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Congratulations Barry and Larry.
April 16, 2004
by Bill Hogan


 
 

There are many different ways for a bright, energetic, imaginative sports fan to make a few dollars in the lucrative sports memorabilia industry. Especially during baseball season when every home run, foul ball and broken bat is a potential money maker.

There is a paying market for players' autographs, photos and used chewing gum. Unopened packages of old Topps trading cards bring in the big bucks at e-bay on the off chance that one may contain an uncirculated A-Rod rookie card.

 
 


And every once in a while, if you are diligent, crafty and have some idea how to operate a kayak, you may even stumble onto the mother of all baseball artifacts. One that is sure to fetch a hefty sum at the auction house.

It took 31 years for the opportunity to retrieve the baseball that tied Willie Mays for third on the all-time home run list to present itself. It took about 5 seconds for 53-year-old software salesman Larry Ellison to fish Barry Bonds' 660th home run ball out of McCovey Cove.

Ellison sat with his son in the chilly waters beyond the right field wall at SBC Park in San Francisco waiting for the chance to reel in a little piece of history during the Giants' home opener. After retrieving the ball, Ellison did the unthinkable. He gave it back.

Ellison, probably to everyone's amazement, returned the ball to its rightful owner – a very appreciative Barry Bonds. He and his son posed for photos with Bonds and Mays after the game and they received some signed memorabilia for their troubles.

It used to be – not too long ago - that selling a baseball – any baseball not made of solid gold – for thousands or, gulp, millions of dollars was unheard of. Thankfully, that was the case, otherwise there would be little to see at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

A milestone home run caught by some lucky fan in the bleachers was a souvenir, not a potential retirement fund or the means to a great college education. And when the ball was returned, as was usually the case, the reward was something of equal value. Another ball signed by the player who hit the ball in the first place.

On April 17, 1953, New York Yankees rising young superstar centerfielder Mickey Mantle hit a home run at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. At 21 years old and in just his third season with the Yankees, Mantle was in no position at the time to reach any home run milestones.

Except for the fact that this home run traveled farther than any other baseball ever hit. At least that's the way the story goes. Mantle hit a fastball off of Washington Senators pitcher Chuck Stobbs that literally left the building. It landed in the backyard of a private residence on Oakdale Street 562 feet from home plate.

A public relations representative from the Yankees went to the house to retrieve the ball, now in the possession of 10-year-old Donald Dunaway. Though there is no reference to Donald meeting Mickey Mantle, or taking any photos with the future Hall of Fame slugger, the boy did receive a dollar and a couple of baseballs in exchange for the tape measure home run ball that Mantle hit out of the yard into the yard.

Donald Dunaway had no idea, at the time, that he was holding in his hand a goldmine. In 1953, a dollar went a long way and three new baseballs could last the whole summer at the neighborhood playground. It seemed like a pretty good deal, and it was.

Larry Ellison knew what he had sitting in his lap while he paddled his kayak to shore to meet, arguably, the greatest baseball player of all time. Oh, and Barry Bonds, too. "I know I'll catch some grief…" for giving the ball back, Ellison told reporters. He shouldn't. He should be congratulated.

I wonder if Larry Ellison had any regrets when, the following day, he went back to McCovey Cove in his kayak and awaited Bonds' 661st home run. He pulled that one out of the water as well. Imagine what that matched set of milestone baseballs would have commanded on the open market.

Ellison is keeping that ball. But I doubt you'll see it on e-bay any time soon. If that was his intention, he would have kept the first one.

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