By Kevin Nelson
On October 13, 1999, the FBI crashed the party of a bunch of guys who found a way to make money fall from the sky. On that day hundreds of federal agents raided dozens of homes and businesses in six states and seized a mountain of forged memorabilia and a half-million dollars in cold hard cash, busting up what was the biggest autograph forgery ring in American history.
And yet, thirteen years later, the impact of that notorious ring on the collecting hobby remains. Beginning today, in a special five-part series for Sports Collectors Daily, we will look back at the ring and see some pictures of forgeries that have never been shown to the public before.
The investigation—code-named “Operation Bullpen” by the FBI, a reference to all the bull being produced by the pens of the forgers—became a national sensation in the spring of 2000 when the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge held up a baseball at a press conference in San Diego that was supposedly signed by Mother Teresa. Forging the signature of the beloved Christian missionary, on a baseball no less, struck many commentators as laughable and absurd.
Nevertheless, the FBI regarded the ring as serious business—and a big one too. Signed memorabilia—baseballs, basketballs, footballs, jerseys, caps, photos, posters—is an estimated $1 billion annual industry in the U.S. According to the FBI, the forgers and their associates defrauded American consumers of $100 million by selling them things that people thought were legitimately signed by Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods and other superstars but were in fact fake.
In March 2002, in what it described as “phase two” of its Operation Bullpen investigation, the FBI staged more raids of forgers and counterfeit dealers in New York, New Jersey and other parts of the country, including the biggest seller of fake-signed celebrity photographs in the world. All told, the Bureau says it busted up 18 forgery rings, obtained more than 60 charges and convictions, and seized tens of thousands of forgeries and $5 million in illegal cash and goods in its investigations over the years.
Yet another FBI investigation, code-named “Operation Foul Ball,” broke up a Chicago forgery ring in 1996, rounding up more crooks and more fake memorabilia. This local Chicago FBI case led to the broader, national-in-scope Operation Bullpen investigation conducted by the San Diego FBI.
Beyond the impressive law enforcement numbers, though, Operation Bullpen remains an endless source of fascination and speculation among collectors, in part, I think, because most everyone in the hobby recognizes that the plague of forgery has hardly ended. It is still widespread. Some might even argue that the problem is worse than in 1999, due to the fact that the Internet—which gives con artists the ability to move fast and cloak their identities—is so much bigger now than it was then.
In 2006 my book about the case, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, was published. It remains in print to this day and continues to sell. A development deal has been struck in Hollywood to make it into a movie, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame has worked with the FBI to collect counterfeit material with the idea of someday doing an exhibit on the case in Cooperstown. And seven years after the book’s release, I still receive emails from collectors and others asking me questions about the ring, usually wondering if the signed Mickey Mantle or Dan Marino piece they own is real or not.
The pictures that accompany this article were taken by the FBI at the press conference in 2000 and then at another press event five years later. All of these photos, to my knowledge, have never been seen before, although there were news photographers at both events who possibly took similar images. The publicity had one main purpose: to show off how much loot federal investigators had taken off the streets. The 2005 press conference—in which Lance Alworth, the retired San Diego Chargers football legend, spoke—had a dual purpose as well.
Most of the sports gear seized by the FBI was perfectly good except for the fraudulent signatures on them. Because of the forgeries, however, all those balls and bats could not be released to the public. Not wanting to destroy all this potentially usable stuff, the FBI embarked on a long and laudable campaign to deface the forged signatures. Once they did this, the agency donated the gear to local sports leagues and youth groups for their use.
For me, what is striking about these pictures is not the sheer quantity of material seized by the FBI, although there was certainly a lot of it. (The fake goods confiscated in 1999 alone filled up one warehouse and part of another storage facility.) Rather, it is the realization that this is only the tip of the iceberg, the stuff the FBI actually got. The rest of it—the hundreds of thousands of fake pieces produced and sold and distributed by the ring—is still largely out there, still in the hands of collectors and the unsuspecting, still being bought and sold and bought and sold on eBay and all the other online auction sites and emporiums. And this is another reason for the fascination with the case: Though the ring has been brought down, their work remains.
Tomorrow, we look at some of the Ruthian forgeries produced by the ring, including one of its wackiest products: a signed Babe Ruth-brand underpants box.
Kevin Nelson spent three years researching and writing Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Ring in American History. www.OperationBullpen.com