What began as an adventurous trip by a rabid baseball fan nearly 80 years ago will likely end in a big payday for his descendants.
In August, a ball signed by the 11 living members of the first Hall of Fame class fetched $623,369 in an SCP Auctions sale. Now, SCP is selling what it calls “the second finest known” autographed ball from that June 1939 ceremony in Cooperstown, New York.
“My son Ryan said, ‘Did you see that a ball sold for $623,000?’” New Jersey resident Mike Cullen said. “And I said, ‘I’ve got the exact same baseball.’”
From Cooperstown to Consignment
Cullen, 63, contacted SCP Auctions and put the PSA/DNA authenticated ball up for sale in SCP’s Fall Premier Auction, which begins Nov. 21 and runs through Dec. 8. Opening bid is set at $25,000. He also is selling an autographed baseball from the 1937 All-Star Game, which includes a Lou Gehrig signature.
But the 11 signatures on the baseball, obtained on the day of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s dedication ceremony, will draw the most interest. In an email, David Kohler of SCP Auctions estimated that this ball — a Reach brand stamped with the signature of American League President Will Harridge — could possibly sell in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.
While the ball that sold in August belonged to former major-leaguer Marv Owen, the ball being offered by SCP later this month originally belonged to Cullen’s father, Thomas Cullen of West Orange, New Jersey. Cullen was 22 in 1939 when he and friends Irv Epstein and Buddy McConnell commandeered a car and drove to Cooperstown.
Thomas Cullen managed to get 10 of the Hall of Famers to sign the ball at the dedication National Baseball Hall of Fame, and later in the day got Ty Cobb to sign in the lobby of the hotel where the Georgia Peach was staying. One part of the ball was signed by Babe Ruth, Napoleon Lajoie (signed as “Larry”) and Grover Cleveland Alexander; a second part bore the signatures of Eddie Collins, Honus Wagner and Cobb; a third part was autographed by Connie Mack, Tris Speaker and George Sisler; and the final area of the ball was signed by Cy Young and Walter Johnson.
“The ball must have cost a buck or two,” Mike Cullen said. “I’d say it appreciated really well.”
Thomas Cullen shellacked the ball, but the black ink fountain pen signatures of the Hall of Famers remain bold. He kept the ball and never tired of telling the story of how he obtained the autographs. When the U.S Postal Service issued a stamp honoring the 50th anniversary of the Hall of Fame’s opening, Thomas attached one to the baseball.
“He had it on display on the bureau in the dining room,” Mike Cullen said. “He gave it to me (in 1987) after he moved to a retirement home on the Jersey shore.
“I put it in a safety deposit box and it sat there for 30 years.”
Occasionally, Mike would take the baseball out and show it to friends. One day during the late 1990s he showed it to LeRoy Hammer, a respected baseball coach for American Legion Post 201 in Livingston, New Jersey. Hammer asked if he could show it to a friend and Mike consented.
Hammer took the baseball — hiding it in a paper bag, along with the autographed ball from the 1937 All-Star Game — to his friend, noted memorabilia collector Barry Halper, who offered Mike between $10,000 and $15,000 for each ball.
Mike declined the deal and returned his memorabilia to the safety deposit box. In 2010, he showed it to Jimmy Spence of James Spence Authentication.
“The guy took a look at the ball and he almost fainted,” Mike said.
Mike contacted the Hall of Fame and asked officials if they wanted to borrow the ball on loan to display it, but said he was turned down, although they offered to buy it.
“I just wanted to do something that would get my dad recognized,” he said.
But Mike realized he was sitting on a bigger payday and waited.
Soldier, Firefighter, Fan
Thomas Cullen never lost his love for baseball, rooting for the New York Yankees and calling Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra and pitcher Al Leiter his favorite players. The elder Cullen worked 30 years as a firefighter with the West Orange Fire Department. Before that, he served as a staff sergeant in what would come to be called the U.S. Air Force during World War II, seeing action overseas in Saipan. He met his wife, Helen Sarlund, a former receptionist for a life insurance company, during World War II when she worked as a parachute rigger.
The couple rooted for the Yankees and attended games at Yankee Stadium. Helen died in 1989 and Thomas passed away in 1997.
Mike’s younger brother Timothy, 62, followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a firefighter with the West Orange Fire Department before retiring as a captain. Mike has worked 43 years with Public Service and Gas of New Jersey, where he oversees collections and meter readings.
A Plan for the Proceeds
Mike Cullen is hoping to clear enough money to take a trip to his ancestral home of Ireland, and also to France, where his father’s younger brother is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. Joseph P. Cullen, a private for the U.S. 8th Infantry, 4th Division, was a private who won a Purple Heart when he was killed at Normandy on June 15, 1944, nine days after the D-Day landings.
“Dad didn’t like flying, so he never went to see his brother’s grave,” Mike said. “I’d like to go to Normandy and then go to Ireland.”
Mike has two sons and a daughter, while Timothy has two sons. The brothers will use the proceeds from the auction to set up accounts for their children.
Mike admitted that he had mixed feelings about parting with the baseball. “
When I gave the ball to my son (Ryan) to take to Dan Imler (SCP’s managing director), I had separation anxieties,” he said. “That ball was part of my dad. But now was the time.
“I think it’s something to lock up for the kids. I’d rather pass out the cash instead of taking a saw and cutting up the ball in five pieces.”