Baseball changed forever in 1922, according to WGBH, when an 11-year-old boy caught a foul ball and, bucking tradition, steadfastly refused to give it back. He spent a night in jail for his recalcitrance, charged with larceny, but he also set a precedent: Following the judge excoriating the Phillies for attempting to prosecute the young lad for holding on to a souvenir, a tradition was born. Moving forward, any baseballs that made their way into the stands now belonged to whichever fan caught them.
That presented something of a problem for players, many of whom attached sentimental value to balls that played a role in a significant achievement, such as the final pitch of a no-hitter, or a landmark home run.
Such was the case on July 13, 1934, when Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run. It was caught by a 17-year-old boy, and by precedent it was his to keep, putting The Bambino into the position of having to negotiate with a teenager for a keepsake. Fortunately, the famed Yankee came up with a solution that worked to everyone’s satisfaction, and the two remained friends over the years.
Babe Ruth paid $20 for his 700th home run ball
Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run on July 13, 1934, when his Yankees were visiting the Detroit Tigers, according to The Society for American Baseball Research. Specifically, he took a pitch from Tommy Bridges and launched it out of Navin Field, the Tigers’ ballpark at the time.
Even before he started rounding the bases, according to Stuff Nobody Cares About, Ruth was shouting to his Yankee third base coach Art Fletcher that he wanted the ball, and that he wanted whoever caught it brought into the stadium so he (Ruth) could pay $20 for it (approximately $400 in 2021 money, according to U.S. Inflation Calculator).
Out on the street, hoping that a home run ball would fly his way, was a 17-year-old boy who went by the name of Lenny Beals. No sooner had he retrieved the ball from underneath a car than he was surrounded by ushers. Soon enough, he was in the clubhouse, where Ruth made good and directed a friend to pay the lad $20 for the ball (Ruth didn’t have any cash on him at the time).
Did Babe Ruth take advantage of a starstruck teenager?
So did Ruth know that he was taking advantage of a teenager who was acting in the heat of the moment, and who didn’t fully comprehend the law of supply and demand? Possibly. According to Stuff Nobody Cares About, Lou Gehrig reportedly told the teenager that, had he been a few years older, Ruth might have been willing to pay thousands for the ball, not $20. However, that may be apocryphal, as Ruth, though he was known to spend extravagantly, only purportedly offered $10 for his 600th home run ball, setting a precedent of lowballing (no pun intended) fans who caught significant home run balls.
Beals (whose real name was reportedly Bielski) and Ruth did remain friends, of a sort, over the years. The Bambino was known to supply his teenage fan with box tickets to games whenever the Yankees came through Detroit.
As of 2007, Bielski’s family reportedly had the very $20 bill, autographed by Ruth, that had been exchanged for the ball. They likely wish they’d held onto the ball, too, according to Stuff Nobody Cares About.
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