The Collector: A Winning Hand
Bill Mastro is the chairman and CEO of Mastro Auctions, a Chicagoland consignment auction house that specializes in sports-related items.
A long-running but now defunct periodical, Baseball Magazine, commissioned the print for a series in which Alice Denton Jennings, a palmist from Atlanta, scrutinized the hands of famous players. The Ruth handprint, the only one of the series that Mastro owns, is of the player’s right hand. “He was a lefty batter,” notes Mastro, “and if you’re a left-handed batter, your right hand is your power hand. A player’s hands are the most important part of batting, and here, we’re talking about the greatest baseball player ever. It’s absolutely unique. I thought it was spectacular.”
Alas, Jennings’ reading of Ruth’s palm—which the magazine published, along with the print of his right hand, in its July 1934 issue— proved not so stellar. She failed to see signs that foretold Ruth’s retirement from the sport in June of the 1935 season, and her reading of his health line verged on malpractice. Instead of enjoying the “excellent promise of good health in late years” that she promised, Ruth succumbed to throat cancer in 1948 at age 53.
Mastro first encountered the handprint more than 11 years ago, when he visited Baseball Magazine’s archives in Baltimore. He attempted to purchase the print during a 1996 Christie’s auction, but Barry Halpern, a prominent collector of baseball material, outbid him with an offer of $12,000. “It was on my list of things to buy,” Mastro recalls. “I raised my paddle, and he raised his paddle. I said, ‘Aw!’ and he said, ‘I’m a Babe Ruth nut, I have to have it.’ ” When Sotheby’s sold part of Halpern’s collection in 1999, Mastro claimed the handprint for $46,000.
Mastro began collecting baseball cards in 1960, and his hobby evolved into his career. His private collection of baseball memorabilia occupies a 3,000-square-foot floor of his home. He displays the original Ruth handprint, which is on Jennings’ letterhead, at a height that invites visitors to lay their own hands on its clear plastic cover and compare theirs with Ruth’s. “My hand is the same size as his,” says Mastro. “I didn’t realize it when I bought it, but when I got it under the glass and put my hand on top, I saw it was the same size. I was really surprised.”
Another of Mastro’s favorite items is one of his collection’s least flashy. It is a black-and-white photograph of Ruth, his adopted daughter, Dorothy, and his second wife, Claire. Ruth is shown signing adoption papers for Claire’s daughter, Julia. The photo was in an album of 30 images of Ruth, which included shots of him visiting sick children in hospitals and posing with Jack Dempsey and other celebrities of that era. Mastro, who handled the album when he was consulting for Sotheby’s prior to a 1994 New York auction, was drawn immediately to the picture of Ruth signing the adoption papers. “I had just adopted a little girl [Christina, now 15], and I wanted that photo so bad,” Mastro says. “I didn’t care about anything else in the lot—that was the one I wanted.” However, two collectors at the auction expressed interest in the album. The first sought the images of Ruth performing charity work, and the second wanted the pictures of Ruth with celebrities. Mastro negotiated a three-way split of the lot, which sold for a few thousand dollars.
“That photo doesn’t have meaning to a lot of people, but it has meaning to me,” Mastro says. “[In the photo] his daughters are grown, but there’s already a connection in the heart. They’re his. They’ve been his a while, and he’s watched them grow. I have to think it was one of the most fantastic moments of his life.”