The ball Freddie Freeman caught for the clinching out was authenticated immediately.mlb
The Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman toiled for more than 1,500 games over 12 years before he was able to call himself a world champion. So, when he caught the throw at first for the final out of the 2021 World Series, he was ready to celebrate.
Not so fast; first there was the ritualistic donning of championship cap and T-shirt, and an on-field interview with Fox, but before he could join his teammates’ revelry in earnest, there was one more important obligation. MLB needed to certify that ball he was holding was indeed the final out of the Fall Classic. A tamper-proof hologram was affixed, the ball would be logged in an MLB database of items, joining more than 9.7 million MLB game-used items.
“He knew exactly what we were there for,” said Michael Posner, who has been directing MLB’s authentication program since it began 20 years ago. “He gave us a huge smile, we put the hologram on, and he got the ball right back.”
The push for an MLB Good Housekeeping seal started more than two decades ago, after some MLB players discovered counterfeit autographs being sold, sometimes within the team’s own stadium shop. The FBI stepped in, launched an investigation and at the time said 75% of all autographed sports memorabilia was fake.
“Forgers had gotten really good and with home printers, certificates of authenticity were kind of like wallpaper,” said Posner. With the help of an accounting firm, MLB launched a costly, but effective, program, in which authenticators are at every game, often in the dugout photo well logging pitches, affixing holograms to game-used bats, balls, bases and apparel. For collectors who only want balls thrown at more than 100 mph in a game, those records can substantiate that. Chain of custody for those game-used items is an essential as during a drug test, so the authenticators all have a law enforcement background.
“I have to see every pitch, witness every play, log all that on a tablet, and make sure every ball or bat handed to me by the bat boy is legitimate,” said Jonathan Durant, an Atlanta policeman for 30 years, who’s been an MLB authenticator since 2006. Durant has authenticated everything from game-used dirt to socks worn on the field of play, which sometimes become part of a trading card. “Sometimes the team will even give us a list of things they are looking for from the game.” Once entered in system, there’s an inventory available, even during the actual game.
Howard Smith, Philadelphia Phillies vice president of business affairs, headed consumer product licensing at MLB when the program launched.
“It started out as a needle-in-a-haystack thing, but there was so much at stake, we knew we had to do it,” he said. “When our players started seeking it out, then I knew it was working. It’s not inexpensive, but we had commitment from the commissioner on down. There are other authentication programs, of course, but this is the one with people on-site. It’s really cleaned things up.”
Posner says MLB authenticates half-a-million to a million items a year, more when a legacy team like the Red Sox or Cubs makes a deep playoff run. “It started with autographs, but it really became the standard for game-used authenticity,” said Posner. “You see a definite premium there — authenticated items go for at least twice the price of ones that aren’t.”
MLB has authenticators at each regular-season and playoff game.mlb
There are normally two authenticators per game; three during the World Series, where they may be authenticating as many as 800 items per game. Their busiest time is during the MLB All-Star Game, during which MLB posts 10 authenticators, some stationed in the middle of the locker room. “Players come right up to you, sign their cleats and get them authenticated,” said Durant, who’s worked a number of All-Star Games, including the one in Denver this past July.
Players can request that any item and autograph be authenticated. Among the more unusual things getting the OpSec hologram: sweat bands, champagne corks and bottles; cornstalks from the recent Field of Dreams game; water from the fountain at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium; even a can of bug spray from the Yankees dugout in 2007, a memento from when insects swarmed the field during an ALDS game.
“A lot of the better auction houses won’t even sell without authentication from one of the better companies,” said memorabilia pioneer Brandon Steiner, now heading CollectibleXchange. “That’s been a real change.”
On and off over its two decades, there’s been chatter about MLB authenticating for other properties, but the politics there probably make that unlikely. For a few years, MLB was an authenticator for “Star Wars” items, but that ended. Posner is thinking that with minor league baseball more than ever under the aegis of MLB, there’s some opportunity there.
There’s one authenticator we know will be there for some time.
“I take this job very seriously, so I have to be subdued being around the players, but that’s something I really enjoy,” said Durant, now a real estate agent and an ebullient fan of a championship team. “I’m going to do this until I can’t walk.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at email@example.com