Whose Baseball Is It? or Is Possession Worth Nine-Tenth of the Law?

The next few postings concern the controversy over the ownership of the last home run ball hit in “The House That Ruth Built”. This posting takes the information from various websites. The next posting is based on my phone interview with Paul Russo, one of the two people who claimed ownership of the ball. Paul, a good friend of my son Matt, and is a graduate of Quinnipiac University where I am a professor of mathematics.

It was Sunday night September 21, 2008 and the game was between the Yankees and Orioles, the last game played at Yankee Stadium (1923-2008). In the 4th inning Jose Molina hit a towering drive that cleared the left-field wall winding up stuck in the net over Monument Park. Of course at that moment no one knew that this would be the last home run hit at Yankee Stadium. The first home run hit at Yankee Stadium when it opened in 1923 was by the Babe and the last home run was hit by a guy who in 13 seasons had a total of 39 home runs. As Molina rounded the bases, the fans reached and pushed trying to position themselves to catch the ball.

A fan named Steve Harshman, a Wyoming state legislator, teacher, and high school football coach, reached his hand up to the net and grabbed onto the ball trying to pull it though the netting.  His claim was that the security workers told him not to rip the net and to let the ball go. Mr. Harshman added, “He was reassured by security, who told the crowd, it’s his ball.” Then security told him, “just release it when you’re ready.“  After releasing the ball, another man named Paul Russo jumped up and grabbed it. “It went right into my hands,” said Paul Russo, 31, a schoolteacher and coach in the Bronx. “I have possession of the ball. I’m like, wow.” Russo’s account of the story as told to a Daily News reporter is, “When the security guards told me to give them the ball, I thought they were helping me out. The next thing I know, they handed it to the other guy.”

Howard Rubenstein, a spokesman for the Yankees said, “Yankee Stadium had a long-established procedure for when a ball is caught in a net and a fan reaches into the net to grab it. Security guards are instructed to tell a fan to let go of the ball, and once it was free of the net, a guard would return it. The fan “doesn’t give up his ownership, he only gives up custody.”

A legal opinion was given by Professor Paul Finkelman, a professor of Law at Albany Law School. He said, “it appears to me that when it went into the net, it went into the legal possession of the New York Yankees, and if stadium officials retrieve the ball and say ‘We’ll give it to you’ — whoever they’re pointing to — they have the right to do that.”

The dispute evokes memories of the bitter feud after Barry Bonds’ record 73rd homer in 2001. Fan Alex Popov was first to glove the ball, but another crowd bystander, Patrick Hayashi, emerged with it after a melee. After three weeks in a courtroom, a judge ordered them to sell the ball and split the money.

On October 18, 2008 Mr Harshman decided to sell the ball through a sports memorabilia auction in Manhattan. The minimum bid was set at $100,000. The auction people expected a final bid of between $200,000 and $300,000. The ball received no bids that met the minimum. My search of the internet seems to indicate the ball is still possessed by Mr. Harshman. If anyone has more information of where the ball is now please comment.

The next posting will be based on my phone interview with Paul Russo which I conducted on January 27, 2013. I was fascinated to hear how Paul described the whole incident. I think you will find Paul’s description of the entire incident very interesting.

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