Called Shot

Posted

Saturday, December 2
When Harold Rowe can't sleep, he dreams. In the dead of night, when he is driven from his bed by the nagging pain in his back, the 73-year-old Shaftsbury man makes his way to his dining room, to his computer. His fingers hunt and peck across the keyboard as he conjures up images and words that almost always focus on one single moment in time, nearly three quarters of a century in the past - almost a full year before Rowe himself was even born.

The images are of a man in a pinstriped New York Yankees uniform, grinning and shaking hands with a teammate after crossing home plate following a World Series home run. He is a big man, some say larger than life, and his smile is the afterglow of quite possibly the most famous home run in the history of the game, past or present.

It is Babe Ruth that Harold Rowe visits in the dead of night, transporting himself from the stillness of his southern Vermont home to the electrified air of Wrigley Field back on October 1, 1932, when Ruth sent his "called shot" homer sailing off into baseball legend.

But it is not just his imagination that takes Rowe there, nor his computer connection to the information superhighway.

It is an object, there on the table beside him, drawing his eye almost constantly, beckoning to him with promises of all the power, glory and fanfare of Ruth's titanic blast.

Harold Rowe's time machine is a baseball.

Its leather cover is scuffed and tattered, its red stitches frayed. But such wear is to be expected, says Rowe, from something that has travelled so far.

For if his faith is justified, this life-long area resident has in his possession the greatest lost treasure in the history of the game, the most sought-after piece of memorabilia in existence, baseball's own Holy Grail.

Harold Rowe believes that Babe Ruth's called shot landed in his sock drawer.

  • The home run itself has been the center of animated discussion, and debate, that has barely subsided even as decades have gone by. Most eyewitness accounts have Ruth pointing at something prior to his second home run of the game, in the fifth inning, though the theories of what that something was differ greatly. Cubs pitcher Charlie Root insisted that Ruth was pointing at him. Chicago mananger Charlie Grimm said that the Yankee slugger was taunting the Cub bench, part of an antogonistic dialogue Ruth typically maintained with opposing dugouts. New York infielder Frank Crosetti's theory has him signalling that he had one strike remaining, either to the Cubs or the crowd. Chicago shortstop Mark Koenig thought Ruth was pointing to the spot where his first homer of the game had landed.

    But whatever the intended target, with a count of two-and-two, Ruth extended his right arm and signalled something shortly before Root delivered an offspeed curve on the outer half of the plate. Ruth sent that pitch sailing an estimated 440 feet into Wrigley's center field bleachers, near its flag pole.

    Little was made of the gesture at the time, or even the home run itself for that matter. On-deck hitter Lou Gehrig proceeded to homer on Root's very next pitch, and the Yankees went on to a 7-5 win en route to a four-game series sweep of the Cubs. Only after New York World-Telegram sports editor Joe Williams ran the headline item "RUTH CALLS SHOT AS HE PUTS HOME RUN NO. 2 IN THE SIDE POCKET" did word begin to spread about the Babe's feat, which only served to further bolster his image as a baseball demigod.

    Root vehemently denied that Ruth had called his shot. "If he had made a gesture like that, well, anybody who knows me knows that Ruth would have ended up on his ass," said the pitcher some 10 years later. But as the debate raged on, the one man who could have removed the most doubt - Ruth himself - remained coy about it. "It's in the papers, isn't it?" asked Ruth in response to one question about the incident, proving his awareness that this was indeed the stuff of legends.

    That moment, as it turns out, did much more than just perpetuate Ruth's image. It allowed him to travel forward through time, to step from the batter's box at Wrigley right into the present, into the imagination of a man who has never seen a professional baseball game in his entire life.

  • "I talk to Babe Ruth all the time," said Harold Rowe as he cradled his treasured ball, protected within a clear plastic box. "I tell him that he's got to help me out with this, help me get this thing out into the public eye."

    The story of how Rowe came to find his baseball is rather ordinary, even if some of the details have been clouded by the passage of time. Following his retirement after 24 years on the road as a salesman, Rowe and his wife Audrey became fixtures on the local tag sale scene.

    At one particular sale back in 1988, Rowe found a cardboard box full of plastic ice cream containers, which he figured to implement in organizing the various nails and screws that were cluttering up his garage.

    It wasn't until several months later that Rowe went through those containers, and found an old baseball stashed in the bottom of one. "I've never been a baseball fan, so I had no idea what it might be," he said. "I stuck it in my sock drawer, and left it there - untouched - for the last 18 years."

    What brought Rowe's ball back out was a March 26 article in USA Weekend magazine, titled "Baseball's Lost Treasures." In the article, sports memorabilia experts revealed the "top five Holy Grails of America's pastime," and what these missing artifacts would likely fetch in today's frenzied open market.

    At the top of the list, with an estimated value of $2 million, was the Babe Ruth called-shot baseball. Suddenly, Harold Rowe was very much interested in the baseball in his bureau.

    "Since the day that article came out, there isn't a day that goes by when I'm not looking into it," said Rowe of his ball. "I've studied it and studied it, photographed it, researched it. For the last 10 months, I've spent every day on this sort of treasure hunt."

    An avid photographer - whose work has appeared on dozens of magazine covers and in four books - Rowe acquired a special lens to take super close-up slide images of his ball for further study. It is these images that he pores over on a daily basis, checking them under a magnifying glass, carefully scrutinizing every scuff and mark on the ball in hopes of finding further clues as to its origin.

    What he has found is at least intriguing. The ball bears a hand-signed autograph with the words "Babe Ruth," presumably written in some sort of colored pencil that has remained fairly intact over time. This autograph has been studied by experts and dismissed as a forgery, largely because of the shape of its "E" which does not match the classic upper-case-style letter that Ruth typically signed.

    "That is as far removed from Babe Ruth's autograph as anything I have ever seen," wrote professional memorabilia authenticator Richard Simon after studying images of Rowe's ball. "It was written by a fan or a child, certainly not Ruth."

    But Rowe insists that there is a reason why the Babe chose a different style for that letter - he didn't want his signature to impede on something else that was already printed, or etched, on the ball. Rowe claims that intense studying of the ball under powerful magnification reveals literally dozens of near-microsopic words and images, all pertaining to Ruth and the called shot moment.

    "When the light hits it a certain way, you can see that there is stuff all over that ball," Rowe said. "It seems like every time I look at it, there's something new. Babe Ruth's name, his initials, the number three - they're all over the place. There are even tiny images of baseball diamonds, maybe Wrigley, with tiny numbers for the players at each position.

    "I've seen all kinds of things on this ball. All kinds of clues."

  • The market for baseball memorabilia is indeed mysterious. Some autographs end up commanding 10 times their estimated value, for no clear reason, while others fall victim to the skepticism of the experts and end up "blacklisted" as fake.

    "It's a greedy, crooked busines," said Simon, who has worked with law enforcement agencies on several forgery cases during his 22 years in the business. "Babe Ruth is certainly among the top five in terms of fakes, because he sells for so much money."

    Even "authentic" Ruth autographs have proved to be the product of someone else's hand; experts recently revealed that Ruth had both his wife and sister "ghost sign" for him during the last few years of his life. Simon says that during his time as a memorabilia authenticator he has seen hundreds of instances of unknowing would-be collectors putting serious stock in what later amount to worthless artifacts.

    "Some kid back in the Sixties writes 'Babe Ruth' on a ball, and 40 years later someone finds it and believes it's the real thing," Simon said.

    As far as the called shot ball is concerned, Simon and other experts harbor serious doubt that it will ever see the light of day. No record has ever been made of anyone returning the ball to Ruth, nor has any fan come forward with a ticket stub, photograph or other piece of evidence to support a claim that they caught or otherwise secured the ball once it reached the bleachers.

    Officials at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. confirmed that such evidence would be necessary for even the slightest consideration of such an artifact's inclusion in the Hall's official historical collection.

    "I would say there is no chance of that ball ever being found," said Simon.

  • The phone rang one evening as this story was reaching its conclusion.

    "You're not going to believe it," said Harold Rowe. "I just found something new on the ball that's going to knock your socks off."

    He went on to detail a new piece of "evidence" he had found while studying an extreme close-up of the ball, some microscopic writing that spelled out a "long name" and the words "found BR's C*S."

    "This could be the big break," Rowe said.

    That is, after all, what this ball means to Rowe and so many other treasure hunters in search of baseball's Holy Grail. There is no telling how much an authenticated called shot ball would bring at auction - experts like Simon refuse to speculate, largely for fear of fueling the frenzy and perpetuating a whole new wave of phonies - but one can only assume it would be several million dollars.

    Of course, Harold Rowe knows exactly what his ball is worth.

    "I had a dream that it sold for $39.6 million," Rowe said. "I remember the gavel going down, and that exact number."

    It goes without saying that Rowe is a man who believes in dreams. But even as he acknowledges that his primary interest in the called shot ball is monetary - "It'll go to the highest bidder," he says without hesitation - there is a deeper motivation for his relentless pursuit of validation.

    For there is another athlete whose highlights get ample screen time within Harold Rowe's imagination, whose feats force the Babe to step aside on occasion and share the stage. It is Rowe's grandson, Max Beebe, a freshman hockey player at Keene High School in New Hampshire.

    "Max is a little on the small side, but you ought to see him skate," Rowe said. "I watched him play one time when he scored 10 goals in one game. He scored the first one so fast, right off the face-off, that I looked up and no time had even come off the clock."

    Ten goals in one game. One goal so fast, even time itself couldn't keep up. The way Harold Rowe tells it, the on-ice exploits of Max Beebe are nothing short of ... well ... Ruthian.

    "That's what all this is about," Rowe said. "I want Max to be able to go to college, wherever he wants. Max couldn't care less about baseball, and to tell you the truth, neither could I. But this ball could be the ticket to his future."

    Skeptics be damned, Rowe is 100-percent certain that his ball is the single most sought-after piece of memorabilia in all of baseball, perhaps all of sports.

    He fully intends to keep up his quest for validation, hoping that science can provide the authentication that the industry's experts cannot, or will not. He wonders whether the ball can be carbon-dated, or have some sort of special infrared dye applied to it that will bring out even more clues as to its origin.

    He is sure that someone somewhere has the means to confirm the idea that keeps him up at night, hunched over his slide viewer, studying every square inch of his baseball over and over again.

    "I know in my heart that this is the ball that everyone is looking for," Rowe said. "I've stared at it for hours, and it still gives me goosebumps.

    "People are quick to say this ball is not the real thing, but I think that's a mistake. If nobody believes in this thing, it's never going to be found."


    Adam White is sports editor of the Banner. He can be reached at awhite@benningtonbanner.com.


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