One of the most famous artifacts in the 3,000-year history of forgery, the Mother Teresa baseball, may go on display at a special Operation Bullpen exhibit being planned for next year by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Hall of Fame officials caution that their proposed exhibit on forgeries and fake memorabilia is only in the planning stages and not definitely scheduled yet. Nevertheless, they are enthusiastic about the project and ready to move ahead with it.
“We’re going to do it, no doubt,” said Ted Spencer, the Hall of Fame’s vice president and chief curator who is retiring in April. “It’s penciled in for the year after next, 2010. We’re all pumped to do it.”
The proposed Hall of Fame exhibit will tell the story of Operation Bullpen, the sensational forgery case that has been the subject of a popular book, television shows and widespread interest in the collecting world. There is also a movie under development in Hollywood about the scam that ripped off the American public for more than $100 million. Now, the most famous sports museum in the country is ready to take a swing at it.
Based on interviews with the Hall of Fame and FBI, here are the new details about the exhibit:
- The Hall of Fame and FBI are working closely together on it, and the Hall has already collected a number of fake pieces produced by the Bullpen gang that will be part of the display.
- Almost certainly, the notorious Mother Teresa baseball, supposedly signed by the late Roman Catholic nun, will be on display – the first public unveiling of the piece that created a media sensation when the FBI showed it off at a press conference after the 1999 bust of the nationwide ring.
- Other pieces on display will include forged baseballs and bats by Hall of Famers such as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, and forged photographs and “cuts” – index card-sized pieces of paper – by Babe Ruth and other stars.
- Using a compound microscope, magnifying lens or other forensic tools, exhibit visitors will be able to compare side-by-side samples of a fake Babe Ruth cut with his real signature.
- The Hall of Fame might also create a mock-up of the briefcase video with the pinhole camera lens that was used by an undercover operative to film Bullpen’s master forger, Greg Marino, forging baseballs on the kitchen table of his Southern California home.
- The Hall has already taped one interview with Special Agent Tim Fitzsimmons, Bullpen’s case agent, and it might tape interviews with FBI undercover agent John Ferreira and others so that the public can hear the story of the case in the words of those who participated in it.
However, the public will not hear from any of the people involved in the criminal conspiracy or even see their names in the exhibit.
“We won’t use any names in the exhibit,” Spencer said. “They made a mistake, and they’ve paid for it and we won’t use any of their names.”
The draw for the Hall
This element of the case – how most of those in the ring were basically law-abiding citizens until they decided to criminally exploit the public’s appetite for celebrity and sports autographs – is only one of many that has intrigued Hall of Fame officials.
“It’s fascinating in so many ways,” said Tom Shieber, a senior curator with the Hall. “These guys were suspected by the FBI and they knew they were being watched or at least strongly suspected it. They knew they needed to cool down and yet they still kept doing it. People say it’s greed. I don’t think it’s being greedy. It’s an addiction. The money is so easy, you can’t stop doing it.”
Shieber, Spencer and another Hall of Fame curator traveled to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va., in 2007 to see Peter Belcastro, a forensic document examiner with the FBI and an expert on forgeries who worked on the Bullpen case.
While analyzing the counterfeit material sent to him by Fitzsimmons and the FBI in San Diego, where the investigation was centered, Belcastro needed to see examples of legitimate signatures to compare them with the often superbly rendered fake ones being produced by the Bullpen gang. And where is the nation’s leading archive of authentic baseball signatures? Cooperstown, of course. So Belcastro and other FBI officials made several trips to the Hall to do research and take photographs of the exemplars.
A collecting connection
This turned out to be a lucky happenstance for the 40-year-old Belcastro, who’s a long-time baseball fan and collector. He started collecting baseball cards as a boy playing Little League in Maryland. His major league hero was Roberto Clemente, but he also followed the football Steelers and later, Cal Ripken Jr. (Being prized by collectors, Ripken and Clemente signatures were both forged heavily by the gang.) He now has thousands of baseball cards and hundreds of autographs, including the autographs of all living Hall of Famers.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he said, “so I’ve got a pretty extensive collection.”
Most of his autographs have been “personally obtained,” which is what he recommends for other collectors wishing to be assured of the authenticity of what they’re acquiring.
“If you’re not seeing the item produced,” he said, “you can’t be assured it’s authentic.” Even so, Belcastro has bought autographs “certified by the major autograph companies,” which prompted another piece of collecting advice from him: “Don’t buy from questionable sources. Stay away from those guys.”
Belcastro began with the FBI in 1990 and has worked in the Questioned Documents Unit since 1995, about the time the original Bullpen gang was kicking into gear. But he had never been to the Hall of Fame until starting on the Operation Bullpen case, and once he was there, he received total inside access – a golden ticket, if you will – to all its treasures.
“It was like being a kid in a candy shop,” he said. “We looked at contracts signed by players. We saw personally signed baseballs that were signed for the Hall of Fame when the players were inducted into the Hall of Fame and witnessed by the Hall of Fame. We needed to see what balls from the 1930s looked like, and they had them. We also did research into old books and magazines supplied by the Hall of Fame.”
The Hall of Fame assigned two staffers to assist Belcastro’s team, and he took hundreds of photos of the material he saw, developing what the FBI did not have but needed for the investigation: a repository or database of autographs. He then used this database of what Belcastro calls “known samples” to compare with the “questioned signatures” being sent to him from San Diego.
Chance encounter might lead to exhibit
On his trips to Cooperstown, Belcastro did not meet Spencer; he worked with other Hall of Fame curators. They met for the first time in the summer of 2006 at the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, and it was this chance encounter that set in motion the events that may result in the Hall of Fame exhibit next year.
“I had gone to the All-Star Game as a fan, with my family,” said Belcastro, “and there was a Hall of Fame traveling exhibit on baseball there. I stopped in to see it and asked if any of the curators I had met during my research were there. They weren’t, but Ted Spencer was. He stepped over, and we started talking.”
Spencer, who has helped curate and oversee “Women in Baseball,” “Pride and Passion: History of the African American Baseball Experience,” “Baseball as America” and other popular and critically acclaimed exhibits at the Hall, takes up the story from there.
“We were at FanFest, and Pete and I got to talking. I told him how the Hall of Fame still does exhibits on hits, runs and errors, but that we also were stepping off the field and telling stories that are more cultural in nature and that related to other parts of American society. So Pete said, ‘Well, here’s one for you,’ and he told me the story of Operation Bullpen.”
Intrigued, Spencer spoke again with Belcastro at a later date and the two of them ultimately arranged for Spencer and senior curator Shieber to visit Belcastro at Quantico, take a guided tour of the forensic laboratory and see what fake memorabilia the FBI had that could be used in a museum display. Meanwhile my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History came out, increasing interest in the case and providing a kind of road map for the Hall of Fame to tell the story in its exhibit.
“Your book is absolutely clearly invaluable and a great read,” Shieber told me when we spoke. “I’ve read it twice. And it gives us the framework for telling the story.”
Both Shieber and Spencer, who has also read the book twice and was planning to read it a third time before an upcoming vacation, are well versed in the case, able to easily cite incidents and people in it. They talk with excitement about some of the anticipated displays in the exhibit, such as an interactive station in which visitors could see how the FBI fooled some of the counterfeit dealers in the scheme.
During a later phase of the investigation, operatives working with the FBI would place orders for autographed photographs from fraudulent dealers. The dealers then ordered blank photographs from a Southern California photo supply house. But before their orders were filled, Special Agent Fitzsimmons (with the cooperation of the supply house) would mark each photo on the back with an ultraviolet coating invisible to the naked eye. These unsigned photos went winging off to the unsuspecting dealers, who then forged – or had someone forge – the autographs requested by the undercover operative.
These autographs were undisputable fakes because when the dealers sent them to a post office box in San Diego County, thinking they were going to a buyer but really they were going to the FBI, Fitzsimmons placed them under a black light, revealing the secret markings on the back, thus exposing the crime.
When he read about this procedure, Shieber wanted to see if the Hall could duplicate it. He contacted Fitzsimmons who supplied him with a fake-signed Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris photo that had been used in the investigation and marked on the back. Shieber and others at the Hall got to play sleuth themselves, buying a black light and seeing the secret markings on the back just the way the FBI did.
“It’s a really cool artifact,” said Shieber, who, in addition to his trip to Quantico, has toured the San Diego FBI warehouse that still holds some of the fake loot collected in the case. “We’d like to set up a display case that would show how it worked. You press a button, the lights go out in the case, and you see the FBI marking on back. People will get involved.”
Another cool artifact – actually, hundreds of cool artifacts – are contained in two plastic bags now in the possession of Shieber and his colleagues at the Hall. One has phony cuts of assorted Hall of Famers; the other is stuffed with fake Ruth cuts.
“They are just regular Ziplock sandwich baggies,” Shieber said. “And yet there are hundreds of cuts in them which, as the FBI tells us, had a street value of a half-million dollars. But in reality, the most valuable item in the bag is the bag itself because it keeps your sandwiches fresh.”
Mother Teresa to join the Babe?
While the Hall of Fame already has an ample amount of fake stuff produced by the gang – baggies of cuts; signed Hall Fame cards; autographed balls and bats; nicely framed signed photographs; shadow box presentations of balls and bats allegedly signed by the Big Three of Mantle, DiMaggio and Ted Williams; lithographs, bottles of old ink used for forging; ball boxes; stamps; and a home plate fake-signed by 500 Home Run Club members – one thing it does not have at this time is the Mother Teresa baseball.
There are apparently three Mother Teresa balls in existence, one of which is in the hands of Fitzsimmons, who has since transferred from the San Diego FBI and now conducts investigations for the Bureau at its Tucson, Ariz., field office. Fitzsimmons is advising the Hall on its planned exhibit, fittingly, since he oversaw the team of FBI, IRS and Justice Department investigators who gathered the evidence, made the busts and brought down the ring.
“Very early in the investigation, I started sending some stuff back to Peter in the lab at Quantico for them to do analysis of some signatures,” Fitzsimmons recalled. “They ended up consulting with Cooperstown to see the exemplars, examples of real autographs. They struck up a little bit of a relationship.”
In December 2008, Fitzsimmons came to Cooperstown for the first time to see the museum and to speak at a symposium on forgeries and forensic examination hosted by the Hall of Fame. The symposium attracted forensic specialists and law enforcement officers from state and local agencies in the eastern U.S., as well as at least one representative from Major League Baseball’s authentication program. At a Cooperstown hotel not far from the Hall, Fitzsimmons and Belcastro spoke about Operation Bullpen and how the lessons they learned in the case could be used to catch others engaged in the still-thriving criminal pursuits of forgery and memorabilia fraud.
While at the conference, Fitzsimmons sat down for that taped interview with Spencer, excerpts of which may be used in the Hall of Fame’s exhibit. Though he did not bring the Mother Teresa baseball on this trip, he has expressed a willingness to loan it to the show, and the Hall’s curators have expressed an interest in displaying it.
And so Mother Teresa may take her place alongside Ruth, Mantle, Clemente, Ripken and other immortals in what promises to be one of the most fascinating museum shows ever held on forgery and a must-see for collectors.