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The Yankee season that never was...1935 Babe Ruth's Final New York Yankees Jersey & Uniform Player's Contract. For the noble Lou Gehrig, the choice had been his own. Though the cause of his sudden decline remained a mystery hidden even from himself, it was the Iron Horse himself that made the decision to head to pasture in the opening weeks of the 1939 season, even as his Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy led a chorus of objections. For Babe Ruth, however, the dynamic was quite different. It had not been a tragic illness, but rather the inexorable forces of time and self-neglect that had dulled the sharp edges of the game's most fearsome offensive weapon.
Clearly Ruth understood that the sun was quickly setting on his peerless playing career, and his aspiration for years had been a transition from the batter's box to the manager's position. But McCarthy's tenure had, after four years at the Yankee reins, been determined a resounding success, dashing any hopes of an impending change in the Bronx. Three weeks after celebrating his fortieth birthday, the Babe was released to sign with the Boston Braves, where he would conclude his uncomfortable limp into retirement.
Presented in this lot are the final two items ever issued to the Babe by the New York Yankees franchise, discounting any trinkets he might have received upon his returns to the Stadium in the years of his retirement. The first could register as nothing other than a slap in the face to the greatest figure in pinstriped history, an "American League of Professional Baseball Clubs Uniform Player' Contract," issued to "George H. Ruth" and stipulating a 1935 salary of "One Dollar." The document, rather unsurprisingly, bears no signatures of acceptance.
But the anchor piece of this lot is the very last New York Yankees jersey ever made for the Sultan of Swat, a heavy grey flannel roadster with deep navy "New York" applied in a soft arch across the chest and the fabled number "3" standing just over seven inches tall on reverse. The unhealthy girth of the man who was to wear the jersey is apparent in the twenty-seven inch stretch of the tape measure to cover the distance from armpit to armpit. Present is Ruth's so-called "fat strap," a cloth band sewn to the rear tail that was meant to combat the physics of a distended belly that would otherwise untuck the shirt with any movement.
The jersey made its transition to sports collectible during the historic Centennial season of 1939, gifted by the Babe to a young radio broadcaster named Al Helfer for use in a charity baseball game. A 1990 letter of provenance from Helfer's widow tells the story:
"Oct. 1, 1990, During a charity game this baseball uniform (NY #3) was given as a gift to my husband Al Helfer by Babe Ruth because of their similar size and Babe told Al to keep it as a memento, Mrs. Al Helfer (Margaret Helfer)."
The tale is validated by a mention in the Fall 1951 issue of "Complete Baseball, by the Editors of Sport Life Magazine," a copy of which is included in this lot. A short article about Helfer on page 8 reads, in part, "A couple of his proudest possessions include a set of golf clubs presented by Honus Wagner, and a uniform worn by Babe Ruth which the Bam gave Al after a ball game back in 1939."
A typed page provides a detailed account of the gift, though we aren't entirely certain of its derivation. It appears to date to 1939, as the reportage has an air of immediacy to it. Excerpted: "Seems no suit in Brooklyn or New York came near to covering Red Barber's barrel-chested assistant. The Ebbets Field lockers could supply nothing to fit Helfer...Finally, someone though of Babe Ruth, a pretty big man too. The Bambino was reached. Would he let Helfer borrow his suit for one game? 'Borrow it, he can keep it,' replied the Babe."
And so the jersey remained in the Helfer family for a half century until it was purchased by a noted collector, who sold it in his historic 1999 Sotheby's auction. At that time the jersey was touring with the Babe Ruth Museum, and our consignor had to wait several weeks before he was able to take ownership. The jersey remains in stellar condition, with little indication of its single game of wear in Helfer's charity exploits with the Dodgers rookies. We must note that a previous owner sought to enhance the display appearance of the jersey by adding a chain stitched "Babe Ruth" to the interior collar, as was typical of Major League garments of the day, but this remains the only deviation from the jersey's state as issued to the Babe. The decision to keep or remove this alteration will be left to the winning bidder. The "35" embroidered in red in the rear tail is original and perfectly matches the stitching style and format of other known Yankee year identifiers of the period.
As to the question of why the jersey was created at all, given that the conclusion of Ruth's Yankee tenure was a matter of public record even before the start of the 1935 season's spring warm-ups, the answer is quite simple. As veterans of Fall Classic competition, the team had followed a long-standing tradition of debuting brand-new uniforms for the World Series, wanting to look their absolute best under the sport's brightest spotlight. These uniforms would then carry over to the subsequent regular season. Though the Detroit Tigers would ultimately win the honor of representing the American League in the 1934 World Series, the Yankees trailed by as little as three and a half games with two weeks to play, necessitating a state of readiness should they have been able to overtake the Motor City squad.
The breed of collectors boasting ownership of a genuine Babe Ruth jersey is an elite one to say the least, and the steep upward trajectory of pricing has effectively assured that any future offering of a game worn model will require a seventh digit on the purchase check. While the Babe might never have launched one into the cheap seats with this massive number "3" jersey on his back, its status as the rear cover of the greatest Yankees story ever told is not one to be easily dismissed. LOA from Heritage Auctions. Letter of provenance from Margaret Helfer.
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