Jim Englert's great uncle always knew he had a special piece of memorabilia from that day at Forbes Field when Babe Ruth put what would be the exclamation point on his storied career, but back in the day, a baseball -- even one autographed by a legend -- was never expected to be worth six figures.
"It was his prized possession," said Englert, 56, a police officer in Upper St. Clair. "It was often on display on the mantle at his old frame house in McKeesport. But truth be told, for decades it was probably just wrapped in an old rag hidden somewhere in his coal cellar and surrounded by coal dust."
As if to validate the saying that a lump of coal subjected to the right amount of heat and pressure would turn into a diamond, the baseball snared in the right-field stands 73 years ago will be on the auction block next week during All-Star Game festivities at Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built. Its estimated value is $100,000 to $200,000, but bidding could take it higher.
Winding down his career with the Boston Braves, Ruth hit three home runs against the Pirates May 25, 1935. Although no one knew it at the time, they were the final three of his career -- Nos. 712, 713 and 714.
The one he hit in the first inning off Red Lucas was caught by 20-year-old Emmett Cavanagh, who rode the trolley from McKeesport to Oakland that day to take in a ballgame.
No. 714, the first home run to clear the right-field stands in Forbes Field, was donated to the Hall of Fame in 1948 by Pittsburgh resident Paul "Wiggy" DeOrio. No one knew what happened to No. 713, so the Cavanagh family ball fills in one more blank of baseball history.
"It's an incredibly significant ball. It's nearly impossible to overstate it's historical significance," said David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions, which has possession of the ball and has authenticated its validity in advance of the auction. "We think it will go for six figures, but it's hard to say how high the price will go."
He called it the "most significant baseball we've sold" since the one that Ruth hit for the first homer in the first All-Star Game played fetched $700,000 at an auction in 2006 in Pittsburgh as part of the All-Star Game at PNC Park.
More information on No. 712 and the auction can be found at www.huntauctions.com. Bidding can be done online or in person.
Several things make No. 712 unique, including the fact that the slugger autographed it. As player/manager, Ruth removed himself from the game in the seventh inning, having added to his first-inning blast by hitting a two-run homer, a single and a majestic solo shot that sailed out of the park, all off pitcher Guy Bush.
Young Cavanagh left his seat and caught up with Ruth at the Schenley Hotel, where visiting teams stayed when playing in Pittsburgh. The slugger signed it and never said a word about wanting it for himself. He kept playing for a time, but never hit another home run after that day. The signature is still legible even though it has faded over time and, yes, there appears to be some coal dust smudged into the old horsehide.
In the authentication process, Hunt Auctions checked that the ball was the type in use at the time by the National League, that the ink on the autograph is consistent with the ink of the day, and that Ruth's signature matched his hand writing. Included in the verification process was the scorecard that Cavanagh bought that day and an exchange of letters with Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby that made mention of No. 712.
The McKeesport Daily News ran an article about Cavanagh and the ball Jan. 5, 1967. And at one point, he considered giving the ball to Ruth's widow and even went so far as to get Claire Ruth's address from the Yankees, but he hung on to it.
Cavanagh never married and had no heirs, so upon his death in 1989, he left the ball to Jim Englert, whose middle name, like his father's, is Emmett. Parting with something that has been in the family for so long was a tough decision, but several factors weighed into it.
For one thing, Englert's father will be 80 years old soon, and the family wanted him to derive some benefit from it. The family also recognized that the ball should be displayed properly through a collector or a museum instead of being locked up at a private site. And the family had met the Hunt Auction people when the All-Star Game was at PNC Park two years ago.
"It's also the farewell season of Yankee Stadium, and all the stars seemed to line up," Englert said. "I talked it over with my father, and he thought it was the right time and the right idea. He thought Uncle Emmett would have agreed. Uncle Emmett loved the game and played the game.
"It was nothing for him to hop on a train and go to Cleveland to watch a game. During the 1960 World Series, he went to every game, even the three at Yankee Stadium. We still have the ticket stubs for all seven games."
The Englert family will be attending all the All-Star Game activities in New York, including the close of the two-day auction Tuesday.
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published July 9, 2008 4:00 AM