Accelerated Depreciation: Murray’s 500th is now worth a fraction of its 1996 price. Credit: (Photograph by Charles Steck)

America’s romance with the long ball is over. Mark McGwire just learned he’ll have to buy a ticket like the rest of us to get in the Hall of Fame. And with every leak, it’s clearer that Barry Bonds’ coronation as baseball’s all-time home-run king won’t come as a cause for celebration, if it comes at all.

But for those needing a reminder of when the country was hot and heavy for home runs, there’s the tale of Eddie Murray’s 500th.

Soon after the Orioles’ former first baseman bashed it into the right-field grandstand at Camden Yards off Detroit’s Felipe Lira in September 1996, the ball sold for a half-million dollars and briefly reigned as the costliest piece of sports memorabilia of all time.

“Those were 500 legitimate home runs with Eddie Murray, and 500 was a very mythical figure,” says Pete Williams, author and former host of a sports-collectibles show on WTEM-AM. “But it’s not anymore.”

The ball now sits inside a glass case in a row house a few blocks west of the stadium where it was hit. Its value on the retail market has since dropped like Bert Blyleven’s curveball.

“These things are worth whatever somebody will pay for them, and it’s not worth anything close to $500,000 now,” says Michael Gibbons, executive director of the ball’s caretaker and owner, the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, since 1983. “Nothing close.”

The ball’s backstory still holds its own, however.

Baltimore is the home of the homer. It’s the birthplace of Babe Ruth, the man who first made us fall for round-trippers. One hundred and twelve years ago next week, Ruth was born on Emory Street. His house is now a museum honoring baseball’s original slugger and those who followed.

One room is devoted to an exhibit titled “Baseball’s 500 Home Run Club,” which pays tribute to the greatest long-ballers who never lived here. The O’s can claim more members of that exclusive club than any other major-league team. Pre-steroids Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, and Murray, plus Dead Balls Era standouts Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, all played in Baltimore.

(A monitor in a corner of the display constantly plays a clip of Bob Costas saying that everybody who hits 500 homers is “either in the Hall of Fame or on their way.” The loop is taken from a 1988 documentary, and, unfortunately for Sosa and Palmeiro, hall voters don’t feel that way anymore.)

Even with Murray’s ball as its centerpiece, the exhibit now seems as modest as the working-class neighborhood where Ruth was born. There’s a jersey, for example, that Jackson wore in 1987 with the Oakland A’s during his last season in baseball, and Murray’s 1978 contract with the Orioles, which brought the then-reigning AL rookie of the year a salary of just $67,000 for the season.

There was a brief time when the Murray ball would be considered gaudy in this company. It’s the raison d’être for the 500 Club display, which was put together after the 1996 season. That time has passed. Gibbons declined to specify the worth of the ball other than to say its most recent appraisal was for “less than $100,000.”

Gibbons can be more specific about how his museum got the ball, though. Michael Warren Lasky, a Baltimore character of the first order, donated the ball in November 1996. He was the founder of the Psychic Friends Network, the group that used to plaster the airwaves with Dionne Warwick infomercials for $3.99-per-minute soothsaying sessions. Under the pseudonym Mike Warren, he also ran tout services with names like Platinum Play that, for a fee, told sports gamblers which football team to bet on and whether to take the over or under.

Just as Murray’s career was peaking, so was Lasky’s. He had gotten the ball from Towson businessman Dan Jones, who was sitting in the right place in right field and caught Murray’s leather lottery ticket the night it was hit. According to Gibbons, in exchange for the ball, Lasky/Warren bought an annuity that paid Jones the $500,000 in payments of $25,000 over 20 years.

Lasky’s company then boasted of annual revenues of well over $100 million, and he was quite a man about town at the time, too. He bought the Harbor Inn Pier 5, a hotel near the Inner Harbor with rooms that went for $1,500 per night, and owned racehorses good enough to run in the hometown Preakness Stakes.

After buying the Murray ball, Lasky then held a poll using, no surprise here, phone callers to decide whether it should go to Cooperstown or to a Baltimore venue. Baltimore won.

Gibbons’ connection to Lasky came from an acquaintance named Carter Clews, a Westminster, Md., resident who was then working as creative director for the Psychic Friends Network. Before jumping into the soothsaying business, Clews was well known for his political dealings—heading a ­public-­relations firm for right-wing causes, for instance. The firm got in trouble when a photo op Clews set up between President Ronald Reagan and a young “Nicaraguan refugee” was proven bogus; a 1985 report in the Washington Post exposed that the alleged refugee was actually an 8-year-old American citizen born and raised in the D.C. area. Clews went to work for Lasky after his PR firm went bankrupt.

But Clews benefited baseball fans of all political persuasions when he delivered Lasky’s high-priced memento to the Ruth museum.

“Obviously, as a museum, we can’t afford to go after things like that,” says Gibbons. “They have to be bought by somebody and brought to us. That’s what happened.”

One would think that folks who have a network of fortunetellers at their disposal would know a good investment from a bad one. Not so with Lasky, et al. The ball’s fall from grace is one example of a questionable business deal. Then there’s Psychic Friends Network, which hit the skids not long after Lasky shelled out for the memento. Lasky’s infomercial company, Inphomation Communication, filed for bankruptcy in early 1998, listing total assets of $1,244,193 and total liabilities of $26,328,500.

In June of that year, one of Lasky’s horses, Hot Wells, was kicked out of the Belmont Stakes days before the race when the New York Racing Commission refused to license its owner.

But Lasky’s business fortunes going to hell had no impact on the museum’s possession of the Murray keepsake. The ball was not part of the bankruptcy proceedings, and no Psychic Friends creditors came after the museum attempting to take possession of Lasky’s purchase.

“We never heard anything from [the bankruptcy] about the ball,” says Gibbons.

The value of statistics has been cheapened as much as the dollar value of home run balls. Sosa, who left the O’s in 2005 with 588 homers, agreed to take a minor-league contract last week and is hoping to latch onto a team long enough to reach the 600 mark. Gibbons says his museum currently has no intention of trying to get that ball, let alone set up a wing for it.