Babe Ruth Signature Inspires Awe and a Lawsuit

November 29th, 2011

LUMPY and soiled, its hemp stitching tight in some places and loose in others, it looks like any old baseball: no way to tell immediately that it has a connection to the original field of dreams.

But after closely studying the faded script and seeing the scrawled signature of Babe Ruth, the viewer senses a glow around the ball. Smaller than a regulation-size ball, the old orb inspires awe.

”He could’ve blown the cover off this one,” said Joseph M. Accetta, a lawyer on the staff of Westchester County Surrogate Court Judge Albert Emanuelli, who is hearing a lawsuit involving the 1938 baseball.

”He was one of the top five players who ever played the game. He hit 60 home runs with a dead ball,” said Mr. Accetta, who is responsible for the ball’s safekeeping.

For Mr. Accetta, a baseball fan whose office is hung with framed mementos of baseball’s greats, the lawsuit is a joy. He rattles off statistics and anecdotes without pause. For example, he cited the 1932 World Series game between the Yankees and the Chicago Cubs when Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, with two strikes against him, pointed to center field with his bat and proceeded to place the ball there.

”He had great agility for a guy his size, tremendous power; he was a great athlete,” said Mr. Accetta, a 30-year-old with a reverential attitude toward baseball history. He acquired his love of the game’s past growing up in Queens, where he listened to older men talk about baseball in New York during the 1940s and ’50s.

”I had expected a shiny white ball with the Babe’s signature on it,” said Mr. Accetta, who retrieved the baseball from a safe in the judge’s chambers. ”At first, it’s a letdown when you see it. It’s not in terrific shape. The cover is split into two places.”

Mr. Accetta, who coaches Little League and plays in two softball leagues, added, ”It was even played with.” But the baseball in question was not played with by Ruth. Boys of long ago played with it at least once, Mr. Accetta said.

The autographed baseball is most likely a novelty item of the kind sold in gift shops and candy stores for play by youngsters, said Greg Schwalenberg, curator of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore. ”Today’s ball is the same dimension and weight as back then.”

Even though Ruth played in what is known as the ”dead-ball era,” evidence to support that contention is hard to come by, Mr. Schwalenberg said. A baseball, which is still hand-stitched, is a cushioned cork center with a leather cover held together with 108 stitches and is 3 inches in diameter, 9 to 9 1/4 inches in circumference, and 5 to 5 1/4 ounces in weight.

”Later, the ball became livelier, apparently it had more of a pop to it; it may be that they were wound tighter inside,” Mr. Schwalenberg said.

Paul Ventry, a doctor in Potomac, Md., was a 10-year-old in 1938 when he stopped with his father, Victor, at the Peekskill train station.

Standing there waiting for a train was Babe Ruth. Young Paul ran to a nearby store and bought a baseball. He got back in time to get the Babe’s autograph.

For the next half-century or so, the ball sat in a breakfront in the Ventry’s Peekskill living room. According to court documents, Dr. Ventry claims that the baseball was a gift to him from his father, who died in 1973. At that time, Dr. Ventry took the ball to his home. After their mother, Catherine R., died in 1992, his sister, Catherine V., claimed the baseball was family property and ought to be sold. A legal wrangle has ensued.

”I delivered the baseball,” said Joseph A. Scutieri, a lawyer for Dr. Ventry, referring to handing it over to Mr. Accetta. When asked whether he felt it in the palm of his hand, Mr. Scutieri said, ”No, I didn’t even do that.”

But like Mr. Accetta, Mr. Scutieri’s work is more fun these days. ”This case combines two things that I love, sports and my job,” Mr. Scutieri said. ”I’d love to make a living playing baseball. That’s what I do in my free time, and here I get paid to argue what a Babe Ruth baseball is worth.”

This particular ball may not be worth very much, however.

”It’s a little dirty and worn,” Mr. Scutieri said. ”It’s not in the shape the collectors want it to be, mint condition, whether it’s baseball cards or baseballs. They don’t want you touching anything or handling it. They want it in plastic wrap.”

For comparison, Mr. Scutieri offered information on a 1927 baseball, a memento from the same year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.

”There’s a 1927 baseball signed by the Yankee team, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, the best team ever,” Mr. Scutieri said. ”That one is worth $14,000.”

He added, ”The numbers on this ball are as high as $10,000, but it’s not in very good shape.” Despite the baseball’s ”priceless sentimental value,” as stated in court papers, Dr. Ventry claims the baseball is worth about $100.

Born George Herman Ruth in 1895, the Baltimore native played from 1920 to 1934 for the Yankees, in the House That Ruth Built, otherwise known as Yankee Stadium. In 1935, he played for the Boston Braves, retiring after one season.

In 1938, the year the baseball was signed, he coached at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers from June 19 to the end of the season. He hoped to be hired as manager of the team, but Leo Durocher got the job. It was the last time the Babe wore a baseball uniform. Before his death in 1948, from throat cancer at 53, he played golf tournaments and went on fishing and hunting trips.

”The exact reason he was in Peekskill is not known,” Mr. Schwalenberg said.

Both lawyers say that the baseball became a focal point after a dispute arose between the brother and sister — who is a lawyer in the town of New Windsor in Orange County — over the mother’s insurance policies. A third sibling, Barbara Ventry Magee, is not named in the dispute.

Last summer Judge Emanuelli ruled that the baseball was part of the Ventry estate. But Mr. Scutieri persuaded the judge to reopen the case after he proved that his client was improperly served with the original court documents and did not have enough time to reply. Judge Emanuelli is expected to rule on the motion soon.

For Mr. Accetta, the day the baseball leaves his care could be a sad one. ”At some point, it has to go,” he said.