Published October 18, 2012
For an astronaut it's the moon. For a jockey it's the Kentucky Derby.
For Pampa's Lonnie Shelton — and baseball fans across the nation — the ride of a lifetime is a regal blue 1948 Lincoln Continental two-door hardtop coupe.
"The first time I saw the car," Shelton said, "I fell in love with it. I bet I stayed there two hours looking at it, sitting in it, asking questions about it. There are several 1948 Lincoln Continentals out there, but none like this one."
"This one" is the last known car George Herman Ruth owned before his death Aug. 16, 1948.
Yes, the Babe Ruth.
Ruth is the man baseball fans adored not only for making the home run famous, but for his fun-loving nature. Ruth also reportedly gobbled down numerous hot dogs in the dugout before batting.
Ruth's home runs traveled distances never seen before, and the 60 homers he swatted for the New York Yankees in 1927 stood as the Major League single-season record until Roger Maris topped the mark in 1961 with 61 homers.
When Ruth was asked about holding out for more money than then-President Herbert Hoover, Ruth replied: "Well, I had a better year than the president."
Of course, old Yankee Stadium was called "The House That Ruth Built."
Ruth retired from baseball in 1935, and to this day the Hall of Famer is considered one of the greatest baseball players ever to put on a uniform.
Ford Motor Co. presented Ruth a new Lincoln Continental in 1948 as a measure of its appreciation for his tireless devotion to Little Leaguers and baseball.
Before he died of cancer, Ruth spent many of his final days traveling across the country in his Lincoln, giving speeches and hitting lessons to little leaguers.
"The car has 81,000 miles on it," Shelton said. "That's not so many miles now, but back then that was a lot of miles for a car. So The Babe did some traveling. And then after he passed away the car was driven all over to county fairs and all kinds of places."
Shelton, 61, is semiretired, and his passions in life include grandchildren, wife, baseball and car-collecting. His love of cars mainly reaches out to mint-condition muscle cars from the 1960s and 1970s.
But when Shelton found out The Babe's last-known owned car was parked in the Texas Museum of Automotive History near the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, he had to see the beautifully maintained machine in person.
Shelton first saw Babe's car three years ago. Recently, he was looking for parts for some of his older cars on the Internet and found a Dallas-area man who had parts in stock.
"We got to talking and he was also the curator for the car museum," Shelton said.
Once in Dallas to pick up the car parts, Shelton learned the car's owner was serious about selling.
Shelton jumped at the chance to own a piece of baseball lore. Shelton said he signed a nondisclosure agreement with the man who previously owned the car and is not allowed to divulge his name. Shelton did say the man is a Texan.
Shelton said he has signed information from Ford Motor Co. confirming the car was a gift to Babe Ruth in 1948. Shelton said he also has documentation from Claire Ruth, Babe's wife, writing about the car. Claire Ruth died in October 1976.
"Buying it had nothing to do with the car," Shelton said. "It had all to do with the love of baseball. And the history of baseball and that gentleman who was involved with it. There was nobody that rivaled Babe Ruth back then."
The car is in pristine shape with original interior and car color — "I call it Yankee blue," Shelton said.
The speedometer reaches 110 miles per hour. The radio works and takes about 15 minutes to warm up glass tubes used in that era. The doors and windows work by hydraulics. The steering wheel is huge by today's standards. The license plates are black and feature the orange words: THE BABE.
Shelton drives the car on special occasions. He transports the Lincoln he calls "The Babe" in a gorgeous trailer with windows.
Shelton didn't disclose the price he paid for the car about two months ago.
The demand for recent Ruth memorabilia is eye-opening. Last May 20, SCP Auctions in Los Angeles sold a 1920 Ruth Yankees jersey for $4,415,658. A Yankees cap from the 1930s worn by Ruth fetched $537,278 at the same auction, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Shelton can recite fact after fact about Ruth's life. For Shelton, owning Ruth's car has nothing to do about money, but everything to do about his love for baseball.
Ruth's car has been parked the past 35 years in a couple of museums in Minnesota and Texas.
"To know somebody had enough foresight since 1948 to keep that car in that kind of shape is amazing," Shelton said. "I respect that. And I can tell you that car will be maintained and kept in better shape than it ever has. I love old cars."
Shelton wants baseball fans to experience what he did the first time he sat in the car — a smile and awe.
"Every time I get in it I get that same feeling," Shelton said. "Gosh, oh Friday. This is Babe Ruth's car."
Mark Lee, general manager of the Amarillo Sox, and Shelton are in negotiations to possibly bring the car to Amarillo for a "Babe Ruth" day during Sox games next year.
Shelton said he also plans to use the car to help raise money for charities.
"I want to share the car with baseball fans," Shelton said. "And the greatest thing will be if we are able to use this car to bring relief for kids who have special needs, even adopt a kid to help them out. I'm on board for that."
No doubt, Lonnie Shelton is on board for taking a baseball ride of a lifetime.