Whose Ball Is It, Anyway?

June 21, 2005
The Wall Street Journal

ON OCT. 3, 1951, pitcher Ralph Branca fired a baseball toward catcher Rube Walker. The Spalding flew off the ash bat of Bobby Thomson some 320 feet — a home run that gave the New York Giants a 5-4 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers and possession of the National League pennant. It was a connection of bat and ball so momentous that it came to be called “the Shot Heard Round the World.”

It also spawned a modern-day mystery: What happened to the ball?

Neither the one newsreel nor the several photos of the ball sailing over the green left-field wall at New York City’s long-gone Polo Grounds show it being caught. Nor was anyone reported to have leapt up from the stands, ball triumphantly in hand.

In the years since, some people did come forward purporting to have the ball, but their claims were unsubstantiated. And in a sport obsessed with feats and collectibles, the fate of the ball became a matter of moment.

Through the first 90 years of professional baseball leagues, little mind was paid to balls that figured in home runs. Then in 1961 a restaurateur named Sam Gordon announced that if Roger Maris bested Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season, he would offer the fan who caught homer No. 61 $5,000 for the ball. Mr. Maris broke the record, and a trucker named Sal Durante got the money.

The value of such balls has since skyrocketed: The ball Cardinal Mark McGwire hit in 1998 for a 70th home run, for example, went at auction for $3 million; a year later, the ball hit by Hank Aaron in July 1976 for his 755th career home run sold for $650,000.

In April 2004, Lelands.com, the Long Island, N.Y., auction house, offered $1 million for the Thomson ball. That attracted the attention of 65-year-old Bill Moore, the retired budget director of a Connecticut bank. According to Mr. Moore, the Thomson ball was caught by a man who worked at an insurance company with his father, Harold Moore, and two days later was given to him (“because he knew he had a son who was a big baseball fan,” says Bill Moore).

Written on Mr. Moore’s shellacked ball are the particulars of the game: N.Y. GIANTS vs Bklyn. Dodgers, 1951, LAST GAME, PENNANT WON by NY, Bob Thomson, HOME RUN, LAST OF 9th, LF.

Lelands.com was impressed. It vouches on its Web site that black-light testing proved the vintage of the blue ink, now deeply faded. And it says that owing to the inscription (which Mr. Moore believes was made by his father’s friend), “there is no doubt that this ball is at the very least from the unforgettable game.” But Bill Moore has no photo, ticket or witness to corroborate his story. That being the case, says Lelands.com, the auctioneer “cannot guarantee [Mr. Moore’s ball] as Thomson’s home-run ball with airtight authenticity so it was unable to offer the $1 million bounty. Regardless, it has offered to sell the ball.”

Bidding on the alleged relic, lot 1286, is now at $6,050. The online auction ends June 24.

But the online description of lot 1286 is not without error. Announcer Russ Hodges howled five times, not six, that the Giants won the pennant; and on Aug. 7, it trailed Brooklyn by 9.5, not 11.5, games. (Four days later the gap stood at 13.5.)

More problematic is the assertion by Lelands that Mr. Moore’s ball fell “into the hands of a chubby fan in a dark jacket and white T-shirt” — believed by Mr. Moore to be the unnamed friend of his father. The claim is based on a photo taken by the late Daily News photographer Hank Olen that shows a throng at the game, in the midst of which is a man next to a blurred ball in motion.

John Lee Smith is certain, however, that the chubby fan did not catch the ball. The Olen photo (a clear copy of which was unearthed in the archive of the Sporting News) shows Mr. Smith — then a 23-year-old Yale divinity student — in the front row of Section 35, 12 feet above Dodger left fielder Andy Pafko. Mr. Smith, now a Baptist minister in Ithaca, N.Y., says that on that long ago Wednesday in Harlem, a black youth nearby in Section 35 cheered Giant left fielder Monte Irvin throughout the game. And, says Mr. Smith of the Thomson home run, the boy who was black “caught the ball in his glove and quickly exited the area.” Another fan, Dominic Cavello of Tamarac, Fla., visible in the Olen photograph just behind the chubby fan, offers similar testimony.

All these years later, however, there is no trace of such a boy, leaving creative minds to wander freely. In a screenplay that was never filmed, “The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff,” writer Michael Sloane landed the ball in the grip of a black girl of nine named Pauline Watkins. In his novel “Underworld,” Don DeLillo had it grabbed beneath a seat by a black youth of 14 named Cotter Martin. (Mr. Sloane and Mr. DeLillo say that they were unaware of the testimony of Mr. Smith and Mr. Cavello.) “If we knew who had that baseball, it’s possible I never would have begun work on the novel,” says Mr. DeLillo.

Says Mr. Moore: “I never heard anything about a black boy catching the ball. That was news to me.” At Lelands, President Mike Heffner says: “It could’ve happened. I wasn’t there. I don’t know.”

Further complicating matters are others claiming ownership of the Thomson ball. Frank Grossman, 60, a retired electrician in Phoenix, says his father caught the ball, though an accompanying ticket indicates a seat hundreds of feet from where the homer landed. (Mr. Grossman says his father switched seats.)

Jack Biegel, 71, a retired store manager in Howard Beach, N.Y., says he bought his ball from the Salvation Army. Signed by members of the 1951 Giants, it is one of hundreds of extant balls that bear the proper stamps of Spalding and then baseball commisioner Ford Frick. Still, Mr. Biegel believes. “Just my vibes,” he says. “I cannot honestly say that it is not the ball.”

Mr. Moore disregards such claims. “I’ve always been 100% convinced that I’ve had the ball,” he says. After all, his father told him so. But the man who held the ball before its final flight at 3:58 p.m. on Oct. 3, 1951, remains unconvinced. “A million to one that’s the ball,” says pitcher Ralph Branca. He speculates that whoever caught it “played with it on the street or his dog got it and chewed it up.”