By WAYNE PARRY
Associated Press Writer
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - A former Major League Baseball umpire and a New Jersey sports memorabilia dealer admitted selling baseballs they falsely claimed had been used in memorable games, including those in which Cal Ripken Jr. tied and broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record.
The umpire, Alan M. Clark, 56, formerly of Trenton and now of Williamsburg, Va., pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court Monday to conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
The memorabilia dealer, Richard Graessle Jr., 43, of Millburn, pleaded guilty to tax evasion for his role in the scheme, which operated from September 1995 to November 1998.
The pair told U.S. District Court Judge John Bissell that they sold balls that they falsely claimed had been used in several historic games, including Dwight Gooden's May 1996 no-hitter for the New York Yankees; the sudden-death playoff between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox in October 1978; Nolan Ryan's 300th career victory in July 1990; and others.
"Most of these baseballs never saw the inside of a Major League Baseball stadium," U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said.
Prosecutors said the pair falsely passed off hundreds of baseballs as having been used in historic games. The defendants went to great lengths to make the balls appear genuine, including rubbing them with special mud from a particular creek in Burlington County that is used to take the gloss off all baseballs used in major league games.
Clark signed the balls, and he or Graessle wrote up phony certificates of authenticity. Clark declined to comment as he left the courtroom, and did not speak during the hearing other than to answer affirmatively to a series of questions from the judge and prosecutor.
In order to fabricate some particularly valuable baseballs as having been game-used, Clark used baseballs from his own collection that contained the stamped signature of then-A.L. President Lee MacPhail. Those balls were then sold as having been used in the Oct. 3, 1978 sudden-death playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox, which was won by Bucky Dent's home run off Mike Torrez to give New York the A.L. East title. Similar ruses were used to pass off balls as having been used in Ripken's historic games. Graessle purchased from other sports
memorabilia dealers balls that were specially manufactured for the games in which the Baltimore Orioles shortstop tied and surpassed Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games. The balls had orange stitching, Ripken's uniform number 8, and the numbers 2,130 and 2,131, according to court documents.
Similarly, Graessle bought several balls with Ryan's autograph from other memorabilia dealers, and passed them off as having been used in his 300th victory on July 31, 1990.
Other games the pair falsely claimed to have baseballs from included the last game ever played at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on Oct. 3, 1993; former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu's first major league game against the Detroit Tigers on July 10, 1997; the first interleague game played at Boston's Fenway Park on June 16, 1997 against the Philadelphia Phillies; and special days honoring Jackie Robinson in Kansas City and Mickey Mantle in New York.
Clark, an American League umpire from 1976 to 2001, remained free on $50,000 bail. He is to be sentenced June 3. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but could be sentenced to as little as probation.
He also must pay $40,000 restitution to victims of the scheme as part of his plea agreement. He also could face civil suits from those victimized, according to Bissell.
Graessle admitted failing to declare nearly $400,000 in income from the sale of fake and legitimate sports memorabilia from 1996 to 1998. He agreed to make restitution to the Internal Revenue Service of at least $101,377. He is to be sentenced June 4.