By Kevin Nelson
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in our five-part series on Operation Bullpen and the art and craft of autograph forgery.)
The autographs of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams have always been special to collectors. Indeed, many in the hobby refer to them as “The Big Three” and feel that no serious memorabilia collection can be complete without items signed by them.
Not surprisingly, the Big Three are popular among forgers, as well.
When the FBI busted the Operation Bullpen gang on Oct. 13, 1999, breaking up what was the biggest autograph forgery ring in history, federal agents seized $10 million in forged merchandise on that day alone. A goodly number of those fakes featured photographs, posters, jerseys, baseballs and much more – all supposedly signed by the Big Three, either individually or as a group.
Accompanying this article are images of just a few of the Big Three forgeries produced by the gang – images that were given to me by the FBI when I was researching my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. At least two of these images – the Ted Williams sign and the Big Three shadow box frame – have never been shown to the public before., to my knowledge.
The shadow box presentation illustrates how the Bullpen crew worked, and how excellent their corrupt products often were. It combines a photograph, baseballs and a bat, all supposedly signed by DiMaggio, Mantle and Williams. The asking price: $4,995.
For dealers and distributors to sell such counterfeits, they need a story, or cover, to explain why they happen to have (or be able to obtain) 250 color photos of the great Ted Williams, for instance, every one of them signed clearly and beautifully in the ideal spot on the photograph. This story doesn’t have to be true (they never are); it just has to be plausible.
It was in part the Big Three’s prodigious signing habits in the 1990s and before that provided the cover for the forgers. All three Hall of Famers received handsome fees for appearing at autograph shows and struck lucrative autograph deals with Upper Deck and other memorabilia companies. They signed piles of legitimate merchandise that lent plausibility to the crooks who were selling piles of illegitimate merchandise.
The Big Three signed at autograph shows and elsewhere, and pictures of them in the act of signing were commonplace. Fraudulent dealers often posted pictures of them signing on their websites, as if Joe and Ted and Mick had signed the items they were selling for them. This was a lie, but it remains one of the most successful techniques used by crooks today: Show a picture of a superstar signing as a means of fooling people into thinking that what you are selling is actually signed by that superstar.
Mantle, DiMaggio and Williams have long since passed from the scene, of course. (It was, in fact, Mantle’s death in 1995 that kicked the Bullpen conspiracy into full gear.) And yet they are still being exploited. Untold numbers of Big Three counterfeits produced by the Bullpen gang are still out there, and there is every reason to believe that more fakes are being created today by a new crop of forgers who are responding to the public’s enduring affection for this marvelously talented trio. As long as the crooks make sure that the baseballs or photographs they are using predates the death of the player whose signature is being forged, they have a story they can tell if they’re challenged. They’re covered.
Next time we’ll take a look at the most notorious single forgery produced by the Operation Bullpen gang: The Mother Teresa baseball.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Ring in American History.
Here are the three previous articles in Nelson’s SCD exclusive series on forgery:
• Operation Bullpen, and Why Forgers Don’t Always Hit the Sweet Spot
• How To Trick People and Get Away With It: The Art and Craft of the Forger
• The ’98 Home Run Chase: A Perfect Storm for Counterfeiters