May 23, 2012
News of the record-breaking sale of Babe Ruth’s c.1920 Yankee jersey for $4.4 million spread like wildfire through the mainstream media this week. The most expensive baseball artifact of all-time, purchased by Lelands auction house, was a prime topic of conversation ranging from tweets by CNBCs Darren Rovell to a story in The New York Times by Richard Sandomir. The jersey was even a talking point on sports-talk radio at WFAN and the YES Network in New York City.
WFAN/YES host, Mike Francesa, had the auctioneer who sold the jersey, David Kohler of SCP Auctions, on the air for a live interview that turned contentious as Kohler hung up on Francesa when he pressed him on how the jersey was authenticated. Francesa asked, “How can you guarantee that jersey was actually worn by Babe Ruth?” Francesa then invited MEARS authenticator (and Hauls of Shame contributor) Dave Grob on the air to explain the authentication process. Grob explained the work that went into his report authenticating the jersey for SCP and stated that he stood by his opinion when Francesa asked, “Would you put a gun to your head that that was a Ruth worn jersey?”
Francesa’s great skepticism is warranted and due, in part, to the historic frauds and fakes that have flooded the sports memorabilia market for decades. In the course of his interview Francesa asked Grob, “Barry Halper, the fabric and stuff, the fibers it turned out were not even made in the years that the jerseys were supposed to be.” Francesa was alluding to the infamous “Shoeless Joe” Jackson jersey that collector Barry Halper had sold to Major League Baseball and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 and was later confirmed by Hall officials to be a forgery in October of 2010. (Hauls of Shame was the first to call it a forgery in a report we released in August of that same year.) Grob responded to Francesa saying, “I’ve looked at some of those (Halper) uniforms that have come up in dispute and you can typically find more than one thing wrong with a problematic uniform.”
Francesa also posed a few questions regarding the provenance of the record-breaking Ruth jersey that was sold asking Grob, “How do you trace where the uniform has been all these years? Where was it in 1930, 1940, 1950, where was it? SCP auctions offered no information about the provenance of the jersey other than the fact that it was once loaned to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, Md. Sources indicate that the jersey was originally owned by a New York collector who loaned the jersey to the Ruth Museum. The owner, we’re told, passed away while the jersey was still on loan and his heirs sold the jersey in a private sale for less than a million dollars to another collector who, in turn, consigned it to SCP Auctions.
Grob honestly answered Francesa regarding prior ownership, to his knowledge, saying, “I have no idea.” Grob told Francesa that while he considered provenance a nice thing to consider it was actually the last thing he would look at. Said Grob, “It can never make an item into something it is not.”
Francesa still pressed the point, “But if you can’t trace possession, doesn’t it scare you that it might not be authentic?” Grob added that provenance could “only help an item.” While Grob may hear about the history of a jersey, his past experience has shown him that many of those stories have been fabricated, just like the forged jerseys presented to him for examination.
But Francesa’a skepticism continued as he asked, “This is a business that is, that is rampant with fraud. I mean, how much of Barry Halper’s stuff was fraudulent? I mean, enormous amounts of it were fraudulent.”
Ironically, Francesa’s inclusion of Halper in this conversation was more fitting than he knew since it was Barry Halper who first claimed to possess Babe Ruth’s first Yankee uniform from 1920, and it was the current buyer of the $4.4 million dollar jersey, Josh Evans and Lelands, that he made that claim to back in 1990. It was at the same time that Halper showed off the garment in a Smithsonian Magazine feature article written by Ruth’s biographer Robert Creamer.
In his August, 1990, “Balls in the Attic” column in Sports Collectors Digest, Evans featured a “Barry’s Top Ten” list, which featured the Ruth jersey as the number two artifact in the Halper Collection. Noting that the jersey was signed in the collar Evans quoted Halper as saying, “This was the uniform that prompted me to have the other uniforms autographed in the neck. The Babe has always been my favorite because of his charisma and the way he took the time to be with kids. ”
The jersey was one of the the crown jewels of the Halper collection as reported by Connoisseur Magazine in 1990: “Among the rarities…..Babe Ruth’s autographed uniform of 1920, his first year with the Yankees; and Shoeless Joe Jackson’s Chicago uniform of 1919….” In conjunction with that 1990 article the Associated Press quoted Halper bragging, “Just in Babe Ruth uniforms, I’ve got a million dollars.”
Halper had first revealed his source of Ruth’s alleged first Yankee home jersey to his friend Bill Madden five years earlier in a feature story for The Sporting News. Halper described to Madden his acquisitions of many rare 19th century jerseys from a retired Brooklyn Dodger named Ollie O’Mara. Halper alleged that O’Mara had sold him jerseys of Hall of Famers like Wilbert Robinson and Hughie Jennings. Halper told Madden, “He had all of them because he knew all of them! A few months later he called me and matter-of-factly told me he had come across Babe Ruth’s first Yankee uniform, autographed!”
However, in the course of our 2010 investigation into Halper’s bogus 1919 Joe Jackson jersey, we uncovered new information when we contacted Ollie O’Mara’s son in Reno, Nevada, in regard to the Wilbert Robinson jersey that Halper sold at Sotheby’s in 1999. The jersey was determined to be a counterfeit along with many others alleged to have originated with O’Mara. Here is what we reported after O’Mara’s son informed us his father never had a baseball collection and was rendered penniless and a fugitive after being indicted in an organized crime investigation in Chicago in the 1950s:
“ Another jersey questioned was a purported 1894 Baltimore uniform of Hall-of-Famer Wilbert Robinson, which was sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 for $27,600. The same jersey sold in Legendary Auctions’ March, 2010 sale for less than $2,000. Legendary’s lot description confirmed the jersey’s problems: “Our consignor paid over $25,000 for this garment as being a Wilbert Robinson Baltimore jersey…we were uniquely qualified to definitively confirm that this was not the case…” Legendary based its negative opinion on having handled an authentic 1895 uniform consigned by the family of Oriole Bill Hoffer in 2009. The Hoffer jersey confirmed that Halper’s Robinson was not authentic. The Hoffer garment was positively identified in original Baltimore team photos from 1895, while the Robinson jersey failed to match any documented uniforms in photos from the era. Legendary also stated that it had “destroy(ed) the paperwork that accompanied the jersey…” Those papers included letters of authenticity from Sotheby’s, Grey Flannel Authentication and Robert Lifson , a Halper associate who was lead consultant for the Sotheby’s sale.
So where did Halper’s Wilbert Robinson jersey come from? In a 1985 Sporting News profile of Halper’s uniform collection, the then New York Yankee minority owner stated that he’d acquired the Baltimore jersey from ex-Brooklyn Dodger Ollie O’Mara, who actually played for Wilbert Robinson in the 1916 World Series. O’Mara, who died in 1989 as the oldest living MLB player at 98, however, was also involved in the gaming business and was the subject of a major 1950 crime investigation along with gangster Al Capone’s brother, Ralph. In 1950, the Chicago Daily Tribune went as far to call him the “gambling king” of Kenosha, Wisconsin. O’Mara experienced an assortment of arrests through the 1940s and in 1950 he was indicted in Kenosha as part of the Kefauver crime investigation. According to reports in the Milwaukee Journal in 1966, O’Mara fled Kenosha in 1950 and was a fugitive from justice for fifteen years until he was located by a Milwaukee Journal reporter in Las Vegas.
O’Mara’s son, William, an attorney in Reno, Nevada, confirmed his father’s legal troubles, but noted that by 1968 ”those indictments were quashed in Kenosha.” When asked if his father ever had vintage uniforms he sold to Barry Halper, O’Mara replied, “No, as long as he was with me from 1968 until his death (in 1989) he never sold anything, because he never had anything. I’m not disputing that Mr. Halper had a jersey from Wilbert Robinson, but I doubt seriously if he got it from my dad during any period after 1950.” O’Mara also indicated that after the 1950 indictment in Kenosha his father ”became a very shy man.” When asked to comment further on Halper’s claims of purchases from his father O’Mara said, “It’s easy to indicate that you acquired these items from somebody that you know is not up front- I mean, there’s no way you could have found my dad during the period from 1950 to 1968.” In addition, O’Mara said his father “lost all of his money as a result of the Kefauver investigation in 1950.”
When Ollie O’Mara was interviewed in 1981 by The New York Times after throwing out the first pitch at a Dodger game, the only piece of memorabilia he referenced ever saving was his personal scrapbook from his Dodger days as a teammate of Casey Stengel. George Vecsey wrote how O’Mara had even lost that scrapbook. Ollie O’Mara told Vecsey, “A few years ago I took my scrapbook on a train, and the porter threw it out with the newspapers.”
In the 1991 edition of Total Baseball, Halper (with Bill Madden) wrote about his alleged acquisition of nineteenth century Baltimore Oriole uniforms from Ollie O’Mara. Halper stated, “Apparently O’Mara maintained a close friendship with (Wilbert) Robinson. That is the only explanation I can offer for the fact that he had in his possession the 1894 Baltimore Orioles uniforms…O’Mara never did tell me how he got the uniforms or why he had kept them all those years in near-perfect condition. In 1989 he went to his grave with that secret, but baseball historians can be forever grateful that he preserved much of the game’s valuable past.”
No doubt, Halper’s alleged first Ruth Yankee jersey was a counterfiet featuring a forged signature of the Bambino and a fabricated provenance tale involving Ollie O’Mara. The alleged jersey vanished from the Halper Collection sometime before the record-breaking Sotheby’s sale of his holdings in 1999, and its whereabouts are currently unknown. Whether it was sold privately or found to be a forgery by authenticators prior to the Sotheby’s sale is not known. ”Halper Stories” like this one are the reason why Dave Grob told Mike Francesa that he looks at the provenance of an item last.
Twenty-two years after he listed Halper’s bogus 1920 Ruth jersey as the number two item in the Halper Collection, Josh Evans and Mike Hefner of Lelands can rest assured the jersey they purchased at SCP for $4.4 million is authentic. Dave Grob’s opinion, based upon his examination of the jersey, and the report issued for the highly acclaimed garment can attest to that.