In the late 1980s, I was like any other 13-year-old boy. I was too shy to talk to girls, I was obsessed with baseball, and I counted the days until my braces would come off. I also happened to be making $500 a month selling fake autographs across the country.
It all started because I was one of those lucky kids who grew up with Spring Training in my backyard. Every year, I’d watch late ’80s superstars like Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Ken Griffey, Jr. make two-day pit stops in Tucson to face off against our very own Cleveland Indians, who at the time seemed destined to finally break that ill-fated curse with talent like Joe Carter and Cory Snyder. (Remember that Sports Illustrated cover?)
My obsession with the game fueled an incessant and passionate hobby of autograph collecting. By the time I was 13, I had amassed 2500-plus signatures of major league players past and present, ranging from Canseco, to Bob Feller to…well… 1980 Rookie of the Year Joe Charbonneau.
And then, I began trying to forge their autographs. I’m not sure why I did it at first, but it became an infatuation. And eventually, I became a master imitator, inking McGwire’s names on baseballs, Canseco’s on his 1987 Fleer rookie cards, and Chicago Cubs phenom Mark Grace’s John Hancock on things like hot dog wrappers and game programs. From there, I would sell them for upwards of $40 apiece at local baseball card shops and through the mail using a friend in Connecticut as a middleman.
By the time of my Bar Mitzvah, I had nearly $4500 in my personal bank account… all from fake autographs. My mom thought I was just selling old baseball cards to dealers around the country; little did she know I was the mastermind behind a nationwide four-figure phony autograph ring.
Here’s how I did it. I would copy each and every stroke of the player’s signature, going so far as to measure out how long the “K” in Will Clark’s name went back beneath his name. I would practice for hours a day, at school and on random common cards—like a 1987 Topps Wally Backman—before committing to a once valuable item like a McGwire 1985 Olympic card (then valued at $50, now selling on eBay for only five bucks).
Once I had a product I deemed worthy, I would send it to my friend in Connecticut, who was also a huge baseball fan, and he would unload the card to friends or local shops for more money. His story had always been that he had spent the spring in Arizona collecting autographs, and wanted to sell some items to buy a present for his girlfriend.
At one point, I estimated that we had circulated nearly 500 fake signatures into the card collecting atmosphere. I apologize to all the kids who may have received a Mark McGwire-autographed ball for Christmas in 1989. Chances are, I was the one who signed it.
It all came to a head in late 1989 when a local baseball card shop owner had one of my signatures de-authenticated. The jig was up. The owner took me aside and made me a deal: I could return the $500 he had paid me for recently acquired fake autographs and call my parents, or we could go to the police.
In the end, I returned the money and quit the forgery game for good. I also accepted a lifelong ban from the card shop. My mother was not entirely pleased, either, and I was not allowed to go to any spring training games that entire year.
My buddy in Connecticut was never caught. However, we both decided to stop the operation following my close call. For a good three summers, we were the equivalent of those Oxycontin-dealing jocks from Miami you read about every few years in Rolling Stone. We had a cheap and easy product, we marked it up 200 percent, and we could afford everything that junior high kids craved back in 1988: cassettes, Vision skateboards, and candy at the 7-11.
A few years back, hundreds of forged Babe Ruth baseballs began circulating across the country. Whoever had done them was the most impressive forgery artist I had ever seen, and I had a hard time believing that somebody would be so meticulous as to discredit these authentic-looking balls. When the story broke, however, I got a call from my mother that shouldn’t have surprised me.
“Please tell me you’re not involved in this,” she said.
Thankfully, I wasn’t.
Featured Image: Jim, the Photographer