The pro sports industry in America seems to be bullet-proof. Players keep making more and more money. Owners keep making more and more money. TV executives keep making more and more money.
No doubt, the memorabilia industry in this sports-obsessed country is also all about the green too.
“Iconic pieces of sports history are worth big, big money. In turn, fraud is incredibly rampant in the sports memorabilia industry,” said former FBI agent and private investigator Kevin Barrows, who is hosting an upcoming show on the Smithsonian Channel titled, “Sports Detectives.”
Barrows, and sports reporter Lauren Gardner, attempt to track down lost treasures of American sports history in the six-part weekly series (premiering April 24). The list includes Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” football, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point ball, Secretariat’s 1973 Derby-winning saddlecloth, Dale Earnhardt’s legendary pink race car, the American flag that draped “Miracle on Ice” goaltender Jim Craig, Muhammad Ali’s missing gold medal, Lou Gehrig’s baseball bat and Jim Brown’s championship ring.
Metro had Barrows speak on several of those topics.
Jim Craig American flag
“This one meant a lot to me, personally. In my opinion the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey win was the single greatest sporting event in U.S. history.
“So after the victory [over the Soviet Union), mayhem ensues on the ice. A fan brought his family to the game and they brought the family flag that had been flying at their condo. The guy spontaneously jumps over the boards and drapes it over Jim Craig. What happens to it after that? At least two different people say they have it, and we find out the truth [in the show].”
Franco Harris Immaculate Reception football
“It’s probably the most iconic play in pro football history. Franco is a great gentleman … that’s really what’s great about this show. There’s a lot of great human interest stories here. Anyway, the person who has the ball is obviously someone who was at that game that day. We try to figure out if a certain person has the true ball.
“Franco scores down the left sideline, dangling the ball, and someone eventually chops the ball to the ground. We’re pretty sure the same ball was used for the Steelers’ extra point but after that the ball disappears [in the TV footage].”
Wilt Chamberlain 100-point game ball
“The thing is, these are historical investigations that are 40, 50, 60-years-old. When you do these sort of investigations there are people who you would want to talk to who have passed away since that time. And there is also evidence that has been destroyed over time. You just have to review the footage that’s available. The Chamberlain ball … you learn through this episode, there’s not just one ball. There are several balls and several conflicting stories.”
Muhammad Ali’s gold medal
“In his autobiography Ali claims he dropped it into the Ohio River because he came back from the Olympics, went to a diner and was denied service. He’s saying to himself, ‘I did this for my country and then I come back home and can’t even get a hamburger?’
“So he says he dropped it off the bridge. We set out to find out if this bridge story is true or not.”
Lou Gehrig’s bat
“An older woman had kept this bat behind the front door of her house for years and years. She got the bat from a relative of a former New York Yankees groundskeeper. She said she nearly gave it away to a neighborhood kid to play with.
“Anyway, a relative of the woman stops by and asks about that bat. She simply said she was using it for protection. The person says, ‘well, it says the name Lou Gehrig on it.’
“This Lou Gehrig game-used bat is the rarest of bats and we have to study something like this with forensic science. Grains of baseball bats are like human DNA. Each bat is unique. We had to search the records of the bats, the weights, the length from the time period when Gehrig played.”