This Ump is Out

Former Big League Umpire Pleads Guilty to Sports Memorabilia Fraud

Umpire arguing with baseball players
San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Former Major League Baseball umpire Alan M. Clark, 56 has pleaded guilty to fraud charges in connection with the authentication of hundreds of baseballs that he falsely represented had been used in notable games he umpired, such as 's tying and breaking of Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played.

According to a Department of Justice press release, the bogus balls were sold by Clark and a co-conspirator in the fraud - a sports memorabilia dealer and friend.

Clark also falsely represented that other balls he authenticated were used in the New York Yankees' 1978 pennant clinch over the Boston Red Sox; Nolan Ryan's 300th career pitching win with the Texas Rangers, and Dwight Gooden's 1996 no-hitter at Yankee Stadium, among numerous other notable games.

Clark umpired in all of the games in question, and signed most of the baseballs and all certificates of authenticity that went with them. In fact, most of the balls were never used in any of the games and were merely "rubbed up" to look like they'd been in play. Some of the baseballs, which were advertised for sale in sports memorabilia publications, sold for thousands of dollars, even though they were never used in the games.

"Most of these baseballs never saw the inside of a Major League Baseball stadium," said U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie.

Also pleading guilty was Richard Graessle, Jr., 43, of Millburn, Clark's longtime friend, a freelance sports photographer and sometimes sports memorabilia dealer.

Graessle admitted that he sold the baseballs to other sports memorabilia dealers, who in turn sold them to the public. Advertisements in sports magazines and sports trading publications put the price tag on some of the Al Clark baseballs at more than $2,000 at the height of their marketability.

Clark, an American League umpire from 1976 to 2001, pleaded guilty to a one-count Information charging conspiracy to commit mail fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Graessle pleaded guilty to a one-count Information charging tax evasion for the 1997 tax year, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Judge Bissell scheduled sentencing for Clark on June 3 and for Graessle on June 4. Each were released on $50,000 unsecured personal recognizance bonds.

In one of the examples described in the Information to which Clark and Graessle pleaded guilty, Graessle obtained commemorative Ripken baseballs, thousands of which were manufactured specifically to mark the games in which Ripkin tied and broke Gehrig's record. They were imprinted with Ripkin's team number, had orange stitching (Baltimore Oriole colors), and the number 2,130 and 2,311 embossed on them, representing Gehrig's and Ripkin's consecutive-games-played record.

Graessle either mailed the baseballs to Clark or delivered them personally to Clark, who would sign them. They also rubbed the balls with the mud from a particular creek in Burlington County, N.J. - to conform to Major League Baseball's custom of burnishing all balls used in MLB games with that mud - and to bolster their claim that the balls had actually been used in the historic games.

According to the Information to which he pleaded guilty, Clark signed certificates of authenticity that Graessle prepared, certifying that Clark was a member of the umpire crew in that particular game and that the baseballs were indeed used in the game.

Graessle admitted that he then sold the balls to dealers who, in turn, sold them to the public - at prices greatly increased by the fraudulent certificates of authenticity. Clark himself prepared some certificates of authenticity in the case of the Ripkin baseballs, according to his Information.

Having met with success in the falsification of the Ripken baseballs, Clark and Graessle continued the fraud by falsely certifying the authenticity of baseballs used in other notable games in which Clark had served as an umpire.

Graessle also admitted failing to declare several hundred thousand dollars in income from the sale of these baseballs and other sports memorabilia on his federal income tax returns.