The name of former baseball star Mark McGwire is misspelled in an article in the Oct. 24 Sunday Magazine about the theft of former Senators pitcher Walter Johnson's collection of Opening Day baseballs. The Magazine was printed in advance. (Published 10/24/04)
"Where are the balls,?" I asked.
A stony silence followed, my host clearly having trouble with the question. He stared at the open mahogany box, brow heavily furrowed, shaking his head in consternation. Finally, and reluctantly, he stammered, "Oh, I'll bet they've put them in storage. We're building a new wing, you know, and some of the exhibits are being rearranged. They're probably in storage," he repeated. I knew something was terribly wrong.
It was October 1977, and I was standing in the middle of the Presidential Room at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. , where a staff member was giving me a private tour. It was the first time I had been there, and they were treating me as though I were a Hall of Famer myself. I wasn't, despite having hit .348 one year at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, but my grandfather did have a bronze plaque in the "Hall of Immortals" there. Walter Johnson, in fact, was a member of the first class elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936, along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson. "The Big Train," they called him, for the power of his fastball.
Of all the keepsakes from Walter Johnson's storied career (experts agree that he was among the greatest pitchers ever to toe the rubber), the most treasured of all was his collection of baseballs signed by U.S. presidents. Not any ordinary baseballs, these were the very balls thrown out by a succession of chief executives to start various Opening Day games during Johnson's 25 years with the Washington Senators as pitcher and manager. As pitcher for the home team, he was supposed to nab the toss from the commander in chief and use the ball to start the games. But even as a callow 22-year-old in 1910, the year President William Howard Taft inaugurated the tradition, my grandfather was smart enough to put the president's ball aside and grab another one for the game. The next day, a friend of his took the ceremonial ball to the White House, where Taft signed it with this inscription: "The White House, Washington, D.C. For Walter Johnson, with the hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday's game. Wm. H. Taft, April 15, 1910."
My grandfather had defeated the Philadelphia Athletics, who would become World Champions that season, 3-0 -- before the largest crowd ever to see a Senators game to that date. He gave up only one hit, when a player collided with a fan; otherwise, the crowd and the president would have been treated to a perfect game. Over time, as the leaders of the free world came and went from Washington, and he stayed, the great pitcher acquired autographed Opening Day baseballs from Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.
At some point, a velvet-lined mahogany box, with compartments for each of the five balls, was built to house the collection, and after my grandfather's death in 1946, my uncle Ed Johnson kept them at his farm near Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. In 1968, Uncle Ed donated the collection outright to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it could be displayed and enjoyed by the masses.
My trip to Cooperstown hadn't been to see the balls specifically, but rather to start a research project that would culminate years later with the publication of Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train, my biography of my grandfather. But I certainly wasn't going to turn down a guided tour. As my guide led me into the Presidential Room, I looked around to see the walls ringed with large blown-up pictures of every president from Taft to Carter, in the motion of throwing an Opening Day ball out to the field. The exhibits included some artifacts and letters, most notably FDR's "Green Light" letter authorizing the continuation of baseball during World War II. And there, sitting in the middle of the room, the centerpiece exhibit, was a glass display case through which I could see the open mahogany box. As I approached the case, however, I was greeted by an amazing sight. The baseballs were gone.
I stared at the box, trying to make sense of it. Inside, there were some signed cards and pens from Taft. Beside the box, a magazine had been opened to reveal a picture of the presidential balls. I looked at my guide, but his face was blank. I can only imagine the expression on mine.
The staff member's apparent surprise at the discovery, and his speculation about the location of the balls, weren't making me feel any better about the situation. Finally, I reminded him that I would be working in the library for several days, and would appreciate it if he would let me know when they had found the balls. Oh yes, and I'd also like to see them.
I HAD COME TO A CURIOUSLY LATE APPRECIATION OF MY GRANDFATHER'S STORY. But he had died when I was just 8 months old, so I hadn't known him, and my grandmother, his wife, Hazel, had passed away some years before that. I was close to his children (in addition to my mother, Carolyn Johnson Thomas, there were her sister, Barbara, and my uncles Ed, Bob and Walter Jr.). But Walter and Hazel Johnson might as well have been 19th-century ancestors to me, little more than strangers in old black-and-white pictures on the wall.
It's not that I was unaware of Walter Johnson's stature as one of the all-time baseball legends and the hero of Washington's only World Series championship, in 1924. I was a big baseball fan in the 1950s, and on my frequent trips to Griffith Stadium to root for the Senators, permanent residents of the American League cellar in those days (I was a younger version of Joe Boyd in "Damn Yankees," forever hoping for some kind of a miracle), it was always a thrill to stop by the memorial they had erected in his honor. President Truman had come from the White House to dedicate that monument, after all, and that was my grandfather up there in life-size bronze. "A CHAMPION ON AND OFF THE FIELD," it said.
At an event to commemorate my grandfather in 1955, when I was 9, I met Clark Griffith, the legendary owner of the Senators who mortgaged his ranch in Montana to buy into the then-losing ball club in 1912. Today, it's amazing to think that I actually knew this man, this titan of baseball history and Washington icon, who was born four years after the end of the Civil War. This was just months before he passed away, and I vividly remember him leaning down, with his brilliant shock of silver hair, to gently talk to me and see if I needed anything. He took me by the hand, and we rode together, just the two of us, in a tiny elevator that went all of one floor up to his office. When I found out later just how close Griffith was to my grandfather, and what they had meant to each other, I understood. Griffith had been like a father to Walter Johnson, visiting him in the hospital every day for eight months until my grandfather finally succumbed to cancer, then picking up the full medical tab.
And on a sweltering August day in 1959, I found myself standing along the first-base line representing Walter Johnson on Old-Timers Day, surrounded by his graying comrades from countless battles on long-ago ballfields -- Sam Rice, Bucky Harris, Joe Judge, Ossie Bluege, his catcher Muddy Ruel, the ancient coach and clown Nick Altrock, and others. I remember feeling mortified as my buddies from Alice Deal Junior High School started jeering and yelling at me from the upper deck, which was practically on top of the field at the tiny old ballpark.
Basically, though, I took it all for granted, never pondering the memorabilia that filled our house or stooping to pull one of many scrapbooks off the bottom shelf of our living room bookcase. These 30 oversize volumes, containing thousands of articles, letters, telegrams, photos and other materials, collected and meticulously assembled by my grandmother, went largely undisturbed for decades.
Why I, the great baseball fan, had never reached for one of those scrapbooks I cannot explain to this day. But then, on a visit to home years later, I did just that. Within minutes, I was hooked. It didn't take long for me to realize that, in addition to being a great pitcher, my grandfather was equally well regarded as a human being. Frank Graham, a legendary New York sportswriter, wrote the following as part of a tribute in Baseball Magazine shortly after my grandfather's death:
"Walter Johnson had all the virtues commonly but not always truthfully attributed to athletic heroes: honesty, decency, dignity, thoughtfulness, and a genuine modesty. A simple man, he was, in his way, a great man."
Over the next few months I went through the scrapbooks one by one, and it wasn't long before I realized that the major treatments of my grandfather's life and career to that point -- a warmhearted but cursory 1948 book, Walter Johnson: King of the Pitchers, by sportswriter and children's author Roger L. Treat, and several long magazine profiles -- had only scratched the surface of a remarkable man and the fantastic adventure that was his life. A biography worthy of the subject had to be done, I thought.
AT THE HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, a day went by, then another. I was having a wonderful time, poring through books, magazines and the hefty Walter Johnson files. Most of the time I had the library to myself, and I wondered sometimes, pulling handwritten Johnson letters from the files, my briefcase open next to me on the table: Should these things even be in the files like this, mixed in with newspaper clippings and other ephemera to be handled casually by the general public? The sports memorabilia boom hadn't gotten into full swing yet, but it had begun. These things are worth some money, I thought to myself.
Jack Redding, the then-librarian, like most of the others on the staff there an old-timer going back almost to the inception of the Hall of Fame in 1939, would come out of his office every once in a while to see how I was doing.
On my third and last day there, Redding came into the library with some news, his demeanor full of foreboding. Ed Stack, the president of the Hall of Fame at that time, had come in from New York City to see me. Oh, boy, I recall thinking, this is not good. I was ushered into Stack's office, where he waited for us behind his large desk, a surprisingly young man, and handsome, sharply dressed in the style of the Wall Street financier he happened to be. After a warm greeting and pleasant introductions, his manner turned serious. As best I can recall, here's the conversation that followed:
"Henry," he said, "I'm afraid I've got some bad news."
"Oh?" was all I could muster, sensing immediately the bombshell that would follow.
"The presidential baseballs have been stolen."
"Oh, my," I sighed. "When?"
"Well, let's see," Stack hesitated, looking intently at some papers on his desk. "They were stolen five years ago, just about five years ago, in 1972."
"And you never told anybody?"
"Well . . . uh . . . no, you see, we . . . "
What followed was 20 minutes or so of my questions and his answers, my astonishment turning into anger, and his regrets becoming apologies. At one point, I recall, Stack noticed me trying to read upside down from a large, open ledger on his desk, which appeared to contain a log of donated materials and their disposition, and he closed the book.
It seems, I remember him telling me, that some person or persons had ignored the padlock on the front of the display case and gone to the rear of it instead, where they removed several screws, took off the hinges and grabbed the balls. Neither Uncle Ed nor any other family members had been notified. I volleyed questions at Stack.
Had there been a police investigation or any other official inquiry? Had there been an attempt to search the sports collecting hobby, which by 1977 had developed a network of publications, dealers, shows and auctions? No to both.
Nor had the theft been publicized, or any attempt made to inform the world that these historic artifacts were at large illegally, I recall Stack telling me.
He elaborated on his reasons then and in a follow-up letter, and one argument in particular was persuasive. The Hall of Fame was concerned when the theft occurred, and remained concerned, that informing the world of the disappearance of Walter Johnson's baseballs might only encourage further thievery and discourage donations of the memorabilia on which the hall depended. Stack told me the Hall of Fame had learned its lessons and was upgrading security.
(Reached at his home recently in Glen Head, N.Y., Stack said that the hall did not publicize the thefts for the reasons mentioned, but Cooperstown police were contacted. "It's true that we did nothing publicly about the loss, but quietly we did what we could," said Stack, who is no longer employed by the hall but still serves on its board. "We were routinely out in the collectors' market monitoring auction catalogs and material that was getting out into the marketplace. At the hall we were privy to all that."
Dale Petroskey, the hall's current president, said such a theft "could never happen today . . . We have absolute state-of-the-art security.")
We wrestled with it for years, my mother and I, as the legal representatives of the Walter Johnson estate. Our family didn't want to damage the Hall of Fame, so we held our tongues and did nothing.
Not long after that first visit to the Hall of Fame, I started collecting memorabilia related to my grandfather. A friend of Mom's was an avid baseball card collector, and when he came across a nice old Walter Johnson card for a few bucks, which was not unusual in those days, he would buy it and give it to her. She kept them in an old cigar box, and at some point, when the collection had grown to 20 or so cards, she gave them to me. I was really taken with these beautiful collectibles, most of them originally inserted in packs of various brands of tobacco from around 1910 to 1915, a period encompassing the peak of my grandfather's spectacular career. I subscribed to The Trader Speaks and the Sports Collectors Digest, the two most prominent hobby publications, and quickly discovered a much wider universe of memorabilia than cards.
From time to time, Mom and I would talk about the presidential baseballs, and wonder about their fate. My nightmare scenario was of a thief coming toward the end of his life, perhaps diagnosed with a terminal disease, tossing the balls into the garbage like so many rotten oranges so his dark deed would never be discovered. Surely they would be too hot to fence, I thought.
I returned to Cooperstown twice during the course of my research, a year after the first visit, in 1978, and then again in 1991, when I began working in earnest on a book about my grandfather, which was published in 1995. In 1997, I co-produced the audio edition of Lawrence Ritter's baseball oral history, The Glory of Their Times, and the Hall of Fame's audio/video department was instrumental in providing digital copies of Ritter's original tapes for the project. They were all very nice to me throughout, and the place was a terrific resource, but a festering resentment toward the hall remained, mostly from the way the situation had been handled rather than the theft itself.
OVER THE YEARS, I became a part-time dealer in the flourishing vintage sports memorabilia industry, getting my start by selling items off the bottom of my collection to defray the escalating costs of acquiring new ones, the typical backdoor by which most dealers slip into the business.
In the mid-1990s, the hobby/industry took a major leap forward when a handful of enterprising dealers started showcasing the better memorabilia in classy auction catalogs -- beautiful, oversize productions with full-color photo plates of each item. As a result, the prices realized for these newly well-represented items shot into the stratosphere. Sales of the famous Honus Wagner tobacco card for more than $1 million, and the Mark McGuire 70th home run ball, which brought in $3 million, received widespread publicity, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
In the spring of 1999, I was leafing through the latest offering, from an outfit named Ron Oser Enterprises, when I came across an item that stopped me cold. There, under the heading "political," and not in the sports section, curiously enough, was a Warren G. Harding signed baseball. "How interesting," I thought. "How many of these can there be?" Harding, I knew, had died two years after he took office.
My curiosity increased when I noticed in the picture that, along with Harding's signature, there was a lengthy inscription on the ball. I remembered that more than one of the Opening Day baseballs in Walter Johnson's collection had inscriptions penned by the presidents. The picture was too small to actually read the writing, however, and the accompanying description didn't help much. "With best wishes to one of the very . . ." was all that could be made out, according to the catalog, the rest deemed unreadable because of damage to the surface of the ball. But to my eyes the writing on the ball did not look that illegible, and my curiosity was turning into suspicion.
I knew that somewhere in the files at Mom's house was an article done by the Sporting News in 1968 when Uncle Ed had donated the collection to the Hall of Fame, and in that article was a large picture of the balls side by side. I took the auction catalog and headed for the house in Washington where I grew up and Mom still lives. I went upstairs to the study, found the Sporting News piece, opened it to the picture of the balls and put the catalog picture next to it. Next, I found myself running downstairs where Mom was quietly reading, holding the pictures and yelling, "You're not going to believe this!" She looked at them, I looked at them again, and there was no doubting what we both saw. It was the same ball.
I called the Hall of Fame and got through to Frank Simio, the then-vice president. He pledged to do what he could. Simio called Kevin Hallinan, head of Major League Baseball security, and a few days later, on a rainy afternoon in Brooklyn in April 1999, the Harding ball was picked up for return to the Hall of Fame. The family was thrilled.
About a month later, I was relating these events to Jerry Hermele, a collector friend and labor law judge in Alexandria. He was fascinated by the story, and in the course of our conversation recalled seeing a group of president-signed baseballs in a recent auction, though he couldn't remember which presidents. My curiosity was enough to send me down to the basement to retrieve several boxes of old catalogs.
It didn't take long to find the auction Jerry remembered. Item #2 in the Mastro Fine Sports auction of July 1998 was a ball autographed by Woodrow Wilson. Continuing through the catalog, I found items #1276 and #1277, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover signed balls, respectively, followed by an LBJ and finally a JFK, which merited a full page to itself and carried a reserve of $20,000.
I was amazed these balls hadn't piqued my interest when I first got the catalog, but then I had seen other old presidential baseballs in auctions before, and figured that with just a signature and no other inscription, it would be impossible to prove they had been part of the Hall of Fame heist. But buoyed by my earlier finding, I compared the Wilson, Coolidge and Hoover balls with the picture from the 1968 Sporting News article. The signatures were in the exact same places in relationship to the blue manufacturers' markings. There was no question they were the same balls.
I called Mom, then the Hall of Fame. Frank Simio was excited, certainly, but in this case, the balls had already been auctioned off, months ago, perhaps to three different buyers. That seemed a minor consideration, though, compared with the evidence that we were now on the trail of three more of the balls. This was big, very big. So big, in fact, that Major League Baseball security called in the FBI. The nation's chief law enforcement agency had already stepped in to help clean up the multibillion-dollar sports memorabilia industry, mounting "Operation Bullpen" in the face of widespread forgery of autographs and other materials.
Months passed, and nothing seemed to be happening. From time to time I called the Hall of Fame, and was told that the investigation was progressing but no details could be revealed. I was concerned about the fate of the Taft ball, the only one unaccounted for and the "Holy Grail" of the group in terms of historical significance, fearing that whoever had it might get wind of the activity.
In the summer of 2000, I got a call from Michael O'Keeffe of the New York Daily News, who was doing an investigative piece on the forgery of sports memorabilia. I gave him my limited insight into the matter and then said, "But have I got a story for you!" and proceeded to lay out the tale of the presidential baseballs.
In their special report on August 20, 2000, "Cooperstown Haul of Fame," O'Keeffe and veteran Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden outlined the circuitous and mysterious journey the balls had taken in the past three decades. The trail begins, as far back as it could be traced, with a Brooklyn collector/dealer named Bill Hongach, the newspaper reported. A former Yankees batboy, Hongach said he bought the three earliest balls -- Taft, Wilson, and Harding -- for $800 at a 1975 card show in Manhattan from a man walking around with a brown grocery bag filled with memorabilia. In 1997, Hongach sold the Taft and Wilson balls to flamboyant New Jersey hobby dealer Alan Rosen.
Rosen sold both balls to Tom Harmer of Hinsdale, Ill., a well-known collector who once trained harness horses for Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, the Daily News reported. The Wilson ball was then included in the sale of "The Harmer Collection," which led off the July 1998 catalog of Mastro Fine Sports, the country's top sports auctioneer. Also included in that auction were the Coolidge and Hoover balls, consignors unidentified. As for the Taft ball, at some point Harmer sold it privately for $25,000 to Jeffery Wolfson, a Chicago securities executive and collector of sports and presidential memorabilia, the Daily News reported. Finally, in the spring of 1999, the newspaper reported, Bill Hongach, by then in his mid-forties, placed the Harding ball in the Ron Oser Enterprises auction, where I spotted it and alerted the Hall of Fame. Hongach, a dealer who had done authentication work for Oser, gave the ball to Major League security chief Hallinan before the auction.
Rosen, who testified before a grand jury investigating the balls' 1972 theft, declined to be interviewed for the Daily News story. Mastro asserted, "We don't know if the balls we sold were the ones that were stolen," but added that if they were, he would give the buyers their money back. FBI forensic testing would later confirm the balls' authenticity.
Wolfson said he did not know the Taft ball had been stolen. "I'm too naive," he told the Daily News in O'Keeffe's follow-up story of April 13, 2001. "I'm one of these guys who assumes everybody is telling the truth." He gave the Taft ball to the FBI, which also recovered the Wilson, Coolidge and Hoover balls. (Reached at his home for this story, Harmer said he was also surprised to learn the baseballs he purchased had been stolen. Four messages left for the only William Hongach listed in Brooklyn, N.Y., met with no response.)
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.
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.