By Kevin Nelson
[Editor’s note: This is the second in our series on the notorious Operation Bullpen case.)
The most notorious forgery produced by the Operation Bullpen conspiracy was, undoubtedly, the Mother Teresa baseball, supposedly signed by the late Christian missionary who devoted her life to serving the poor. But if the Mother Teresa forgery was No. 1, what was No. 2?
I asked myself this question as I was looking over the photographs of the forgeries given to me by the FBI when I was doing research for my book, ‘Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History’. Many of these images were reproduced in the book, or on the book’s website. But an assortment of them has been filed away in my computer the past half-dozen years, collecting digital dust.
Recently a friend of mine forwarded me a discussion about Operation Bullpen that occurred on net54baseball.com, in which one of the posters talked about all the forgeries that had been confiscated by the FBI in its investigations, and wouldn’t it be great to see more images of those forgeries. This way, he and other collectors could compare the Bullpen fakes with what was being peddled in the marketplace today, and thus be able to make more informed judgments on what was real and what was not.
This struck me as a very reasonable suggestion. The collecting hobby has been tremendously supportive of me and my work, and it seemed almost selfish to let these images languish in computer limbo any longer. So, beginning with last Friday’s opening piece on Operation Bullpen and continuing today, with three more pieces to come in the next couple of weeks, a set of these images are being set free, together with some supporting information and observations. (In today’s piece, the Ruth baseballs and cuts have appeared previously, but the other photos, to my knowledge, are making their public debut.)
Today, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Most any collectible having to do with these two Yankee immortals is highly desirable and very valuable—and thus presents a rich mother lode of possibilities for forgers. If you’re a person seeking to deceive, you must create the perception of authenticity. It would be ludicrous, of course, to see Lou Gehrig’s signature on a 2013 Sports Illustrated cover—that’s an obvious fake, the man has been dead for 70 years, everyone knows that.
Ah, but to see his autograph on a 1930s baseball magazine—that’s not does not task the credibility quite as much, does it?
But it’s a fake. So is this Gehrig baseball.
In fact, so are all these “cuts” shown here, all produced by the original Bullpen gang brought down by the FBI in late 1999. A cut, in the lingo of collectors, is essentially a piece of paper signed by a superstar athlete or celebrity. Cuts were far more popular in the past, when autograph hunters would mail index cards to their favorite stars asking for their signature. But the Bullpen forgers cynically exploited this innocent pastime, buying old books at thrift stores, ripping out the blank pages, and using the pages as the raw material for their forgeries. The cuts would then be framed under glass and artistically arranged with a photograph of the star. These handsome pieces would sell for thousands of dollars apiece at memorabilia shops, Las Vegas galleries, airports, and on the cable shopping channels.
The Bullpen gang harvested the pages from these old books, published in the 1930s and ‘40s, for the same reason they scooped up the Gehrig magazine—they were made when Babe and Lou were themselves around, lending an aura of authenticity to the trickery. This was also true for the pre-World War II Babe Ruth underwear box, which gets my vote for the second-wackiest forgery produced by these crooks.
You see Ruth autographs—and forgeries too, I’m sad to say—all over. But how often do you see his forged signature on a Babe Ruth-endorsed “All America Athletic Underwear” box? As dilapidated as it was, it was still a very unique artifact. Evidently David Beckham, Michael Jordan and Jim Palmer were not the first celebrity athletes to endorse men’s underwear; the Babe, as he did with most things, beat them all to the punch.
Although many Bullpen-era counterfeits are bought and sold today, there is one set of forgeries that is radioactive to virtually all auction sites and memorabilia dealers, even the crooked ones. Next time we will show you those beautiful yet commercially toxic fakes.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Ring in American History: www.OperationBullpen.com.