What is it with this pot-bellied, moon-faced guy Babe Ruth? What makes him remembered so vividly to this day? It was summed up best by an old teammate reminiscing years ago about the Babe. “He was a constant source of joy,” the old man said.
— Robert Creamer, Hall of Fame Magazine.com
How a rare image of Babe Ruth landed in a Vineyard art gallery is less a tale of the enduring game of baseball and more the story of the enduring mystery of friendship.
The moment captured on an old negative froze time on a warm March day in 1936, when The Babe cracked a long tee shot at the Bobby Jones Country Club in Sarasota, Fla. His swing was magnificent, effortless in driving the ball out of sight, all eyes fixed on the frame of the man who saved the national pastime.
The game that morning was golf. But when Babe Ruth did anything — whack one into the Yankee Stadium bleachers, wolf a dozen hot dogs, or whisper a goodbye to baseball, his throat already seized with cancer — he was the center of the universe.
And so The Babe in his magic way has become the center of the universe for two Louisiana friends. While on the Vineyard earlier this month, the pair forged new friendships, built their first snowmen and ate a Godzilla of a lobster.
Their Island itinerary, however, was put in motion a long, long time ago. No one definitively knows the name of the photographer who clicked the shutter back in 1936 in the same month Nazi troops occupied the Rhineland.
But the image hid in an envelope with other Ruth negatives in a box in a shed on the outskirts of Sarasota until the spring of 1985. Marty Gueli, a handyman working his way through college, cleaned out the shed for a widow for $20. She was adamant. Keep what you want. Off to the dump with rest.
Save for the envelope, the rest went to some landfill. Marty’s gut knew the negatives were precious. But his first thought was not commerce, but his lifelong friend Randy Gillis, a former officer in the US Army, just back from Germany, whose love of baseball was eclipsed only by his love of country. Marty plotted. At the right time, The Babe would be Randy’s.
The right time was Randy and wife Tammy’s wedding day in Oklahoma in 1986, at which Marty stood aside him as best man. Again the image of Babe Ruth found dark seclusion.
“I just put the package away and really never considered doing anything with Marty’s gift, except save it for my son, because I wanted to someday give him something of value,” says Randy, who now lives in Spring Hill, La. “I’m just a plumber, I knew I would never make a fortune to leave for my son. But I could leave him the great Babe Ruth.”
In 2004, shortly after the Red Sox won the World Series and broke Babe Ruth’s 86-year curse, Randy answered a cold call to do some plumbing at the home of Kerry Easley, a registered nurse and part-time photographer. The talk soon turned to baseball and inevitably, the negatives of The Babe.
“They were large format, degrading rapidly, I could see that,” says Kerry, “But the image, that swing, just like one of his tape measure home runs, it stunned me.”
That was Kerry Easley’s St. Paul on the way to Damascus moment, an epiphany. He soon resigned from his nursing position, bought an ensemble of fine art printing equipment and a vintage art gallery in his hometown of Minden, La. All with the singular notion of making the images of a long dead Babe Ruth give new life to a new enterprise. In short, Kerry and Randy bet the farm on The Babe.
“We were able to make the finished image sharp, clear and crisp with digital technology,” says Kerry. “And as far as we know, this is the one and only photograph of Babe Ruth playing golf with this kind of authentic action. It’s not posed.”
Here’s where I come in. In his search to identify the onlookers in the photograph, Kerry contacted me. As the editor of Hall of Fame Magazine.com, an online publication serving the hall of fame industry, I was able to get the picture to baseball scholars in Cooperstown and renowned Babe Ruth biographer Robert Creamer.
Certainly among the crowd was Sam Byrd, Babe Ruth’s legs, a lightning fast utility player who often pinch ran for Ruth in late innings. Ruth taught Byrd the game of golf, and he went on to win several major tournaments. Possibly among the spectators is Ty Cobb, who often played with Ruth in the 1930s.
Around Christmas, Kerry proposed that he and Randy come north to show the photograph to sports aficionados and art collectors. Their plan was to print 714 in a series of three sizes, in homage to the lifetime home run record Babe Ruth held for so many decades.
I was tickled to help. But long after the last print is sold, I will remember more the grins of my new southern friends when the West Chop foghorn wailed. Or their burning their mouths on lobster chowder from Larsen’s at closing time. I will always hear them singing out loud with the kids’ choir at Our Lady Star of the Sea on a snowy Sunday. Whenever they telephone, they call me “home skillet,” a southern term of endearment.
The grand print of The Babe now wows the pro shop at the Carnegie Abby Golf Club near Newport, R.I. Sherm Goldstein has one at Zephrus. And Chris Morse, owner of the Granary, Gardner-Colby and Field Galleries, saw the trifecta of baseball, golf and art. He bought one for the gallery on the spot.
“Here’s an iconic American playing an iconic game, it just draws you in to look at it,” says Chris.
So Babe Ruth takes his place in a Vineyard gallery. The man who saved baseball. Against whose power hitting all records are tested and measured.
Even those that measure and test friendship.
For more information about the Babe Ruth photograph, contact Kerry Easley at 318-218-6418 or firstname.lastname@example.org.