Louisville Slugger: stolen contracts sold to collector
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Decades ago, great hitters like Rogers Hornsby, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle had barely made their marks on baseball when they signed contracts to have their bats made by Hillerich & Bradsby.
The Kentucky company, which makes Louisville Slugger bats, said it was told years ago that those contracts and those of about 70 other major leaguers were destroyed during a move.
They learned otherwise when some of the contracts were listed, for thousands of dollars, among the items in last year's auction catalog for The Barry Halper Collection of Baseball Memorabilia.
The contradiction led Halper to withdraw the contracts. H&B wants them back, claiming the contracts were stolen by a former employee and sold twice before being bought by Halper, a New Jersey businessman and minority owner of the New York Yankees.
The company sued Halper on Aug. 8 in U.S. District Court here for return of the contracts.
Halper's lawyer, Joseph S. Pecora, said Tuesday he has not yet seen the lawsuit.
"There's a question as to whether these contract were stolen, discarded or misplaced, and that will be decided by the courts," Pecora said. "Barry Halper got these from a dealer in New York 20 years ago. And all of a sudden H&B has come up with some idea that they were stolen from them."
Both sides agree that Halper bought them from Josh Evans, a memorabilia collector in New York, although they differ on the timing.
H&B's lawsuit claims Evans sold them to Halper shortly after acquiring them in November 1992 from Steve Curry, a collector in Louisville, Ky., where the company is based.
Curry bought them from Paul Galens, the lawsuit said, identifying Galens as an H&B employee who stole about 76 player contracts from a locked storage room between 1985 and 1990.
Among the notables: Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, Hank Greenberg, Harmon Killebrew, Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose and Casey Stengel.
When managers learned the contracts were missing, they were told the contracts had been accidentally destroyed during a move, information that originated with Galens, the lawsuit said.
Reached at his Louisville home, Galens declined to comment on the allegations. He said he worked at the company from 1961-91.
"Their (H&B's) lawyers came to see me. I've already talked to them and I'm not going to say anything to anybody else," Galens said.
H&B vice-president Bill Williams declined to say how the company determined Galens took the contracts or how it traced the chain of custody.
The contracts allowed the company to use a player's name and likeness in advertising. In return, the company made a bat to the player's specifications, with the player's autograph branded on the wood, said Williams, who is also executive director of The Louisville Slugger Museum.
For last year's Halper auction, Sotheby's listed the Mantle H&B contract as worth $2,000 to $3,000. Mantle got $50 for signing in 1950, just before he turned 19. It "features a fine example of Mantle's early signature," the auction house catalog said.
The contracts are separate from "bat record cards", which have a record of every bat that was purchased for a player, including the model, length and finish, he said.
Live and online sales from the Halper auction in September totalled nearly $25.2 million, according to the auction house.
One of the biggest prices was the $239,000 paid by actor-comedian Billy Crystal for one of Mantle's gloves.
Halper, of Livingston, spent a half-century accumulating the items that were sold.