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Buckner ball sells for $418,250; Ruth milestone HR ball has interesting history

Posted May 5, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated May 5, 2012 at 11:01 AM

The baseball that Bill Buckner was unable to secure during the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 is now in the mitts of an anonymous collector who shelled out $418,250 for the winning bid, including the buyer’s premium.

And a baseball that for years was believed to have been a milestone homer by Babe Ruth fetched a more modest $25,095.

The Ruth ball was the marquee item up for bid during a live sale conducted in Dallas on Friday by Heritage Auctions (www.ha.com). It far outdistances the winning bids of two other famous baseballs that also were for sale at the auction: The ball Reggie Jackson hit for his third home run during Game 6 of the 1977 World Series sold for $65,725. And the baseball Ruth hit for his 136th career home run in 1921 (at the time, the blast was recognized as tying him with Roger Connor for the all-time home run record at 136) brought $25,095.

I make parenthetical reference to Ruth because some record searching in the 1970s uncovered two more homers for Connor, who played in the majors from 1880 to 1897. More on that later.

The “Buckner ball” — shouldn’t we call it the Mookie Wilson ball since he actually hit it? —was part of the private collection of Los Angeles songwriter Seth Swirsky (who co-wrote “Tell It To My Heart,” that was sung by Taylor Dayne).

The ball was originally given to Mets’ traveling secretary Arthur Richman by Ed Montague, the right-field umpire in Game 6 who retrieved the ball. The ball eventually went to private auction, where actor Charlie Sheen bought it for somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000 in 1992. Swirsky bought the ball from Sheen about a dozen years ago for approximately $64,000.

“It really embodies the emotion of sports,” Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage, told The Associated Press on Friday. “That ball symbolizes both the thrill of victory for the Mets and the agony of defeat for the Red Sox fans. It really brings out a lot of emotion.”

The Texas Rangers cap Jose Canseco was wearing in 1993 when a ball hit by Cleveland’s Carlos Martinez bounced off Canseco’s head and then over the outfield wall for a home run brought in $11,950.

Also, a 1965 baseball signed by the Beatles from their Shea Stadium concert that year sold for $65,725.

Back to the Ruth ball, because the circumstances surrounding the record are interesting — and so is the man who had possession of the ball for so many years.

After Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920, records kept at the time showed that the Babe needed 33 homers to tie Connor’s record. He would tie the mark in St. Louis on July 12, 1921 against the Browns. Ruth connected for a three-run homer to right field in the third inning off Frank “Dixie” Davis, giving the Yankees take a 4-2 lead. He hit a solo shot (No. 137) in the seventh inning to give New York its final run in a 6-4 victory.

There was no ceremony when Ruth tied (and then broke) Connor’s mark. So who caught the ball?

According to Heritage Auctions in a release on its website, the original owner was D. Berkeley Smith of Waterloo, Iowa. The ball was given to him by his uncle, Roy Stanley Trafton, who attended the game, caught the ball and gave it to Smith, who was a teen living in Hopkinton, Iowa.

In a letter Smith wrote in 2002 about the ball, he said that his uncle “thought he was giving me a great memento but it just didn’t turn out that way.”

“Why on earth I kept it I’ll never know but it was ‘unearthed’ so to speak in a clean out of some old drawers and sold to some baseball addict in Des Moines whose name I did not retain,” the letter quotes Smith. “I trust that you find great pleasure in possession of the ball. It occurs to me that I received several hundred dollars for it, and certainly you must have paid more, and since it is authentic you probably paid more and if so let me know if convenient, for as a retired lawyer I shall not cry if a bad judgment goes against me.”

Fair enough.

Donaldson Berkeley Smith was born on Valentine’s Day in 1908. He earned his law degree in 1936 from the University of Iowa. His lifelong passion was flying, and after earning his pilot’s license in 1929, he flew accident-free for 75 years (you read that right). He took his last flight (with an instructor copilot beside him) in 2010 at age 102. Smith died on Aug. 10, 2011 at age 103.

So Smith held what was the record ball for many years before selling it. I suppose if you want to be a purist about it, Ruth technically “tied” Connor with his 138th homer (and 35th of the season) when he hit a two-run, sixth inning shot off Elam Vanglider, also in St. Louis, on July 15. Ruth hit No. 139 to become the undisputed home run champ on July 17 at Detroit off Tigers pitcher Bert Cole, a two-run shot that wrapped up the scoring in New York’s 10-1 win.

So while the Buckner ball brought in much more money, that story has been told over and over. The story behind the Ruth home run ball is much more interesting. I think even Buckner would agree.

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