August 28, 2012
A little over two years ago, Haulsofshame.com and The New York Post reported that the last will and testament of the “Sultan of Swat” was missing from the New York City courthouse where it was originally filed in 1948. But thanks to a court action brought by the New York State Attorney General’s office against hobby veteran Mark Lewis, the last document ever signed by Babe Ruth is back where it belongs.
Surrogate’s Court archivist, Kim Sulik, recently confirmed that the document had been returned to the Court, however, it was only this week that Haulsofshame.com obtained a copy of the Court’s decision in the State of New York vs. Mark Lewis, which was filed earlier this year at the New York County Clerk’s office. The original action was filed against Lewis by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo when he was still Attorney General.
Judge Marilyn Sugarman, appointed special referee in the case, said in her decision, “Although no evidence was presented with respect to whether, in fact, it was Mr. Lewis who removed the last will and testament of George Herman “Babe” Ruth, again, there was sufficient evidence that it is currently in his possession.” Lewis was ordered to return the stolen document within thirty days and complied with the Court’s order.
Chief Clerk, Diana Sanabria, released this statement for Haulsofshame.com: “I’m thrilled to have the will back at Surrogate’s Court, and I’d like to thank Mr. Lewis for returning it to its rightful place. Even though we say the will belongs to Surrogate’s Court, it, as well as our other records, really belong to the people of the state of New York. When documents go missing from government archives, then everyone loses out on the chance to have access to our shared history.”
The theft of the will dates back to the 1990s as part of a string of heists of rare Baseball Hall of Famer signatures found on a myriad of wills and legal documents. An investigation of those thefts led to the conviction of a Boston Court officer named Joe Schnabel who admitted to investigators lifting and peddling the wills of baseball legends including “Old Hoss” Radbourn, George Wright, Hugh Duffy, Tommy Connolly, Tom Yawkey, Ned Hanlon and the now recovered will of Babe Ruth. Schnabel pleaded guilty to only two counts of larceny and was sentenced to one year of probation with a fine of $5,000.
Despite that conviction in 1999, still missing from court house files all over the country are the wills of other Hall of Famers including Jimmy Collins, Joe McCarthy, Jesse Burkett, Jack Chesbro, James O’Rourke, Roger Connor, John J. Evers, Tommy McCarthy, Tim Keefe, Harry Wright and even Jackie Robinson.
When he was interviewed two years ago by Haulsofshame.com, Mark Lewis said, “Thirteen years ago I bought Jackie Robinson’s will at the National Sports Collectors convention for $500.” The Robinson will has been missing from a Stamford, CT, courthouse for at least sixteen years. When asked, Lewis couldn’t recall the name of the person that he purchased the stolen Robinson will from. Lewis did, however, claim to remember who he purchased the 1948 Ruth will from for $30,000. “I bought it from Babe Ruth’s lawyer’s grandson, who was named Lowenstein,” said Lewis.
The attorney who drafted the Babe’s 1948 will was named Melvin G. Lowenstein, who along with co-executor Paul Carey II was in charge of the Ruth estate. When we contacted the Lowenstein family two years ago, Lowenstein’s son, Peter, also an attorney, stated that no one in his family ever had in their possession, or ever sold, Babe Ruth’s 1948 last will and testament. Lowenstein said, “My father died in 1971 and he would have never had an original copy of Ruth’s will in his file. The only item of note that was retained by the firm was the meeting minutes book for the Babe Ruth Foundation, which has Babe Ruth’s signature. No one ever had Babe Ruth’s will, and no one in my family ever sold a will.”
In a 2001 New York Times article Richard Sandomir reported that Lewis “bought the 1948 will (in 1999) for $30,000 from the grandson of one of Ruth’s lawyers.” In 2001 authentication company Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) published an article featuring the Mark Lewis collection of Babe Ruth artifacts and quoted Lewis as saying: “How can these items be for sale? That’s a good question. Sometimes I don’t understand it myself. This (will) was purchased from the grandson of Babe Ruth’s attorney. After the attorney passed away, the family was going through all of his possessions (and) lo and behold Babe Ruth’s last will and testament appeared.” The article published on the PSA website also revealed that Lewis claimed he had “verified the will by going to Chambers St. in New York City and compared it with the microfilm that was filed.” Said Lewis, “This is it. There are no others.”
Despite Lewis’ claims, Detective Steven Blair of the Boston Police Department confirmed last year that the will of Babe Ruth was on a 1999 list of seventeen documents that the will-thief, Joe Schnabel, admitted to taking. Original stolen wills and fragments cut from those original documents have surfaced in the hobby for the past fifteen years.
MastroNet offered the stolen will of Ned Hanlon in 2000 and dealer and PSA authenticator, Kevin Keating, offered for sale a Hanlon signature cut from legal documents associated with his will. Keating also recently offered for $6,500 a document signed by George Wright that was removed from the probate file of his wife Abby Wright. Joe Schnabel had already admitted to stealing the wills and accompanying probate documents of Abby and George Wright, which were discovered being sold by Lelands auction house. Boston title examiner Michael Bowbly was the first person to determine the wills were stolen in October of 1998, and notified the Register of Deeds at the Suffolk County Probate Court, Richard Iannella.
An FBI probe ensued and sources indicate that investigators also questioned collector Barry Halper to see if he knew of any other wills in the marketplace. Halper denied having knowledge of any stolen wills but it is clear that he lied to investigators. In a 1982 interview with Sports Illustrated, Halper revealed that he owned the last will and testament of Hall of Famer Tommy McCarthy, which was stolen from the probate court in Boston and still in his possession at the time he was questioned.
One of the most valuable wills sold by Schnabel through his fence, New Jersey memorabilia dealer, Jack Heir, was an 1895 document signed by Boston pitcher “Old Hoss” Radbourn, which changed hands for close to $20,000. That document has also been recovered and is currently safe and sound at the McClean County Probate Court in Illinois.
Another important document constituting the codicil of the last will and testament of the “Father of Professional Baseball,” Harry Wright, was stolen from the Philadelphia probate court and in 1998 was sold by Hunt Auctions of Exton, PA. Hunt placed a pre-auction estimate on the document at “$6,000-$8,000.” The Wright will is still missing as are thousands of other Wright related documents stolen from the New York Public Library and the focus of another FBI investigation.
The recent court documents filed with the New York County clerk indicate that Mark Lewis did not appear in court to contest New York State’s claim that the Babe Ruth will was the property of the Surrogate’s Court.
When told of the New York Attorney General’s recovery of her father’s last will and testament, the Babe’s daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens said, “I am so glad that they got that back, I just can’t believe someone would steal Daddy’s will.”
The Babe’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tosetti, was also pleased with the news of the recovery and told us, “I am ecstatic that justice was done and my grandfather Babe Ruth’s will was returned to the Surrogate Court of New York. I thank Hon. Marilyn Sugarman for her wisdom and judgment in this matter. I also want to thank the Attorney General of New York State, and Governor Andrew Cuomo for their persistence and the FBI for their due diligence. I have hope that this will set a president for future hearings on the theft of other treasures.”
One of the other stolen treasures that is still missing from the court house files is the Babe’s 1925 separation from his first wife. That document was also owned by Barry Halper, but it appears to have vanished sometime before the 1999 Sotheby’s sale of the deceased Yankee limited partner’s collection.
Although Mark Lewis has also admitted to once owning the stolen will of Jackie Robinson, there have been no formal attempts made to recover the will of the Brooklyn Dodger who broke baseball’s color barrier.