This complete Lefty Grove uniform sold
in excess of $100,000 at auction.
This complete Lefty Grove uniform soldin excess of $100,000 at auction.

Ah, summer... when a young man's fancy turns to... game used equipment!

Baseball is so much more than the game on the field. It is the history, the movies, the books, the rumors, "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN, the pageantry, the Hall of Fame, and of course, for millions of us, the memorabilia.

This is going to be a regular column on my own particular passion, game used equipment. Like many of us, I began as a baseball card collector, but as I got older, and realized that I could obtain what my favorite players were actually wearing or using on the cards, my focus changed. I have now spent almost half my life acquiring game used memorabilia, and have had the good fortune to turn my hobby into a career, serving as president of Lelands.com, the sports auction house.

After my son, my collection is my pride and joy in life. Since my days as a criminal justice major in college, I have bought, sold and appraised over $50 million worth of sports artifacts and remember just about every one.

Game used equipment is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it dates back to the mid-19th century origins of the game. The first collectible baseball equipment was created way back when Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbockers took the field in the 1840s. Imagine owning, or just being able to touch, one of those straw hats worn by the originals Knickerbockers, an item I am sure does not exist. But it's fun to dream.

The first baseball "card" is usually recognized as either the 1863 Harry Wright Benefit card or the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stocking Carte de Visite. The oldest pieces of baseball equipment date from the 1850s and include balls and bats. To the best of my knowledge, a certifiable garment worn to play baseball during the 1850s does not exist.


Barry Bonds game used equipment
is very popular.
But just because game used equipment was around during baseball's infancy, it does not mean it was collected. The first baseball card collector's series goes back to 1886.

Believe it or not, there were a chosen few who were collecting equipment during the dead ball era, the 1910s. One of these was a fellow named Ed Maier, who owned the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. Maier had a good relationship with many major league players, and also had his friend Buck Weaver (yes, one of the 1919 Black Sox), secure a good number of game used bats for him. Maier's collection included game used and even autographed bats from the likes of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker and Home Run Baker. There were numerous articles written during the teens about the Maier collection, one of which reads, "...(he) will be the envy of men of wealth when it {the collection} is completed." Family descendants sold the collection in 1993. I have not seen any of these bats on the marketplace since. And no wonder; they were some of the very best bats I have ever seen; I'm sure the current owners are reluctant to part with them.

Some of the earliest of the current equipment collectors that we know today began their quests for game used gear back in the 1940s. Barry Halper began to amass his great collection late in that decade, and the legendary Paul Hill also began to collect around the time of World War II, gathering a great collection of game worn items including bats, caps and cleats. The true pioneers of memorabilia had great foresight. Their collections were also much more "pure" than many of those found in collector's display rooms today.

These early collectors secured most of their treasures from the players, or the players' families. In this sense, almost everything obtained until the 1970s was guaranteed to be authentic. After all, a pair of Mickey Mantle's cleats was not worth much more than the outfield dirt that clung to its soles.

There was little to no problem with authenticity until the later part of the 1970s, when game worn items became more valuable and desirable among collectors. These early collectors found little competition in securing items back in the '50s and '60s, and most players would oblige a request for a piece of their equipment. Even major league sports teams were known to send equipment to collectors free of charge. Most of it would have ended up in the garbage or recycled in the minors anyway.

Asking a player for game used equipment in the current age is almost unthinkable. There is a slight possibility that, if the player was a really nice guy, he might accommodate someone under the age of five. Maybe flip the kid his cap. In most cases, it would be hopeless; the players know as much about the memorabilia market as the collectors do.

My list of the most valuable objects that a baseball player uses in casual order of value is as follows:

1) The jersey. This is the closest thing to a player's body and the symbol of his team. Unlike the good ol' days, many players are now using a dozen or more jerseys every year.


This Willie Mays game used glove recently sold at auction.
2) The fielder's glove. Most players only use a couple every season. Some players use and keep their gloves for many years. This makes them quite rare and desirable, and the unfortunate end of Ruben Rivera's Yankee career, marked by his theft of Derek Jeter's glove for a memorabilia sale, heightened attention on this item.

3) The bat. This is the tool of the baseball trade. They have not changed much since the origins of the game, still basically the same shape, same material, and in many cases, the same manufacturer. Most players go through countless dozens during the course of a season today.

4) The batting helmet. Only worn on a regular basis since the 1960s, fewer are used than hats. They are fairly expensive and most players only use less than a dozen during a season. Comparable in rarity, but not desirability, to a jersey.

5) The cap. Like the jersey, this touches the player's skin and proudly displays the team colors and logo. Not as valuable as a jersey since more are used during the course of a season and they are much more difficult to authenticate.

6) The cleats. Most players now have endorsement contracts with footwear manufacturers who provide them with a season's worth of cleats. Some players are known to wear a new pair every week!

7) The pants. They have really gone up in value over the past couple of years. The increase in price is due not to increased demand by collectors, but instead, demand by the card companies who purchase them as a cheaper alternative to jerseys to cut up and put in packs of cards. Most pants are plain and not popular amongst collectors unless they are being displayed with a matching jersey.

8) Batting gloves. A very affordable item, which is gaining popularity amongst collectors. Bat collectors like these as a supplement to their collections.

9) Wristbands. They didn't gain widespread prominence until the late '70s. Now, almost every player has his own customized set. They are like batting gloves, still affordable.

10-12) The socks, jocks and leggings. Unless you want to go all the way for the full uniform effect, these are not that collectible by themselves. Leggings (stirrups) can add a nice touch to a complete uniform when displayed on a mannequin. And yes, I have seen jocks of prominent players being sold. I am not too quick to admit it, but I was in fact involved in a few of these transactions. Great conversation pieces! (None yet in my personal collection.) And bringing up the rear are other parts of a player's uniform, such as knee and elbow pads/braces, sunglasses, etc., but not all players use these devices.

Imagine the value of the tape used to wrap Mickey Mantle's legs back in the '50s and '60s! Tape that was routinely tossed in the garbage each day!

I encourage anyone who has questions or comments regarding game used sports equipment to write to me at Lelands Auctions, 3947 Merrick Road, Seaford, NY 11783. I would also enjoy hearing your suggestions for future columns.

Flannel jerseys, like this Killebrew jersey, are considerably more popular than knits.
Flannel jerseys, like this Killebrew jersey, are considerably more popular than knits.
An Ichiro jersey is another hot item.
An Ichiro jersey is another hot item.