Feb. 9, 2011
When Robert Creamer was assigned to write a story about collector Barry Halper for Smithsonian Magazine in the Spring of 1987, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the man known as the “Babe Ruth of Collectors.” As the Bambino’s biographer, Creamer, author of the classic 1974 biography, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, knew Ruth’s story better than anyone, and Halper was a collector apparently obsessed with acquiring anything and everything linked to the “Sultan of Swat.” Creamer was expecting a typical hoarder or “hyper-kinetic weirdo”, but when he walked into Halper’s suburban Livingston, New Jersey, home he was pleasantly surprised.
Creamer recalls, “I had this rather condescending preconception of Halper as a slightly eccentric old man living in a modest frame house cluttered from first floor to attic with baseball memorabilia piled all over the place while his long suffering wife looked on in dismay.” But Creamer was taken aback when he finally walked through Halper’s front door. “I was knocked out when I reached his home and found it to be a sleek, modern, obviously very expensive split-level with baseball material beautifully displayed.” In fact, Creamer was so impressed with Halper’s collection, he remembers, “It was a lot better than Cooperstown of that day, more intelligently laid out, more rewarding to a baseball fan.”
Halper’s stature as a dedicated fan was something that also impressed the legendary writer. “He told me about getting Cy Young’s autograph outside Yankee Stadium before an Old Timers game when he was a teenager,” said Creamer. “I remember that Old Timers Game because I was there as a young writer for Sports Illustrated, I was impressed that the youthful Halper was there and had the gumption to get Cy Young’s autograph on (a) ball.”
In his cover-story for Smithsonian, it was Halper’s moxie and passion for collecting that Creamer explored. Perhaps the one item in Halper’s collection that personified his dedication as a collector and fan was his incredible sheet of paper signed by every member of the 500 Home Run Club, starting with Creamer’s own favorite, the Babe. Creamer featured the sheet of paper prominently in his article, which many credit as a defining moment in the history of sports collecting. The article treated baseball collectibles as significant historic relics and Halper was portrayed as the hobby’s founding father. In a 1990 issue of SCD, auctioneer Josh Evans commented, “This (Smithsonian) issue marked a landmark acceptance of sports memorabilia as important Americana.”
In regard to Halper’s “500 Home Run Club” sheet, Creamer wrote:
“Many years ago Halper’s father was given Babe Ruth’s autograph on a plain sheet of paper, and in time he gave it to Barry, who took it with him when he went off to college at the University of Miami, where he played baseball under the coaching of Jimmie Foxx. Halper says he wasn’t much of a college player, but he enjoyed sitting on the bench listening to Foxx talk baseball. One day he brought the paper with Ruth’s autograph to the ballfield and had Foxx sign it. Some time later another famous home run hitter, Mel Ott, stopped by to visit Foxx. Halper dashed back to his dormitory, got the paper and had Ott sign it too. At the time, Ruth, Foxx and Ott were the only players ever to hit 500 or more home runs during their big league careers.”
Creamer went on to describe Halper’s quest to secure the signatures of all the members of baseball’s elite club, all the way up to the inclusion of “Mr. October” himself, Reggie Jackson. Jackson offered to sign the sheet during the season of 1984, when he was stuck on 497, but Halper made him wait until he actually hit his 500th. Halper recalled Jackson’s reaction to Creamer who wrote, “You don’t think I’m going to get 500, do you?, Jackson said. “Well the hell with you. Either I sign that paper now or I’ll never sign it.” Jackson held out on Halper until he was sitting on 510 homers to sign the sheet along with Ruth, Mays, Mantle, Aaron and Co.
More than a decade after Creamer wrote his Smithsonian article and Reggie finally signed the historic sheet, Halper decided to liquidate his collection at Sotheby’s and his prized item appeared for sale as Lot 133, the “500 Home Run Autograph display.” In a large frame, Halper’s sheet was flanked by additional signed baseball cards of each of the then fifteen 500 Club members, and Sotheby’s described the item being offered as “a unique sheet of signatures, personally gathered by Barry Halper over many years.” The lot sold for a whopping $57,500.
But Sotheby’s included some new information that stood in stark contrast to what Halper had told Creamer in his 1987 Smithsonian article. Sotheby’s claimed in its catalogue description that the signing of the famous 500 HR club sheet, “began when Ruth signed it in 1948, the only time he and Mr. Halper ever met.”
How could this be? Halper told Creamer his father acquired the sheet and then gave it to him. Surely, Halper would have told Babe Ruth’s own biographer about his alleged meeting with the Bambino in 1948. Surely Ruth’s biographer, and one of the best writers in the business, would have documented the meeting of Halper with his idol. But he didn’t. He reported what Halper told him, that his father “was given Babe Ruth’s autograph on a plain sheet of paper.” Halper told Creamer about meeting Cy Young in 1954. Had Halper ever met Babe Ruth in person?
When we contacted Creamer at his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, for his recollections of a Halper and Ruth encounter he responded, “I have no memory of Halper telling me that he had once met Ruth or had gotten an autograph from him. I feel I would certainly have remembered that and would have slung it into the article.”
Adding to the confusion is the revelation that ten years after Creamer’s Smithsonian article, Halper told another writer, Ken Shouler, about the alleged encounter he had with Ruth. The account of the meeting between Halper and Ruth appeared in a September, 1997, Cigar Aficionado story about Halper and his collection. Shouler wrote:
“In 1948, shortly before Ruth passed away, a “Babe Ruth Day” was held at Yankee Stadium. Halper attended the game and scurried under a police barrier, asking the weakened Babe to sign a piece of paper. Without uttering a word the Sultan of Swat signed. Nine years later, in 1957, Halper took that same sheet to Jimmie Foxx, the second member of the 500-homer club…”
Halper gave even more detail about his 500 HR sheet in an interview with T. S. O’Connell of Sports Collectors Digest in December of 1996. Halper told O’Connell, “The Babe got out of the car, and I went under the barricade and asked him to sign this book on a blank page. He didn’t talk, he just signed it.”
At the time of the Halper Auction at Sotheby’s in September of 1999, even USA Today reported that, “As an 8-year-old, Halper ducked under a wooden horse to get Babe Ruth’s autograph the day the Yankees retired his uniform number.”
It was yet another story spun by Halper in contrast to his 1987 Smithsonian interview with Robert Creamer. The Sotheby’s catalogue was produced and overseen by Halper associate Robert Lifson and Halper’s personal archivist Tom D’Alonzo, however, it appears that Sotheby’s did not disclose the conflicting information about the 500 HR sheet found in the easily accessible Cigar Aficionado and Smithsonian articles. Furthermore, it appears that Sotheby’s manuscript specialist Marsha Malinowski and consultant Mike Gutierrez must have both deemed the Ruth signature as authentic to include it in the sale.
But Halper’s conflicting stories regarding the 500 HR Club sheet don’t just end with Babe Ruth. It appears that there are just as many questions regarding his story about securing the signatures of Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott on the sheet. In 1989, Halper told the story in his own words for a commercially released documentary about his collection, available today as a DVD, entitled, The Ultimate Baseball Collection. Halper said:
“One interesting facet of my collecting happened at the University of Miami when I came home one Christmas time and I took an autographed sheet from my scrapbook, I had Babe Ruth on it, that was the only signature on it. Now, at the University of Miami my baseball coach was Jimmie Foxx, Double-X, the Hall of Famer, and I told Jimmy about it and he said to bring it back when you come home from Christmas, and when I brought it down there he said that Mel Ott was going to visit with him the next day, why don’t you wait til tomorrow and we’ll both sign it, and he’s the one who put the seed in my head, he said then you’ll have all three guys who hit 500 home runs, because it was Ruth, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx at that time, this is 1957, and they both signed it with the same pen, so now I have Ruth, Foxx and Ott….”
But there’s another huge problem with Halper’s story. The registrar’s office at the University of Miami says Halper first enrolled at the school in September of 1957. Foxx only coached the Miami team during the ‘55-’56 and ‘56-’57 seasons, and was no longer the coach by the time Halper enrolled at the school. For the 1958 season Foxx left Florida and was employed by the Minneapolis Millers, a Triple A farm club for the Boston Red Sox. Halper is also absent from all of the University of Miami baseball rosters for the years he attended the school from late 1957 to 1959.
We contacted one of Foxx’s former players, Sheldon Dunkel of Coral Gables, Florida, and asked if Barry Halper had ever been one of his teammates. Dunkel responded, “Barry Halper? No, I know who I played with and there’s never been a Barry Halper who pitched for us. I was captain in ‘58 and I played every inning of every game for three years. I can tell you first hand he did not pitch at U of M.” Dunkel should know, under Jimmie Foxx’s stewardship in 1957 he set an NCAA fielding record for fewest errors by a second baseman.
Dunkel, who was born in the Bronx and had a father who delivered laundry to Yankee Stadium, only remembers Halper from his baseball collecting career. “I’d heard of the guy and that he was a big collector. I saw him on television, but I didn’t know he was on my team. If he played he was a ghost.”
Years ago, Halper even called Dunkel looking for memorabilia. Dunkel recalls, “He called me and just said he was a collector and that he looked it up and that I played for (Jimmie) Foxx. He wanted to know if I had any of Foxx’s memorabilia and that he was willing to pay good money for it.” Halper never mentioned attending Miami or ever playing on the team in his conversation with Dunkel. Dunkel didn’t have any relics for Halper, but a prized possession he still has is a photo of himself with his Hall of Fame coach.
Dunkel still has fond memories of Foxx. “He was such a nice guy, its hard for me to talk about it. My feelings about him are special. I only played for him one year, 1957.” Told about Halper’s alleged story about the 500 HR sheet and his claims of conversations with Jimmy Foxx Dunkel responded, “ The guy Halper was just a snow-jobber. I’m not saying he’s a fraud in terms of his collection, but he’s a fraud. Why would a guy do that?”
When we informed Robert Creamer about Sheldon Dunkel’s revelations he said, “I could have kicked myself when you asked me how I felt reading about the huge holes in Barry’s story because I distinctly remember feeling surprised, very surprised, when Halper told me about his close relationship with Foxx — who was by far my favorite non-New York player when I was growing up. I knew, or had heard, that Jimmy was doing a lot of drinking and apparently earning drinking money by coaching college ball, which saddened me. But a reporter’s instinct should have moved me to dig further into Barry’s story, to do a little common fact-checking on Foxx and Miami baseball. The tiny, almost unnoticed signals I was getting should have made me at least question Barry’s story the way any trained reporter should have. But I didn’t; I accepted it as told and now feel abashed.”
In retrospect, Creamer shouldn’t feel abashed at all. With his high profile as a Yankee limited partner of George Steinbrenner and his scrapbook full of press clippings heralding him as a baseball insider and the founding father of baseball collecting- no one ever questioned Barry Halper. Writers from the New York Times and Sports Illustrated never questioned him; producers from 60 Minutes and ESPN never questioned him; and neither did the auction house heads who filled their sales with his treasures. In the 1999 Sotheby’s catalogue for the Halper auction, baseball legends like Ted Williams even gave Halper their seal of approval. Wrote Williams, ”Barry Halper couldn’t be more highly regarded by baseball people. He is a #1 guy…” Yogi Berra summed it up best in his testimonial for Halper in the same auction catalogue when he wrote, ”After all, everybody knows Barry!” But did they?
Halper’s reputation has been challenged by the conflicting stories about Ruth’s signature on his 500 HR sheet and other acquisition tales tied to many problematic items in his collection. Another example relates to the conflicting accounts he gave about his alleged “Shoeless Joe” Jackson jersey from 1919. In 1985, he told The Sporting News he acquired the jersey in the 1980s from Jackson’s relatives through the mail. But when he sold the jersey to Major League Baseball in 1998, he stated that he purchased the garment directly from Jackson’s widow in her home in the 1950s. Halper claimed to have stopped at Jackson’s house on a trip to school at Miami. But in October of 2010, the Baseball Hall of Fame revealed to the New York Post that Halper’s Jackson jersey was a forgery that incorporated a “S-o-x” logo manufactured with dye first created in the 1940s. In addition, other stories Halper told publicly about acquisitions of Babe Ruth’s rookie jersey and uniforms of Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, John McGraw, Ty Cobb, Wilbert Robinson and a host of others have also turned out to be false and the garments deemed forgeries by experts.
Halper’s multiple tales of provenance, including the 500 Home Run Club sheet stories, appear to fit into what has emerged as a very troubling pattern. Uniform expert Dave Grob has witnessed this pattern in his analysis of the Halper uniform holdings, including forged jerseys of Babe Ruth, Cy Young and Jimmy Collins. Says Grob, “I think there is a profile that appears very consistent. All items come with a great story that appears reasonable given the extent of the collection in its entirety. Yet, individually, items seen out of this context and examined and evaluated on a stand alone basis do not stand up to objective scrutiny.” Whether its an alleged uniform like Joe Jackson’s from 1919 or a sheet of paper claimed to have been signed by Babe Ruth in 1948, Grob can see how Halper so easily fooled so many people. Grob adds, “Nothing he had appeared out of place or not genuine because “it had to be good, just look at all of this other stuff.” The more he acquired, the stronger the case became because each new item was built on the collection and the collection was built on itself.”
Which brings us to the examination of the Babe Ruth autograph in question:
Clearly the Ruth signature on the Halper 500 HR sheet differs greatly from known authentic exemplars of Ruth’s autograph. In our opinion, every facet of the signature differs from Ruth’s in relation to slant, letter formation and the flow of the handwriting.
We asked several respected handwriting experts and hobby autograph aficianados to examine scans of the Ruth 500 HR club sheet as it appeared in the 1999 Sotheby’s catalogue. Here are their opinions:
Ron Keurajian, expert and author of the soon to be published Signatures From Cooperstown, said: “In my opinion, the Ruth signature that appears on the page is a forgery, and a poorly executed one at that.” (Keurajian also noted he had doubts about the Jimmie Foxx signature featured on the sheet.)
Mike Heffner of Lelands said: “I have never seen a legitimate Babe Ruth signature look like that one. It is way, way out of proportion. The spacing, letter size, letter formation, slant etc. are not consistent with legitimate examples.”
Josh Evans of Lelands said: “I always had a problem with this one. This Ruth is definitely no good.”
Steven Koschal, autograph expert and hobby veteran said: “I have examined the Babe Ruth signature you sent me. I am no longer “shocked” at the inability of auction houses to do any homework researching autographs. This Ruth example is a very poor excuse to even label it a forgery. There is absolutely no excuse for this incompetence as there are several true “experts” in the field of sports autographs should sellers and auction houses seek them out.”
Richard Simon, hobby autograph veteran from New York City said: ” Based on the scan I am not comfortable with this Ruth signature. I would be able to give a more definitive opinion if I could examine the original.”
John Rogers, Arkansas collector and Ruth specialist, who purchased over $250,000 of Ruth items at the Halper Sale in 1999, said: “There was a lot of doubt about this item at the time of the Halper sale. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. I steered clear of it and so did other collectors. I’ve seen a lot of Ruth forgeries over the years and this is not one of the better ones.”
Doug Allen of Legendary Auctions said: “I am 100% sure that the Ruth signature on this 500 HR sheet was not signed by Babe Ruth. It’s not even close.”
Jim Stinson, the veteran autograph dealer, said he was: “Unable to render a definitive opinion on the Babe Ruth signature based solely on the scan.”
Even the Babe’s own granddaughter can tell there’s something wrong with the signature on Halper’s sheet. Linda Ruth Tosetti told us, “I’m no authority, but I’ve seen a lot of what I know to be authentic from my own family. This one looks strange, the big space on the “B” and just the flatness of the signature. It looks too drawn out.”
Given that Halper’s conflicting claims state both that Ruth signed the actual sheet in person for him during 1948, and also that Halper’s father originally acquired the sheet and subsequently gave it to him, it is reasonable to question if Halper or someone close to him actually forged Ruth’s signature on the 500 HR Club sheet. The questions linger. The fact that Halper also lied very publicly about playing college baseball at Miami and that he knew and played for Jimmie Foxx creates even more doubt. Was the Ruth autograph forged before Foxx and Ott signed the page, or afterwards? If the experts are correct in their belief that Ruth never signed Halper’s page, a forger had to have added the signature to establish the 500 HR Club theme. Considering all of the evidence, Barry Halper appears to be the most likely suspect.
In an upcoming report we will reveal even more troubling news about other forged Babe Ruth documents from the Halper Collection and illustrate how those items support the theory that Barry Halper (or someone close to him) may very well have forged Babe Ruth signatures.