March 17, 2014
As officials at the New York Public Library sit back and watch as the stolen baseball artifacts donated by pioneer Albert Goodwill Spalding are given away to memorabilia peddlers by the FBI and US Attorneys, officials at the Boston Public Library have recovered yet another treasure from the donated collection of baseball’s greatest fan, Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevy.
As documented in a McGreevy biography contributed by this writer to the new SABR book, New Century New Team: The 1901 Boston Americans, close to one-third of the BPL’s “McGreevey Collection” was stolen in the late 1970s. Over the past few decades, however, many recoveries have been made, and thanks to an honest collector, another photo that used to hang on the wall at Nuf Ced’s original “3rd Base Saloon” has been recovered by library officials. The oversize sepia photograph is one of the true gems of McGreevy’s treasure-trove and shows him accompanying Jimmy Collins, “Chick” Stahl, Cy Young and the rest of the 1907 Red Sox on a trolley headed to a Spring Training game at Hot Springs, Arkansas. The recovered photograph also appears in the new SABR book edited by Bill Nowlin.
The photograph was reproduced in a 1907 edition of the Boston Herald and was also publicly displayed in a Filene’s Department Store window in 1939 to celebrate baseball’s mythical 100th birthday. The silver-gelatin print was recently identified by its owner as one of McGreevy’s lost pictures. The BPL oval stamp had been erased and defaced to conceal the library ownership, but when the collector realized what he possessed was stolen property he decided to return the antique image to its rightful owner and asked that his identity not be revealed.
In turning over the rare photo the collector took a total loss on the item that has an estimated value of at least $5,000. It is not known what his purchase price was but sources indicate that the stolen photo was once in the possession of deceased New York Yankee partner Barry Halper. The photograph also appeared for sale in an advertisement placed by T & K Sports Memorabilia of Fall River, MA, in Sports Collectors Digest in October of 1984.
BPL Print Department representative, Aaron Schmidt, confirmed for Haulsofshame.com that the photograph had been returned to the library and was added to the BPL’s Flikr page featuring McGreevy’s entire collection (minus approximately 35 photos still missing).
It appears that the photograph at one time was misidentified as dating from 1906, but the same photo was published in the Boston Herald in March of 1907. McGreevy’s donated scrapbook contains the original clipping that identifies the Red Sox are headed to a game from their hotel in Little Rock. The handwritten entry in the scrapbook dates the Herald issue as being published on March 6, 1907, but this date has not been verified. The haunting photo is one of the last known images taken of Red Sox manager “Chick” Stahl who would commit suicide three weeks later by drinking four ounces of carbolic acid.
In recent times the BPL has recovered other important photographs including one of “Nig” Cuppy from 1901 and another of Jimmy Collins posing with boxer John L. Sullivan in 1904. The Collins photograph was traced back to the collection of Barry Halper as was another recovered photo of Collins and three Red Sox teammates which appeared in a Lelands auction. That same photo, which is currently featured on the cover of the SABR book New Century New Team, also appeared for sale in an 1984 SCD ad from T & K Memorabilia and was later identified as BPL property in a 2000 Lelands sale by baseball researcher and collector Bob Richardson.
The 1901 spring training photo featuring Jimmy Collins, Fred Parent, Hobe Ferris and Buck Freeman was removed from the Lelands sale and returned to the BPL after Richardson informed the library the photo was stolen from the McGreevey Collection. The Lelands “Charlie Sheen Auction” lot description even described the McGreevy provenance of the photo stating: “Back is stamped, “The McGreevy Collection, Gift of March 28, 1923.” Prior to appearing in the Lelands sale, the same photo was sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 along with several other stolen BPL photos owned by Barry Halper and cataloged by auction consultant Rob Lifson. Interestingly enough, the same photo also appeared for sale for $75 in the 1984 “T & K Sports” SCD ad which described it as, “1901 Boston inf…..stamped on the back “The M.T. McGreevy Collec. Gift of Mar. 28, 1923″ stamped on front “Cab. 23-5(9).15.”
Halper and Lifson’s offerings of materials stolen from the BPL were well documented in the Sotheby’s catalog and included two mammoth plate albumen photographs of the 1889 and 1889 Boston Base Ball Club featuring “King” Kelly. The 1889 photo appeared as lot 291 with the BPL’s ownership stamp reading “Cab.23.59.15″ appearing in the upper right corner which represented the actual cabinet the photo was stored in at the library. The 1892 Boston photo offered as lot 303 at Sotheby’s was photographed by the BPL before it was stolen and exhibits the exact same damage captured on the library’s second generation print. Despite the fact that the 1889 photo has been widely exposed as being stolen in the press and the fact that BPL officials have located the owner of the 1892 photo, both artifacts still remain on the BPL missing list.
Additional evidence linking Halper to items stolen from the BPL and NYPL surfaced after his death in 2006 when his widow, Sharon Halper, consigned items she found in her house including two more mammoth size cabinet photos of the 1891 Boston and 1882 Buffalo teams. Both of those photos featured obscured and defaced BPL ownership stamps that were visible under close inspection. Additional 19th century CDV and cabinet cards of sporting goods pioneer Andrew Peck also showed defaced NYPL stamps and other items like a proclaimed unique cabinet photo of Alexander Joy Cartwright also fit the description of items on the NYPL Spalding Collection’s missing list. After this writer told REA’s Rob Lifson that the Peck CDV was stolen from the NYPL he returned it via the FBI but went ahead and sold the other stolen NYPL items in his auction. The 1891 Boston and 1882 Buffalo photos never made it into the REA sale after they were also identified by this writer as stolen items and reported to BPL official Aaron Schmidt. Sources indicate that Lifson, President of Robert Edward Auctions, disputed the library ownership claims at first but ultimately turned the photos over to the library on behalf of Halper’s widow.
The recovery of the BPL’s stolen 1904 photo of Jimmy Collins and John L. Sullivan has helped shed some more light on the timeline of the “McGreevey Collection” thefts. The famous photo of the Red Sox manager sitting in the dugout with heavyweight champ was sold by Halper and Lifson at Sotheby’s in 1999 but also appeared in print twenty years earlier with a credit to the BPL in a coffee table book authored by Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine known as The Ultimate Baseball Book. The book was commercially released in 1979 by Houghton-Miflin and the illustrations were researched and compiled in 1978. In his acknowledgements Daniel Okrent recognized Eugene Zepp of the Boston Public Library for being “generous with (his) time and advice” and the book was one of the first to highlight images from the little known “McGreevey Collection.” Before Okrent and Lewine discovered the depth of the BPL’s collection and exposed it to a wider audience of baseball fans and collectors, only authors including Harold Seymour, Dorothy Seymour-Mills and Robert Smith had ever published images from the BPL collection in their works.
In an interview with Hauls of Shame Zepp confirmed that the 1904 Collins-Sullivan photo was the first McGreevy item to be discovered missing in early 1983. Said Zepp, “Someone came in looking to view that photo which was one of our most popular images but I couldn’t locate the original and realized it was missing.” Zepp worked in the BPL’s Print Department from 1971 to 1983 and the discovery that the Collins photo was missing, coupled with the publication of the same photo in Okrent’s book in 1979, pinpointed the thefts occurring sometime between 1979 and 1982.
In the course of an internal library investigation a South Boston resident named Emil Pagliarulo was identified as a “person of interest.” Zepp described Pagliarulo as a “big burly guy who showed a great interest in the McGreevey Collection.” As for other patrons Zepp said, “I don’t remember many people I was very suspicious of and from 1979 to 1981 the library was very understaffed and there was no security.” According to Zepp patrons only had to sign a log book to view the baseball pictures in the Print Department and there was no requirement to show ID. ”You could have written any name in the visitor book at that time,” said Zepp. Zepp added that he has always been baffled how anyone could have smuggled out photographs that were so large.
Sources with more recent knowledge of the BPL probe say that there was another suspect who was thanked along with Eugene Zepp in Daniel Okrent’s 1979 book. Okrent expressed “special gratitude” to several memorabilia collectors in the acknowledgements including the 19-year-old Rob Lifson who contributed items from his personal collection for a special color section in the book devoted to “Baseball Art, 1876-1978.” The section pictured Lifson’s baseball cards issued by Old Judge, Mayo, Allen & Ginter, Cracker Jack, Sporting Life, Goudey and others as well as sheet music, advertisements and a rare celluloid button honoring the 1915 World Champion Red Sox.
At the time Lifson assisted Okrent and Lewine with their book project in 1978 he was considered one of the top memorabilia and baseball card dealers in the country and his recognition alongside the curators at institutions like the Boston Public Library and the Baseball Hall of Fame added to his reputation as a hobby whiz-kid. In recent years Lifson told a Smithsonian publication, “When I was a kid, I used to go to bookstores and libraries to find books that featured information about baseball memorabilia.” But shortly after the Ultimate Baseball Book was published Lifson, then a student at the Wharton School of Business at UPenn, was apprehended stealing what was described in TIME Magazine as a large cache of rare photos from the New York Public Library’s Spalding Collection. TIME reported that the unnamed thief was caught when a guard saw him slipping the cards into a bubble gum box taped to his briefcase.” When Lifson was apprehended he had $5,000 cash on his person and the NYPL security official told TIME writer David Aikman that Lifson said he had made the cash selling baseball cards in just one day. Recent revelations confirming Lifson’s involvement in the NYPL thefts has only fueled more speculation that he was also involved in the BPL heist.
In 1979 Lifson was also known as the primary dealer supplying Barry Halper and it was during that same time period that at least sixty of the rare photographs from the “McGreevey Collection” vanished, many of which later surfaced publicly in the Halper Collection. By the time Halper chose to sell his BPL items in 1999, he stipulated that Sotheby’s hire Lifson as the consultant in charge of the auction due to their personal history and Lifson’s intimate knowledge of Halper’s holdings.
Many of the stolen McGreevy photos were dispersed throughout the hobby in the early 1980s through various dealers including T&K of Fall River and Wayne Miller of Columbia, Maryland. Hauls of Shame contacted Miller this week to ask him where he acquired his BPL items but he declined to divulge that information. Miller, who left the hobby in the 1990s to pursue a career as a magician was only willing to say, “I flew to Boston and returned everything.” A source with knowledge of the BPL investigation told Hauls of Shame that Miller purchased at least nineteen BPL photos from New York dealer Lew Lipset. Miller is also said to have sold several other BPL photos to T & K in Fall River and Hall’s Nostalgia in Arlington, Massachusetts.
The same source says that Lipset purchased his BPL items from Paul Dunigan of Lowell, Massachusetts, a collector who also regularly traded and purchased items from Barry Halper. In 2011, Dunigan’s son sold a 1901 BPL photo of “Nig” Cuppy on eBay that was purchased and returned to the library by a collector in Iowa named David Maus. Several sources allege that Halper was selling the stolen BPL materials before they started showing up at baseball card shows and in advertisements placed in Sports Collectors Digest. Over time, however, Halper ended up reacquiring stolen BPL items that resurfaced in the marketplace including photos he purchased from the group of material Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen and Lew Lipset partnered on and acquired from Dunigan.
Collector and SABR member Bob Richardson was one of the first in the hobby to recognize McGreevy’s items being sold at card shows in the early 1980’s and working with the BPL’s “Keeper of Prints,” Sinclair Hitchings, he helped recover dozens of missing pictures including the ones that ended up with Wayne Miller. In some cases Hitchings established a library fund which enabled Richardson to buy back stolen items from dealer tables at card shows with BPL funds.
In the course of the BPL’s own investigation of the McGreevy heist, Barry Halper was contacted and questioned but denied ever owning any McGreevy photos. Sources indicate that the BPL is in possession of documentation that shows Halper’s denials in writing. But the evidence that’s surfaced since Halper’s death in 2005 suggests that he lied and the clearly marked BPL items he sold at Sotheby’s and kept in his personal stash support the contention that Halper was well aware he was buying and selling stolen artifacts with a BPL provenance. Some hobby veterans have even suggested that Halper’s practice of selling and repurchasing stolen BPL materials was a vehicle by which he laundered and legitimized the contraband. In addition, BPL items that were worth a few hundred dollars when they were stolen were eventually sold for thousands by the time Halper liquidated his holdings in the 1999 Sotheby’s sale.
Fifteen years after Halper’s Sotheby’s sale many of those same stolen photos remain in private hands. Despite the fact that the BPL has identified the current owner of the missing Imperial cabinet photo of the 1892 Boston team the collector has refused to turn it over. Despite the fact that Halper’s stolen 1889 Boston team cabinet photo has been pictured several times in the Boston Herald no one has come forward yet to return it.
Some collectors don’t want to lose the money they’ve invested in the stolen artifacts and others are just plain addicted to the stuff and content to enjoy Nuf Ced’s treasures in the privacy of their own homes. The honest collector who did the right thing and returned McGreevy’s Red Sox gem to the library is the exception to the rule, but the City of Boston is glad he had a conscience.
Its been thirty five years in the making but little by little “Nuf Ced” McGreevy’s donated legacy is making its way back to the library on Copley Plaza. Call it the luck of the Irish.