Many of us are aware of two tragic deaths that occurred within the last few days, the passing of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt and the great slugger Eddie Mathews. While Earnhardt was arguably the more prominent sports figure, it was the passing of Mathews that affected sportscard collectors more directly.
Both men were considered legends in their respective sports and very personable as well, but the NASCAR cards have yet to be accepted by the mainstream collecting community. Considering the popularity of car racing as a sport, it may just be a matter of time before sportscard collectors start asking for racing memorabilia more frequently. Only time will tell.
Getting back to Mathews, his passing becomes very significant to the core-collecting base in the hobby, baseball fans. Mathews was often overlooked and overshadowed by the likes of Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle, but his numbers and intensity keep Mathews in the minds of collectors. There has been a steady climb, in terms of price, for Mathews sportscards over the last year or so. Cards that were once selling for a few hundred dollars are now bringing $1,000 or more at auction. Hard-core collectors just can't deny his place in history, especially as a member. In fact, if Mathews played in New York, who knows what his items would be worth today?
There has already been a surge in demand for his signature. While checking a few Internet auctions, I noticed that single signed Mathews baseballs were selling for a significant premium since the news of his unfortunate passing. In the past, Mathews signed baseballs were a steady sell but, of the living members of the 500 home run club, his autograph may have been the most affordable. Already, a few Mathews baseballs have broken the $70 barrier on the Internet. It was very common to find authentic Mathews baseballs priced around $40 in the past. We will see if this trend holds up over the next few weeks.
The Question of True Game Use
One question, which has been resurfacing over the last few weeks, is how to determine true game use on a baseball bat. I have probably received a dozen or so emails regarding this question so I thought I would take some time to explain the process. Unless you have direct provenance for the bat (player, agent, team letter, etc.), you need to pay close attention to the details.
First of all, determining game use can be difficult at times, especially if the bat has light use. All collectors should know this. There are several characteristics you should look for but sometimes, due to the minimal amount of use, true game action is hard to determine. Here are five things to look for:
1) Seam, Stitch, or Heavy Ball Marks
2) Bat Rack Marks
3) Player Tendencies or Modifications
4) Cleat or Spike Marks
5) Cracks or Deadwood from Game Action
1) Seam, Stitch, or Heavy Ball Marks - Unless a player is facing major league "heat," marks like this are impossible on the bat. You need to combine a strong, major league hitter with a pitch that has tremendous velocity. Otherwise, these deep marks will not be left on the wood surface. That is one great way to distinguish between a batting practice bat and a true gamer. Some collectors do not seem to care as long as the player held it in his hands, but for those hard-core bat collectors, this might be an important characteristic. Now, of course a bat with very little game use might not exhibit any heavy marks, but this is just one way to confirm the authenticity of the use.
In order to see the stitch marks, take your bat into a poorly lit room and place the barrel under a lamp or light. Turn the barrel back and forth under the light; the light should reflect off the embedded marks. You can also run your fingers over the barrel in order to feel the ball impressions. Both are solid techniques.
2) Bat Rack Marks - Every major league dugout has what is called a bat rack where the players store their bats during the game. The racks are painted with various colors and the colors usually correspond with the team colors. For instance, the Oakland A's have a green rack and the St. Louis Cardinals have a red rack. Looking for evidence of these racks marks is another way to confirm whether the bat actually made it to the ballpark. In fact, it's really interesting when you see various colors left by different bat racks. It's like a suitcase that receives stamps from various countries; you might be able to trace the bat's journey.
In order to see the bat rack marks, look for thin streaks of paint that go up and down the barrel. They are usually very subtle, but if you look closely, you might be able to see a few. Remember that the absence of rack marks is not necessarily a problem, but the existence of them just provides extra proof for your piece.
3) Player Tendencies or Modifications - Many players have unique ways in which they prepare their bats and unique ways in which they use them. Some players might use a unique criss-cross taping method on the handle to provide extra grip like Duke Snider or Ken Griffey Jr. Other players shave, score, or groove the handle for extra grip and increased bat speed. Scoring occurs when a player carves thin "slashes" in the handle area to provide grip. Grooving occurs when a player takes a carving instrument and methodically carves straight lines up or down the handle area. This is also used for extra grip. Some players, like Roberto Clemente, have been known to groove the barrel so the ball would "catch" the wood. Regardless of the player tendency, this is a great way to ensure you are receiving the "real deal."
In order to verify player tendencies, it is important that you look at photos, baseball cards or watch video footage of the player in question. You can follow the player's tendencies as his career progresses. Remember that many players change their tendencies over time. One of them was Mickey Mantle. He went through periods of using no pine tar, and other times, he used heavy tar. This is very important to keep in mind.
4) Cleat or Spike Marks - During the game, many players have the habit of tapping the barrel of the bat on their spikes or cleats. Whether it is the result of a nervous tick or just to remove dirt from their shoes, players do this all the time.
In order to verify spike or cleat marks, look for impressions on the surface of the barrel. They can be located anywhere. Spikes tend to leave a narrower, deep divot in the wood while cleats tend to leave a wider impression. It also tends to be less deep due to the blunt nature of the edge; spikes were razor sharp. Just ask Ty Cobb!
5) Cracks or Deadwood from Game Action - During the season, many bats are cracked, especially today. With the combination of inferior wood, thinner handles, stronger hitters, and faster pitches to contend with, bats often turn into firewood. Handle cracks are the most common type of crack from game action. Some are slight and others are severe, but cracks can help verify true game use. Remember that many game-used bats are found with no cracks and some collectors prefer uncracked bats. Evidence of a crack is only a piece of possible evidence, not a requirement.
Due to the range in severity of cracks, the only way to really educate yourself in this area is to handle as many game-used bats as you can. You will become familiar with the different ways a bat can crack while being used at the plate. You will eventually be able to distinguish between a crack that resulted from an inside fastball on the hands and a crack that resulted from frustration taken out on a water cooler. It's just a matter of gaining experience.
Deadwood is something entirely different. Deadwood occurs when the barrel of the bat has many contacts with a baseball over a long period of time. This is not considered a crack, but the bat is rendered useless if deadwood becomes a problem. The grain of the bat will rise above the surface of the barrel when deadwood is present. It can be severe or minor, almost undetectable. Sometimes, the deadwood is so minor that you have to rub your fingers along the grain in order to locate it. It will usually feel rough to the touch.
Deadwood is actually a positive characteristic in some minds, especially with vintage bats, because it is a direct result of contact made with the ball. In other words, it is great evidence of legitimate game use. Other collectors despise deadwood if it is severe so the presence of deadwood, once again, is not a requirement, just another piece of evidence to determine real game use.
I would review these five areas and study them if you decide to pursue bat collecting as a hobby. I hope this can help collectors determine game use on their favorite lumberyard weapons.