Ex-pitcher seeks $723,000 in damages
Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who gave up Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round The World," is suing a memorabilia company for fraud.
Branca filed a lawsuit last month in New York State Supreme Court against Steiner Sports Marketing for misrepresenting the terms of an agreement the parties negotiated four years ago.
In documents obtained by ESPN.com, Steiner Sports chairman Brandon Steiner's signature appears on a contract with Topps, directing the card company to pay Steiner Sports for Branca's services. The contract calls for Branca to be paid $48,000 for autographing 4,000 cards. In the lawsuit, Branca says he signed a separate contract with Steiner acting as an authorized agent of Topps that would only pay the former Dodger $25,000.
Branca says he never saw the $48,000 deal Steiner signed on his behalf with Topps, and alleges Steiner pocketed the $23,000 difference without his knowledge.
"The facts speak for themselves," said Branca's lawyer, Brian Caplan, whose client is seeking $723,000 in punitive and compensatory damages. "There's just no justification for this type of conduct."
Caplan says his client didn't think Steiner was making any commission off the autograph agreement, since that would have had to be presented to Branca. But Steiner says Branca knew his collectibles company wasn't working for free.
"When I do a deal with a player like Yogi Berra, I might give Yogi $32 a ball and we then sell the ball for $100," Steiner said. "That's how the business works."
Agents can get 10 to 15 percent of the total value of the contract for structuring deals like Steiner did for Branca. However, Steiner's commission on this deal was almost 10 times the norm.
Steiner also says Branca received $225,000 more from Steiner Sports in 2001, in anticipation of business surrounding the 50th anniversary of the famous home run. (The three-run blast completed a ninth-inning comeback to give the Giants the decisive win over the Dodgers and a trip to the World Series.) As the anniversary approached, a controversy brewed over whether Thomson and the Giants stole the Dodgers' signs to win the game.
Given that the anniversary was three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the projected hype failed to live up to its billing.
As interest in autographs has skyrocketed, card companies have been paying go-betweens like Steiner to secure autographs from veteran players. But marketing agents told ESPN.com the pay these companies gave the agents have been so "paltry" of late, that it became commonplace for the agents to negotiate one price and tell the client they received another in order to be able to "skim a more rational percentage" off the top.
Upon discovering the contract discrepancy, Steiner says Branca approached him about doing another signing in order to right the wrong. Steiner said he obliged by having Branca appear at a signing in the fall, which earned Branca at least $12,000.
"Why would he continue to work for us if he had a real problem?" Steiner said.
The lawsuit also names Topps as a defendant, since Caplan believes his client's rights were not correctly conveyed and Branca still signed the cards, which were inserted into packs.
In a statement, Topps officials said the company has "done nothing improper whatsoever in this incident" and "is trying to understand even what the allegations against it could possibly be." As a result of being named, company officials say they could seek their own legal recourse against Steiner, who signed the allegedly forged agreement with Branca as an authorized Topps agent. Steiner does not work for the company in any capacity.
Steiner, who says he wants the Branca suit settled quickly, is the exclusive memorabilia agent of the New York Yankees. He has individual deals with Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, New Jersey Nets guard Jason Kidd, Boston Red Sox players Curt Schilling, Johnny Damon and David Ortiz, as well as baseball great Hank Aaron and football great Franco Harris.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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