This is the third in a series of SCD’s ongoing investigations into fraud. If you have information that could help expose what is the bane of the hobby, please contact Editor-at-Large Greg Bates at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Ted Williams and his son, John Henry, connected later in Ted’s life, it was the son who took a wholehearted effort in his affairs.
The late Red Sox legend was always a popular figure whether it was in his adopted hometown of Boston or a small baseball-loving town anywhere in the United States.
Ted would attend card shows and sports conventions late in his life and sign autographs. He enjoyed mingling with fans and providing his John Hancock.
John Henry would always accompany his dad to the autograph sessions. The slugger’s only son was always happy to authenticate any of his dad’s iconic signatures for no charge. John Henry ran Ted Williams Family Enterprises, Ltd., which dealt with licensing regarding Williams’ name.
Licensing became a big issue, especially when Williams was alive. Another prevalent problem were forged signatures and photos of the best Red Sox player of all time.
When the Williams father and son duo attended card shows, sometimes their family attorney, Peter Sutton, would come along.
“I’d go to a card show and I’d see hundreds of items that were fake – I’m not talking 10 or 20,” Sutton said.
Sutton, an attorney who specializes in bankruptcy and bankruptcy fraud, was the Williams’ family attorney from about 1995-2004. Williams died at age 83 in July 2002; his son passed away of acute myelogenous leukemia at just 35 years old in 2004.
In the mid-1990s, Sutton’s son would scout out shows prior to Williams’ attending.
“We’d find all the Ted Williams stuff that was forged and then we’d go send cease-and-desist letters,” said Sutton, who noted there are two or three telltale signs about real Williams autographs, but he doesn’t want to divulge those to tip off forgers.
It wasn’t just one or two people in the Boston area forging Williams autographs, it was a number of folks nationwide. And, according to Sutton, the signatures weren’t accurate portrayals of Williams at all.
“John Henry and I visited a card store in Watertown Mall (in Massachusetts) and saw a Ted-signed baseball,” Sutton said. “When John Henry asked the owner how he got it, he said he got it handed to him by Ted’s son. Obviously, he had no idea to whom he was speaking.”
John Henry – who always told Sutton that he believed 70 percent of the autographs he saw on the market of his dad’s were forged – was adamant about stopping the forgeries and the forgers.
“He said, ‘You know, if anyone’s going to make money off my father, it’s going to be me and my father,’” Sutton said. “Remember, Ted needed 24-hour care, and that’s a lot of money.”
Williams, the former 19-time All-Star and six-time American League batting champion, required around-the-clock care in large part because he had suffered multiple strokes in the mid-’90s. Later that decade, Williams couldn’t sign baseballs because of his condition.
“We knew that any ball that was printed after a certain day was forged,” Sutton said. “John Henry had purchased a lot of balls by the case, so we called the ball manufacturing company and had them put dates on the back of the cowhide when they were stitching it on the ball. That led to another lawsuit.”
“The Splendid Splinter” had a contract with Upper Deck to sign baseballs. But when it was announced that Williams’ stroke had left him unavailable to fulfill his contract to sign items, Upper Deck dropped him. Sutton countered by suing the popular trading card company.
“They said, ‘Well, why are you suing us? He can’t sign balls,’” Sutton recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, he can. He can sign the flat cowhide and then you can stitch it on the ball.’”
One popular forged Williams item is still on the market today. The “Boys of Boston” is a 1992 photo of Williams, Celtics great Larry Bird and Bruins star Bobby Orr with all three holding up their team jerseys. The prints were autographed by all three Boston icons and numbered to 1,000 along with a hologram.
When the photo was released, about 100 of the original autographed copies were stolen by an employee of a memorabilia store in Boston. The “/1,000” inscriptions were airbrushed out, copies were made of the photo and they were sold as originals. Any photos that came on the market that were not numbered to 1,000 and sans a hologram were deemed fake.
“We used to go around and I’d find them in kiosks and I’d take them,” Sutton said. “I’d give them my card and I’d say, ‘Sue me. This is a forgery. Here, give it to your boss. I’m taking this.’”
Guess what? Sutton never got sued.
But those fake photos are still floating around 20 years later.
“If you look at Google or eBay right now, you can see the fakes that are on there,” said Sutton, who traced a lot of fakes back to one guy and sent him a cease-and-desist letter. “You still have three people you owe royalties to because their pictures appeared on those things.”
Photocopies that were sold as originals – mostly in the Boston area, noted Sutton – violated trademark and copyright laws.
Behind the Big Sting
The impetus behind the biggest sports memorabilia forgery sting in history, Operation Bullpen and later Operation Foul Ball, was all John Henry Williams, said Sutton.
John Henry dealt with the FBI and gave it a ton of information. The FBI couldn’t use Ted Williams to trap the forgers because Williams couldn’t identify his own signature later in his life. Instead, John Henry suggested the FBI use Michael Jordan because of his exclusive autograph contract with Upper Deck, noted Sutton.
“John Henry Williams policed it, dealt with the feds and gave them the names,” Sutton said. “They did a couple of stings, and the rest is history. Read the books.”
In the ‘90s, Operation Foul Ball was launched by the Chicago Division of the FBI and targeted individuals “who forged, fraudulently authenticated and distributed Chicago athletes’ autograph memorabilia, including that of Michael Jordan.” That case resulted in the conviction of 14 individuals in five states. FBI in San Diego used information from Operation Foul Ball and Upper Deck to conduct an undercover operation to infiltrate the fraudulent network leading to the success of Operation Bullpen.
In October 1999, after an extensive FBI investigation involving 400 agents, Operation Bullpen executed about 60 search warrants in five states and seized $500,000 in cash and approximately $10 million of forge memorabilia, including 10,000 forged baseballs signed by a variety of athletes and celebrities. As a result, 63 were convicted, 18 forgery rings were dismantled, over $300,000 of restitution was paid to more than 1,000 victims, and $15 million in economic loss was prevented.
When Williams passed away, forgeries of his items slowed down, but not entirely.
“The market was full of forgeries and unlicensed photos by those who sought to make a buck on Ted’s name and image without paying a royalty,” Sutton said. “Baseball card companies paid money to use Ted’s image and name on their cards, while others flooded the market with similar items without permission. I have seen so many unlicensed items with Ted’s image such as dinner plates and fake dollar bills with Ted’s photo.”
In this day and age, how do we slow down the forgers? Can we?
“John Henry’s theory was, you should only buy from legitimate people,” Sutton said. “For example, a legitimate person will not buy a baseball from a person. In other words, if you’re at a card show and somebody has a baseball, how did they get it? ‘Well, I bought it from someone.’ That was the excuse. ‘Well, how do you know it’s real?’ How can you sell it on the market if you don’t know it’s real?
“So, who do you buy it from? You buy it from the company that stands behind it like Upper Deck or you buy it from the person that signed it.”
Sutton, just like John Henry Williams, doesn’t want the general public to get duped by forgers.
“You have to educate the public not to buy an autograph second hand,” Sutton said. “A certificate of authenticity, those are forged, too, and they don’t mean anything.”
Of John Henry’s involvement in combating fraud in the hobby, Sutton stated that Ted’s son “took it upon himself, at his own expense, to police the sport’s autograph and copyright industry to make sure that the consumer got a legitimate item, as opposed to a fake item.”