By Paul Post
A $15,000 reward is being offered for information that would solve an Oct. 8 break-in at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center.
Thieves made off with two of the beloved Yankee Hall of Famer’s three Most Valuable Player Awards and several of his 10 World Championship rings.
However, Major League Baseball, the Yankees and Mets have stepped up to the plate by providing replicas of all the stolen items, along with several new things that weren’t previously part of the museum’s collection. These include replicas of all 27 New York Yankees World Championship rings from 1923-2009, the last time they won the World Series; the Mets’ 1969 World Championship and 1973 National League championship rings; and 1974 and 1982 All-Star Game rings.
“We’re getting double what we had,” said Mark Markowitz, museum board chairman. “People are pulling together to turn a very unfortunate situation into something good for Yogi. It’s amazing. You don’t see that in this world any more. Yogi was all smiles when he heard it.”
Berra played for the Yankees from 1946-63 and briefly with the Mets in 1965. He also managed both teams – the Yankees in 1964 and 1984-85, and the Mets from 1972-75.
The break-in was the latest in a series of burglaries targeting sports-related museums in New York and New Jersey during the past two years.
In October 2013, someone stole five historic trophies from the National Museum of (Thoroughbred) Racing & Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. One piece was valued at more than $100,000.
It’s believed the thief visited the site beforehand because the break-in and getaway only took several minutes. The Berra museum burglary was done in similar fashion.
However, published reports quoting authorities say a “team of professionals” committed the Berra museum crime.
Police have said they believe the racing museum thief was also responsible for burglaries at the National Harness Racing Hall of Fame & Museum in Goshen, N.Y., in December 2012, and two New Jersey golf venues earlier that same year.
Police say they’re aware of a possible link between those thefts and the Berra museum crime. “That is something we’re exploring,” Saratoga Springs police Lt. Robert Jillson said. “There’s a lot to it. We’re definitely aware of that.”
The Berra museum is located on the campus of Montclair State University in Little Falls, N.J. The school’s police department is heading up an investigation into the stolen items, along with the Passaic County prosecutor’s office.
The campus is partially in Essex County, too. The Essex County Sheriff’s Office is offering a $15,000 reward in the Berra museum case.
Markowitz said state and federal authorities are also involved.
“These people love Yogi,” he said. “They want to find the people who did this. Forget about all the baseball stuff. Yogi’s a great guy. One of the nicest guys in the world.”
Berra, now 89, was the American League MVP in 1951, ’54 and ’55 and never finished lower than fourth in MVP voting from 1950-57. He led American League catchers in home runs and RBI in each of nine straight seasons from 1949-57, was named to 15 straight All-Star Games, hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history in 1947, caught at least 100 games in 10 seasons and caught both games of 117 doubleheaders.
In 1958, he became one of only four catchers to have a 1.000 fielding percentage for the season.
He finished with a career .285 batting average, 358 home runs and 1,430 RBI.
As manager, he guided the Yankees to the pennant in 1964 and also the Mets in 1973. Both teams lost in seven games to the Cardinals and Athletics, respectively. Berra distanced himself from the Yankees after George Steinbrenner fired him early in the 1985 campaign, but the falling out was later reconciled and Berra regularly attends many special events at Yankee Stadium. He is one of the most loved figures in all of sports, not just baseball, and is well-known for his witty humor and famous quotes, mostly notably: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
The Berra museum was closed for nearly a week after the break-in. Some memorabilia experts say the stolen items are worth up to $2 million, the New York Post reported.
Robert Wittman, a retired FBI special agent, helped create the FBI’s rapid deployment Art Crime Team and recovered more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property during his career.
Many times stolen items are eventually recovered, but the danger with historic trophies is that they might be melted down for their precious metal value.
“There are two values here, financial and a cultural value,” Wittman has said. “It’s the heritage of our sports and our history. That’s why it’s important.”
Five trophies were stolen from Saratoga’s National Racing Museum last fall. They are the 1903 Belmont Stakes Trophy, won by Africander; the 1903 Brighton Cup Trophy, won by Hermis; the 1905 Saratoga Special Trophy, won by Mohawk II; the 1914 Brook Cup Handicap Steeplechase Trophy, won by Compliment; and 1923 Grand National Steeplechase Trophy, won by Sergeant Murphy.
“These trophies are irreplaceable,” museum director Christopher Dragone said at the time. “We are saddened by this unfortunate event and hopeful that the investigation leads to the apprehension of the individual or individuals who committed this crime and the return of the trophies.”
A $20,000 reward was offered, but none of those items have been recovered and no arrests have been made.
Fourteen items valued at $300,000 were taken from the National Harness Racing Museum in December 2012. These included a Faberge tureen and the Memphis Gold Challenge Cup. The thief broke into the museum, went to the second floor display area and shattered 3/8-inch-thick glass before escaping with the items. No other glass display case with valuables throughout the museum was touched.
A $10,000 reward was offered, but there has been no arrest or recovery of stolen items.
In May 2012, someone also broke into and stole artifacts from the U.S. Golf Association Museum in Bernardsville Township, in Somerset County, N.J., only several days after a burglary at the upscale Somerset Hills Country Club, just 10 minutes away. Trophies were stolen from the clubhouse in that incident.
The U.S. Amateur trophy, created in 1926, was taken from the USGA Museum along with a replica of the late Ben Hogan’s Hickok Belt, which he won for being the nation’s top professional athlete in 1953.
Police are hopeful that stolen Berra museum items can be recovered. In the meantime, museum officials are thankful for extensive support from the world of baseball. Anyone with information about the Berra museum case may contact the Passaic County, N.J., prosecutor’s office at (973) 881-4800.