Saga of $500,000 ball presents mixed bag of motives, rewards

September 29, 1996|By JOHN STEADMAN

Baseball, cancer research on behalf of children and involvement with a Baltimore Oriole hero makes for what appears to be a winning parlay. Unprecedented. A can't-lose situation. Or is it? The charity involvement is that saving dimension that seemingly adds comfort to what is an otherwise repugnant scenario.

Michael Lasky, who in sporting circles has traded under the name Mike Warren, paid $500,000 (though he's actually spending $300,000) for a type of ball that can otherwise be bought in a sporting goods store for $9.99 -- except this one was hit over the fence at Camden Yards.

In truth, this was a one-of-a-kind ball, representing the 500th home run coming off the bat of Eddie Murray. But it looks like all the others, and 14 previous players have surpassed what's considered the 500 milestone. So, historically, it's not a singular achievement, even if it is distinctive, considering that Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Eddie Mathews, among others, have attained the 500 number.

Lasky entered the picture when the man who caught the ball, one Daniel Jones, let it be known he was interested in converting his good fortune into a business transaction. The lucky recipient, who hit the lottery, this Jones boy, will receive the money in payments of $25,000 for 20 years, resulting from an annuity arrangement taken out by Lasky.

And the ball, if you want to see it, will be put on display at the place of your choice, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., or the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, providing you want to invest in a 95-cent telephone call. It's a predicament that for the first time draws the Hall of Fame and Babe Ruth Museum into difficult positions because both institutions like to believe they are in cooperation with each other -- certainly not competitors in any way, shape or form.

Naturally, with most of the votes expected to come from Baltimore, the Babe Ruth Museum will be declared the likely winner. Want to bet? The voice-mail results are going to be tabulated between now and several days after the World Series. Then another press conference will be held and the orchestrated media, like sheep, will parade to the announcement site to record the final result.

Lasky will not receive any profits from the calls but, instead, the proceeds will be turned over to the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Oncology Center. A worthy beneficiary. Lasky also said if the voters decide Cooperstown is the appropriate place for display, that for three months each year the ball will have to be returned to Baltimore.

But the Hall of Fame, as a matter of record, does not accept artifacts on conditions they be loaned back to the donor at some later date. This is a policy that is equitable to the thousands of men and women who have given so much as a single memento to the Hall of Fame and also to the multitudes who come to visit the exhibits. The Hall of Fame's reputation since its founding more than 50 years ago speaks well for how it has operated.

To put the Hall of Fame in a position of being cast in a race, or as a rival to the Babe Ruth Museum, should not be condoned. It seems to us that it's taking advantage of a situation where the Babe Ruth Museum could, if it preferred, advertise the Eddie Murray ball as something the Hall of Fame would have wanted but didn't get.

William Guilfoile, Hall of Fame vice president, asked specifically about the ball, said: "We could only accept it with Eddie Murray's

permission. His wishes would be paramount to us. This would take precedence over our acquisition of the ball. Eddie Murray has been good to us, never turned us down when we made a request, and our desires would be in accordance with whatever he suggested."

The market for memorabilia has become a tawdry business. Speculators and schemers have entered the game and, unfortunately, have taken its commercial aspects to new heights, or lows, depending on your viewpoint. Two weeks ago, we saw and touched the first Most Valuable Player award, given to Lefty Grove in 1931 by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

The trophy is of such legitimate value that it is kept in a bank vault in Lonaconing for safekeeping until a determination can be made whether it will be presented to the Hall of Fame, Babe Ruth Museum or Smithsonian Institution. Murray's 500th home run ball was expected to be worth anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000, and avid collectors were not exactly standing in line to make a bid.

A ball that went through the legs of the Boston Red Sox's Bill Buckner, allowing the New York Mets to win the World Series in 1986, was sold for $93,000. But the owner of the ball, Arthur Richman, now a vice president of the New York Yankees, didn't make a profit from the sale.

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