"I could never wear the hat because my head was too big," the Connecticut resident said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "The baseball to me is historic. I know statistically those four batters were four of the top 20 batters in the history of baseball."
The hat and ball are among items Ellis and his wife, Jill, received from Jill's mother, Laurel Steigler, in 1998. The collection, which includes various photographs, letters and signed documents, and baseballs, is now available as part of Heritage Auctions' latest offering.
Gehrig batted .340 with 493 home runs and 1,995 RBIs over his 17 years with the New York Yankees, helping the team win six World Series titles. He played in 2,130 consecutive games — a record that stood until Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. broke it 1995. Gehrig retired in 1939 because amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), later called Lou Gehrig's disease. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year and died in 1941.
Steigler originally inherited the items from Lou Gehrig's mother, Christina. Steigler and her husband, George, were longtime friends with Christina Gehrig when she and her husband, Heinrich, lived in the New York suburb of Mamaroneck.
Sometime after Heinrich Gehrig died in 1946, Christina went to live with the Steiglers in Milford, Connecticut. Christina Gehrig stayed with them for several years until they helped her get her own place in Milford. When she died in 1954, she left part of the collection of her son's memorabilia in her will to the Steiglers.
Bob Ellis married Jill in 1964, and got the ball and hat from his mother-in-law over the years. The rest of the items were kept in a safe in the Steiglers' house. After George Steigler died, Jill encouraged her mother to decide what she ultimately wanted to do with the collection.
So, in 1998, Laurel Steigler divided the items between Jill and brother Kenny, who sold what he received in 2001, according to Bob Ellis. The rest remained in Laurel Steigler's safe until she died in 2014, when Ellis said the safe was transferred to his house.
The items remained untouched until two years ago. Ellis then came across letters, signed checks, a copy of a 1930 speech, a signed car registration and all the photographs. "That's when we were like, wow, look at all this stuff that was available that we never paid attention to," Ellis said.
Since his son and daughter weren't interested in the items, Ellis thought about selling the collection. When he attended a meeting of baseball enthusiasts in Derby, Connecticut, called the Silver Sluggers last August, Ellis said group host Rich Marazzi — a rules consultant for major league teams — encouraged him to contact Heritage Auctions.
The following month, Ellis and his son, Scott, met with Heritage representatives in New York to determine which items had value. The Gehrig hat was certified by Mears, one of the leading memorabilia authentication companies, and estimated to be worth at least $200,000.
"It's the finest condition Gehrig cap that's ever come to market," said Chris Ivy, Heritage's director of sports auctions. "The condition on it is just astounding. It pretty much looks exactly like it did when Gehrig wore it in the '30s."
Ellis said the hat is big hit whenever shown at group meetings. "I offered to let people take a picture with the hat on and that absolutely was a highlight for those people." he said. "Most of which were older people and they knew the legacy of Gehrig. A couple people told me that to take that picture to their senior citizen group the next week was the thrill of a lifetime."
The ball signed by the four Hall of Famers was valued by Heritage at $20,000, and the photographs range from $100 to at least $4,000. Ellis said he and his wife plan to give some of the money from the items to their son, daughter and three grandchildren.
"There's no intention for us to go and take crazy trips," he said.
Follow Vin Cherwoo at www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP