NEW YORK -- Duke Snider and Willie McCovey, two baseball Hall of Famers whose images of power and dignity still sparkle for generations of the game's loyalists, pleaded guilty yesterday to federal tax fraud charges, saying they knowingly had failed to report thousands of dollars earned by signing autographs and participating in sports memorabilia shows.
The two slugging legends stood under the glare of the fluorescent ceiling lights in federal court in Brooklyn, where they raised their right hands, swore to tell the truth, and pronounced themselves criminals. For the first time, the stars from the game's golden age were enveloped in a crime that up to now has only involved players from its more troubled present.
Snider, 68, a couple of Brooklyn neighborhoods removed from the site of Ebbets Field and his glory days with the Dodgers as the Duke of Flatbush, when he hit 407 home runs in 16 seasons, admitted that he had conspired with the promoters of a 1989 sports memorabilia show in Atlantic City, N.J., not to report a $10,000 payment for his appearance.
The former Brooklyn Dodgers center fielder, wearing a gold DUKE wristband and a Hall of Fame ring on his right hand, also said he had failed to report more than $100,000 in income earned at memorabilia shows and promotional appearances from 1984 to 1993. Snider, who signed a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, will likely avoid any prison time.
McCovey, 57, who walks with the aid of a cane after recent knee surgery, pleaded guilty to having failed to list nearly $70,000 in income from 1988 to 1990. The former San Francisco Giants first baseman, who hit 521 home runs in his 22 seasons, was paid $33,000 in cash at the same 1989 Atlantic City show attended by Snider, and that was part of the income for which he failed to pay taxes. He could be sentenced to one to seven months in prison.
"We have choices to make in our lives," Snider said in a brief exchange with reporters outside the courthouse. "I made the wrong choice. I was knowledgeable. I was aware of the crime I was involved in. And I made the wrong choice. I hope the effects of it won't hurt baseball that badly."
The guilty pleas yesterday were two of the stranger shocks to hit baseball lately. Hindered by poor attendance, ill will resulting from last year's strike, and disaffection over the actions of surly millionaire owners and players, the sport now has to confront the fact that even its most benevolently remembered heroes of the past are capable of money-driven criminality.
"We are very saddened by this," said Bud Selig, the acting commissioner of baseball. "It's a bad day for the game."
The admissions of guilt, however, are unlikely to affect the Hall of Fame status of the two. Jeff Idelson, a spokesman for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., said: "There's nothing in the bylaws or the rules" about ejecting people from the hall for criminal convictions.
Prosecutors and Internal Revenue Service agents yesterday all but promised there would be more people entangled by the investigation. Charles T. Franssen, chief of the IRS's criminal investigation division, said, "Investigations of the sports memorabilia industry are nationwide in scope, and can be expected to include promoters and ballplayers and others."
The sports memorabilia industry has mushroomed in the past 15 years, and specialists estimate that mass-autographed merchandise now is a $500 million business.
Much of that business, which includes athletes selling their names on home-shopping channels and through mail-order catalogs, is still done at trade shows, where athletes often sign cards, bats, balls and photographs for fixed prices. Many athletes, both current and former stars, long have chosen to be paid in cash at many such shows.
"The problem of this underground economy is serious," Franssen said.
In 1990, Pete Rose, baseball's all-time hit leader, served five months in prison and paid a $50,000 fine after pleading guilty to failing to report $354,968 from gambling, autograph signings and memorabilia shows during a four-year period.
Earlier this year, outfielder Darryl Strawberry pleaded guilty to failing to pay between $75,000 and $120,000 in taxes between 1986 and 1990.
Strawberry was given six months of home confinement and ordered to pay $350,000 in back taxes and penalties.