A watch which marked the friendship between Babe Ruth and a notorious gangster will hit the auction block in New York.
The pocket watch was a gift from the baseball star to Ellsworth Raymond ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, a petty criminal who rose to become a crime boss known as the ‘Al Capone of Harlem’.
The 18k gold Cartier timepiece was evidently a Christmas gift from Ruth, and bears the engraved inscription "To Bumpy from Babe, Dec 25th, 1937".
Having passed down through Johnson’s family, the watch is now expected to sell at Christie’s on June 21 for $50,000 – $100,000.
In the 1930s, when the Italian Mafia took over the numbers racket in Harlem, Johnson cut a deal with Lucky Luciano to protect the interests of the local independent bookmakers.
He soon became the toast of the neighbourhood – a highly respected figure whose friends included performers Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
Johnson later spent several years incarcerated at Alcatraz, and was allegedly involved in the infamous escape of three inmates from the island prison in 1962.
He was eventually released from prison in 1963, and was greeted with an impromptu parade when he returned to Harlem, where he had remained a hero to the community.
It was during Johnson’s rise to the top in the late 1930s that he struck up a friendship with Ruth, then one of the most famous men in America.
As a boy Ruth had run wild on the streets of Boston, and his problems with the local police eventually saw his exasperated parents send him to a reform school.
This wild side to his personality continued throughout his life, and his love of late nights, women, liquor and partying saw him become a regular at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.
Racial segregation was still an issue in the U.S, and it would be another 10 years before Jackie Robinson broke through the colour line to become the first African American player in Major League Baseball.
But Ruth had no such issues with segregation, and enjoyed friendships with many black players and performers including Bill Robinson.
To the chagrin of many other figures in the baseball world, Babe often invited Robinson to the Yankees clubhouse as his guest, and the actor was later an honorary pallbearer at Ruth’s funeral in 1948.
The watch offered at Christie’s is a testament to Ruth’s generosity and larger-than-life personality – which meant he was welcome everywhere, and was equally at home with black gangsters as white sports stars.