By Kevin Nelson
(Editor’s note: This is the second in our series on Operation Bullpen, the notorious national forgery ring that ripped off American consumers for $100 million before it was brought down by the FBI in 1999. For the first installment in this series, CLICK HERE.)
Forgers, counterfeit memorabilia dealers and bogus authenticators may have less than stellar ethical standards, but it is not fair to say that they do not work hard. Some of them are as hardworking as the superstar athletes whose signatures they forge and sell. Although many crooks are truly hacks who care about nothing but making money and ripping people off, the best in the racket show real skill and craft in what they do.
This was surely true of the Bullpen crew at its best, and I was reminded of this again when I was looking at the photos we’re publishing in this series – photos that were given to me by the FBI when I was doing research for my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Bullpen’s chief forger was Greg Marino, whose favorite ballplayer was Mickey Mantle. It was also his favorite signature to do, and his Mantle was, and is, considered to be state of the art for a Mantle forgery.
The classic shot of Mantle is the one that accompanies this article – handsome, beaming, in his glorious prime, with the No. 7 beneath his (forged) signature. But another Mantle forgery on a baseball sort of tripped me up. I thought to myself, “That’s odd. This can’t be right. They must’ve made a mistake. Everyone knows Mantle’s uniform number was 7.” Then I looked it up and found out that when Mantle first came up to the majors he wore No. 6. After struggling early, he was sent down to the minors. When he returned to the Yankees his number was switched to 7.
Voila! So the mistake was mine, not the crooks whose research in this instance was impeccable. The Bullpen crew compiled big fat binders of “exemplars,” authentic signatures that Marino looked at when he was creating his inauthentic ones. But when you are forging the hugely valuable signature of Babe Ruth, you must be careful not just about the signature but also about the materials you use. The Ruth forgeries were often done with vintage pens in which the nib of the pen was dipped into a bottle of World War II-era blue-black ink – all materials that predated Ruth’s death in 1948 and are consistent with his time.
Even a person who is not savvy about forgery – and there are many autograph shoppers who fall into this category – might realize that if a Ruth signature appears on a baseball made after 1948, the autograph on it must be fake. Knowing this, the Bullpen crew hunted constantly for vintage balls from that era, although they’re not that easy to find. This led them to concoct one of their craftiest ruses of all. They found old baseballs, cleaned them of their modern markings, had them signed and then shellacked, preserving them in much the same way valuable balls in Ruth’s time were. To create that musty smell of antiquity that people associate with old things, they aged the balls for a few days in a bag of dog food. Gullible collectors bought these balls encased in shellac and aged in Purina for thousands of dollars apiece.
The point is, forgers and their ilk are a resourceful group. They do what they need to do to fool people and sell their bogus products. That is as true today as it was true back when Billy Costa was working the racket. Costa was a lone operator, not a member of the California Bullpen gang or any other forgery ring. But he deserves mention in this discussion because he, too, was as crafty as they come. Old and sick and living in a Brooklyn apartment, Billy created New York Highlander replica stamps that were based on an actual 1904 Highlander ticket stub. He stripped the trademarks off old baseballs, re-sanded the horsehide and applied the Highlander stamp and many other old-time self-created stamps to the balls. Then, to complete the ruse, he packaged the balls in vintage boxes that he also built himself, bending and crushing and ripping them a little to create the illusion of age and wear. (To my knowledge, these pictures of Costa’s handiwork, as well as the Mantle No. 6 ball, have never been shown to the public.)
As colorful as a character in a Martin Scorsese mob movie, Billy explained to an undercover FBI operative how to scrub down a new ball to make it look old (Oxyclean and steel wool), and how to use cotton and bleach to get rid of the date on Mantle photographs printed after his death to make it appear they were printed when he alive. Billy never did any prison time for these gambits because, since he was so old, no prosecutor would take the case, and he was never formally charged. This crusty old con man has almost certainly moved on to the Big House in the Sky.
Next time, we’ll take a look back at the 1998 Home Run Chase and how that created a “perfect storm” for counterfeiters – and what collectors today can learn from it.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Ring in American History. Read the first installment in Nelson’s series: Operation Bullpen, and Why Forgers Don’t Always Hit the Sweet Spot.