When Babe Met Duke At Waikiki

This autographed copy of a 1933 photo of Duke Kahanamoku and Babe Ruth went up for auction on Lelands.com. Photoo from Lelands.com

I’ve seen the old black-and-white photo of Duke Kahanamoku and Babe Ruth together on the sands of Waikiki several times. One of the copies is on the wall of The Shack sports bar and restaurant in Kailua.

I was always fascinated by the photograph of two of the most famous men in sports history, standing almost majestically sideby-side about to board an outrigger canoe with Diamond Head in the background. What amazed me, given all the stories about the New York Yankees slugger’s weight, was the shape he was in. The photograph, taken in October 1933, shows that Ruth was a powerfully built man, for sure.

Now I’ve found out that there is an autographed copy of the photo. Eric Mommsen, a third-grade teacher in New Hampshire, says his grandfather Lt. Durward Mommsen, an amateur photographer who was stationed at Pearl Harbor and had his own developing lab, held onto the famous photo for years.

“It sat (framed) in my sock drawer for years, and I would like to see it somewhere where it’s appreciated. It’s silly sitting in my bureau drawer,” he says. “Around here, people are Red Sox fans, and you know about the famous ‘Curse of the Bambino.’ There are people here in New England who would destroy the photo. I’m not kidding.”

Mommsen put the autographed photo up for auction on Lelands.com, the largest baseball auction house. Bidding on it ended Dec. 16. At last check, bids for the autographed photo of the two sports legends was well over $2,000. “If for some reason, it ends up in Hawaii,” he says, “it will give me a reason to come and visit.”

Mommsen, who has never been to the Islands, has Hawaii roots. “My grandmother (Violet) was born in Hawaii, and so was my father,” he says. “I wish I knew more about the history of the photograph; I asked my grandmother about it when I was young. She remembered it, and says my grandfather either took the photo or helped developed the photo, she wasn’t sure. My grandfather’s handwriting is on the back of the photo.”

It is known that Ruth first came to the Islands in October 1933 after the conclusion of the World Series, and played in a number of exhibition games here.

One report dated Oct. 23, 1933, from United Press was written this way:


HONOLULU (T.H.). Oct. 23. -(U.P.)-Babe Ruth hit the first ball pitched to him for a home run when the visiting major league players defeated the local Wanderers here yesterday, 5 to 1. Before the game started Ruth complained that the baseballs provided were “second grade.” The contest drew a crowd of 11,000, the largest ever to attend a baseball game here.

Ruth also played exhibition games in Hilo on that same trip, and helped commemorate the planting of a banyan tree that can still be seen along historic Banyan Drive in Hilo.

Kahanamoku, of course, was legendary in the Islands for his ocean skills. Former Star-Bulletin sports editor Red McQueen eulogized him as “the Babe Ruth of swimming and surfing.”

“There’s probably a thousand Babe Ruth autographs out there,” says Mommsen, “but this photo is interesting because it also has Duke Kahanamoku’s autograph. The value is more historical than monetary.”

You can check out the autographed photo by going to Lelands.com. The photo is listed in the December baseball autographs catalog as Lot 163.

“Several of these photos have surfaced over the years,” says Mommsen, “but this is the only known autographed photo of the two famous men (together). It’s truly an unusual piece of Hawaii history.”