May 2017: Babe Ruth Baseballs
It’s May, which means the baseball season is in full swing. For fans, baseball season means hot summer days at the ballpark, home runs, curveballs, and peanuts and cracker jacks. For criminals, though, it may seem like a prime opportunity to make money through fraud. And that’s just what happened in the U.S. in the 1990s.
In the 1990s, the FBI realized there was a major problem threatening the sports and celebrity memorabilia market, and the FBI initiated a sports memorabilia fraud investigation. The investigation initially focused on individuals who forged, fraudulently authenticated, and distributed Chicago athletes’ autographed memorabilia.
The FBI and United States Attorney’s Office worked jointly with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to begin an undercover operation into the fraud in order to take down the criminal enterprise. The undercover operation involved an undercover agent who would pose as a distributor of American memorabilia in Asia so that the FBI could purchase evidence without selling forged items to the public.
It also enabled the investigators to record statements from the criminals talking knowingly about the fraud and conspiring to avoid law enforcement detection. The investigators also worked with professional baseball players to identify forged autographs.
In late 1999, the FBI and IRS were prepared to take down the enterprise and executed over 60 search warrants across the country, with over 400 special agents involved in the operation. The FBI and IRS seized over $500,000 in cash and approximately $10 million in forged memorabilia, including over 10,000 forged baseballs. Items seized had autographs from athletes and celebrities like Mother Teresa, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, and Sammy Sosa.
The FBI and IRS also seized or purchased hundreds of “cut” autographs, which are pieces of paper containing an autograph of an individual who is long dead, to include the autograph cuts of President George Washington, James Dean, Walt Disney, and Elvis Presley.
The May 2017 Artifact of the Month is a collection of forged baseballs containing professional baseball player Babe Ruth’s autograph that were recovered in Operation Bullpen. Operation Bullpen stands out among FBI investigations for the successful infiltration and dismantling of a major, nationwide network of forgers, authenticators, wholesalers, and retailers responsible for the creation and sale of up to $100 million in forged memorabilia across the entire U.S.