he rounded the bases for his 714th career home run. It would be Ruth’s final home run.
Ruth at career end with the Boston Braves in 1935, the year he hit 3 home runs in one game at Pittsburgh at age 41.
In early June 1935, Babe Ruth voluntarily retired from baseball and was released by the Braves. In the years that followed, Ruth did some coaching but never became a manager, which he had always wanted to do. In 1936, when the Baseball Hall of Fame was instituted, Babe Ruth was among the first five players elected, along with Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.
In retirement, Ruth made special appearances, played in occasional exhibition games in the U.S. and abroad, and endorsed a variety of products. He also gave talks on the radio, at orphanages and hospitals, and served as a spokesperson for U.S. War Bonds during World War II.
By 1946, however, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer and although treated, doctors could do little to help him. His treatment had ended just a few months before his appearance at Yankee Stadium for the April 1947 Babe Ruth Day celebration. It was apparent to most who saw him that day that Ruth was a sick man. Having lost weight, he was not the robust player most remembered. Still, he was greeted with a great roar of the crowd after the initial convocation by Cardinal Spellman and the introductions by Major League baseball officials.
“Just before he spoke,” explained a New York Times reporter at the ceremony, “Ruth started to cough and it appeared that he might break down because of the thunderous cheers that came his way. But once he started to talk, he was all right, still the champion. It was the many men who surrounded him on the field, players, newspaper and radio persons, who choked up.” Ruth’s Hall of Fame plaque says he was the “greatest drawing card in history of baseball.”Ruth began his speech from the microphone on the field at home plate in a very raspy, painful sounding voice. “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. You know how bad my voice sounds,” he said. “Well, it feels just as bad.” He proceeded to talk briefly about the game of baseball and how important it was to keep the youth of the country involved in the game. He then thanked the fans and the earlier speakers for their words of praise, and with a wave to the fans, walked from the field down into the Yankee dugout. Beneath the stands he had a few trying minutes, coughing again, before he wa able to join his wife, daughter, and other friends in a boxed seat to watch the game.
Actor William Bendix as Ruth in a scene from Hollywood film, 'The Babe Ruth Story,' 1948.
Ruth made his final Yankee Stadium appearance less than a year later on June 13, 1948, at the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium. Dressed in his old Yankee uniform that day (see earlier photo, above), Ruth again was honored and his Yankee No. 3 jersey retired from service. The next time he appeared in public, his last, was on July 26th that year for the New York premier of a Hollywood movie, The Babe Ruth Story, with actor William Bendix playing Ruth. Shortly thereafter he was back in the hospital. On Aug 16, 1948, Babe Ruth died of throat cancer. He was 53. For two days Ruth’s body lay in state at the entrance to Yankee Stadium where tens of thousands came to pay their last respects. A Requiem Mass was held for Ruth at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Francis Cardinal Spellman presiding. About 6,000 people attended the service, with New York Governor Thomas Dewey, New York Mayor William O’Dwyer, and Boston Mayor James Michael Curley serving as pallbearers.
Babe Ruth left behind a professional baseball legacy that few other players would ever equal. His Hall of Fame plaque says, among other things, that he was the “greatest drawing card in history of baseball.” At the time of his death in 1948, Ruth is said to have set or tied 76 baseball records, a number of which have since been overtaken. Yet some of Ruth’s achievements stood for decades.
In addition to setting the single-season home run mark in 1927 at 60 — a record that stood for 34 years until Yankee Roger Maris broke it in September 1961 — Ruth was also the first player to hit respectively more that 30, 40, and 50 home runs in one season. His career home run record of 714 wasn’t broken until Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves surpassed it in 1974. And Ruth was surprisingly durable too, considering his living-large habits. He played more than 20 years in the big leagues.
Babe Ruth in action, 1931, at Oriole Park, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo from Robert F. Kniesche / Kniesche Collection / Maryland Historical Society.
Along with his home runs, Babe Ruth put in more seasons, had more hits, more extra-base hits, more runs scored, and more runs batted-in than many of the other Yankee greats, including Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. Ruth led the Yankees to seven American League pennants and four World Series titles, hitting a total of 15 home runs in World Series play. He is the only player ever to hit three home runs in a World Series game on two separate occasions — game 4 of the 1926 World Series and game 4 of the 1928 World Series. Unlike many home run hitters, Ruth had a very good batting average. Wrote the Sporting News in 1999, naming him to its 100 Greatest Players list: “Lost in the fog of Ruth’s 12 American League home run titles, four 50-homer seasons, and six RBI titles was a career .342 average that ties for eighth all-time in baseball’s modern era.” Ruth’s career .690 slugging percentage (calculated by dividing total bases by at-bats) is the highest total in the history of Major League Baseball. Ruth’s “Louisville slugger” baseball bat — used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium in 1923 — was sold at Sotheby’s in 2004 for $1.26 million. As a pitcher in his early years with the Red Sox, Ruth won 89 games in six years and set a World Series record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched. From 1915-17, Ruth won 65 games, the most by any left-handed pitcher in the majors during that time.
Ruth’s name and legend have been enshrined in baseball history and active baseball play. In 1953, an organized baseball league for boys aged 13-to-15 was named Babe Ruth League Baseball. In 1969, Ruth was named baseball’s Greatest Player Ever in a ballot commemorating the 100th anniversary of the game. And in 1999, voting by baseball fans put Ruth on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Ruth’s popularity, and indeed his continuing commercial value, is seen in the recent prices paid at auction for Ruth memorabilia. Ruth’s 1923 solid ash, Louisville Slugger baseball bat used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium in April 1923 was sold at a Sotheby’s in December 2004 for $1.26 million. The 1919 contract that sent Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees was sold by Sotheby’s on June 10, 2005 for $996,000. Ruth’s name and image — used variously in advertising and other commercial uses — continues to be under management by a public relations firm. His life has also been the subject of numerous books and web sites, including the 2006 book, The Big Bam, the cover of which is shown below in “Sources”.
Others Cash In
Ruth plugged Wheaties cereal in radio spots & print ads in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in 1992, he appeared on a 'sports heritage' Wheaties box.
Sports marketing firms have also cashed in on Ruth’s legacy, one of which is the Indianapolis firm, Curtis Management Group, now called CMG Worldwide. CMG represents the families and estates of Ruth and more than 50 other late great sports stars. Sports celebrities account for about 40 percent of CMG’s business, which also includes late movie stars and other celebrities — from Norman Rockwell to Humprey Bogart.
In 1995, CMG made a special push with Ruth memorabilia on the anniversary of the slugger’s 100th birthday. The firm offered for sale nearly 100 “official” Ruth products – plates, beer steins, trading cards, t-shirts, telephone debit cards, computer mouse pads, and more. CMG estimated at the time that the Ruth products would bring in more than $25 million in retail sales. Ruth’s image has also appeared in a variety of corporate advertising and marketing campaigns — Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Hallmark, Zenith, Sears, and others. In the mid-1990s, royalties and licensing fees from Ruth advertising and other ventures were expected to run “well into seven figures,” according to CMG’s Mark Roesler.
In the 1980s, Roesler and CMG had located Ruth’s surviving relatives and struck a deal with them, with CMG keeping 60 percent of sales and the Ruth family and Babe Ruth League Baseball getting the remainder. By 1985, modest checks began arriving for the family in the $5,000 range, and by the early 1990s the family was receiving amounts of up to six figures annually. CMG at that time was still taking its 60 percent cut. Since the mid-2000s, however, the Luminary Group of Shelbyville, Indiana, appears to have acquired the Babe Ruth account.
See also at this website: “Baseball Stories,” a topics page with links to 12 other baseball stories, including two other stories on Ruth – “Ruth at Oriole Park”(about a statue of Ruth at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, his early baseball youth, and years in Baltimore); and “Babe Ruth & Tobacco” (Ruth’s endorsements of various cigar, cigarette, and chewing tobacco products, as well as appearances at a tobacco shop in Boston). Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle