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A Considerable Town

I Thought I Found a Historic Baseball in an Altadena Park

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Thu, Jul 18, 2013 at 11:22 AM
click to enlarge ballcollector.jpg

My balls are fake. After almost three months of allowing myself to believe that I might, indeed, have stumbled upon Lou Gehrig's home-run ball from the 1937 World Series, and another even more valuable ball signed by the 19th-century Hall of Famer Vic "The Delaware Peach" Willis, the balls have come back from an authenticator. My balls are the sports versions of saints' bones, relics created by crooks preying on our need to own a piece of greatness.

I plucked the balls from damp grass one April morning when walking my dogs in Altadena's Farnsworth Park. At the time, I didn't bother to read the scribbling on their sides. Most of the balls I pick up have some kind of initials on them. Occasionally a kid will even have scrawled a message. "Jake's ball!" Sorry, Jake. I collect baseballs. You lost it, I found it.

Days when I find lost baseballs never fail to feel mildly enchanted, as if hot dogs and beer are waiting at home. Found balls are dropped in a bowl on the back porch where, if I could paint, I would paint them just as lovingly as Cézanne painted apples and oranges.

The Willis and Gehrig balls were my first finds of 2013, pocketed a week after the season opened on Easter Sunday. When soon thereafter my sportswriter friend David Davis stopped by for coffee, as a joke I dropped one of the balls in a brown paper lunch bag, folded the top and presented it to him as if it would solve all his woes. He'd been wrestling with how to treat a story about a long-lost home run ball from the last time the Dodgers won a World Series.

But he didn't laugh when he opened the bag. "Where'd you get this?" he demanded. I told him that I found it. My laptop sat next to him on the kitchen table. He spun it toward him, flipped it open, searched "Vic Willis" and began reeling off stats: 50 shutouts, 2.63 ERA, a completed 388 of 471 starts.

When I produced the other ball I'd found the same day, he was dumbstruck. The inscription read: "Lou Gehrig's 4th inning home run ball, 1937 World Series Game 4, Polo Grounds, Oct 9, 1937, Giants 7, Yankees 3." A few more laptop searches and he had what he was looking for. "That was Gehrig's last home run in a World Series," he said.

Next he began searching Gehrig signatures. We looked at real ones, then fake ones. "If it's a fake," Dave said, "it's a good one."

Bad fakes, he added, were terrible. "One ring of forgers was even selling baseballs signed by Mother Teresa."

Several days later, Dave shot over an email suggesting that I send the balls to a place called SCP Auctions, a sports memorabilia house in Orange County, where he'd been doing some research. "You never know."

After seeing photos of the balls, Dan Imler, SCP's managing director, asked to see them in person. At that point the balls were deemed good enough that the company whose April sports memorabilia auction had made more than $5 million wanted to send them to an authenticator.

As the balls cleared the first hurdle, Dave began sending me links to items about past auctions. A 1928 Gehrig home run ball sold last year for $62,617. The Willis ball would be worth more. How much more was anyone's guess. Off the top of his head, Imler ventured there might be three in circulation. If real, he said, it was "incredibly rare."

Skepticism has a way of evaporating when you want something to be true. As I began to accept that I had indeed stumbled upon the Turin Shroud of baseballs, the dilemma became: What to do with the balls or, more to the point, the huge amounts of money that I would make from them? I decided to have the auction house notify the FBI, or whatever agency had a lost-and-found division for sports memorabilia. If no owner came forward, the proceeds would go to a local Little League. Dave and I would choose the outfit.

While paying bills at the end of the month, I began thinking of keeping some, then all of the money. Sorry, Jake.

Months passed while authenticators put the leather under a black light, analyzed the stitches, scrutinized the signatures and dated the ink. But finally, in late June, the auction house phoned. The ink was too modern, and there was evidence that one of the balls had been purposely distressed.

Baseball giveth and baseball taketh away. But the mystery persisted. How did two balls with major-league pretenses end up in an Altadena park, where local Little Leagues vie for field time with senior citizen clubs?

When I thought that the balls might be real, a working fantasy involved a kid — let's call him Jake, too — who had raided his father's trophy case and had taken the balls to the park to play with his friends. It's the kind of thing I would have done.

Once the balls were deemed fake, though, the imaginary storyline centered on a forger who worked at a basement bench under a dangling bulb. After carefully sanding the leather, he flipped down magnifiers over his spectacles and carefully began applying ink. Beside him lay a sheet on which he'd practiced hundreds of Gehrig signatures, and hundreds more of Willises.

In yet another imagined scene, the father from the first scenario — let's call him Jake's dad — shrank in horror when authenticators told him he'd invested Jake's college fund in two forgeries. He was sure he'd double his money. Swigging scotch, he hurled the balls into the diamond where Jake plays Little League and collapsed sobbing as he searched for the courage to face his wife and son.

I had mailed the baseballs to the auction house in a recycled Jiffy bag. They came back registered mail in "UV-protected ball holders." It's tempting to leave the balls in the "Ultra Pro Display Series" boxes designed to keep the signatures from fading. Forgeries this good deserve compelling packaging.

But I don't collect baseballs so I can dust their cases. So I'm dumping the balls back in the bowl that sits on the back porch. These balls are relics, yes, and worthless to be sure, yet they are remnants of actual ballgames. My balls are real.


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