History by its nature can be controversial. The passage of time allows new values to shade past events. And events not officially recorded at a precise moment can be colored by shouts and murmurs.
So when you add in the emotions surrounding sports, it’s no surprise there’s often a catch.
No one knows this better than San Francisco native William McDonagh, a one-time high school football star who, in his passion for his collecting hobby, matches his money with his heart — a place where things tend to get broken.
That will help explain why the moment that made the San Francisco 49ers once-magical champions and a model of professional sports franchises can leave him as empty as a Candlestick Park seat these days. And as testament, his proof lies atop a crystal trophy case on his dining room table, nowhere near the glorious crowds that would actively embrace it.
It may seem a funny place for a regular NFL football, until you realize this one is enshrined in league history. For it’s there that rests the ball Dwight Clark cradled to his chest and forever changed the fortunes of a franchise. It’s that ball, that glorified pigskin — it’s The Catch.
So why would a ball that comes with its own documentation, sworn affidavits from two of the equipment guys who worked for the 49ers at Candlestick Park on Jan. 10, 1982 — the day Clark’s grab sent the team to its first Super Bowl — be controversial? Well, that’s the beauty of sports and why a magazine devoted to almost religious chronicling of such athletic contests called it the “$100,000 question.”
I raise the issue now because I was reminded last weekend that Clark is now working with the 49ers to move the team out of San Francisco. So, though he made football history here, he seems willing to part with it. And on that level, he already had relinquished some — few remember that Clark spiked the ball after making The Catch. As a result, the following scenario played out:
Ball boy Luis Sanchez picked up the football near the end zone and later handed it to cohort Jack McGuire. McGuire told Sports Illustrated magazine that ball boys were allowed to keep a game ball, and sure enough, he said he kept the one Clark had caught and gave the wide receiver another used during the game. He also said Clark never asked if it was the actual football.
In 2002, McGuire sold the ball to McDonagh, a well-known building contractor and avid memorabilia collector, for $50,000 and signed a sworn affidavit saying that it was, indeed, the genuine ball. Sanchez signed a similar document affirming its authenticity.
When the issue was raised by Sports Illustrated a few years back, the magazine said Clark was convinced he had the real ball among his collection of trophies and seemed upset that there was a legitimate claim to the authentic ball from someone else. But McGuire, now a former 49ers employee, tried to set the record straight.
“I gave Dwight a ball, but it wasn’t the ball,” he told the magazine.
McDonagh said the question of authenticity has nothing to do with money. He says the ball is not for sale.
As far as an item in his collection goes, the ball is but a passing fancy. He owns four rare Corvettes, including one of only 20 967 L-88 racing convertibles.
Still, the ball controversy irks McDonagh because, he said, it’s meaningful to him to have a piece of 49ers history. He has been a 49ers fan since his days as a kid sitting in the Christopher Milk seats at old Kezar Stadium. He still has season tickets.
McDonagh said he’s certainly not rushing to stage a fight: “I hope Dwight Clark doesn’t think I’m his enemy — I’m not.”
It’s something 49ers officials — and Clark — may want to consider while trying to create a new franchise history outside