Eric's Heroes: A Bellevue boy, his uncle...and Babe Ruth's $10 million bat
There has never been an American icon quite like George Herman "Babe" Ruth.
Nor will there ever be.
At a time when baseball was an all-consuming passion in this country, not only was Babe Ruth the best player who ever lived, he also completely revolutionized the game. He altered the sport forever, re-shaping it into his own image.
And he did it with a swagger that has never been matched. Not by rock stars, not by movie stars, not by rap artists. He chewed off life in giant bites and swallowed them whole.
He ate too much, drank too much, womanized too much. He hit gargantuan moon-shot home runs. He struck out big, and laughed big and lived large. He was like Thor with his hammer. Like Arthur with Excalibur. He was Babe Ruth, the best there ever was.
And his life and legend knows no equal.
This is the story of a boy and his uncle. And the uncle had a baseball bat.
It is also about a priceless treasure, and trust and betrayal.
And it starts in 1923, in Los Angeles, California.
There was a newspaper in those days called the Los Angeles Evening Herald. In an effort to drum up interest in the high school baseball season, somebody dreamed up a contest.
Whoever won the city league high school batting championship would win a prize. And the prize had to be something so wonderful that people would follow the batting race on a daily basis, and buy more newspapers to follow the chase.
Somehow, someone got the great Bambino himself to sign a contract. After he hit his first home run of 1924, he would sign the baseball bat, with an inscription for the high school batting champion.
Sports page headlines from the Evening Herald that season give us an indication of just how important this prize was.
"Prep Stars in Hot Race for Hitting Honors," said one headline.
"Jefferson High Swatters Open Up For Ruth Bat," said another.
Phil Grossman, a lanky junior outfielder for Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, was among the leaders for most of the season.
One article in the Herald said in large, capital letters, "Looks like Phil Grossman will sure cop the Babe Ruth bat that is offered by the Evening Herald to the City League's best hitter. The whole school hopes you get it, ole kid."
In the last game of the season, Grossman ripped a single to clinch the highest hitting crown.
The bat would be his.
On April 20, 1924, at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C., the greatest pitcher of his time, or maybe ANY time, was on the mound for the Washington Senators: The Big Train, Walter Johnson. He would lead the league that season in wins, strikeouts, shutouts and ERA.
But on this day, Ruth got a pitch he liked, loaded up on the back foot, lunged forward, released his hips, which sent his 36-inch Hillerich & Bradsbury bat arcing towards the ball with awe-inspiring force.
Ball met bat and an unmistakable sound echoed through the ballpark. If it looked like most of Ruth's blasts, it was a towering moonshot of a fly ball and necks strained to follow it through the air, and when it reached its apex it felt as though it hung there in space for a split second before lazily plummeting back into earth's atmosphere, landing well beyond the right field fence.
The Babe had done it again! It was his first home run of the 1924 season.
Later, a photo was taken of Ruth signing the bat with a fountain pen. Somebody, perhaps a newspaper employee sent to fetch the bat, had the foresight to hang a sign off the end of it as he signed. The sign said, "High School Batting Champion, Los Angeles, 1924."
That sign, printed on a card, hanging from the piece of lumber, would become an all-important factor 100 years later.
It placed him with a particular bat at a particular place and time. Ruth, who signed tens of thousands of balls and hats and scraps of paper in his lifetime, probably didn't even notice it.
After the World Series that year, Ruth went on a barnstorming tour. He played exhibitions on the West Coast with a group of other Major Leaguers. Walter Johnson was among them.
On Oct. 31, they played in the small town of Brea, not far from L.A. It was Walter Johnson's hometown.
And at some point around that time, young Grossman was taken to meet The Babe. A picture was taken of the two of them together. It appeared in the Evening Herald, with a Herald headline that said, "Look! Two Champs."
It made great copy.
Ruth gave the kid one of his baseball gloves and an autographed ball, signed by himself and Walter Johnson. Grossman would cherish those things until the day he died.
Grossman had family in Bellevue, Washington, including a baseball-crazy young nephew named Mike Robinson.
Mike's family would visit Los Angeles occasionally to visit Uncle Phil in his stucco home in the Hollywood Hills.
Mike was only 8 years old at the time, but he remembers that his uncle was tall and athletic, and that he always drove a nice car.
And when he would arrive at the house, his uncle knew exactly what the boy wanted to see.
"I'd come in the living room," Mike says now, "and the first thing he would do is go under the stairs and pull out his box of stuff. And all I cared about was looking at his stuff, and the bat, of course, was the cherry on top."
It's easy to imagine a child trying to swing the massive, time-darkened Ruth bat, marveling at the inscription, running his fingers over the name and listening to his uncle tell the story of winning the batting title meeting the great Babe Ruth.
“He loved telling that story,” says Mike.
In 1986, Grossman died. Mike, who was a 32-year-old man by this point, secretly hoped that his uncle's baseball collection would have been willed to him. It was not.
Instead, the family held a family-only estate sale.
Mike bid more than $3,000 for the bat, the scrapbook, the glove and the autographed ball. It was his.
The sports memorabilia craze was just starting to gain traction in the 1980s, and by 1989 Mike wondered what exactly he was sitting on. Was his bat worth a lot of money? Hundreds of dollars? Thousands?
A friend put him in touch with a man who was supposed to know about those kinds of things. He told Mike that he would take the bat to Los Angeles, that he knew people who could give him a price.
Thinking back to that day, Mike hates to even speak the words. "So I said, 'Go ahead and take it down there and let me know what somebody's willing to offer for it and then I'll decide what I want to do with it.'"
The man left with the bat. Mike never saw him again and the Babe Ruth bat and his uncle's scrapbook were gone. Vanished. Stolen.
Mike went into business setting up home theater systems. He didn't see the bat again for a long, long time.
Somewhere along the way he set up his cellphone with a Google Alert. If anything popped up involving Babe Ruth memorabilia being sold, he would get a notification.
Hundreds of them came and went. There was never anything about his bat. It was as though his treasures had slipped away into the tangles of time itself, like the batting race of 1923 and The Babe and his Uncle Phil in Los Angeles.
And then, on his birthday in 2017, he got another alert on his phone.
Today, as he tells the story, he is filled with wonder, as though he still can't quite believe what happened.
"I opened it," he says, "and there was a picture of my bat."
There was a link to an article about the bat being put up for auction. The headline of the article said this: "1924 Babe Ruth Autographed First Home Run Bat - Could Become Most Expensive Piece of Memorabilia Ever Sold."
Mike says that when it all sunk in, he fell to the ground.
And then he went to work. He called the FBI and got some advice. He hired a lawyer. He got the auction stopped. A court date was set.
The bat had been purchased by brothers George and Steve Demos. Their father had purchased it in 1989.
The Demos brothers had done nothing wrong, neither had their father.
A judge decided there was only one fair thing to do: auction off the bat and split the proceeds between Mike Robinson and the Demos Brothers.
And exactly how much money are we talking about here? Well, an organization called PSA/DNA is in the business of examining and grading pieces of history. They have given the bat a very rare score of as perfect "10".
It is the only known bat documented with a picture of Babe Ruth holding the exact specimen.
It has been described as "the Holy Grail of sports memorabilia."
The numbers being thrown around are mind-boggling. One educated estimate is that the bat will fetch $10 million.
Forbes Magazine is working on a story about the bat. They say it could go much higher than that.
And so, Mike Robinson is sitting on a fortune. He had the bat flown to Bellevue for our story. It was packed in a tube inside a box inside a box inside another box. He paid a fortune for insurance.
His eyes dance as he pulls it out and holds it upright, feeling its heft... and its history.
"I can't even believe I have it in my hands. Whew..."
He takes an imaginary swing. "The number one thing you realize right away is the weight... it's just uh... I don't even know how he could swing this bat around, it's so heavy."
At 42 ounces, it's much heavier than any of the bats that big leaguers use today. It is a mammoth-sized bat, built for mammoth-sized home runs.
He hands it to me, and it's true: when you are holding something worth $10 million, your heart pounds a little faster.
The handle is a bit thicker than the bats that are used today, and time has turned it a dark amber, but the signature, with its perfect penmanship, is right there, clear as day. Clear as a $10 million check.
Mike says it's scheduled be auctioned off at the end of this month. He says there are buyers lining up. He says the Baseball Hall of Fame has been in touch, and the New York Yankees Hall of Fame too.
He hopes that the Babe's bat will be seen by baseball fans everywhere, perhaps as part of a traveling exhibit.
"It's going to be hard to let go of it," he says, "but I hope the person that buys it will somehow find a way to display it so I can come see it again..."
I smile at him and say, "Maybe four or five million dollars will make the hurt go away, right?"
He pauses for a moment and says deadpan, "Um, that always helps."