What would you do with The Ball?

Thursday, September 3, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[mcgwire]
Mark McGwire greets the two fans who retrieved his 56th and 57th home run balls Tuesday night. They watched batting practice Wednesday as McGwire's guests.
(AP photo)

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The question arose from the back seat, on the way home from the mall. The 9-year-old in the Derek Jeter T-shirt was trying to deal with a moral dilemma, and was sufficiently flummoxed to consult his dad.

"If you caught The Ball," he asked, "what would you do?"

The Ball, of course, meant No. 62, the record-breaking home run Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa will surely strike sometime this month.

What Would You Do? That's not quite so clear.

Instinct (as influenced by the Indiana Jones trilogy) tells you priceless historical artifacts belong in museums. Pragmatism says the kids are going to need braces and the car is long past its prime.

The better angels of our nature are in constant battle with the bills. You want to do the right thing if No. 62 should land in your lap, but you wonder if you can afford to.

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"If someone offered me a million dollars," I told my son, "I'd have to take it. But I would hope that the person who bought it would give the ball to the Hall of Fame."

Hall benefits often

Oddly enough, that's often the way it works. The baseball museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., gets most of the good stuff eventually, as sentiment subsides, dust accumulates and insurance premiums escalate. One generation's conversation piece is another generation's clutter. One generation's heirloom is another's tax deduction.

The bat Babe Ruth used to swat his 60th homer of 1927 was donated to the Hall of Fame in 1939 by New York sportswriter James Kahn. The ball was bestowed in 1964 from a private donor who preferred anonymity.

"We're fortunate," Hall of Fame spokesman Jeff Idelson said Wednesday. "The players and the clubs are recognizing an event's place in history before a lot of this stuff is getting into the collectors market."

Home run balls, however, are hard to control. Once they leave the field of play, they become the property of whoever grabs them.

In 1973, 12 years after Sal Durante became a staple of baseball trivia tests by catching Roger Maris' 61st homer, the ball that broke Ruth's record was sold to Sacramento restaurant owner Sam Gordon for $5,000. Gordon later presented the ball to Maris, who subsequently donated it to the Hall of Fame.

Start at $250,000

Yet in the quarter-century since Sam Gordon's grand gesture, the market for sports memorabilia has heightened the inherent conflict between generosity and greed. Nashville's Shop at Home network has announced it will pay $250,000 for the ball that breaks Maris' record -- 2 1/2 times the value estimated by Christie's, the New York auction house, and 50 times Sam Gordon's purchase price for the Maris ball.

"We wanted to pre-empt a bidding war," Shop at Home President Kent Lillie said Wednesday. "It ($250,000) was a number we sort of discussed internally. We wanted it high enough that it would be unlikely that we would be outbid by someone who wanted it for a private collection."

Lillie's stated intention is to use the ball for promotional purposes and then turn it over to the Hall of Fame. That way, whoever catches the ball could make a nice profit without feeling so much like a mercenary.

But what happens if the price goes higher, and some wealthy fan fancies the ball for his personal trophy case? If the ball Eddie Murray hit for his 500th homer can fetch $500,000, shouldn't the ball that breaks the most recognized record in American sports be worth substantially more? If a single Honus Wagner baseball card can bring $640,500 at auction, shouldn't No. 62 break seven figures?

"We're not interested in a bidding war," said Shop at Home's Lillie. "But I think there's no reason for anyone to bid higher than our bid if their intention is to put it in the Hall of Fame."

Personally, I'd be happy to trade a hunk of horsehide for a quarter of a million dollars, knowing the ball would ultimately reach its rightful place. But if the bidding should go higher, who am I to stand in its way?

Hope that answers your question, Michael.

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