Feb. 4, 2011
The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is no stranger to thefts and obfuscations.
Back in 1972, six baseballs donated by Hall of Famer Walter Johnson’s kin, featuring autographs of U.S. Presidents dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, were secreted out of a museum display case. The Hall of Fame never told the Johnson family about it until 1977, and only because Johnson’s relative, Hank Thomas, had asked to see the famous baseballs.
In late 1982, Hall of Fame historian Cliff Kachline, discovered that vintage World Series programs loaned to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office in 1973 were being offered for sale to collectors by MLB employee, Joe Reichler. The sales of Hall property gave rise to a Sporting News feature story and a headline in the New York Post that read: SCANDAL HITS BASEBALL HALL OF FAME. When Kachline was interviewed by MLB’s head of security, he told The Sporting News that MLB‘s investigator, “seemed to be more interested in finding out how The Sporting News got the story of the missing programs than he was in actually finding the missing programs.” On October 29, 1982, the Hall of Fame fired Cliff Kachline.
In 1988, New York City auctioneer, Josh Evans, discovered that a signed photo he’d purchased from dealer Mike Gutierrez for $700 had a Hall of Fame accession number on its reverse that had been covered with wite-out. Evans reported the incident and returned the photo to Cooperstown, where head librarian Tom Heitz lobbied for a full investigation and the involvement of the FBI. Evans was interviewed by FBI agents who came to his NYC office and Gutierrez was investigated as a suspect because of his sale of the Ruth photo. The FBI learned that Gutierrez had spent considerable time researching in the National Baseball Library during the mid-1980s.
A friend who accompanied Gutierrez on a trip to the Hall of Fame’s library told the FBI he was an eyewitness to actual thefts. Josh Evans says the eyewitness also told him that he saw Gutierrez “steal a Nap Lajoie letter from the (August) Herrmann archive.” Evans recalls, “He told me how he did it, he (Gutierrez) would take ten original letters, photocopying them, returning nine originals and putting one original and nine photocopies in his briefcase.”
Although the case against Gutierrez appeared strong, (including a claim of witness tampering), the Hall of Fame refused to file charges or follow through with prosecution. Ex-Hall of Fame employee Bill Deane who worked in the library at that time says, “After Tom (Heitz) brought it to the attention of the brass, they said (Gutierrez) is not allowed here.” Another ex-Hall official added, ”They just didn’t want any negative p.r. to scare away past and potential donors. The old leadership just wanted to run and hide”
Now, twenty-three years later in 2011, a letter addressed to August Herrmann from Cardinal owner Sam Breadon surfaced in a sale conducted by Clean Sweep Auctions in Long Island. Over the years, letters addressed to Herrmann had surfaced in other auctions, but as one veteran collector states, “with the suspicions that they were stolen from the Hall, those Herrmann letters are toxic.” Haulsofshame.com notified the Hall of Fame and the auction house to inform them we believed the document had been stolen from the National Baseball Library and also noted that Clean Sweep had sold three other letters addressed to Herrmann in a 2009 sale.
Recently, reports published in 2010 by Haulsofshame.com uncovered the sales of four rare photos of Hall of Famers Mickey Welch, Christy Mathewson, Nap Lajoie and Jake Beckley. All of the photos had Hall of Fame ownership marks and accession numbers. The accession number on the Mathewson photo (which sold for $12,000 in a 2008 auction) was covered with wite-out. Other reports identified letters addressed to Herrmann that were consigned to sales at Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas, Texas. In each instance Heritage withdrew the Herrmann letters from their sales.
So, with all of this information in the public arena and having not heard from the Hall directly, auctioneer Steve Verkman of Clean Sweep contacted the Hall of Fame himself about the Herrmann letter in his sale. Verkman told us that Hall of Fame spokesperson Brad Horn told him, “There is insufficient information for us to unequivocally state that these were stolen from the Hall of Fame.” Verkman added, “The Hall of Fame also distinctly did not ask for it back in any way, or for it to be removed from the auction, only that they welcome it, along with anything else of potential historic value as a donation as they are the main repository of baseball history in the U.S.” Verkman also asked Horn if he knew “how many letters were in the original Herrmann donation to get a sense of scale and such.” Verkman says Horn told him he did not know. (A Sporting News article about the original donation in 1960 states the archive included 45,000 documents.)
Horn’s statement that the Hall of Fame could not be sure the letter was theirs is even more problematic on account that Verkman and his consignor could not provide provenance for the letter before 2005. Verkman told us his consignor purchased the letter at auction in 2005, “as part of a very well known collection in the Midwest.” When asked to give details as to what auction sold the letter, Verkman declined further comment. Based on the well-documented items already verified as stolen from the Hall’s collection, one would think the institution would have pressed harder to learn if there is some other legitimate source of Herrmann correspondence other than their own collection. All reports from the time of the donation in 1960 indicate that the Hall of Fame received the entire holdings of the Cincinnati Reds and Herrmann spanning from 1902 to the late 1920s. When historian Dr. Harold Seymour cited the Herrmann Papers in the 1971 classic, Baseball: The Golden Age, his only source was the collection at the Hall of Fame. If there ever was a legitimate source for additional Herrmann correspondence, it has never been verified.
On February 2nd, with the Hall of Fame’s blessing, the Breadon letter to Herrmann sold for $360. When we contacted the Hall of Fame to respond to SteveVerkman’s statements and the sale of the letter, museum spokesperson Brad Horn replied, “No comment.” In addition, the Hall of Fame did not fulfill our requests for a copy of the entire contents found in the Herrmann archive file dedicated to Sam Breadon letters dated from 1920 to 1926. That group of documents would show that the letter in Clean Sweep was part of a series of letters to Herrmann found in “Box 51, Folder 5″ of the Hall of Fame collection.
Sources indicate that the Hall of Fame has never conducted their own thorough investigation into the thefts from the National Baseball Library. In regard to the Herrmann Papers, they have never even examined the thousands of research notes compiled by Dr. Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills when they used the Herrmann archive in the 1960s. Their original notes, quoting directly from 1000s of Herrmann letters, are housed in the Rare and Manuscript Collection of Cornell University. The Hall never properly catalogued the collection of over 45,000 documents until 2005, so the Seymour Papers at Cornell are the best documentation of what should be in the collection. However, Hall of Fame officials have never attempted to view those documents.
In addition, the leadership at Cooperstown has halted previous investigations, failed to prosecute crimes and currently has failed to engage law enforcement for recovery of the stolen property they were entrusted by donors to protect and preserve. In regard to the Herrmann Papers archive, the Hall of Fame is also aware of documentation that proves the collection was compromised. Yet they allowed the sale of the suspect Breadon-Herrmann document saying they can’t “unequivocally state” it was stolen.
Having been the first person to uncover incontrovertible proof of thefts from the Hall of Fame in 1988, Josh Evans, president of Lelands auction house, is in a unique position to comment on the Hall of Fame’s support of Clean Sweep Auctions’ sale of a Herrmann letter. Says Evans, “Now they are complicit in their own degradation.” He continued, “The Hall of Fame left me hanging back in 1988. They thanked me for returning their piece and for putting my neck out for this and they assured me they would certainly pursue this. They contacted the FBI, who came and saw me, but I later found out the higher ups nixed going any further.” Evans can speak first hand of the culture at the Hall of Fame in regard to responding to serious issues like the theft of artifacts entrusted to their custodianship. “I never pushed this, I waited for the Hall of Fame to act. I never made it public and rarely discussed it with anyone as the FBI and Hall told me not to discuss it with anyone.”
In failing to properly investigate the crimes committed in Cooperstown and in failing to actively pursue recovery of stolen and suspected stolen items from their collections, the Hall of Fame appears complicit in the crimes through their negligence. Haulsofshame.com has also been made aware of instances where donors and relatives of Hall of Famers have been told by museum and library officials that their donated items could not be located in the collection.
Back in 1983, when the scandal of missing artifacts linked to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office made headlines in The Sporting News, cover-ups and stonewalling by baseball executives hindered investigations. An ex-Hall of Fame official recently told us why the missing items in that episode were returned. He told us, “It was because New York Attorney General Bob Abrams stepped in and read Bowie Kuhn the riot act.”
The items wrongfully removed and sold from the Hall of Fame in the 1982 Reichler scandal were valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, the items stolen from the National Basbeall Library in the late 1980’s, including those from the Herrmann Papers archive, are estimated to be valued in excess of $1 million.
Maybe the new Attorney General of New York State, Eric T. Schneiderman, needs to lay down the law for Hall of Fame Chairman Jane Forbes Clark. Recently, Haulsofshame.com also made Hall of Fame officials aware of the sales of letters addressed to Hall of Fame presidents and executives including Clark’s grandfather, Stephen C. Clark, the Hall of Fame’s founder. We asked Hall officials if the Clark family or the families of other museum executives could have sold off their official correspondence, including a 1948 letter from Ty Cobb to Stephen C. Clark. We also asked if such correspondence was missing from the collection. The Hall of Fame did not reply.