By Peter J. Nash
December 12, 2014
The FBI and the Boston Police Department zeroed in on court officer Joe Schnabel and they knew they had their man. The authorities arrested Schnabel in May of 1999 on two counts of larceny and when he finally admitted to stealing the wills of several Boston baseball legends whose estates were filed in the Suffolk County Probate Court, a bizarre baseball mystery appeared to have been solved.
It was in the early 1990s that Schnabel hatched his scheme to swipe the autographs of Hugh Duffy, George Wright, Tommy Connolly and other Baseball Hall of Famers from the Boston Probate Court where he worked. Then he ventured outside of Massachusetts to pilfer the wills of other players like “Old Hoss” Radbourn in Illinois, Ned Hanlon in Baltimore, Harry Wright in Philadelphia and even Babe Ruth in New York City. Through a New Jersey fence named Jack Heir, Schanbel sold the documents to collectors for tens of thousands of dollars until researchers like Michael Bowlby and Don Hubbard realized that the wills were missing from Court files and alerted the authorities.
For investigators the arrest ended an embarrassing episode that had reached the national media and for Schnabel, a plea-bargain led to a sweetheart deal with prosecutors who sentenced him to just one year probation with a $5,000 fine. The disgraced state employee even got to keep his pension. But there was still one thing that didn’t sit well with the Feds and the researchers aiding them in the investigation. One of the missing wills Schnabel was accused of stealing was executed by 19th century star Tommy McCarthy whose signature is considered one of the hobby’s most valuable prizes.
That being said, McCarthy is also considered by baseball minds like Bill James the “worst Hall of Famer ever” and he’s provided great material for arguments about undeserving Hall of Famers on websites like Baseball Past and Present. Of course, the substantial value of McCarthy’s signature is derived more for its scarcity due to his death in 1922 than for his skills as a ballplayer. Back in 1999, investigators were convinced that Schnabel had stolen the valuable McCarthy will but he denied doing so adamantly. After he had admitted to stealing at least seventeen wills it wouldn’t have made much difference for him to admit to stealing just one more. When the Associated Press reported that Schnabel was charged in the thefts, the McCarthy will was specifically noted as being part of the investigation.
Oddly enough, the will-swiper was telling the truth. Schnabel never had a chance to boost the death-bed scrawl of the diminutive Irishman who ended up with his own plaque hanging in Cooperstown. McCarthy’s will had already vanished from the court files long before he was on the prowl. But if that was the case, who smuggled one of the game’s rarest signatures out of the Boston Courthouse and when?
Seventeen years earlier in 1982, Sports Illustrated’s Robert Creamer interviewed collector Barry Halper for an article on autograph hounds and Halper couldn’t resist bragging about his latest acquisition—the last will and testament of Tommy McCarthy. The Yankee partner had been compiling what he fashioned was the only complete set of Baseball Hall of Famer autographs including the ‘John Hancock’ of every inductee dating back to the 19th century. According to Halper, the McCarthy signature was the final piece of his Cooperstown puzzle and one of his most prized possessions.
Halper's ownership of the stolen McCarthy will was documented in 1990 in Connoisseur Magazine (left) and in a 1982 Sports Illustrated article written by the late Robert Creamer (right).
McCarthy’s 1922 will was executed just before he passed away at the age of 50 and Creamer wondered how Halper ever got his hands on such an unusual rarity. Creamer’s article entitled, “Hey Mister, Can We Have Your Autograph” established George Steinbrenner’s Yankee partner as the Babe Ruth of autograph collectors and his ability to track down treasures like McCarthy’s deathbed scrawl gave Creamer the impression he was interviewing a “collecting demon” and baseball’s own Indiana Jones. Describing what Halper told him about the acquisition Creamer wrote, “Somehow Halper tracked down a relative who found Tommy’s will, signed two days before his death. Halper paid $150 for it.”
But Halper had lied to Creamer who had no good reason to question his acquisition story. In an interview with Hauls of Shame in 2010 the late Creamer said, “I never suspected anything devious about the Tommy McCarthy signature when Barry told me about it.” At the time, Halper’s spotless reputation preceded him and Creamer added, “I would have been surprised and even shocked if I had heard rumors or reports about Halper doing something shady.” Nearly two decades after Creamer’s SI article, the investigators in the Boston case also never suspected that it was the uber-collector Halper who had somehow snatched up McCarthy’s hot will. Meanwhile, McCarthy’s biographer, Don Hubbard, who had been searching for the will in the late 1990s, actually tracked down a few of McCarthy’s relatives and none of them said they ever possessed or sold a copy of the ballplayer’s will. Hubbard then found himself assisting investigators in the Schnabel probe providing information he had gathered while writing The Heavenly Twins of Boston Baseball, his dual biography of McCarthy and his best friend, Hugh Duffy. Hubbard ended up incorporating an entire chapter in his book devoted to Schnabel’s thefts of player wills but at the time he also didn’t realize that Halper had already acquired the stolen document way back in the 1980’s.
In his biography, published by McFarland, Hubbard noted how he was deprived of the vital information found in McCarthy’s missing estate file and wrote, “One can only surmise the financial situation he (McCarthy) found himself in at the close of his life.” Hubbard had discovered that McCarthy’s will, inventory and final account had vanished from the courthouse and expressed his disdain accordingly as he added, “Stealing a person’s last will and testament is a disrespectful and disgraceful act to commit.”
Ironically, sources familiar with the probe say the investigators had contacted Halper and he denied ever owning any of the stolen court documents. He also failed to mention that he had previously bragged about owning the McCarthy will to Robert Creamer in 1982, and that in 1990 he had shown it off to reporters from the Associated Press and Connoisseur Magazine who marveled at how Halper collected every Hall of Famer’s autograph including the one they described as the “rarest of all” on McCarthy’s will. Even Bill Madden of the New York Daily News had included the McCarthy will in an article listing the rarest autographs in Halper’s collection. Sources indicate that the stolen will was also documented in the 1996 appraisal of Halper’s collection conducted by Christie’s for the investment banking firm of Lazard Freres. Halper retained the firm to offer his entire collection for sale to entities interested in displaying it in a museum setting.
By November of 1998 stories like this one in SCD made it clear that all of the Hall of Famer wills in the marketplace were stolen and subject to an FBI and Boston Police investigation. The missing Tommy McCarthy will was identified in many of the reports in the press.
But by the time investigators came asking Halper questions about the Schnabel thefts in November of 1998, he had already decided to sell a portion of his collection to MLB for a donation to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the remainder of the collection was slated for auction in 1999 at Sotheby’s in New York City. Halper stipulated that Sotheby’s hire his long time dealer and associate Rob Lifson, of Robert Edward Auctions, to oversee the sale and from 1998 through 1999 Lifson and Halper’s personal archivist, Tom D’Alonzo, spent most of their time cataloging the massive collection for the once-in-a-lifetime auction event. After Halper cut the deal with the auction giant, he shipped off most everything in his collection to a Sotheby’s warehouse in Spanish Harlem. Both Lifson and D’Alonzo had intimate knowledge of Halper’s holdings and at the time of the 1999 Sotheby’s sale Lifson’s employee, Barry Sloate, told VCBC magazine, “No one has a more encyclopedic knowledge or for that matter a photographic memory of the (Halper) collection than Rob.”
Extending beyond Halper, the Schnabel investigation revealed that Lelands Auction house in New York City had purchased and resold stolen probate documents signed by Hall of Famers George Wright and James O’Rourke; Hunt Auctions had sold the stolen will of baseball pioneer Harry Wright; and dealer Jack Heir acted as Schnabel’s fence selling many other wills to various dealers and private collectors. When investigators spoke to PSA authenticator Jimmy Spence, he dropped dime on a client who had purchased the stolen will of “Old Hoss” Radbourn for close to $20,000. By February 1999, the Radbourn will had been returned to an Illinois courthouse but many of the others remained unaccounted for–including the will of Tommy McCarthy.
Interestingly enough, Tom D’Alonzo and Rob Lifson were both aware that the McCarthy will was one of Halper’s prized possessions but neither of them ever reported the whereabouts of the missing document to investigators. Lifson, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Halper’s collection, wasn’t likely to miss a rarity like the McCarthy will that would have been documented on computer inventories D’Alonzo created while he was employed by Halper. In fact, by the end of October 1998, Lifson was already cataloging Halper’s collection for auction and was fully aware of the baseball will scandal. In November of 1998 Lifson was also faxing articles written about the Schnabel situation to clients and fellow auctioneers.
Barry Halper wrote a testimonial (left) praising Rob Lifson & REA for cataloging and selling his collection at Sotheby's. Halper's archivist, Tom D'Alonzo, (far right) went to work for REA after the Halper auction. D'Alonzo's primary job for Halper was documenting each item in the collection which included the McCarthy will.
So, if the entire Halper camp had knowledge of the stolen McCarthy document and Halper had already admitted to owning it from at least 1982 through 1990, what happened to the last will and testament of one of Boston’s “Heavenly Twins?” How could the rare and valuable signature of Tommy McCarthy vanish into thin air?
A decade after Halper’s 1999 Sotheby’s sale this writer and several others reported that many items in Halper’s collection had been stolen from the New York Pubic Library, Boston Public Library and the Baseball Hall of Fame. In particular, Halper owned hundreds of letters stolen from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection that were written to baseball pioneer Harry Wright. The letters originated from three large scrapbook volumes that were stolen from the library in the mid-1970’s and were documented in Halper’s collection in 1977 in a report published by Halper’s friend Bill Madden in The Sporting News. One of the stolen documents was an 1879 Boston contract of second baseman Ezra Sutton that was sold as a lot in the Sotheby’s sale and reappeared for sale in 2012 at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas. At the time of that sale Hauls of Shame revealed interview testimony from a source with ties to the Baseball Hall of Fame who claimed that Barry Halper had told a family member that he had orchestrated the NYPL thefts and that the material “was there for the taking.”
Barry Halper owned another McCarthy autograph on an 1887 tintype portrait that was stolen from the NYPL's famous Spalding Baseball Collection. The image is still listed on the NYPL's "Missing List" (inset).
Surprisingly, another item in the Halper collection at one point featured yet another autograph of Tommy McCarthy, an 1887 signed tintype portrait that was once owned by his manager Harry Wright and identified by its exact inscription in the 1921 NYPL Spalding Collection inventory. Halper ended up trading that tintype to a collector in Lowell, Mass. named Paul Dunigan, who operated a successful adult book store and peep-show business. Dunigan later consigned the tintype to Lelands in 1994 but, like McCarthy’s will, the rare and valuable artifact is still among the many missing artifacts stolen from the NYPL archives.
In 2009, a group of letters addressed to Harry Wright appeared in MLB’s 2009 All-Star game auction and reports were published in the New York Times and the Boston Herald questioning whether the documents were stolen from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection. Herald reporter Dave Wedge published a story about Halper with a headline reading “Stolen Boston Baseball Memorabilia Traced To Dead Yanks Owner” and interviewed Don Hubbard regarding his quest to find McCarthy’s missing will. Wedge also reported Halper’s admission of ownership of the McCarthy will in Sports Illustrated in 1982 and in the Associated Press reports published in 1990.
In 2009, REA's Rob Lifson (bottom right) was questioned by Boston Herald reporter Dave Wedge (top right) about the whereabouts of the missing Tommy McCarthy will. Lifson lied and claimed he "had no knowledge" of the document.
Wedge also called Halper associate Rob Lifson for comment but ended up speaking to Halper’s former assistant, Tom D’Alonzo, who had been working for Lifson’s company, Robert Edward Auctions, since 2000. Wedge asked about the McCarthy will and reported that D’Alonzo said he “had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the McCarthy will.” According to Wedge, when he told D’Alonzo the will had an estimated value in excess of $25,000, D’Alonzo even went so far as to tell him that such a document “wouldn’t have much value.” The next day the Boston Herald published a follow up to Wedge’s report after hearing back from Lifson who echoed D’Alonzo’s sentiments claiming that, despite the reports published stating Halper owned the stolen document, he also had “no knowledge of McCarthy’s will.”
Lifson and D’Alonzo, however, appear to have lied to Wedge and the Herald just as Barry Halper had lied to Robert Creamer and Sports Illustrated back in 1982 when he said he bought the will from a McCarthy relative.
Lifson, in fact, had procured a photocopy of the actual McCarthy will for this writer in the mid-1990’s when I was developing a baseball autograph handbook with world-renowned handwriting expert Charles Hamilton. Lifson provided that photocopy for me years before the Schnabel stolen-will scandal was exposed in the national media and before wills were considered contraband. Years later, when he was working on his McCarthy biography, I told Don Hubbard I had been given a photocopy of the missing will but at the time was unable to locate it in my files.
The photocopy of Tommy McCarthy's last will and testament reveals the official filing information of the Suffolk County Probate Court. McCarthy's will, "No. 204521" was recorded in Volume 1280 on page 33. USAToday (center) reported on the stolen signature in 1999. McCarthy is honored at the HOF with a bronze plaque (right) and his will would fetch over $50,000 if it were sold legitimately.
Lifson produced the photocopy of McCarthy’s will around the same time that this writer had consigned another will of Hall of Famer James O’Rourke to his Robert Edward Auctions sale in 1996. I had purchased the O’Rourke will in 1993 for $6,500 from Lelands who claimed the document originated from O’Rourke’s family. I then sold the will for $4,274 at REA in 1996, but two years later in 1998 it was clear that the will had been stolen from a Connecticut court house by Schnabel and that player wills were illegitimate items. That being said, in 1999 Lelands said they would reimburse me the entire purchase price of the will if “it (was) found that Lelands did not have proper title to (the) item when it was sold.” Lelands did end up reimbursing me.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I finally located Lifson’s photocopy of the McCarthy will in my files revealing that it was a one-page document setting forth the settlement of McCarthy’s financial affairs and signed by the Boston baseball legend in a shaky and sickly hand. The image of the signature captured on the photocopy is the only tangible evidence proving that the document exists and shows that the will was recorded in “volume 1280, page 33.” It’s proof that Barry Halper’s Hall of Fame “Holy Grail” didn’t just vaporize or vanish into thin air. The original is out there—somewhere—and Lifson and D’Alonzo may be the only two people who know where it is. Additionally, two veteran dealers recently recalled seeing a photocopy of the will in 1995 via a dealer in California, but they could not find a copy of the will in their own files.
Considering Lifson’s well-established background as an institutional thief and his 1979 apprehension stealing rare photographs from the New York Public Library’s Spalding Collection it is quite possible that Lifson, himself, stole the McCarthy will from the Boston Courthouse and sold it to his top client, Barry Halper. Halper’s well-documented ownership of other stolen artifacts from the McGreevey Collection at the Boston Public Library only adds to the suspicions that Lifson may have stolen the will knowing it was on his “want-list.” It may also explain why he’s been lying to reporters and denying he’s ever seen the document.
While the photocopy of the missing McCarthy will suggests that Lifson and D’Alonzo have been less than truthful it is still unclear where the will actually ended up. It’s likely Halper would have planned on selling the will at Sotheby’s in 1999 but when the Schnabel investigation commenced Halper or Lifson could have unloaded the document on the black market to a collector who had no qualms about owning stolen property. In 2000, despite the awareness of the Schnabel scandal, Lifson’s long time associate and partner, Bill Mastro, offered the stolen will of 19th century star Ned Hanlon in a Mastro Fine Sports auction but had to withdraw the lot and turn it over to the authorities. It was Don Hubbard who told authorities that Mastro was selling the Hanlon will after he saw it in the auction catalog. By the year 2000, it was virtually impossible to offer and sell one of the stolen wills publicly, but Mastro still included the Hanlon document in his catalog.
Rich Iannella, former head of the Boston Probate Court (left), recovered stolen wills with the aid of author Don Hubbard (top center) but couldn't find the will of Tommy McCarthy (bottom). Hubbard helped recover the will of Ned Hanlon (right) which was pulled from a 2000 Mastro sale.
It is also possible that Halper held back the McCarthy will from the Sotheby’s sale the same way he held back other artifacts which he knew were stolen from the New York and Boston Public Libraries. After Halper died in 2005 his widow consigned all of the items that were left in the Halper household (including several stolen artifacts stolen from the NYPL and Boston Public Library) to Lifson and REA and it is possible the will resurfaced at that time only to be buried once again. Bruce Dorskind, a recently deceased client of both Lifson and Halper, was a witness to Lifson’s vast knowledge of collections and his ability to pinpoint the whereabouts of baseball’s buried treasures. Dorskind once said, “He (Lifson) knows the value and most importantly he knows where the bodies are buried.”
Don Hubbard still wants to know where Tommy McCarthy’s will is buried. His search has lasted for over a decade but he is at least satisfied to have reviewed the details memorialized on the photocopy of the original document. Still, Hubbard is disturbed that the originally filed copy and other supporting documents remain among the missing despite his best efforts and the FBI investigations. Says Hubbard, “I plan on reaching out to the probate, the FBI and Boston Police Department to see what the status of this case is and see if these these valuable wills, especially McCarthy’s, can finally be recovered.” One prominent collector also told us, “Things like this don’t just vanish without a trace, Halper had it and his boys know where it is. These characters are just too greedy to have destroyed the evidence, its probably sitting in a drawer somewhere. How could the FBI have let this go?”
Earlier this week Hauls of Shame contacted the Boston Police Department and Detective Steven Blair confirmed that the McCarthy will was never returned. Blair said there had not been any activity in the missing wills cases since 2012 when he was investigating dealer Kevin Keating’s possession of a stolen document from George Wright’s probate file. Hauls of Shame furnished Blair with the photocopy of the McCarthy will and he said he would re-address the cold-case of the missing probate file and continue his investigation.
Back in 2012, Michael Bowlby, the man who originally uncovered the will scandal by identifying the stolen George Wright papers in a Lelands sale, was critical of the original investigation and told Hauls of Shame, “The FBI was not terribly thorough in this case and got upset when I reported it to one of the newspapers and not them.” Bowlby added, “Schnabel tried to implicate me as I knew him as a collector and from the courthouse. I was interviewed by the FBI and they investigated me.” We recently contacted Bowlby but he declined any further comment.
The stolen wills still missing from Probate Court files feature the signatures of HOFers (l to r): Jackie Robinson, Harry Wright, Jimmy Collins and James "Orator" O'Rourke.
Also still missing are the wills of other Hall of Famers stolen by Schnabel including Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Collins, Joe McCarthy, Jack Chesbro, Roger Connor, Johnny Evers, Harry Wright and a host of others. Schnabel, however, didn’t just steal wills he also stole the related probate documents and the wills of family members as well. Dealer and PSA/DNA authenticator, Kevin Keating, recently tried to sell a George Wright signature cut from a stolen probate document pertaining to Wright’s wife Abby in 1888. Also missing from the Middlesex County courthouse in Boston are the guardianship papers showing that 19th century Hall of Famer John Clarkson was declared insane in 1907.
For Don Hubbard the insanity of the grave-robbing by the hobby’s twisted treasure hunters is hard to comprehend, as is the apathy of hobbyists and dealers who have been less than cooperative in assisting in the recovery efforts. To date, only the wills of Hugh Duffy, Tommy Connolly, George Wright, “Old Hoss” Radbourn, Ned Hanlon and a few others have been recovered. It took a lawsuit filed by then-New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo against dealer Mark Lewis to recover Babe Ruth’s stolen will to a New York City courthouse. One resource helping to raise awareness of the problem of the stolen wills is the book Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide by Ron Keurajian. In his chapter entitled, “Provenance, the Black Market and Other Things” Keurajian calls the proliferation of stolen wills in the hobby a, “Huge problem whereby court archives have been raided” and adds, “I consider wills of any kind to be toxic, so I advise collectors to avoid them in total.”
Hauls of Shame was unable to ask REA’s Rob Lifson why he lied to the Boston Herald in 2009 and whether he was involved in the original theft and subsequent sale or concealment of the stolen document. As a result of Hauls of Shame’s continued investigative reporting Lifson’s attorney, Barry Kozyra, has sent repeated correspondence stating that we not communicate with “REA or Mr. Lifson as it is viewed to be harassing and actionable conduct.”
Despite the lack of cooperation and his misgivings for the hobby, Don Hubbard is determined to restore the public records of McCarthy and others to the municipalities that originally presided over the probate proceedings. For Hubbard the hunt for the wills of Tommy McCarthy and his fellow Hall of Famers continues. When informed that Steven Blair of the BPD had the photocopy of the will in his possession and that the old investigation could be revived Hubbard said, “That’s good to hear, if there’s anyone who can track this down it’s Detective Blair.”