A game-winning sacrifice by the Bennington Elks Club
The 26 men stood silently, shoulder to shoulder, while Bennington Elks Club members spent decades shooting pool and playing shuffleboard beneath their gaze. Occasionally one of the Elks would glance in the direction of the lineup, but the men in the baggy flannel baseball uniforms almost always played second fiddle to the mysterious individual whose donation of the framed photo to the lodge was marked by a simple card:
"Presented to the Elks by Shipwreck Kelly"
"I was always most interested in who the heck Shipwreck Kelly was," said Bill Bryan, a 38-year member of the lodge who lives in Arlington. "The photo just kind of hung there in the background. Most of us never paid much attention to it."
While the identity of its donor will likely never be discovered, the photo - which depicts the 1915 Boston Red Sox, with rookie pitcher Babe Ruth, posing as "American League Champions" at the Polo Grounds in New York - has been identified as a significant and valuable artifact in the history of Major League Baseball.
So significant that it became a part of the official collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Friday. And so valuable that it has been kept under guard for the last several months, despite its having hung, largely ignored, in the Elks Lodge pool room for decades.
"It’s been hanging in that room for as long as I’ve known," said Dave Maroney, a past district deputy for the Elks. "Nobody knew where it came from, whether it was real or a copy, or what it was worth."
In fact, Red Sox fans like Bryan found their eye drawn along the line of figures in the photo - like Hall of Famers Tris Speaker and "Smokey" Joe Wood - only to be repelled once they reached the image of Ruth.
"Seeing this old picture of Babe Ruth in a Boston uniform would conjure up all these demons between the Red Sox and Yankees," Bryan said. He even recalled a special night back in the early 1970s when rising Red Sox star Carlton Fisk visited the lodge, and no one though to even mention the photo to him.
"The whole time, it was right there on the wall," Bryan said.
Boston’s already-legendary run to the 2004 World Series championship revived interest in the photo from the late Bob Scanlan, who took it down and had it re-framed. The following year, the Elks commissioned a limited-edition run of 100 copies of the photo, and sold them as a fundraiser for their Silver Towers special-needs camp in Ripton.
It wasn’t until May of this year that Maroney and lodge trustee Joe Wassick decided to take a trip out to Cooperstown with their wives, to finally get some answers from an expert. Jenny Ambrose, an assistant photo archivist at the Hall of Fame, studied the image and slowly drew back the curtain on a 95-year-old mystery that had hung above the Elks’ pool table for as long as any of them could remember.
"There are a lot of clues, if you’re familiar with these types of photos," Ambrose said. "It’s a silver gelatin print, which you can tell from certain characteristics of that format. You can see bits of silver mirroring in the print, which is typical of the deterioration that occurs with this type of format over time."
Ambrose said that the photo archives at the Hall of Fame and Museum contain countless old photographs, including a large number of panoramas similar to the one the Elks brought to her.
"This one’s fun, though, because it shows Babe Ruth in his rookie year," she said.
A prized pitching prospect at that point in his career, Ruth got a 23-inning "cup of coffee" with the Red Sox at the end of the 1914 season after spending most of the year down on the farm at Double-A Providence - where he went 22-9 with a 2.39 earned-run average. His rookie campaign in Boston in 1915 saw him go 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA, and help Boston clinch the American League pennant during a doubleheader at Washington on Oct. 2.
The team then traveled to New York for a five-game, regular-season-ending series against the Yankees. It was some time during (or possibly at the conclusion of) that series at the Polo Grounds that the panoramic team photo was taken. It is quite possibly Ruth’s first-ever team photo with the Red Sox.
Ambrose told the Elks that the museum did not have such an image in its collection, but would accept theirs as a donation if they were willing to part with it. The Hall adheres to a strict policy of not assigning dollar values to its artifacts, and Maroney remembers Ambrose and company "playing it cool" and displaying a rather cavalier attitude toward the "fun" photo.
But the Hall tipped its hand, however, when a member of the archiving department suggested that the Elks insure the photo for upward of $25,000 in the event that they decided to ship it.
"Sitting in the Hall of Fame, we all came to the same conclusion: This is where [the photo] belonged," Maroney said. "On the ride back home, we agreed - what were the Elks going to do with something worth that much money?"
A similar photo sold for $11,500 as part of a collection at Sotheby’s Auction House in New York in 1999, and the market has only grown since then. The Elks could very likely have fetched the Hall’s estimated value - and possibly more - for theirs, if they had found the right collector. For a non-profit organization that funnels essentially every dollar it makes back to charitable causes like the Silver Towers, this was akin to finding a suitcase full of cash beside their pool table.
But to their credit, the Elks never seriously considered any course of action but one.
"From Day One, once we found out what we had, we said that it should be preserved," Maroney said. "It was never about the money; it was about saving it, and making sure it was displayed where people could see it and enjoy it. [Wassick] brought the matter before the trustees, and they decided that the right thing to do was to donate it to the Hall of Fame."
Needless to say, Ambrose was thrilled by the Elks’ decision. The Hall plans to make a high-quality, digital reproduction of the photo for the Elks to display in their lodge, in exchange for their permanent donation of the original to the museum’s collection.
"It’s pretty astonishing that they wanted to find a home for it, rather than sell it to fund activities at their lodge," said Ambrose, adding that the photo will be stored in a special temperature and humidity-controlled vault when not on display. "They’re giving it to all fans and researchers of baseball, not just our institution. It’s an incredibly generous gesture, one that I think is quite extraordinary."
Bryan called his lodge’s decision "appropriate," and certain wording within the official mission statement of the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks of the USA reinforces that assessment:
"To inculcate the principles of Charity ... demonstrating that Elks Care and Elks Share."
"Before you know it, that money would be long gone and long forgotten," Bryan said. "But this is a way to keep it forever."
Adam White is Sports Editor of the Banner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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