Howard Shelton never stepped into a big-league batter’s box or onto a pitching mound, but he did play a part in some of the greatest moments in baseball history.
He was at Citizens Bank Park in 2010, for instance, when Carlos Ruiz grabbed the baseball off Brandon Phillips’ discarded bat and went to his knees before throwing to Ryan Howard for the final out of Roy Halladay’s postseason no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds.
He was in the Bronx four years earlier when the “Why Not Us” Boston Red Sox stunned their longtime nemesis by completing the first 3-0 postseason comeback in baseball history, with a Game 7 beatdown of the New York Yankees.
Seven days later, he was in St. Louis when the Red Sox ended the notorious Curse of the Bambino by completing a four-game sweep of the Cardinals for their first World Series title since 1918.
In 2010, when the Giants won the World Series for the first time since moving to San Francisco in 1958, Shelton stood in the visiting clubhouse at the Ballpark in Arlington and looked on as longtime equipment manager Mike Murphy dialed up Willie Mays on a speaker phone.
“Both were crying like babies,” Shelton said. “There are so many things I saw. I forget more than I remember. I wish I had written them all down in a journal.”
Shelton’s dream baseball life ended recently when he officially retired after spending 24 years on the Major League Baseball payroll. The job title he left behind was program manager – authentication. He played a huge role in getting MLB’s authentication program up and running in late 2000 and early 2001, and he remained in that role as the program evolved into the far more sophisticated procedure it is today.
“The authentication program started, believe it or not, from an FBI investigation,” Shelton said. “It was called Operation Bullpen, and it determined that 75 percent of all signed memorabilia was fraudulent. The story goes that Tony Gwynn walked into his own team’s store at the ballpark in San Diego and saw all these signed baseballs on the shelf, and he realized that many of them weren’t his signature. They were forgeries. We realized we had a problem.”
The Operation Bullpen investigation seized nearly $10 million in fake memorabilia, and an October 1999 press release from the FBI estimated that 90 percent of the memorabilia market was fake merchandise. Kevin Nelson documented the investigation in his 2006 book, Operation Bullpen.
Howard Smith, a Philadelphia native working as the senior vice president of licensing for MLB at the time, was one of the people charged with addressing the problem. Smith, who is now the Phillies vice president of business affairs, asked Shelton to join an MLB team that would make sure items being sold in team stores and elsewhere were exactly what they proclaimed to be.
“Howard was huge,” Smith said. “There were a couple of key people we turned to. Joe Grippo, who had worked for Topps, joined us, and those guys worked with Colin Hagen and Mike Posner. That group of guys did all the heavy lifting, and let me tell you, when they started their jobs were a pain in the ass. It was all manual work, and those guys were taking calls day and night about what should and shouldn’t be done in trying to authenticate bats and balls. Howard was one of the guys on the frontlines dealing with all of that.”
The cornerstone to the program became the hiring of law enforcement officials at every ballpark to witness and authenticate balls, bats, bases, uniforms and, as you’ll find out later in this story, a lot of things you’d never even dream of.
“We had what we called resident security agents who were already in place with our clubs,” Shelton said. “We hired more guys who were RSAs, and we made them authenticators. They had to make a choice whether or not they wanted to be an RSA or on the authentication side because you couldn’t be an employee of the Philadelphia Phillies authenticating things when we wanted third-party transparency. As authenticators, they had no stake in the game. They witnessed what they saw, and they authenticated it.
“That’s when things took off, and the clubs all got behind it. It is also when the clubs started monetizing the program, and it created an outlet for fans collecting memorabilia the opportunity to get what they really wanted while also knowing it was legit. Every item now comes with a tamper-proof hologram.”
Howard Shelton grew up in Willingboro, N.J., and graduated from the same 1979 high school class as track superstar Carl Lewis. Shelton was a basketball starter with a smooth corner jump shot for legendary South Jersey coach Paul Collins. After graduating from Glassboro State College in 1984, he went to work in sales for Wall to Wall Sound and Video, which was kind of like the Best Buy of the 1980s.
“I was working in retail outside of Washington DC, and I called up the Bullets to get tickets for a 76ers game because that was my team,” Shelton said. “I made the call, and there were all these options, and one of them said to press 8 for job opportunities. I pressed it, and I got a call back the next day. I went in for an interview, and a week later I was hired. That was April of 1988.”
A career in sports was born.
Shelton started working in sales for the Bullets at the old Capital Centre, which had to be the darkest arena in the world.
“You’d stand on the concourse, and you’d wonder if they paid the light bills,” Shelton said.
The job, however, was great.
“I did a lot of good things with them,” Shelton said. “I became a customer service rep and worked on enhancing the fan experience. I had [then Bullets beat writer] David Aldridge come in and speak to season-ticket holders and later Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser did the same thing.”
Susan O’Malley, who became the first president of an NBA team at the age of 29 in 1991, encouraged Shelton to take his talent to the NBA’s league office in New York. For four years, he worked with team promotions for the entire league “trying to figure out ways to put people in the seats.”
As much as Shelton loved working for the NBA, the sport he really wanted to work in was baseball.
“As a kid growing up, I’d get baseball history books instead of comic books,” he said. “I was the guy who could tell you about the Merkle incident in 1908 or what happened in the 1926 World Series. You pick a year, and I could tell you something historic about that season. And when I knew my grandfather was going to take me and my brother to a Phillies game when I was a kid, I couldn’t sleep the night before.”
That’s why when MLB offered him a job in 1996 with its minor-league licensing department, Shelton did not hesitate to take it. His first job with baseball also afforded him the opportunity to meet some baseball heroes that often did not get chronicled in history books.
“I was always a little conflicted about my love for the game because I knew people who looked like me could not play in the major leagues for a long time,” Shelton said. “Early in my career with baseball, one of my other responsibilities beyond minor-league licensing was what we called third-party licensing. Those included the Negro Leagues and some other offshoots. It was a separate licensing program that baseball created in conjunction with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick and his crew. The proceeds would go to the Negro Leagues guys who were still living.”
One of the perks for Shelton was he got to meet some of the players from the Negro Leagues era during the late 1990s.
“I met Wilmer Fields, who was a really good player,” Shelton said. “I met Mahlon Duckett from the Philadelphia Stars, and Stanley Glenn. It was incredible talking to those guys. The one thing I always remember is that they wanted it to be known that they were true ballplayers. A couple of them had issues with the way they were portrayed in movies.
“Richard Pryor was in a movie called The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, and it made them look like they were not serious about their craft and not serious about the game, and they all said nothing could have been further from the truth. Almost every time we got together we would have that kind of conversation. They became like other grandpops to me.
“They’d tell me stories about Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, but they’d also talk about the guys who weren’t big names. They’d tell me about how only the superstars got a chance to play in the big leagues because obviously there was an unspoken quota system. They would speak their minds for sure. They would also talk about their loyalty to the Negro Leagues. It was one of the top black-owned businesses, and a lot of people lost their jobs when it disbanded. But the dream was to play against the best in the big leagues. Those guys were always a pleasure to work with, but I always got the sense when they’d do signings at All-Star games that it was a bittersweet thing for them. They were happy on one hand, but it also reminded them of what could have been.”
Perhaps one of the saddest things about the empty ballparks forced by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was that it took away from the 100th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Negro Leagues National League in 2020.
“The pandemic couldn’t give it justice the way baseball wanted to,” Shelton said.
As difficult as the work was as one of the leaders of the authentication program, Shelton knows how lucky he was to see the things he saw. He was, for example, among those who greeted and personally congratulated Roy Halladay after his postseason no-hitter.
“The thing we wanted most [to authenticate] was the last-out baseball,” Shelton said. “So when Brandon Phillips hit the ball in front of the plate, and Carlos Ruiz threw the ball to Ryan Howard, and the game was over, our focus was on witnessing that baseball and making sure we kept our eyes on that particular baseball, and we did.
“I greeted Roy after he got mobbed by his teammates, and I think he might have done an interview, and I was standing there waiting for him, and he actually handed me the ball. We put a hologram on it, and we gave it back to him. That’s his baseball. Anything milestone-wise or something like that, 99 percent of the time it goes to the players or into the club archives. We are there just to witness the moment and do what we have to do.
“From that game, I think we authenticated all the bases on the field and the game-used baseballs that we collected from the game because after a no-hitter the players want to grab at it, and we wanted to make sure we secured all the baseballs. I remember seeing Roy again in the clubhouse after the game, and he could not have been more gracious. I shook his hand and congratulated him and told him it was the thrill of a lifetime to witness that.”
It wasn’t the only thrill.
“Listen, obviously 2008 and watching the Phillies build up to that point and then put it all together and go on to the World Series in 2008 and 2009 was just great fun for me to watch,” Shelton said. “I can remember getting that last-out ball from Chooch in 2008 and what a thrill to be on the field when my hometown team won the World Series for the first time in all those years. I think the misconception in the league office [in New York] is that we are not fans because we work for all 30 clubs, which we do. But we obviously have our favorite teams, and for all those years I had to listen to Yankees and Mets fans.”
Shelton is also a fan of a good story, and the best one he ever saw might have been the 2004 Red Sox.
“That postseason was something to see,” Shelton said. “For them to overcome being down 3-0 to the Yankees and then sweep the Cardinals after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Yankees the year before, it was just incredible. Not that I root against the Yankees, but you had to love the story.”
And from an authentication perspective, the story got even better afterward. The authenticated Boston lineup card from the Game 4 World Series-clinching win over the Cardinals later sold for $165,010.
“I think that’s when we realized we had something here, and it has been fascinating to see how this thing has grown over the years,” Shelton said.
Fast forward to 2020, and Shelton explains that an authenticated baseball purchased in a team store now will provide a lot more information than simply being used in a game. The signed baseball you buy from your favorite player will also detail exactly how that specific player used it in a specific game.
Shelton has witnessed the authentication of some strange things as well. The Japanese team at the 2013 World Baseball Classic in Taiwan insisted that the giant pots they used to transport their food be authenticated. And then there was that busy time ahead of the March 2004 implosion of Veterans Stadium.
“We were authenticating everything you can think of,” Shelton said. “We did the signage, the outfield padding, the seats, the section signs. And, yes, it’s a true story, we even did the urinals. I don’t know where they are, and I don’t want to know.”
The authentication program also took Shelton to Tokyo for Ichiro Suzuki’s final game and to Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium.
“We did a lot of things with Derek Jeter around his retirement,” Shelton said. “The players I think really love what we do because it protects them. When a guy comes off the field with a milestone baseball, they want that ball authenticated, and they don’t want to have to worry about seeing somebody trying to sell something that is fraudulent years later.”
Much of Shelton’s work relied on the cooperation of clubhouse managers like Frank Coppenbarger, who retired from that role with the Phillies in 2019.
“When the program started, some of the clubhouse guys were a little leery,” Coppenbarger admitted. “It meant that a lot of stuff that had been in our hands was being taken out of our hands. In fact, the first time I met Howard we had a little misunderstanding about the baseballs being taken to the umpires. But then I realized what the program was doing, and I saw how passionate Howard was about doing the job. It has been amazing to watch the program grow from a few broken bats and balls to uniforms, helmets, lineup cards and even locker tags.
“It has definitely grown a lot, and it’s a big deal, and Howard had a lot to do with that. He’s one of the unsung heroes at MLB. I can tell how good he was at his job because, when I saw his Facebook announcement about his retirement, there were a lot of responses from other clubhouse managers, and what they were saying was heartfelt.”