Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: Operation Bullpen

Today's post isn't Cubs related. It isn't even baseball card related, but its close.

For Christmas I wanted another baseball card related book, but I had trouble finding one. I've already got Mint Condition, Card Sharks, The Card, and Cardboard Gods. I settled on Operation Bullpen by Kevin Nelson, which deals with sports memorabilia.

The book tells the true story of an FBI sting named Operation Bullpen. We're given a very disturbing picture of the sports autograph industry and the shady characters involved. A California card shop owner, Wayne Bray, teamed up with forger Greg Marino, to produce over $100 million worth of bogus memorabilia. They even fronted an authentication service to give their junk worthless certificates of authenticity.

It takes the FBI a couple years to get enough evidence to make arrests, but eventually Bray, Marino, and several others are brought down. Though they are put out of business, sports forgery is still alive and well today, due in large part to Ebay. Anyone can sell anything on Ebay, and Ebay claims no responsibility in making sure that autographs are legit. It's buyers beware.

One of the most interesting things in the book for me was what led to the FBI investigation in the first place. In the early 1990s, Michael Jordan signed an exclusive autograph deal with Upper Deck. He would sign only their products. But Upper Deck was seeing his signature on many other non-UD items. They confronted MJ, who denied signing them. If he wasn't signing, then they had to be forged. To protect their investment, Upper Deck cooperated with the FBI as they conducted an investigation in the Chicago area named Operation Foul Ball.

Several arrests were made, but Upper Deck complained to the FBI that shutting down one operation just shifts the forging somewhere else. Upper Deck kept pressuring the FBI to do more, and that led to Operation Bullpen.

The irony to me is that the book Card Sharks details many of the shady practices of Upper Deck, including printing up thousands of additional copies of supposedly rare cards that management personnel sold for their personal profit. In essence, what we have is crooks ratting out other crooks who are hurting their syndicate.

I found the book to be an interesting (but disturbing) read. I would recommend the book, but if you are looking to buy an autograph on ebay, I recommend that you be very careful!

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