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The First One for November 2009
Steve Lee Parsons (PA)
July 1952 was a hot summer day in our West Philadelphia row house. It was my 10th birthday party, and mom had baked a cake and invited my friends from our block. That memory is as clear as today. When I opened my present I saw a regulation-size plastic baseball case, and inside was “The Official Babe Ruth Wrist Watch,” endorsed by another baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio (long before he started selling coffee).
I have no recollection of how long that first watch lasted. Kids played rough in those days, and I had three younger brothers who were always “borrowing” my stuff. That watch started a lifelong fascination with and love of horology and timepieces. Today, my collection includes an eclectic variety of mechanical pocket and wrist watches, all running, and worn regularly. The thrill is always in the quest. Whether it’s a Howard pocket watch found in a flea market for $30, an IWC solid 18K rose gold dress wristwatch found buried in a box of junk watches for $5, a solid gold pocket watch chain in a yard sale for $12, a solid silver 1880s vintage 18S Elgin, a gift from a dear friend, etc. My collection includes women’s dress or “cocktail” watches from the 20s to 60s era, plus some character watches. I recently had a new tuxedo vest altered to include a pocket watch pocket, for those rare formal occasions.
Last Christmas we went to the NAWCC Museum and I looked at the excellent displays in the wristwatch cases. There I saw my Babe Ruth watch, with the original plastic baseball case! The vivid memory of July 1952 popped into sight. That night I started my Internet search and soon found a complete set for $1,500! I hesitated on the bid prompt and then told myself, “Don’t be lazy and a spendthrift. This is not the fun way to find a watch. Get on the stick and search for a better deal.”
I researched the history of this watch. The manufacturer was the Exacta Time Corp., Switzerland, selling the watch from 1948 into the early 1950s. “The Babe,” George Herman Ruth, was born in Baltimore, MD, in 1895, the same place and year as my grandfather, who was an avid baseball fan. Ruth was without a doubt the greatest baseball player ever and was extremely popular during his time. He came from a poor background and started his career as a pitcher. At his peak in the late 1920s he was once criticized for his enormous salary of $80,000 (you could buy a new Ford for $500 at that time), more than President Hoover’s $75,000 salary. Ruth’s response was “I had a better year than Hoover.”
He died in 1948 and my new “character” watch was still being sold four years later for $7.95, distributed by American Jewelry, Inc., 681 Fifth Ave., NY, at “Better Jewelry and Department Stores Everywhere.” The Ingersoll Watch Company made a Babe Ruth character wristwatch (and a Ty Cobb watch) back in the 1920s. The paper dial is identical to the Exacta Time Corp watch, but with an American (“dollar watch”) movement. Ingersoll was bought out by Timex, and I can only guess that Exacta bought up the paper dial stock when they manufactured their Swiss watch in the 1940s. So this may well be the second Babe Ruth commemorative on the market. My watch was advertised with a card bearing Ruth’s distinctive photo and the Sportsman’s Pledge “I have always tried to be a good sport, to play the game fairly and squarely. I believe in being a proud winner and a good loser at all times.” This may sound a bit corny and dated to some of our “chemically enhanced” professional athletes today, but the pledge rings true to me. Remember that $8 was a good working man’s daily pay in 1952, so this was no small gift to a 10 year old. We went to the local Saturday matinee movie theater for 15 cents (the only place you could enjoy air conditioning), a quarter would get you a brown paper bag full of penny candy, and an ice-cold cherry coke in a paper cone cup at the local drug store cost 5 cents in those days.
Back to the quest for my next watch investment! My first purchase was a 1948 vintage magazine ad for the watch. The ad was, of course, invaluable as a data source and cost me $4. I then searched the Internet several times a week and soon found a mint watch (no band) in Canada for about $120. The watch keeps time as good as one of my Rolexes, and has a sweep second hand, luminous dial, and a 1-jewel (balance cock) unadjusted Swiss movement. The case is steel, chrome flash plated, good quality, plastic crystal, and the most valuable part is the colored paper watch dial with Ruth’s photo and signature. The stainless steel expansion band took another two months to find, and it came from a seller in a Philadelphia suburb. With the band came a nonworking original watch, which will be a source for parts, should my Canadian piece stop working. The band is kid-sized and will not fit my somewhat expanded wrist. This cost another $150. Another trivia fact is that I also own a 1960s vintage solid 18K gold wristwatch, 17 jewel, about 35mm, made by the Exactus Watch Co, Switzerland. A fine timepiece. I don’t know whether “Exactus” is the same “Exacta” manufacturer of the Ruth watch.
No surprise, but the plastic baseball case was the hardest piece to find. I contacted the $1,500 mint Babe Ruth watch seller and asked if he would sell me the baseball alone, but was politely declined (as I also would have done). A few weeks ago, one popped up on eBay from a seller in Iowa. This case had been cracked and repaired. I placed a bid, with a mental not-to-exceed budget of $350. Luck of the Irish! I won the baseball case for $103. It came in yesterday, in almost mint condition, with a well-repaired crack from long ago. I wonder how long this little piece of plastic sat in the back of a drawer or a box full of forgotten toys. So, my total investment so far is $377.
Like I said, the fun is in the quest!