Through its sheer numbers, the phony autographs seized by the FBI during the famous Operation Bullpen raid in October of 1999 made headlines.
The most prolific member of the forgery ring, Greg Marino, told FBI investigators that he had worked day and night for years, signing as many as one million autographs.
A lot of them wound up in FBI files and storage rooms.
Some were destroyed.
Many came to rest in the hands of unsuspecting collectors. A lot of them are probably still sitting on shelves all over North America, their owners blissfully unaware they own a Marino, not a Mantle.
The autographed sports memorabilia churned out by the industry's biggest forgery ring of all time was staggering. The FBI finally caught up with those responsible and seized more than 10,000 baseballs carrying faked signatures of everyone from Babe Ruth to Ronald Reagan. There were more bogus items, of course. So many it took a 10,000-square foot southern California warehouse to hold them all. If they had all been real, the value would have easily topped $10 million at the time.
We'll never know the whereabouts of all of the "signed" items that were sold before the raid. We know now, however, that a huge quantity of them wound up in the hands of noted collector Charlie Conlon.
Long before his death, likely when the forgers were still at work and a few years before the dawn of autograph authentication businesses, Conlon had apparently arranged a trade with someone who had access to what must have seemed like a treasure trove of Hall of Famer autographs, fresh, clean and boxed.
When Conlon died in 2008, the executors of his estate turned his large collection of baseball cards and other memorabilia over to Robert Edward Auctions. Included in the stash were those boxes and boxes of baseballs signed by Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and other stars. More than 2,000 of them... each and every one a fake.
"Charlie was not an autograph guy," said REA President Rob Lifson. "He loved to horse trade if he could make what he thought was a good deal and he had all of these cases of 1975 Topps minis. He'd often sell the star cards from the cases and trade off everything else. I would guess at some point that he probably traded for the baseballs."
As REA went about the process of selling the best items in Conlon's collection, there were decisions to be made. The autographs on the baseballs weren't real, but the baseballs themselves were. Mint, shiny white National and American League baseballs. Too nice to just toss in a big dumpster somewhere.
Lifson discussed the issue with the executor of the estate and a decision was made to find an organization that would take them and put them to use in the way they were originally intended when they rolled out of the Rawlings factory. Youth baseball programs came to mind.
"The executor told us 'oh, Charlie would love that'," Lifson recalled.
Lifson contacted PitchInforBaseball.org, an organization that provides equipment to needy organizations and children around the world.
That was a year ago. It would have been easy to ship them out immediately, but such a move could have backfired.
Feeling uneasy about pushing non-genuine signed baseballs out the door without knowing that they might wind up back on the market, Lifson stacked them in his garage and enlisted the help of his two young children.
"They'd bring a few boxes in, sit down with a magic marker and draw a big line across the signature," he said with a chuckle. "I felt like I was running a sweat shop but they kept at it. Thankfully, they work cheap."
Dozens of 16-count boxes of
baseballs got the treatment. Finally, a few days ago, the project was finished.
Lifson got back in touch with Pennsylvania-based Pitch in For Baseball and Wednesday morning, a van arrived to haul them away.
Not surprisingly, it's the largest donation of baseballs the non-profit organization has ever received.
"Baseballs are a very pressing need," Executive Director David Rhode told Sports Collectors Daily in an email he sent while working in China. "Requests always outstrip supply, so this is a very important donation in our desire to help children. Without a donation such as this, our organization either would have to go out and purchase baseballs or simply not be able to provide what the recipient organizations are requesting."
Pitch In For Baseball volunteers travel the globe, helping underserved organizations operate or launch baseball programs. 2,000 new baseballs is a welcome donation--even if they've got a little extra ink on them.
"We have programs throughout South and Central America as well as Europe and Africa applying for help," Rhode said. "Two programs in particular we would be helping will be in Colombia, South America and Uganda."
They will arrive through a most peculiar route but sometimes it's the long journeys that wind up being the best.