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The Bloomingdale's that a Ruth baseball built

According to reports from 1930, this cornerstone of Bloomingdale's flagship store in New York City could have a baseball signed by Babe Ruth and other items entombed with instructions not to open for 200 years. The Ruth ball, if there and in good condition, could be worth a record $500,000. [ New York Times]
Published Aug. 21, 2017

NEW YORK — A treasure, possibly worth half a million dollars, could lie behind a granite slab at the base of the Bloomingdale's flagship store in Manhattan in New York City, just a few feet from a window displaying designer handbags: a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.

On April 23, 1930, according to several newspaper accounts, the ball and some other valuable items were entombed in a cornerstone there, at the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 59th Street, marking the beginnings of an addition to the store.

"Hundreds of shoppers halted at the scene," the New York American reported the next day, as the polished granite was lowered by rope while store executives and city officials watched from a platform, top hats in hand and boutonnieres in the lapels of their suits.

The stone looked about the same last week, its "ERECTED 1930" engraving as sharp as it was in pictures from 87 years ago. A young man, wearing a black leather jacket and chomping on gum, leaned against the engraving and fiddled with his cellphone.

If there is a treasure there, he and everyone else on the busy sidewalk that day will most likely never find out.

The capsule believed to contain the Ruth baseball is supposed to stay closed until April 2130 — 200 years after the cornerstone-laying ceremony, according to news reports about the event. And it is impossible to know whether the baseball has survived behind the facade — and if so, whether it can last 113 more years. There is even a chance that it was never sealed into the cornerstone in the first place.

Although several newspapers reported that a baseball signed by Ruth had been placed there, executives connected to the store today, including a Bloomingdale descendant, said they had never heard of it.

John Ernst, 76, whose grandfather Samuel J. Bloomingdale spoke at the ceremony in 1930, said that he did not remember hearing stories about the cornerstone and that the family, as far as he knew, had no records of the event.

"This goes back so far," said Ernst, a managing member of B. Bros. Realty, which owns the store's building and the land beneath it, "it kind of got lost."

In 1930, Ruth was in the midst of yearly spring training with the Yankees in St. Petersburg, from 1925 to 1934.

Anne Keating, a Bloomingdale's spokeswoman, said some current company executives were aware of a time capsule but didn't know what was inside until this spring.

In summer 2016, Laurie Gwen Shapiro, an author who was researching a book about Richard Byrd's expedition to Antarctica from 1928-30, came across a news clipping about the Bloomingdale's ceremony as she pored over brittle scrapbooks in New York libraries.

"I saw the words 'Babe Ruth baseball,' and I thought, 'That's crazy!' " she said. She wrote about her discovery on the website Untapped Cities.

Newspaper accounts about the ceremony described two boxes left in the cornerstone, one containing prosaic items such as coins and newspapers, another filled with what the Herald Tribune called "an unusual miscellany."

That second box, newspapers said, was supposed to include the Ruth ball, a golf ball signed by Bobby Jones, a horseshoe, a radio set, a wedding ring, a cocktail shaker, a piece of talking picture film and predictions of the future written by prominent Americans. Among those invited to offer predictions, the Herald Tribune said, were President Calvin Coolidge, who had left office the year before, as well as Henry Ford, Florenz Ziegfeld and Ruth.

That collection, said Nick Yablon, a cultural historian and professor at the University of Iowa, was effectively a time capsule, although the term was not formally used until 1938.

The tradition of placing objects into cornerstones dates to the Mesopotamians, who tucked gems and messages to the future into building foundations, according to Knute Berger, a founder of the International Time Capsule Society.

But never, Berger said, had he heard of a cornerstone containing an artifact "as Holy Grail-ish" as a baseball autographed by Ruth.

If the ball is there and well preserved, it could be the most valuable single-signed baseball ever — worth as much as $500,000 at auction, said Leila Dunbar, an appraiser of sports memorabilia, and Mike Heffner, the president of Lelands.com, a sports memorabilia auction house.

The highest price on record is $388,375, for the 2012 sale of another ball signed by Ruth, according to the website of Professional Sports Authenticator, a memorabilia authentication service.

Balls autographed by Ruth are not especially rare. In fact, Dunbar said, he "ushered in the era of professional athlete signing." But she said the Bloomingdale's ball would gain value from "perfect provenance" — the remarkable back story of its many years in hiding and the fact that it dates to 1930, when Ruth was at the peak of his fame.

Ruth was 35 that season and still putting up huge numbers: He ended up hitting .359 with 49 home runs and 153 runs batted in for a Yankees team that finished third in the American League.

"He was probably the best known person in America," Dunbar said, "probably even better than the president."

She and Heffner both said that being sealed off from the world would improve the chances of a ball's remaining in excellent condition. One reason, Heffner said, is that it would not have been exposed to light, which is harmful to signatures.

Other items reportedly in the capsule also could be worth six figures. A ball signed by Jones, who won golf's Grand Slam in 1930, would be extremely rare and possibly worth up to $100,000, Dunbar said. And Heffner said the predictions, especially if they were handwritten and interesting, could be "almost priceless."

But time capsule experts say water could have seeped into the container, causing damage. "There are plenty of examples of people digging up time capsules, and everything's crumbled to dust," Berger said. Or, he said, valuable items could have been stolen before the capsule was sealed into the cornerstone.

In 2001, according to the Irish Times, a granite box discovered by archaeologists in the foundation of a former monument in Dublin — and thought to contain historic coins — was opened to much anticipation, only to be found empty.

Keating, the Bloomingdale's spokeswoman, said in May that the cornerstone had never been altered and that coming renovations would not affect it. And now that the company has become aware of the reports from 1930, she said, "we have no plans to open the cornerstone until it was planned to be opened."

To investigate whether there is anything inside, Jorge Otero-Pailos, the director of historic preservation at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, has suggested methods such as ground-penetrating radar and thermal imaging.

Not surprisingly, Keating said Bloomingdale's would not allow such exploration.

So the mystery remains, probably unsolvable for generations. Otero-Pailos can see something valuable in that, too. It stokes the imagination, he said, to know that a ball autographed by Ruth could be just beyond a piece of stone on a New York street corner.

"It makes you look behind the surface of things," he said. "To see the city with an inquiring eye and to say, 'What could be there?' "

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