The Incredible Discovery
“Where are the balls?” Hank Thomas exclaimed in shock. When Thomas leaned into the display case at the Baseball Hall of Fame, little did he know that the crime he was about to discover would take nearly thirty years to resolve, even though no one has ever been arrested for committing a bold theft.
The balls he was referring to, were five baseballs autographed by Presidents of the United States. They belonged to his grandfather, Walter Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers ever to play the game. Thomas had come to the Hall to research a book he was writing, about Johnson’s remarkable career. When he asked to see the special exhibit documenting the history of a baseball tradition, the Presidential Opener, his host ushered him into the room, even though he knew that the balls had actually vanished five years earlier!
The Cover Up
The Hall had covered up the theft out of fear of becoming an easy target in the collectible world of baseball memorabilia, because there was little or no security back then. They never thought anyone would want to steal a bunch of baseball stuff. It was 1978, and baseball, including those who ran the Hall was discovering these items were exploding in value, buying and trading collectibles started bursting into a billion dollar industry.
Other than a sincere apology, the Hall gave little explanation to Thomas, and he returned home never forgetting the priceless artifacts that represented part of his grandfather’s legacy. He could never put away the notion that the Presidential baseballs were out there somewhere, until nearly twenty-years later when he made a shocking discovery while thumbing through an auction catalog; it was a photo of one of the missing baseballs. He notified investigators from the Hall, and working with the FBI, the first Presidential baseball was recovered from an unsuspecting collector who had purchased it a few years earlier. But the search wasn’t over.
“History: Gone from the Hall” will be a feature documentary telling the story of the theft of the Presidential Baseballs from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Autographed by William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover the film follows the saga that began when the thief casually strolled into an empty exhibit hall with virtually no security, removed screws from the display case, replacing the balls with a program, and then casually walked out. It turns out, the theft was part of a rash of rip-offs from the Hall that included swatches from uniforms ripped from showcases, to a Joe DiMaggio cap stolen from a locker display, and items and documents taken from the Hall library.
The Back Story
The theft serves as a backdrop for a larger story about baseball collectibles. Who would ever think that select baseball cards that kids flipped or traded would someday be worth something? The film explores why we collect these items, what they represent in their moment in history, and how crime begins to permeate the collectible world, attracting the FBI, and leading to indictments of top collectors and traders of sports memorabilia. Where there is value, ultimately there is crime.
Thomas never gave up hope of finding all of the Presidential baseballs, and his diligence paid off. We’ll learn how one by one, all five Presidential baseballs were recovered thanks to Thomas, the FBI, and baseball investigators. Today, they are back in the Hall of Fame. But the trail to an arrest in the case has gone cold, and the search for a suspect including a mysterious man with baseballs in a paper bag seen trolling an auction floor has been all but filed away.