U.S. baseball steps up security to fight fraud

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Tom Cunningham stands in the camera well near first base at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, intently watching the action and making sure he views every batted ball and close play.

MLB authenticator Tom Cunningham applies a hologram to game balls after the Boston Red Sox Chicago White Sox American League MLB baseball game in Chicago August 8, 2008. At the end of the White Sox game, Cunningham assigns each game-used item -- whether a jersey, a ball, a bat or anything else -- an identification number, attach a tamper-proof hologram and enter its information on the Internet so fans who pay hundreds or thousands of dollars can be sure of their purchase. REUTERS/John Gress

The 49-year-old Chicago police officer is not there as a fan -- although he does love baseball -- but as part of Major League Baseball’s program to guarantee the authenticity of game-used jerseys, balls, bats and other memorabilia it sells to fans.

At the end of the White Sox game, Cunningham will assign each item an identification number, attach a tamper-proof hologram and record its details.

Fans who pay hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars to buy these items -- usually via the Major League Baseball website -- can be sure that they are getting what they pay for.

“It’s put integrity back in collectibles,” said Cunningham, one of baseball’s 130 authenticators, who also witness and authenticate the signatures of players who sign items for sale.

The program was set up after a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into sports memorabilia in 2000 that concluded that as much as 75 percent of sports and entertainment memorabilia was fake.

The probe, known as “Operation Bullpen” after the area where baseball pitchers warm up, resulted in the seizure, in one case, of some 10,000 baseballs with counterfeit signatures, including one purporting to be by Mother Teresa.

At the time, players such as outfielder Tony Gwynn and pitcher Randy Johnson were identifying forgeries of their own signatures on baseballs that were for sale in their home parks.

“It was really an eye opener for us,” said Howard Smith, baseball’s senior vice president of licensing. “If you can’t buy something at the stadium with confidence, you really have a problem.”

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Pete Siegel, of New York City-based Gotta Have It! Collectible Inc, which sells high-end sports collectibles, said the move was long overdue in a market he estimates at $2 billion and growing.

“If it was done years earlier, items would be worth a lot more money than they are now,” he said.

Baseballs that retired New York Yankees all-star Mickey Mantle signed in the 1980s for sports trading card publisher Upper Deck carry a 50 percent premium to other balls because Upper Deck affixed a hologram to every ball, lending it more credibility, Siegel said.

Other North American sports leagues authenticate their items as well, but not on the same level as baseball, whose holograms are made by Britain’s OpSec Security Group Plc.

The National Basketball Association and National Hockey league both use MeiGray Group to authenticate items and the National Football League uses PSA/DNA, a division of Collectors Universe, while Major League Soccer has tested radio frequency ID chips by Prova Group Inc.

“We don’t want to get mixed in with the $50 Brett Favre-signed footballs that apparently are not real because Brett didn’t sign for anything less than $100, $150,” said Pete Quaglierini, manager of NFL Auctions, referring to the Green Bay Packers quarterback.

Baseball, the NBA and NHL all generate profits from their programs, and also provide money to charitable causes, while the others sell items only for charity. None of the leagues disclosed how much money the programs generate.

All of the baseball program’s authenticators were hired from law enforcement because of that background, with four or five assigned to each team, working on a rotation to cover every game and even some trade shows.

The rules are simple: an authenticator must see it to authenticate anything. That can be taken to the extreme, as authenticated items have included infield dirt and urinals at old stadiums. One of the more bizarre items authenticated by Cunningham includes ice skates signed by an Olympic gold medalist who visited the White Sox.

But forget home run balls, one of the most sought-after items of sports memorabilia. Once an item leaves the field of play and the chain of custody, it normally can’t be authenticated under the Major League Baseball program.

The exception is for big hits, like when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants took baseball’s all-time home-run record in 2006. In such cases, the umpire is handed a numbered ball before the play.

The growing appetite for such collectibles is obvious. More than 2 million items have been authenticated under the Major League Baseball program, more than half of them in the last three years.

“When Ken Griffey Jr hit his 600th home run, pretty much everything he was wearing was authenticated, from his hat down to his shoes,” said Major League Baseball’s Michael Posner.

Reporting by Ben Klayman; editing by Eddie Evans