BOSTON -- A half century after his death, getting a copy of Babe Ruth's signature can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even then, it's hard to be completely sure, in this day of fakes and forgeries, that you have the genuine article.
But someone found a way to get the Babe's real John Hancock -- guaranteed -- absolutely free.
Rifling through public documents, a thief pilfered deeds to the 180-acre farm he bought in a Boston suburb in the 1920s.
It's the most recent in a spate of courthouse thefts of wills, deeds and other documents signed by Hall of Famers.
"It's the first time I've ever heard of it happening," said Michael Ring, the Middlesex County First Assistant Register of Deeds in Cambridge. "But value is in the eye of the beholder. It's like an antique -- to some people it's an antique, to others it's just an old piece of furniture."
Ring said two documents are missing altogether and the signature of Ruth and his first wife, Helen, were cut out of a third. He said whoever took the signatures snuck them away from a counter under the watch of clerks.
In nearby Boston, documents with the signatures of three Hall of Fame players -- George Wright, Hugh Duffy and Tommy McCarthy -- had been reported missing from the Suffolk County Courthouse. All played in the late 1800s.
Prosecutors this week charged a county probation officer, 55-year-old Joseph Schnabel of Pembroke, with larceny in the disappearance of the will of Wright's wife, Abbie, which bore her husband's signature. He's also charged with taking a document with the signature of Hall of Fame umpire Thomas Connolly.
Boston police and the FBI are continuing to investigate, according to Suffolk County prosecutor Gerald Stewart.
The Babe Ruth documents date back to when he bought "Home Run Farm," a sprawling property on Dutton Road in Sudbury where he lived and raised farm animals.
They include a record of a $6,000 mortgage payment in June 1923 and a deed to convey the property to his wife in October 1925. The signatures were clipped out of a third document, a deed that conveyed the property from Helen Ruth to a Weston man in April 1926.
Ruth was playing for the New York Yankees when he bought the house. He was a member of the last Red Sox team to win the World Series in 1918, and was sold to the Yankees following the 1919 season.
Peter Clark, curator of collections at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., said he has heard reports over the years of people stealing public records for signatures of famous players.
While the signatures may be genuine, the thieves would probably have a hard time marketing them once they are reported stolen, he said, especially records signed by Babe Ruth, who was liberal with his autograph.
"Ruth signed so many things that if there is any hint about something not being above board, most collectors would probably shy away from it," he said.
However, there is small difference between his signature on the documents and the one he scrawled on baseballs: Ruth used his full name -- "George Herman Ruth" -- on the deeds. For fans he simply wrote "Babe Ruth."
Clark said signatures of the other three Hall of Famers might be more tempting to collectors because those players, all pioneers of the game, signed fewer autographs.
Suffolk officials noticed the signatures were missing when a document signed in 1913 by Wright was listed in the catalog of a New York auction house.
As a result of the thefts, officials in both counties have taken further steps to protect their records. Visitors are already required to present a photo ID and fill out a card listing the record they want to view.
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