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'34 All-Star ball was great catch

(ran PC edition)

Pardon Dan de la Torre if he didn't get as excited as other fans Tuesday night about baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. hitting a home run on the first pitch he saw in his final All-Star Game.

De la Torre isn't much of a fan of the game these days, but that isn't to say he isn't a baseball fan. He just likes one particular All-Star Game more than others: the 1934 All-Star Game. The second one played.

Baseball nuts know that historic game because of a pitcher, and not even the winning one. De la Torre has a business interest in that game, but to understand the business, you have to know the game.

On July 10, 1934, at New York's Polo Grounds, National League starting pitcher Carl Hubbell was in trouble. He had two men on base _ Charlie Gehringer, who hit a single, and Heinie Manush, who walked _ no outs and the big bats of the American League All-Stars coming up.

Next up was Babe Ruth. Yes, that Babe Ruth. The Sultan of Swat, one of the greatest hitters ever.

Hubbell struck him out with a wicked screwball.

Next up was Lou Gehrig. Yes, the original Iron Horse, the one the aforementioned Ripken displaced as having played in the most consecutive games.

Down on strikes.

Then it was Jimmie Foxx. He won the triple crown _ having the highest batting average and most home runs and runs batted in in the same season _ a year before. He also went down on strikes to end the inning.

In the second, Hubbell would strike out Al Simmons and Joe Cronin to start the inning.

Five strikeouts in a row is impressive enough, but baseball historians note that Hubbell struck out, in a row, five members of the Hall of Fame, all remembered as great hitters.

And de la Torre has their autographs. Not Hubbell's, but the entire American League squad, which went on to win the game 9-7. And for a time, he didn't know what he had.

De la Torre, who lives in Holiday, bought the ball in a baseball card shop in Roswell, Ga., in 1992. Just browsing while in town on business, all he knew was the owner wanted $1,500 for the ball, but didn't know why.

"I wasn't that great of a fan of baseball at the time," he said. "The only two names on it that I recognized was Ruth and Gehrig."

And a quick visit to the library told him that those two signatures on the ball alone made it worth more than the asking price.

So de la Torre bought it with the idea he would turn it around in a year and sell it. But while he had the ball, people started to ask him where it was from. He didn't know, but tried to find out.

De la Torre ended up writing a book about his search _ called Pitched from the Past _ and it wasn't until 1995 that the mystery of where this ball came from was revealed, when he got in touch with Mel Harder, the winning pitcher for the American League in the 1934 All-Star Game. He remembered the ball, and remembered signing three just like it.

The ball had gone from $1,500 to priceless.

Of the 22 players on the American League squad that year, 15 of them would end up in the Hall of Fame.

De la Torre would travel the country showing off the ball. It would go on display in the Babe Ruth Museum.

But now, he says it's time to sell the ball. He doesn't know how, probably an auction. And he doesn't know what he wants to do with the money _ the value has been estimated from $100,000 to $1-million. He says maybe he'll make a documentary. Some of the proceeds will go to charity.

But he's made a big investment in authenticating the signatures on the ball, and the travel is getting too expensive, he says.

"In one respect, it's added a lot to my life," said de La Torre, who's now retired. "In another way, it's robbed me of nine years.

"It's like you don't want to part with something and then you want to part with something. It's become a part of me."

_ Staff writer Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247.