How to counterfeit Babe Ruth baseballs

A box of fake signed baseballs.

Forge a signature, shellac it, bag it with dog food or mothballs, then create bogus paperwork and sell it with a sad story...

The man told the pawnshop a sad story. He was suffering from hard times and hated to do it, but he had to sell his old baseball autographed by the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth. He sold the ball, which had a certificate of authenticity, for $1,500.

But the baseball, the story, and the certificate were all frauds.

The price for an official Major League Baseball, 
brand new, in great condition, is about $12.

The man sold 35 of these bogus balls, with their counterfeit certificates, to pawnshops all over Florida for prices ranging from $500 to $3,000. The scam probably was successful not only because the balls were not in great enough condition to arouse suspicion, but the pawnshops knew that real Babe Ruth autographed baseballs were worth a lot more than they were paying the guy.

They thought they were pulling one over on the seller.

The price for a signed Babe Ruth baseball, 
vintage, in great condition, can be over $10,000.

But this con-artist, who was caught because he had to provide his real driver's license and fingerprint, was nothing compared to an entire ring of crooks caught by the FBI years earlier in an undercover investigation called Operation Bullpen.

A book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, by Kevin Nelson, details the entire affair. Here's an excerpt on how those forgers created their fake Babe Ruth baseballs:
"First you get a ball, any old leather baseball," said Little Ricky. "But you have to be sure there are no identifying markings on it, and no label. So we'd go down to Play It Again Sports and look through this basket of old balls they had and find a few that were right for what we needed. Each one cost maybe five bucks. Then we'd bring them back and wash them with soap and water and turn them over to Greg [Marino], who'd sign them with a fountain pen from that era. But they still looked so fake it was unbelievable. They looked just awful-these old, worn, washed baseballs with Ruth's signature on them. Something more had to be done."

That something more was "dipping," a job often done by John Marino, the utility man of the operation. In Ruth's time people shellacked valuable baseballs as a means of preserving them, mounting them on a trophy-style wooden plaque. The crew did much the same thing, coating the ball, in Greg's colorful phrase, "like a candy apple." Since dipping could get messy, it was "a garage operation" handled by John at their parents' house. One technique was to drive a nail or screw into the seams of the ball, careful not to form too large of a hole. Then, holding the ball by the nail, John dipped it into a gallon can of orange-rust shellac similar in color to what the old-timers used. Once the ball was fully coated it was left to hang-dry with the nail still in it. The nail came out after the ball had dried.

Another technique was to use what came to be called "the dipper," more commonly known as vice grips. The vice grips allowed them to immerse the ball in the shellac without using a nail.

Still, even after dipping, something vital about these balls was missing, something that had to be there: the smell of antiquity. Tucked away and forgotten in an attic for generations, only to be uncovered in recent times, baseballs this old must have a certain musty smell attached to them. But these balls didn't smell like that; all they smelled of was shellac. "They didn't smell old, and they certainly didn't smell like they'd been sitting around for seventy years since the time of Babe Ruth," Little Ricky continued. "So we'd buy a big bag of mothballs and stick the mothballs in a plastic trash bag with the baseball. We'd let the ball sit in the bag for a few days or whatever and that would make it smell old."

Another way they duplicated the smell of age was to forego the mothballs altogether and stick the baseball in a bag of dog food. After a day or two in the bag they'd pull it out and let it cure in the sun a while. When the process was over it was hard to say exactly what the ball smelled like except that it fooled people and that was all that mattered.

"People didn't know what it smelled like, but it smelled old to them," said Mitchell. "It stinks and it smells old, and that convinced them it was legitimate."

The innocence of people, their longing to believe in the authenticity of the memorabilia they were investing in -- plus their own greed in many cases, the thought that they were getting a steal on an ordinarily super-expensive Babe Ruth-signed baseball -- led some to pay thousands or even tens of thousands for used balls dipped in shellac and aged in Purina.
- Phony Babe Ruth autographs lead to organized fraud charge, St. Petersburg Times>>
- Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History>>
- Three year FBI and IRS investigation reveals nationwide black market dealing in hundreds of millions of dollars in counterfeit sports and celebrity memorabilia, U.S. Department of Justice, United States Attorney, Southern District of California>>
- The photo of the box of forged baseballs is from the blog Bullpen & More, by Kevin Nelson>>


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