Editor’s note: This is the fourth in our series of special reports on Operation Bullpen, the infamous national forgery ring that was brought down by the FBI in 1999 but whose influence continues to be felt today.)
In the third installment in this series I talked about Greg Marino and his father Angelo, both of whom have paid their debt to society and moved on with their lives since being busted in Operation Bullpen. Marino, a man described by the FBI and many others as one of the fastest and best forgers of all time, spent two years in prison and another six months in a halfway house. At last report he was living somewhere in the Northeast and no doubt still avidly following his beloved New York Yankees.
The purpose of these articles is not to revisit his crimes or that of any other member of the Bullpen group. Having spoken to Greg and others who participated in the conspiracy, as well as the FBI agents that sent them to prison, I wish them all the best in their post-Bullpen lives. Nonetheless Marino’s very busy pen—as well as the busy pens of other forgers who were brought down with him—continues to cause headaches for collectors today. These beautiful but ultimately corrupt Michael Jordans and Babe Ruths and Mickey Mantles are bought and sold by people who think—or pretend to think—they’re genuine. Experienced sports autograph collectors may easily see these are fakes but many of the victims in the case were those who didn't have a deep knowledge of autographs.
One reason for the success of the Bullpen gang was that like all good businesspeople, they listened to what the marketplace was telling them and sought to give their customers what they wanted. Their most famous product, the notorious Mother Teresa baseball, was an example of this; so was the not quite as notorious, but still pretty goofy, autographed Babe Ruth underwear box. A crooked memorabilia dealer had found the unique Ruth-brand underwear box and although both he and Marino thought it very odd, they knew someone would buy it if it had Ruth’s signature on it. And someone would have if the FBI hadn’t gotten in the way first.
In his five years in the racket Marino filled countless orders. Some were bizarre but most of them made good business sense. A home plate with the sigs of Hall of Fame sluggers on it? Sure, we can do that.
How about an Eddie Matthews Braves jersey with Eddie’s signature and other members of the 500 Home Run Club on it? No problem.
In baseball as in collecting, home run sluggers are in constant demand. Could we have more of those pieces then? Of course you can. What about a ball signed by McCovey and Aaron? And Eddie Murray and Frank Robinson?
And what the heck, why not throw in Mantle and Williams while you’re at it? Okay, we will.
As you look at these images—given to me by the FBI when I was researching 'Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Ring in American History' and published, I believe, for the first time here—you may notice that the signatures all appear to be on the same ball. A combination signature of this type—or “combo,” as the Bullpenners called it—was not easily done, because it is hard to squeeze all those signatures onto a baseball and make them look good. (This is also true, though there is considerably more room to work, for the Matthews jersey). But, again, this was what the marketplace was demanding. The dealers would supply the blank baseballs and blank jerseys and other blank merchandise, and Marino would fill them with the signatures the dealers had ordered. It was, as Greg told me, a simple matter of supply and demand.
Each of these frauds, every one of the hundreds of thousands of forgeries produced by the ring, came with its own Certificate of Authenticity, a document supplied by a supposedly objective examiner who had inspected the item in question and deemed it legitimate. This was another thing the public demanded—reassurance that what they were buying was real. The crooks were only happy to supply that as well. In our next and final installment in this series, we will take a look at the certs that provided the cover for the forgeries.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Ring in American History: www.OperationBullpen.com.
Here are the previous installments in Nelson’s series: