On October 3, 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers faced the New York Giants in a sudden-death playoff with the pennant on the line. In the bottom of the ninth, with the Giants trailing, Bobby Thomson hit a home run -- "the Shot Heard 'Round the World" -- propelling the Giants to the World Series.
If such a scene happened today, there would have been a mad scramble for the ball followed by litigation and then an auction. But 1951 was a different time, and baseball's most famous home run ball simply vanished.
This book is the account of author Biegel's search for that ball. It's less a baseball book than a mystery, and like all good mysteries, it's the stuff that comes before the big reveal that gives the book its worth. More than a simple treasure hunt, this is a story of personal redemption and family ties to which anyone can relate.
Biegel's life hit the skids in 2000, resulting in clinical depression and an anxiety disorder. "Each morning I awoke trembling. Fear and anxiety, mixed with severe depression, made each day a struggle to survive."
It was his investigation into the fated Thomson ball -- inspired by his father, who had a ball that he thought was the famous artifact -- that brought him out of the depths of his depression.
Not that it was easy. When Biegel agrees to help his father confirm that he owned the Thomson ball, he was full of self-doubt: "As I mouthed the words, I couldn't quite believe that I was undertaking this project. I still didn't feel ready to take care of myself, let alone help anyone else."
Biegel's quest starts out as simple detective work, as he goes to museums and interviews Bobby Thomson himself. But he soon realizes his gumshoe tactics won't get the job done.
That's when he moves on to what he calls his "CSI approach," and it's here where the book truly takes off, as Biegel enlists the help of a retired NYPD forensics detective who analyzes various photos of the famous home run, trying to find a clue as to who may have come away with it.
Beigel uncovers a big clue -- at which point the media become interested, and the leads start pouring in. His search takes him from Queens to Cooperstown, from Long Island to a remote little village in New Mexico, and above all else, it takes him on an emotional roller coaster, as he fights both his personal demons and the fading memory of history.
Because this is a mystery the ending can't be revealed. But it can be said that the book's finish is satisfying for several reasons, most of which have nothing to do with Bobby Thomson's home run ball.
"Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World’” by Brian Biegel with Peter Thomas Fornatale (Crown, 231 pages, $25.00).
One day in 1990, at a Salvation Army store in Levittown, N.Y., a man bought an old autographed baseball for $2.
Years later, he wonders: Could this be the baseball that Bobby Thomson hit into the stands of New York’s Polo Grounds in 1951, a shocking home run known as the Shot Heard ‘Round the World’?
That question became a mission for his son, documentary filmmaker Brian Biegel, who recounts his investigation in "Miracle Ball.
It’s a fast-paced, fascinating tale that combines shoe leather, high-tech forensics and some healthy dollops of luck.
Thomson’s home run, in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Brooklyn Dodgers, clinched the pennant for the New York Giants. It’s one of the most famous moments in sports. But the fate of the ball itself has been a mystery — one dropped into Biegel’s lap by his dad’s impulse purchase.
Over the next two years, Biegel worked to find out whether his father’s baseball was the holy relic, or at least what happened to the real baseball.
Then he heard, thirdhand, about a chance conversation with an old man in a ShopRite store in Nutley, N.J. Biegel jumped on the information, which eventually led him to an elderly nun in a convent in New Mexico — and the conclusion of his story.
Biegel makes a compelling case that he’s solved the mystery, although it’s not airtight. What is clear is that for a reader, his book is a home run.
Syosset's Brian Biegel and Bellmore's Sal Del Giudice recently won the Best Documentary Award at the Long Island International Film Expo in Bellmore for their film Miracle Ball: Hunt for the Shot Heard Round the World.
"It's an amazing feeling," says Biegel, the film's director. "It's an honor. It's a great festival. It's run very well and professionally. And I'm just so happy to be not only nominated, but to win."
The movie chronicles Biegel's two-year search for the famous 1951 Pennant-winning home run in the playoff game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. The ball seemed to disappear as several people claimed they caught it, but no one could prove they had the real baseball. It has often been referred to as the "Maltese Falcon" of sports memorabilia.
Biegel says he got the idea to make the movie from a reward that was advertised in a sports collectibles magazine. "I never knew that the Thomson ball was missing and they offered a million-dollar reward to anyone who could prove they had the actual baseball," he said. Biegel says his father has long claimed to have found the famous Thomson baseball at a bargain shop. Biegel approached Del Giudice with the idea of filming his search to prove his father's claim right or wrong.
"His dad had an old baseball and his dad was convinced that that was the actual baseball that Bobby Thomson hit," recalls Del Giudice. "He came to me with this idea and we went into production almost immediately. I'm a huge baseball fan. I thought it was an incredible idea and I'm very proud of our work."
They conducted numerous interviews and consulted photography and forensic experts at the NYPD to determine who exactly caught the ball that day. The two pieced together a puzzle of clues in an effort to solve the nearly 60-year-old mystery.
"It's one of those great moments in sports that has been a mystery and the great reveal comes at the end of Miracle Ball," says Biegel.
The persistent man with the thrift store baseball called the Daily News sports department several times during the summer of 2005, and his faith and certainty never once wavered, even when we laughed and told him he was crazy.
Jack Biegel claimed he had the ball that Bobby Thomson drove over the leftfield wall at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951, the Shot Heard 'Round the World ball, the ball that made the New York Giants the most unbelievable National League champions in history. He bought it a few years earlier, he said, for $2 at a Salvation Army store in Levittown, L.I. Leland's, the Long Island sports memorabilia house, was offering $1 million to anybody who could produce the Thomson ball, and Jack was absolutely convinced he had it even though he had no evidence to back that claim up.
"It could be any ball from 1951. You have no proof that your ball is the ball," we'd say, laughing.
"You have no proof that it isn't," Jack would snarl back.
"You should have looked in the back room of that Salvation Army," we'd reply, stifling a snicker. "You might have found Jimmy Hoffa."
Biegel eventually stopped calling but now he's back, as one of the stars of a documentary made by his son, Brian Biegel, called "Miracle Ball: The Hunt for the Shot Heard Around the World." The film, which will premiere at the Long Island International Film Expo on Saturday, is a terrific account of how Brian, inspired by his obsessed father, tried to solve sports memorabilia's greatest mystery: What happened to the Thomson home run baseball that broke millions of Brooklyn hearts nearly 60 years ago?
My initial goal was to prove that my dad had the ball, but it became more than that," Brian says. "It became about finding out the truth and being part of this important moment in sports history."
"Miracle Ball" lacks the depth of a 2009 book (by the same name) that Brian wrote with Peter Thomas Fornatale about his twoyear journey that took him from Cooperstown to the offices of NYPD forensics experts to the Daily News building to a highplains convent near Albuquerque. The film doesn't address Brian's bitter divorce, or the crippling depression that followed, leaving him unable to get out of bed some days, or the way his father and mother, Sandy, nurtured him back to mental health. But it does look at the guilt he felt when he had to tell his dad that the Salvation Army ball is probably not the Thomson ball, and it does explore how baseball brings fathers and sons together.
"Film is a different medium than print," Brian says. "You can have an 'A' story in a book, and a 'B' story and a 'C' story. It is hard to go back in time in a film, so we decided we would focus on the hunt for the ball. There's an old adage in film: 'Show me, don't tell me.' That's what we decided to do."
The Thomson ball disappeared because back then, memorabilia really was a hobby; if fans held on to a scuffedup ball or a grassstained jersey, it was because they loved baseball, not because Forbes said they would be good investments. There were no auction houses under investigation by the FBI in 1951, no crooked authenticators giving their stamp of approval to items they are not qualified to authenticate, no forgers cranking out bogus autographs.
When that ball cleared the leftfield wall at the Polo Grounds, whoever it was who grabbed it in Brian's improbable story, it was most likely a baseballloving nun who violated her order's rules to attend the game simply wanted a souvenir of a great game and one of the best seasons in baseball history.
The best part of this strippeddown film version of Miracle Ball which features interviews with longtime Daily News columnist Vic Ziegel and yours truly isn't about Thomson and the 1951 Giants, or the brilliant forensics detectives who helped Biegel, or the fact that the ball might be worth a fortune if it was sold today. The best part of the film is when Brian tells his dad that the Thomson ball was probably grabbed by the rebellious and mysterious Sister Helen, and it probably never wound up in a Long Island thrift store. In other words, Biegel was trying to tell his father that his crusade was misdirected, that his passion was misplaced that his reasearch indicates that he has been dead wrong for years.
Jack's eyes burn with fury, but he wants to do right by his kid. Like all parents, he knows he has to let go, even if he's disappointed that his son is not following in his footsteps.
"If you feel she truly has the ball, then you have my blessing, Brian," he says. "Remember, I created you. You live inside of me. I want you to finish out this mission. You need to keep moving forward on your quest. I love you no matter what happens. Go find her."
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.
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.
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.