Editor's note: This story was originally published Aug. 22, 2018.
What happens to all those used baseballs the umpires toss out of games at Busch Stadium?
After Keith Duncan of St. Louis submitted that question to our Curious Louis feature, we went to the Aug. 16 game between the Cardinals and Washington Nationals to find out.
That’s where we found Ralph Toenjes hard at work, happily greeting fans at the Authentics Shop, located behind center field. Toenjes sells memorabilia, including used baseballs, fresh from the field. During games, it’s his job to fetch baseballs from the Cardinals dugout every two or three innings.
“That's really a cool part of my job,’’ Toenjes said. “I get to be right there where the players are in the dugout, and sometimes I have to wait for the inning to end, which means I'm right there by the action.’’
The playing career of a baseball is brief. A fair share end up in the stands. Umpires discard dozens of others after they’ve been dinged by a bat or bounced in the dirt. The Cardinals prepare 120 baseballs for every game. On an average game day, between 40 and 60 used baseballs will end up in the Authentics Shop.
With the fourth inning under way, Toenjes grabbed a tired-looking blue plastic sack from behind the counter and headed off to transport baseball history.
“It’s been used a couple years, but there’s no holes in it, so I think we’re OK,’’ Toenjes said, chuckling. “The balls shouldn’t fall out or anything.’’
Toenjes, 71, a former St. Louis police officer, has worked at the stadium since retiring from the department 11 years ago. He enjoys making the rounds between center field and home plate, weaving through fans and beer vendors and ducking under poles of cotton candy.
“Oh, yeah, I get my exercise going down a couple times a game. Keeps me in shape,’’ he said. “But it’s fun.’’
Related: "St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh talks to St. Louis Public Radio reporter Mary Delach Leonard about what happens to used baseballs at Busch Stadium.
In section 145, Toenjes paused next to the television crew filming the game from behind home plate. The Cards were down 4 - 1. Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark was on the mound, and Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna was at the plate. Toenjes kept his eye on that baseball, as Ozuna smacked it into left field.
“Out!’’ Toenjes said dejectedly, along with the crowd of more than 30,000 people. “OK. Now, let’s see what happens to the ball.’’
To his surprise, the ball was returned to Roark who held onto it instead of casting it off. He pitched it to the Cards' Paul DeJong, who lined out to Nationals All-Star Bryce Harper. Still, the ball stayed in the game — until, finally, it landed in the dirt after a pitch to Kolten Wong.
“We’re going to get that ball. It’s a good one,” Toenjes said, as the umpire handed it to the bat boy who delivered it to Steve Hampton, an authenticator who sat in a camera well next to the Cardinals dugout, keeping track of every ball used in the game.
Authenticators are on duty during every game to guarantee that memorabilia is authentic. They are off-duty law enforcement officers hired by a third-party contractor, approved by Major League Baseball.
As the inning ended, Toenjes trotted down the steps and leaned over the rail next to the dugout. He said a quick hello to Hampton, who handed him the sack of balls he’d collected through the fourth inning.
As Toenjes headed back to the shop, fans frequently stopped him.
“They always ask me what I do with all those balls and can I have one,’’ he said. “And, unfortunately, I have to tell them the bad news — that they're all accounted for — but they can come to the Authentics store and purchase one.’’
Toenjes usually gets to work early so that he can watch batting practice and nab baseballs hit into the stands. He keeps them in his pocket to give away free to fans, especially kids, after he carefully explains that these baseballs aren’t “authenticated.’’
“Who doesn’t want a baseball?’’ he said, smiling.
By the time Toenjes returned to the shop, retail operations manager Ashley Brown had printed out stickers for each baseball.
The process begins the moment the authenticator slaps a tamper-proof MLB hologram onto a ball and enters the serial number into a software program, she said. The number is linked to the MLB’s Gameday app that tracks every pitch.
“We are actually able to see live feed of the balls coming off of the field as authenticators are authenticating them,’’ Brown said. “We're able to see as soon as the ball is tagged what it was. Who the batter was, who the pitcher is, and what happened to it.’’
Within minutes, Brown’s crew packaged the baseballs into clear plastic cases and attached stickers summarizing their game histories. Fans often wait in the shop for the game balls to arrive, Brown said. Some are looking for a specific baseball they watched during a play.
“With this series, the Nationals, a lot of people want things from Bryce Harper,’’ Brown said. “They're looking for anything that has his name attached to it. It doesn't have to be a hit. It could be just a pitch in the dirt.''
The prices of baseballs used in a game are driven by the memorabilia market and are frequently adjusted, she said.
Prices for a game-used ball start at $40. But a ball that Cards catcher Yadier Molina hits for a single, currently sells for $125; add $15 for each run batted in on the play. By comparison, rookie center fielder Harrison Bader’s singles are currently priced at $85.
Among the 17 baseballs in the first batch delivered by Toenjes was JD290180, the ball he watched intently on the field because it was used in so many plays.
He pointed it out to Scot Macomber, a Red Sox fan from New Jersey, who came into the shop looking for a baseball from that night’s game. Macomber paid $55 for the ball and joked that it will rest well in his collection in New Jersey.
“There’s a story behind each one of these,’’ Macomber said. “Where it was. What was going on. This is going to have a great story.”
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard