Bob Woytych had hoped his curve ball would carry him to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Instead, it was a 12-year-old's love of the game and a chance encounter with Babe Ruth 66 years ago that helped get him there.
The Hall of Fame Museum will announce today that it will place one of Mr. Woytych's prize possessions -- a baseball signed by Ruth, Roger Maris and Hank Aaron -- on display in Cooperstown, N.Y. Museum officials say it is the only ball signed by all three legendary home run hitters.
"I didn't make it one way, but I'll make it another," said Mr. Woytych, 77, a former pitching ace in semi-pro leagues around Baltimore and Annapolis. "I'm looking forward to going there [Cooperstown]."
Mr. Woytych got the first autograph in the summer of 1927, when he and his father traveled from the family farm near Annapolis to Washington to watch the Senators play the New York Yankees and found themselves sitting behind the visitors' dugout at Griffith Stadium. "We didn't know we'd be sitting there," he recalled.
As the players filed out of the locker rooms, he was awed by the sight of the thick-chested, short-legged Ruth ambling across the field to the bench.
"I was just one of many kids there. Everybody was cheering, 'Here comes the Babe!,' " Mr. Woytych remembered. "Then everybody flocked around the guy."
Mr. Woytych dug into his pocket, pulled out a baseball and
thrust it into Ruth's giant hands, which the slugger would use later that summer to set a single-season record of 60 home runs.
"I always thought a lot of Lou Gehrig, but I was fondest of the Babe. He was just this big overgrown kid from Baltimore who was really lovable," he said.
For 45 years Mr. Woytych kept the baseball wrapped in tissue paper in a dresser drawer. "I didn't make a big deal out of it."
Then, in the early 1970s, Mr. Woytych pulled it out again. "I really don't know why. I guess I saw it in the drawer there, and something must have bugged me to get more signatures on it."
By that time, Mr. Woytych was an administrator with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami. So he sought out Mr. Maris -- who hit 61 home runs to break the Babe's single-season record in 1961, and had retired to Gainesville.
Mr. Woytych gathered the final signature in 1974, at the Atlanta Braves spring training camp in West Palm Beach. Later that year, Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's record for the most home runs in a career. "That's just the way it worked out, that that was the year he broke Babe Ruth's record," he said.
Mr. Woytych grew up on his family's farm near the Severn River, shagging fly balls for several semi-pro teams from Annapolis that played on a hay field of his father's. Later, as the left-hander developed his own curve ball, he became a star in American Legion baseball and at Annapolis High School.
After playing semi-pro baseball for $8 a game for teams in Baltimore, Annapolis and Brooklyn, he went to George Washington University on a baseball scholarship. Mr. Woytych was scouted by the Senators and the then-Philadelphia Athletics, but was held back by his lanky build.
"I was told to go home and put on some weight. For whatever reason, I just couldn't put the weight on," Mr. Woytych recalled. "I would have loved to have made it."
Mr. Woytych sold his autographed ball to Coca-Cola USA this spring to become part of that company's Homers for America exhibit, which it uses to raise donations for youth sports. The company had tracked him to his retirement home in Florida and made an offer after hearing of the ball through a chance conversation between Mr. Woytych's oldest daughter and the owner of a baseball card store in Minneapolis
Next year, the ball will go on permanent display in the Hall of Fame Museum.
At first, Mr. Woytych was reluctant to part with the ball, but the former Little League commissioner liked the idea that money raised with it would be used to build Little League diamonds.
"I'm getting older and I thought it was time we did more with it than keep it in a bank depository," explained Mr. Woytych, who is in Baltimore with his wife, Nan, for the All-Star game. "I never thought it would end up in Cooperstown, but at least I'll know where it is and that it's well cared for."