The most significant article of New York Yankees memorabilia that exists1923 New York Yankees World Championship Watch Presented to Babe Ruth.
It's been said that familiarity breeds contempt, and after a decade of shared Polo Grounds residency and a pair of Fall Classic battles, the New York Giants and New York Yankees were awash in mutual disdain as the final rivets were driven into the new baseball palace just across the Harlem River from Coogan's Bluff. Though the landlords had bested their tenants in both the 1921 and 1922 World Series, the Giants still bristled at the superior drawing power of the Yankees, the direct result of their 1920 acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. But money was money, so when Yankees team owner Jacob Ruppert announced the purchase of ten acres of western Bronx real estate from the estate of William Waldorf Astor on February 6, 1921 for the site of their new home, the most notorious figure of the baseball underworld stuck out a leg to trip them up.
That man was Arnold Rothstein, best recalled in the sport's ignominy as the mastermind of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Rothstein was an investor in the Giants, a close friend of team owners John McGraw and Charles Stoneham, and CEO of the insurance company that underwrote the Polo Grounds policy. Construction in the Bronx had been dependent upon the closing of two small streets adjacent to the property, and Rothstein wielded his influence in the Tammany machine to ensure that those waivers were sealed tight in bureaucratic red tape for months, forcing the Yanks to crawl back to the Giants' ballpark for 1922, and at an increased rent for their humiliation.
But as the old saying goes, he who laughs last, laughs best.
A record seventy-four thousand fans packed Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923 for the ballpark's inaugural contest against the Boston Red Sox, with Babe Ruth christening the park with the first of 259 home runs he would launch in the Bronx. A seven to two victory over the Philadelphia Athletics at the Stadium on May 5th would supply sole ownership of first place in the American League, and their margin would swell to sixteen games over the second place Detroit Tigers by the close of the regular season, led by Ruth's career best .393 batting average, likewise the highest batting average in franchise history. Though Harry Heilmann would take the batting title at .403, Ruth's forty-one homers and 131 runs batted in topped the Junior Circuit leaderboard. Over one million fans passed through the Yankee Stadium turnstiles that historic first season. Back at the Polo Grounds, the tally for the National League Champs was just over 820,000.
And so the stage was set for a third consecutive Big Apple World Series. Manager John McGraw, still shouldering the chip of the heated rivalry, refused the hospitality of the visitor's locker room for the inaugural contest at Yankee Stadium, instructing his players to suit up at the Polo Grounds and march across the bridge to meet the American League Champions. Casey Stengel's ninth inning home run would prove to be the game-winner, a feat the future Yankees manager would repeat in Game Three, but all other victories would fall into the Yankees column. Babe Ruth, who had batted a paltry .118 in the 1922 Fall Classic, exploded for nineteen total bases in 1923 to slay the hated Giants and record the first Yankees World Series Championship of twenty-seven to date.
That historic victory to open the flood gates for an unequalled dominance of American sports supplies this auction with the greatest treasure ever to emerge from the team's bulging trophy case. This is the official and only award presented to George Herman Ruth for his contributions in claiming the first New York Yankees World Championship.
Heritage has had the good fortune of presenting three other 1923 New York Yankees World Championship pocket watches at auction prior to this peerless representation, each of the earlier models deriving from the personal collection of front office personnel. Only a small handful of player models have surfaced, and it was believed for decades that Ruth's had been lost to history. Only now are we able to report the trail from the Babe to this February 2014 Platinum Night event.
For the first quarter century of its existence, the pocket watch remained with Ruth as one of his most prized possessions. But as the legendary slugger's terminal cancer progressed, he asked his close friend Charlie Schwefel if he might want anything from his collection to remember him by. Schwefel was a wealthy Manhattan hotelier who had become Ruth's closest confidant during his illness, the pair brought together by a mutual passion for service to America's youth through sport. It was Schwefel who would discover Floyd Patterson and give him a job at the Gramercy Park Hotel while he trained with Cus D'Amato en route to 1952 Helsinki Olympic Gold. But in 1947 and 1948, Schwefel was Ruth's constant companion, frequently spotted in photos of the gaunt legend as he traveled between his home and New York City hospitals for treatment.
Schwefel asked for his dying friend's pocket watch.
The watch is identical in design (with a few noteworthy exceptions) to those previously offered models in the Heritage archives, a fourteen karat gold "Gruen Verithin" beauty in unique pentagonal format. The case's verso is masterfully engraved with a miniature scene of a pitcher, hitter and catcher, and a ball in flight in their midst. Framing the scene are the historic words, "Yankees, World's Champions 1923." The "Babe Ruth" engraving at the upper edge was added by The Babe himself just prior to gifting the symbolic memento to Schwefel. The rear case pops open to reveal further engraving, most notably the original text announcing, "Presented by Baseball Commissioner to George H. Ruth." Just above we find the rest of Ruth's late 1940's addition, which reads, "To My Pal Charles Schwefel."
We should note that the earlier three examples sold by Heritage read, "Presented by Yankees Baseball Club" rather than "Presented by Baseball Commissioner," but research into past sales have indicated that the discrepancy lies in the identity of the recipient. All players received models identical to Ruth's, while front office workers and VIP representations are engraved with the "Yankees Baseball Club" language.
As noted in a signed letter of provenance from Schwefel's nephew Lewis Fern, the watch remained in Schwefel's possession for just two years before his wife gave it to Lewis with the comment that "This should have been yours all along." Fern was likewise a close friend of Ruth's, having caddied many times for him at St. Alban's Golf Club in Queens, New York. Fern was caddying for Ruth there in 1937 when the pair watched the Hindenburg zeppelin pass overhead en route to its destruction less than an hour later at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Fern kept the watch for decades until it was privately sold into one of the finest sports collections in the world in 1988, where it has remained hidden away until now. Heritage is proud and privileged to be offering it to the collecting community for the very first time.
The timepiece exhibits a moderate degree of handling wear and does not currently function but it can be easily restored should the new owner choose to do so, and such concerns are rendered inconsequential by the enormity of its significance. As Babe Ruth's personal award for the first World Championship in New York Yankees franchise history, this is arguably the most important article of sports memorabilia that exists.
Update: We are pleased to announce that in addition to a copy of the original signed letter of provenance from Lewis Fern, we have added the following documentation to the files that will accompany the watch:
1) Copies of fourteen pages of correspondence between the New York Yankees, the office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the watch company dating from late 1923 to early 1924 regarding the ordering of Championship watches. The precise manner of engraving is confirmed by this paperwork, as are the details of the watches' construction that are specific to the 1923 championship watch order. Only eleven of the thirty-nine watches delivered to the team exhibit a full first name and middle initial as requested in the letter. George H. Ruth is one of those eleven.
2) A letter of provenance from the son of Lewis Fern, who sold the watch to our consignor over twenty years ago. This letter confirms all details of the elder Fern's own letter of provenance as well as the fact that the watch remains identical in appearance to his earliest recollections of it as a child in the 1950's.
3) We have discovered that the Championship watches issued to the 1923 Yankees, both front office and player versions, were very lightly hand-scratched with a five-digit code beneath the serial number. The codes are represented by a "46XXX" number and are consistent on all inspected examples, including the Ruth representation. We have determined that this coding was done prior to presentation to the recipients and appears to be present only on Yankee watches and absent on all other Gruen Verithin Pentagon examples we have located in our research. We will include photographic imagery of the other known Yankee watches to illustrate this trait that links each to the same specific population.
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