Passionate quest for 'Miracle Ball'

Updated: July 17, 2009, 1:25 PM ET
By Jim Wilkie | ESPN.com

Brian Biegel doesn't consider himself a sports memorabilia collector, but for 2½ years he undertook an exhaustive search for the home run ball hit by Bobby Thomson in the famous Shot Heard 'Round the World.

[+] EnlargeBrian Biegel
Susan WattsAuthor Brian Biegel embarked on a search for a baseball and discovered far more.

What started as a quest to determine whether a ball his father, Jack, had bought at a thrift store could be the famous ball led Biegel on a personally rediscovering, life-changing journey to create a documentary and write the book "Miracle Ball."

"There is certainly a large aspect to memorabilia in the book, not per se like the hardcore memorabilia collectors, but we're talking about Bobby Thomson's missing baseball," Biegel said. "So that in and of itself is probably one of the most sought after pieces of sports memorabilia I would think in the market."

Although Jack Biegel would have benefited monetarily if his ball with autographs of the 1951 New York Giants had been confirmed as the one that had lifted the team past the Brooklyn Dodgers in a three-game playoff for the National League title, Brian Biegel gained more personally because the project helped lift the writer and filmmaker out of deep depression and anxiety.

While following the trails of this small sports artifact in his book, Biegel touches on the strength of family and the impact of faith and religion to illustrate the personal and emotional impact of sports.

Biegel used his research and assistance from detectives, photographic analysts and forensic experts to search for the truth about the ball despite numerous obstacles, including a battle over factual history with an auction house that should be a warning flag to any collector of authenticated memorabilia.

"The documentary was wrapped up, ready to go for sales through my agent," Biegel said, "and then my literary agent swooped on in, took a look at the rough cut and said, 'Hold on, I think you should sit on this film for a bit and write a book about this entire experience.' "

"Miracle Ball" has been out since May and Biegel said he's making the rounds trying to sell the documentary to a television network.

The Life spoke with Biegel recently to discuss "Miracle Ball" and his take on the sports memorabilia industry.

The Life: What is it about a $4 baseball that elicits such passion?

Biegel: I think it's just it's that moment. It's the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that just never seems to fade away, you know. That season when the Giants and Dodgers, which are I guess comparable to what the Red Sox and Yankees would be today, the rivalry that they had, for them to come back from 13½ games and force a sudden-death, three-game playoff season. It's just the kind of stuff that movie scripts are made out of.

The pinnacle of that game was Thomson hitting a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. It's like watching the movie "The Natural." It's funny, I went to Cooperstown as part of my research for the book and even for the documentary and I talked to a couple of the curators and they said even to this day the majority of the people who come up to Cooperstown always say, "Where's the 'Shot Heard 'Round the World' display?"

And most of these people weren't even born when this happened but the stories get passed down from generation to generation and it's just a phrase that goes, it's synonymous with baseball, "Shot Heard 'Round the World," oh, Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, 1951, you know, "Giants win the pennant, Giants win the pennant."

And I think the drama of that moment has sustained a life of its own. And that's probably why there's been so much interest at least so far in people wanting to read the book and learn what happened to that baseball because of the moment itself.

The Life: So why do you think there wasn't as much interest back then in what happened to the ball?

Biegel: You know it's funny. I think because mostly there was not a monetary value to sports memorabilia. There was really hardly any interest in what happened to the ball. If there were, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation right now because I wouldn't have gone on a two-year quest looking for it.

That being said, we know that it wound up in the most unlikeliest of places. I think even if it didn't wind up where it did, back in those days there would not have been this big frenzy about the baseball.

I mean think about what's happening in MLB today: They're putting holograms on balls that are likely to make records. I know they did it for [Mets outfielder Gary] Sheffield when he hit his 500th home run and a lot of the pitchers. I think when Randy Johnson was going for 300 victories every ball that came out from the ball boy to the umpire had a hologram on it and it had an authenticator at the ballpark because he wanted to keep the baseball that was, I guess, would be the last out that he pitched from that game.

But Sheffield's was a lot easier because it was a home run. So I happen to know that MLB retrieved that baseball and gave it back to Sheffield, and there's no dispute that that is in fact the Sheffield ball because it has the hologram on it with a serial number.

Imagine 55 years ago, 57 years ago we didn't have the technology to do stuff like that nor even the desire because who would ever think a baseball would sell for a million dollars?

So it really speaks to, I guess, how far we've come in society in terms of putting monetary value onto artifacts relating to sports. It's a phenomenon in my opinion.

The Life: Early on you and your dad had issues with so-called experts at Lelands auction house who disagreed with your and your dad's research about which National League president's signature should be on the Thomson ball. What was it like dealing with those frustrations and how difficult it would be to authenticate something like that even if you had it in your hand?

Biegel: It was very frustrating dealing with the auction houses. It's like going to a car dealer and saying, "I want to sell you my car. What do you think it's worth?" And they're going to say "Well, it's only worth a couple of thousand bucks" because they want to turn around and make a big profit on it.

So, you know, they have a horse in the race. And that's a built-in problem with the hobby: These guys want to buy cheap, sell high, and they really don't have the skills and the training to authenticate. They're not curators; they don't have a degree or a license or a curatorial degree like somebody at the Hall of Fame would have or a museum curator. And basically you or I could hang a shingle on our home and say sports collector, memorabilia authenticator and no one would question it.

So there's a lot of dodginess in that industry in my opinion. And I would not put a lot of faith in my artifacts personally, and I'm not even a collector. But if I were I would look for an independent source, and that's the angle that I took in the book, which was to bring the forensics experts in, former NYPD detectives and crime scene experts, guys who don't have a horse in the race, and let them use modern-day technologies.

I know not everybody could do this, and I dedicated a whole book and a film to examining photographs that had to do with where that ball landed and who caught it and whose hand did it ricochet out of and all that. And I realize not everyone can do that for every artifact, but when you have something as big and popular and valuable as the Thomson home run I think that's really the only way to go about it and be honest about what you're doing.

The Life: Today you have these huge battles for home run balls: fighting, kicking, and punching that goes on in those dog piles. It would be interesting to see what happened around where the Thomson home run ball landed. People were probably scrambling for it, but they were more civilized.

Biegel: They were subdued. People went to ballgames, as you may or may not know in those days, wearing suits and ties. It would be difficult for me to believe that people were scratching and clawing and climbing over each other for the ball. For them it was just like, "Oh, hey, this would be a nice souvenir."

And quite honestly it had always bothered me, and it's one of the motivations I had for setting out on this project and on this mission, in that how could it be possible they could get a ball from 1927 that Babe Ruth hit and authenticate it and Carl Yastrzemski from the '70s or whoever, but the Thomson ball is still missing. It just never sat right with me: It bothered me and I needed to find an answer. And that's really the thrust of the book and my motivation. It was just purely out of curiosity and I just think in an investigative way as a journalist.

The Life: Do you think you would have had that curiosity if your dad hadn't had that autographed ball of his own that he thought might have been Thomson's ball?

Biegel: I don't think so, no. I don't think that I would have gone and done this if not for my dad: (A) Believing that he had the Thomson ball because in the beginning my goal was to really prove that my dad had the ball. And then as I got further along in the journey I realized, hey, you know what? It's not looking good for my dad. I don't think he has the ball. I think it's with the sister. I think the nun has it and it became a point in time when I had to break the news to him and it wasn't easy. But I still had to dig to the truth.

But to answer your question, no, I would not have gone out and done this if my dad didn't really believe he had the baseball and even gotten into somewhat of a verbal conflict with Lelands over the commissioner's stamp (on the ball).

The Life: What were your dad's motives to authenticating the ball?

Biegel: A couple of things. One, I mean the simple answer is he wanted to collect the reward. There was a million-dollar reward for that. And for a $2 investment on a baseball that's a pretty good payout.

And the other thing is it became personal to him because when he approached Lelands with his baseball and Lelands said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Biegel, you've got the wrong league president stamp on it; it's supposed to say Warren Giles."

And my dad's like, "No, it's supposed to say Ford Frick." And then he went back and he researched it even more and then he got me involved and I researched it and I talked to a bunch of experts. And he went back a second time, as you remember a scene in the book when they have the newscasters there, they still refused to admit that they were wrong and that just ticked him off because he felt really insulted by that.

And that's why he started to believe, you know it's kind of like, this might not be the best comparison but if you tell yourself a lie so many times you start to believe it. And I'm not sure he was lying to himself as much as he was just trying to convince himself that it was the truth, that he had the real baseball.

And he just kept telling himself that he did, and he wanted it so bad that he just started to believe that he did.

[+] EnlargeBobby Thomson
AP PhotoBobby Thomson knocks a three-run home run off Ralph Branca to give the New York Giants a 5-4 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers, winning the National League pennant Oct. 3, 1951.

The Life: Your book plays on so many different levels, such as the family angle and both parents' connection to baseball and sports. And just how that ties in with people's emotional attachments to collecting or just how they attach themselves to teams and the games. And not only that but it helped you pull yourself out of your depression, too. Your family was supporting you no matter what, but how much did this project help pull you out?

Biegel: A tremendous amount, Jim. The project, while in the beginning was difficult to undertake, I realized how important it was in the beginning to prove or try and prove that my dad had the real ball. So unbeknownst to me it was the best kind of therapy in going out and speaking on my dad's behalf and talking to experts in the field.

But in the end I didn't even realize how helpful it was to me but it really was a life-saving experience, in that I was severely depressed and going through massive anxiety disorder and finding closure at the end of this story and even during the process, the process itself was cathartic. Interacting with people again. I had been a screenwriter and a journalist and a reporter for several years and I'm used to being out and about talking to people, interviewing them, writing stories, and all that had gone away from me. I was basically locked in my own head for over a year. I was just not functioning properly.

And this project lifted me out of that depression and set me on the right path.

The Life: I'd like to touch on the connections of sports and religion in the story. The possibility that prayer can make an impact on a game, some people may dismiss it, you have anecdotes of how fans can believe they can have an impact on the outcome of a game.

Biegel: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the best stories that we have in the book is from Father Tom, Monsignor Thomas Hartman, who is the priest that I was going to and he was helping me learn information about what St. Rita meant.

But his backstory was he was a little boy watching the game in Queens, where he lived with his parents, obviously he was a little kid and the Giants were down 4-2 for most of the game and his family, his dad and his uncle, were Giants fans. And young Thomas was like, "Dad, it's hopeless. They're gonna lose, they can't come back, the Dodgers are gonna win."

And his dad was like, "No, Tom, you have to have faith, you have to pray." You know they were a pretty religious family and he was saying prayers to himself. And when Thomson hit the home run, something was born inside of him, and that was faith and religion. And he became a priest as a result of that home run. It's a true story.

And that probably happened for a lot of people. I think people's belief and faith in God and religion were restored when Thomson hit that miraculous home run, especially because they saw it on TV. You know in '51 a lot of people got televisions for the first time. You know radio was transitioning into television.

I'm pretty sure there's people all around the country who can point to sports as examples for believing in faith and religion and in God, especially the Thomson home run. Because it happened, like I said, on television and it was one of the first things people saw nationally on TV.

The St. Rita is also a really interesting story. The St. Rita stands for the patron saint of achieving the impossible. In 1920 two Catholic nuns invested in an oil well in Big Lake, Texas, and when they first went to their priest to ask for the money to invest in it he said I'll do it under one condition: That you baptize a few rose petals and sprinkle them in the oil well and pray to St. Rita. Because, you know, striking oil is like achieving the impossible.

So there they are for 18 months, they're praying to St. Rita every single day to achieve the impossible and strike oil. And during the down time, the drillers and the workers who are trying to strike oil built a baseball field and you could dig this all up, this is all true stuff here. Because at the University of Texas at the school there's the original rig from St. Rita, the oil well.

Anyhow when the workers had down time they were playing baseball. And one of them actually went on and became a pro player, his name was Snipe Connelly. And it became one of those things where every time they talked about the nuns who struck oil back -- at that point it was 1922 because they were drilling for 18 months -- and St. Rita has always been mentioned to this day with the two nuns who struck oil in 1922 or it might have been 1923 in Big Lake, Texas. And there are ballplayers to this day, to this very day, who wear the medallion of the St. Rita for good luck because of that story.

And in our story, and I'm not sure how far you can stretch this, our nun changed her name from Sister Helen Hojnocky, which was her birth name, to Sister Helen Rita, to honor St. Rita. And nuns were allowed to do that back in those days, in fact they might even be allowed to do it now. If you reach a certain part of your religious life or if you renew your vows, and I'm not even Catholic and I know this from Father Tom, or if you change your locations, those are three reasons where you can take on a new name. And oftentimes it wasn't a coincidence what name a nun would take on. They would take on a name that had a significance to their religious and spiritual lives.

And in her case it was the St. Rita because it stood for achieving the impossible and she achieved the impossible by catching Bobby Thomson's baseball.

The Life: What great mysteries are you trying to solve next? What projects are you working on now?

Biegel: We're gonna be going out and pitching a proposal for another book and it's another baseball mystery. I unfortunately cannot tell you what it is, but there is going to be a proposal very soon back out to Crown, the guys who did "Miracle Ball," that's gonna solve another great mystery in sports and it's baseball as well.

Pete Fornatale, the co-author who's a fabulous writer and collaborator and semi-editor, and I are trying to team up as like the Indiana Jones of sports memorabilia. Going out trying to find these hidden secrets and bringing them to life and solving the mysteries behind them.

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