‘Brown as a bear’: Shock, awe and despair as prized autographs ruined by defective baseballs

Six years ago, with the 30th-anniversary reunion of the Baltimore Orioles’ last Major League Baseball championship rapidly approaching, Tom Lee went to a bedroom closet and reached for two boxes of 1983 World Series balls that had been waiting, patiently and untouched, on the top shelf.

A Nashville, Tennessee, attorney who grew up idolizing the great Orioles teams of the 1960’s and ’70s, Lee had bought the baseballs in 1996 with the desire of someday collecting autographs of each player from the 1983 team on a ball. Over the years, work, family, and inconvenient access to the players would sidetrack his goal, but…

“I knew the reunion was going to be my time,” Lee says.

When Lee fetched the closeted baseballs — two cartons of a dozen balls each, still in their individual boxes and wrapped in tissue paper — he decided to take a look at their condition. The balls had not seen the light of day since being initially packaged.

“When I opened them up, expecting snowy-white perfection, each ball was brown as a bear,” Lee says, still dismayed all these years later.

Lee threw away the browned baseballs, giving a couple to neighborhood kids to play with in the yard. But in the sports memorabilia industry, the condition of the collectible is everything. And according to hobby experts, more than one million autographed official Rawlings Major League Baseball game balls signed between 1983 and 1997 could be affected by spotting, or browning, of the leather.

The widespread defect is impacting the secondary market value of popular Hall of Famers such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Willie Mays. If an autographed ball is clean of browning and spotting,and has legitimate authentication, prices soar. But if the ball is afflicted with the defect, values are plummeting by up to 74 per cent.

“Hey, we all get old. We all get brown spots. That’s also happening with the baseballs,” says Simeon Lipman, appraiser of pop culture, art, history and sports memorabilia for the PBS television show Antiques Roadshow.

Over the past 10-15 years, many collectors have noticed their prized autographed balls signed during the hobby boon of the late 1980’s and 1990’s have begun to develop this irreversible defect.

What causes the browning is debatable, with theories ranging from exposure to light and room temperatures to a tanning issue to the natural aging of organic material.

Whatever the cause, Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, which has manufactured official major league baseballs since 1977, began hearing about the problem from sports memorabilia vendors around 2000. Rawlings makes more than 2 million baseballs a year for games, practices, and the $5.4 billion sports memorabilia industry. Autographed baseballs comprise 8 per cent, or $432m, of the overall sports collectibles market, according to sportsmemorabilia.com.

“We took back thousands and thousands of dozens of baseballs from [prominent memorabilia dealer] Steiner Sports and those buying a lot of balls from us, and we destroyed them,” says Mike Thompson, long-time senior vice president of marketing for Rawlings. He said the company sold around 100,000 dozen balls a year for the memorabilia market during the timeframe of the defect.

The problem began to surface — literally — in the mid-1990’s, when signed baseballs from the 1980’s started developing what collectors often profanely call “$#*!-brown spots.” Some balls would have a wide area of light browning, others would only be affected around the stitches, and others would just have dark brown spots.

“It breaks your heart, it’s your prized possession,” says software guru Randall Swearingen of Beaumont, Texas, who once owned a prolific collection of Mantle-signed balls. “I’ve had the problem with the browning, but it didn’t take 10 or 20 years. I had never started collecting until 1994,when I took a few balls to Mickey to get signed, and those balls went bad in just a couple of years.”

Collectors sought quick answers. In 1988, Rawlings moved assembly of baseballs from Haiti to Costa Rica due to political unrest. Since, any significant alteration to the game’s fabric (say, record-setting home run totals seen this year in MLB) gets blamed on the manufacturing move. But that’s not the case with the defective baseball, as the browning problem was acute before and after the factory moved.

As for browning of the baseballs, Professionals Sports Authenticators of Santa Ana, California, says on its website: “There is one note about 1984-1990 Bobby Brown American League baseballs that needs to be explained. The baseballs with “Haiti” placed under the Rawlings logo stamp were made without the use of distilled water, thus, allowing for enzymes to potentially turn the color of the ball over time. You will usually notice yellow/brown soiling on these baseballs due to the flaw in production. While this may not affect every baseball produced with this stamping, it is a key to note.”

Balls produced in the late 1980s and bearing the stamped signature of then-American League President Bobby Brown have been among the most prevalent of the damaged and browning specimens (Larry Canale)

Rawlings’ Mike Thompson says, “I don’t know the answer on the distilled water. What’s distilled water? It’s boiled water, right? So why wouldn’t you boil the water?”

Kevin Keating, principal authenticator at the PSA, similarly says, “I haven’t heard that [distilled water theory].”

The stamping also has nothing to do with the defect. All MLB baseballs have the same core, winding, leather, stitching, and diameter specifications. Bobby Brown was the American League president from 1984-94, the peak period of the browning defect.

“The reason so many Bobby Brown balls are affected is because [American Leaguers] Williams, DiMaggio, and Mantle were signing their arms off,” Keating says.

Thompson also says Rawlings did a thorough review of the leather used for the balls’ exteriors, which have come from a facility in Tennessee since 1961. And though there can be differences in the leather hides from good weather years as opposed to drought ones, the company only takes a highly select amount of material for major league balls.

“Lots of hides get rejected, become [cheaper] blemished balls,” Thompson says. “In some cases, those hides become scrap. We’ve got pretty high standards in that plant. Millions of hides come out of there, and only a few have any spots.”

There’s also the tanning process of the leather.

“The stuff we see in modern tanning like shoes, belts, and purses is done with chromium sulfate,” says Ben McIntosh, director of the ball business unit for Rawlings. “Baseball tanning is done with an aluminum-based process. There’s a difference in the chemicals, and the modern tanning would have a more yellowing effect that would react to ultraviolet exposure.”

Thompson says Rawlings identified a problem “going back about 15 years during a process by which they put glue on the figure-eight piece of the leather before the ball is sewn together. The leather runs through a little machine, and we had a little bit of a leak in oil that was clear and falling over the hide. You couldn’t see the oil come out. It took us a long time to sort that out, figure that out.”

Leaking oil during the glue application might have fixed the browning problem in the mid-2000’s. But if not, that means another seven, eight, or 10 years of balls that may become defective.

“The thing that’s always been a mystery to me is how three balls will brown a certain way and three another way,” Keating says. “You can never predict where it will happen and why it will happen. I don’t know the answer other than to speculate. I never figured out a way to eliminate the problem, only learn that the issue exists on some balls, and not at all on others.”

Either way, pulling at purse strings is one thing. But pulling on heartstrings is wholly another.

Lifelong New York Yankees fan Richard Wynne of New York City is a meticulous collector of Yankees ephemera, photos, and signed baseballs, ranging from 1934 to present day. There are likely few who have done more to protect his collection. Wynne owns around 1,250 autographs, including 80 baseballs. Of the 36 signed during the 1983-97 period, 26 have brown spots and discoloring.

“How shocked was I? I was not happy — at all,” he says. “It really made me mad.”

Wynne has moved his collection from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii to New York over the years. “All of the balls are in UV-protected holders, kept in a room using blackout curtains or wood covering the windows, so there’s no light overhead except incandescent. My collection hasn’t seen [natural] light in years.

“Then, about four years ago, it was very, very weird,” he continued. “The ones turning colors are the good ones—two Mickey Mantles, my Whitey Ford, my Yogi Berra, Eddie Mathews, and Hank Aaron balls. My Bobby Richardson ball has brown spots all over the place the size of nail heads.”

Wynne has no plans to sell his collection. “I look at it every day,” he says. But the declining value of browning autographed balls is a somber issue for those who collected as an investment,and those who collected with their hearts but still want to cash out.

SportBusiness examined recent sports memorabilia auctions, plus listings on eBay, for single-signed baseballs with the browning and spotting. Hundreds of those balls signed by the most desired players from the past 30 years were for sale. Likewise, there were hundreds of completed transactions, showing that in supply, demand, defect, and even death of the athlete, the secondary market is plugging along.

“It comes down to what you want to do with the ball,” said Simeon Lipman, the PBS appraiser. “If the collector wants to resell, it’s a tell-tale sign. You’re never going to be able to sell it for $500. The damage is going to devalue the ball. And that’s where this issue comes to bear. That’s where it gets sticky.”

Larry Canale, columnist, and editor-at-large for Sports Collector’s Digest, says, “Ultimately, people will take a loss. It’s like trying to sell your house after a recession—the value isn’t going to be what it was a few years earlier. The difference is a house’s value will typically rise again. But with a browned baseball, the value probably never rises again because of the condition.”

Most of the retired players who played prior to the advent of baseball’s free agency in 1976 made more money signing autographs than from their playing days. That means a healthy supply of their signed materials is available. Have a browned Sandy Koufax ball?

“Collectors can upgrade if they can afford it,” Keating says. “If Ken Griffey Jr. does a show today, you can get his brand-new autograph for about the same money.”

But there’s no way around an ugly ball, and some of them are impossible to resell while others move briskly at a greatly discounted price. “Supply, demand, emotion,” Keating added. “The collector is impacted by the condition of what’s available.”

Canale and Lipman agree there could be more than one million brown or spotted autographed baseballs out there. Mantle alone signed around 600,000 baseballs between 1990 and his death in 1995.

In fact, Canale, also the former editorial director at Tuff Stuff collector’s magazine during the 1990s, packed all of the signed baseballs he collected at the magazine’s numerous memorabilia shows when he moved from Virginia to Massachusetts in 2000. The boxes had not been opened until he was contacted about this story. They had not seen light or moisture in 19 years.

Canale was angered by what he found.

“Not that I was expecting to put a kid through college with my three dozen or so signed baseballs,” he says. “But I rather not have had them deteriorate like this. And now, with this brown-ball revelation picking up steam, a lot of us who had legitimate pieces with good authentication are heartbroken.”

Read this: Mickey Mantle | In death, still king of the collectors’ world 

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