To me, the timing and handling of these transactions is interesting. The first balls to appear publicly carried only a signature, all three of them popping up simultaneously. Once that auction had passed, and the sales had been consummated with no problems, it was followed a few months later by the Harding ball, with its telling inscription deemed mostly unreadable, according to the catalog. And the prize of them all, the Taft ball from the historic first presidential Opening Day, was apparently never offered publicly at all but passed through private hands only, five of them at least.
In the end, owing to the lack of any evidence from the time of the original theft in 1972, and the fear that fingerprinting of the balls might inflict permanent damage, the investigation was dropped. At the time, the Daily News reported, FBI agent Michael Bassett referred to the dealers involved as victims, and said there was "no reason to believe" they knew the balls had been stolen.
Baseball Hall of Fame official Jeff Idelson holds four of the balls from the collection of Walter Johnson during an April 12, 2001, news conference at FBI headquarters in Albany, N.Y. The signatures are, clockwise from top left, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft.
(Jim McKnight - AP)
On April 12, 2001, at the Albany bureau of the FBI, Bassett, who had led the 18-month investigation, and agent Louie Allen, in charge of the office, handed over baseballs signed by Presidents Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Hoover to Dale Petroskey, president of the Hall of Fame, the final "pitch" for these baseballs in a series of them that had begun with the first tosses to my grandfather at the Washington ballpark almost 100 years earlier.
Two weeks later, I was headed to Cooperstown for a news conference heralding the return of the now-complete "Walter Johnson Collection" of presidential Opening Day baseballs. But first, there was a stop in New York City, where I met up with O'Keeffe for a trip to Yankee Stadium to participate in another very special occasion. Roger Clemens had just broken my grandfather's 74-year-old American League strikeout record, and before the game that night I found myself standing on the same mound from which Walter Johnson had pitched to Babe Ruth, helping Clemens present his record-setting jersey to the Hall of Fame.
It was a brilliantly clear evening, and I couldn't help thinking of my grandfather as I looked around the stately old ballpark. When my name was announced and the crowd cheered, I got a taste of what it must have been like for him during his two decades in the major leagues. I waved back to the fans -- why not act like I belonged there for one brief moment? -- but was relieved when Clemens, who really did belong on the same mound as Walter Johnson, came out to join me. How appropriate that this throwback to an earlier time, this power pitcher who still finishes his games, would break my grandfather's record. What must it be like, I thought, to be one of the handful of pitchers in the history of the game who could stand there on that mound with complete confidence, holding the ball in front of them for the batter to see, as if to say, "Here it comes, another fastball, let's see you try to hit it."
After the game, with Hall of Fame officials Petroskey, Bill Haase and Jeff Idelson, I took the long, moonlit drive back to Cooperstown. The next day, at the museum, I got to see the historic baseballs for the first time in more than 30 years.
It was one of those startling moments when everything seems to work out just as it was destined to. And I know my grandfather would be pleased that his cherished Opening Day baseballs were back in their rightful place.
Hank Thomas lives in Arlington. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article on Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.