Newly Uncovered Ruth-Gehrig Signed Photo Heads to Auction

By David Seideman

Arthur Hull began taking pictures professionally in 1908 at the age of 19. By the late 1930s an important photography book hailed him "as one of the country's best known freelancers with the camera." He also worked for The New York Times and The Associated Press, the nation's two most prestigious news outlets.

"Like the G-men he always gets his man," wrote a reporter in Hull's hometown newspaper in 1937. "His formula is a smooth and persistent line of talk that will admit no obstacles."

Sometime from 1927 to 1931, based on their uniform styles, he shot two of his favorite subjects together, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The location was the Yankees' spring training facility, which later became Miller Huggins Field, in St. Petersburg, FL. Judging by their smiles, the two sluggers were clearly pleased to pose for Hull.

Hull returned to his dark room and produced a print from the glass plate negative. He then did something photographers almost never did then or now. He went back to the Yankees training camp to have Ruth and Gehrig autograph the fresh photo in bold fountain pen. "You would have to really go out of your way to develop the photo and get both of them to sign it," says Keith Breitweiser, an acquisitions specialist for Lelands, which is offering the photo in its upcoming auction, beginning Feb. 25.

Through a remarkable series of events, the signed photo was preserved in pristine condition for about 95 years until PSA recently encapsulated it. The photo was authenticated as a Type 1 (a 1st generation photograph, developed from the original negative, during the period within approximately two years of when the picture was taken), and the autographs each graded 9.

"It doesn't get any better than this," says Breitweiser. "These are the two most iconic players who ever played the game on the most iconic team. The autographs are some of the nicest you'll find. They almost look fake. You can see the bleeding of (Ruth's signature) on the back."

Three years ago, Heritage Auctions commanded a whopping $390,000 for a 1927 Type 1 Ruth/Gehrig with an autograph graded a 9 which was shot by an unidentified photographer. The dimensions were 8×10″, with light edge and corner wear. The Lelands exemplar measures 4×5", remains in Excellent to Mint condition, and displays a stamp on the reverse reading "D8." Heritage's photo shows baseball's best one-two punch ever in pinstripes. The image shot by Hull has Yankees emblazoned across their chests.

The photo might have vanished without a trace but for the efforts of Karl Allison and his close friend. They were avid collectors of antique cameras and photography. Shortly after Hull died in 1969 in St. Petersburg, FL where he had moved from New Jersey, Allison placed an advertisement in the local newspaper stating that he was looking to purchase antique cameras and related material. He was soon contacted by Hull's widow, Dessie.

After arriving at her home, his friend zeroed in on one vintage camera. "‘Oh, no, no," Dessie said. "‘I want to sell everything.'" She intended to sell her late husband's whole laboratory and the entirety of his dark room.

In an instant, Allison and a friend bought the whole collection for a minimal price, Allison, 86, recalls, including Hull's vast collection of negatives and photographs that he had taken over the course of a five-decade long career.

"We got home and started looking through it,' Allison, a former electrical engineer says. "There was baseball signed by Yankee players from the 1930s such as Ruth and Gehrig. Then there was the Ruth and Gehrig picture."

The friend asked Allison which of the two signed items he wanted.

"I would like to have the Babe Ruth picture," Allison replied.

Unfortunately, the ball disintegrated over time until the whole hide fell off. The good news was Allison immediately put the photo in a frame and stored it in a drawer away from light that could cause the signatures to fade. He also created a framed duplicate for display. On one occasion, Allison lent the photo to his grandson for a school presentation. "The other students hadn't heard of Babe Ruth," he says.

The Hull collection also included more than 20 glass plate negatives. Among them were many featuring Ruth and Gehrig from the same time period as well as fellow Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri, Eddie Collins and Rabbit Maranville.

Then there's a glass plate negative of Max Baer, boxing's world heavyweight champion from 1934 to 1935 who won 51 of his 81 fights by KO. He broke six of Hull's straw hats showing what he was going to do to his opponents. "But what did I care?" Hull said. "I made a lot of money off those three photos."

All of the glass plate negatives will be in the Lelands auction.

"Anything Ruth or Gehrig in a Yankee uniform will do well and should sell in the thousands of dollars," Breitweiser says. "When it comes to the others, it would be estimated in the hundreds of dollars range each. But we are lotting up some of those to help the collection's overall value."

Last summer, Allison's son-in-law, Bill Jones, asked him what he planned to do with the photo and negatives. Maybe it was time to sell, they figured. Jones searched various auction houses online and made calls before striking a deal with Lelands. "I didn't think the photo was worth $2,000-$3000," Allison says.

In October, Allison wrapped the fragile framed photo and glass plate negatives with extra care and shipped them to Lelands' New Jersey office, using the auction house's insurance. (Note to consignors: make this part of your agreement for expensive items.)

The market for vintage photos signed by all-time greats has never been hotter and the same holds true for their Type 1 photos, signed and unsigned. Today, the combination is the ultimate.

Demand exceeds the fairly ample supply of autographed Ruth/Gehrig material. Baseballs are the most common; photos, the least. "Autograph collectors attending a game would have a ball versus a photo," Breitweiser explains. "Who brings a photo to a game?"

Many of the signed Ruth/Gehrig photos that come on the market derive from their barnstorming tour after the 1927 season when the Bustin' Babes squared off against the Larrupin' Lous and souvenir photos of them together in their special uniforms abounded. Any photos, particularly signed ones, of them in Yankee apparel are much rarer.

The secret to Hull's success was simple: "If you treat most persons decently, they will in the end reciprocate," he once said. "And I've learned this: the bigger they are, the nicer they treat you. That's what makes them that way."

Hull's photographic prowess and Allison's foresight created a gift that keeps on giving.