The Lure of Legendary Lumber: A Closer Look at PSA Bat Experts Vince Malta and John Taube

C an you imagine what it would be like to place your hands on the wheel of the Santa Maria - to grasp the same wood that Christopher Columbus held, as he caught the first glimpse of America?

Have you ever thought of how would it feel to grab the wood-handle controls of the Wright brother's glider - to know that your hands were in the exact same place as Orville's were, when for that famous 12-second flight, he rose over the ground of Kitty Hawk?

What would go through your mind if you had the opportunity, to sit in the Oval Office and run your hands over the polished oak of the President's desk - a desk that, by Queen Victoria's orders, was constructed from the timbers of a decommissioned ship of the Royal Navy known as The Resolute - a desk from which decisions that are made and rendered affect the entire world?

Well, the Santa Maria no longer exists. The Wright brothers' glider is a "look but don't touch" display at the National and Air Space Museum. And, unless you are a top presidential advisor, a close personal friend, related to the President, or a future presidential candidate who wins the ultimate political prize, your chances of getting anywhere near the Oval Office, much less his desk, are about as remote as Leon Spinks regaining the Heavyweight Championship.

So, while most timber-based artifacts of historical significance are out of reach to the great majority, there are some wooden wonders of the world that are not only available for us to touch and to hold, but to actually own.

Imagine running your hand over the barrel of a 'Big Stick' that was once actually swung by Mark McGwire. Think of the thrill it would be to grip a Louisville Slugger that was hauled out to the plate by Ted Williams, Frank Robinson or Rod Carew. Consider the awe of being able to make close inspection of a piece of legendary lumber that Joe DiMaggio, Barry Bonds or Derek Jeter used as the tool of their trade.

And then, after doing that imagining, go a little bit further and allow yourself to dream that you are the actual owner of such treasured pieces of memorabilia from America's favorite pastime - proudly displaying them in your office or den, sharing them with your friends and colleagues, and knowing that they are the real deal and that they belong to you.

That dream has become a reality for thousands of baseball fans that have become collectors of game-used bats. And, helping to make those dreams come true is a man who, back when he was a young fellow, saw his life's direction charted on an early spring day in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Like millions of kids before and after him, John Taube collected baseball cards. As a dedicated fan of the New York Yankees, young John was of course partial to the cards that highlighted his beloved Bronx Bombers. But, as a dedicated card collector, he was also obsessive in getting his hands on every card he possibly could. As John grew, so did his obsession, and by the time he was a young man, he had amassed a card collection that was not only impressive, but that would lead him to another collecting passion - in fact, a career as one of the world's most respected purveyors, dealers and authenticators of game-used major league bats.

John Taube
PSA/DNA Bat Expert John Taube

Oh, but back to that spring day in Fort Lauderdale...

Being as that Taube was such a big Yankee fan, he began making annual pilgrimages from his home in New Jersey to Florida to watch his beloved team, during spring training. In 1984, while attending a pre-season game in the Sunshine State, Taube struck up a conversation with one of the Yankee batboys. It would prove to be a conversation that would have life changing results.

"We started talking about baseball cards and he proposed a trade," said Taube. "He told me what cards he wanted and then went into the dugout and came out with two bats. As a collector who loves baseball, the bats immediately shed a whole new light on collecting. At that point I lost all interest in collecting cards and got into bats."

Having made that trade of cards for bats, Taube was not just infatuated with his new found love, he was off on a life-long mission to learn everything he could about how and where bats are manufactured, and what happens to them after their playing days are over. He quickly learned that every player has his own "model" bat. Realizing that, Taube began to think about just how personal these items really were. He also rapidly came to see that if a bat had actually been used in a game, it transcended from being a simple piece of athletic equipment that had been carved out of wood, into a valuable piece of memorabilia- with it's own personal story and historical significance.

What incredibly great things to collect, he thought.

Vince Malta
Vince Malta of PSA/DNA is one of the
foremost authorities on game-used bats

After acquiring what would be the beginning of his game-used bat collection at that pre-season Yankee game, Taube began spending all of his free time doing further research on baseball bats and their manufacturers. He visited the factory where the famous Louisville Slugger bats are made and began to learn the specifics of what various players request and methods that are used to assure the authenticity of bats that are used in play.

"When I got into bats, they were obviously much more expensive than trading cards, so I wanted to make sure I was buying the right thing," he said.

What Taube meant by the "right thing", was of course verifying without a shadow of a doubt, the authenticity of a bat that had been used during the playing career of a specific player. Taube found that such verification was extremely challenging, especially, when it came to bats that had been used by retired players. And so, in an attempt to bring a higher level of assurance into the world of game-used bats, Taube eventually developed his own system of authenticating through manufacturer's labeling and barrel-stamping techniques. Within a short period of time, the word had spread throughout the hobby of both Taube's authentication system and his expertise in this area of game used-bats. Soon thereafter, collectors began flocking to him to authenticate their collections.

By 1990, Taube had moved from simply collecting to buying, selling and authenticating game-used bats, a move that led to his establishing a company called JT Sports. While JT Sports proved to be a wonderful way for Taube to expand his passion, it also brought with it time demands, that encroached on his "real" job in the Atlantic City hotel business.

Up until that time, Taube felt that his company was just a part-time way to "feed his habit", and that expanding JT Sports into a full-time business was something he would consider after he retired. But those plans changed, as the demand for his expertise coupled with the desire and appreciation in the value of game-used items increased. Finding that JT Sports was rapidly becoming an all-consuming business that left him little time for his other nine-to-five job, Taube made the decision to say goodbye to the hospitality industry and go full-time with the business venture that had emerged from his passion.

"People started offering me money for my authentication services," said Taube. "That came out of nowhere. I wasn't expecting it. I was getting paid to do what I love, but I couldn't do both jobs anymore."

In March of 2002, JT Sports became Taube's full-time occupation. He started by continuing to work out of his Margate, New Jersey home with just one employee. That was all well and good - for a few months. By early summer of that year, the company had not only taken over but completely outgrown Taube's home. He knew it was time to find real office space, and by June of the same year, JT Sports was up and running out of an office on Granville Avenue in Margate, where his business has been booming ever since.

So, when collectors learn that historical hardware such as game-used bats can be privately owned, do they think that they are in the financial arena to participate in such a collection, or do they think that this is one that is only available to those with unlimited funds?

Many probably initially think that game-used bats come with price tags that are astronomical, and in some cases that is true, but there are also many bats that are available in price ranges that virtually anyone could afford.

"(The price) depends on the player," said Taube. "Some lesser-known player's bats will go for $50, while bats used by big name players like Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams can fetch $35,000 or much more."

And while Taube has a wide selection of bats in just about every price range, he also deals in the most desirable of game used lumber - wood that was lugged to the plate by Babe Ruth, which sometimes carries with it starting prices in the $100,000 range or more.

To get a better idea of game-used bat prices, SMR is a good start but it is very important to read and fully understand the game-used bat guide provided on PSA's very own website. "It is crucial that collectors understand the difference between an average example of a game-used bat and what experts consider to be exceptional," explained Joe Orlando, president of PSA. "The prices can vary drastically so it is imperative that collectors do their homework by asking questions and reading guides so they can start to identify the variance in quality."

One of the most interesting things about Taube's business is that his customers come from the far corners of the Earth, with nearly a third of his business emanating from Japan. It is because of this worldwide interest, that it is the exception rather than the rule, when a client actually makes their way to Taube's New Jersey office and showroom to peruse the 250 or so bats he has in inventory at any given time. His customers instead visit his website to see what bats and other game-used memorabilia, such as gloves and uniforms, he has to offer.

In an attempt to make his website more customer friendly for collectors, last year Taube unveiled a redesigned site that now allows his clients to make purchases right online. He says that since that redesign, about ninety percent of his sales are directly related to his website, which offers collectors the opportunity to register for his "cyber broadcasts", that give previews of items that will soon be available.

Like Taube himself, the collectors he deals with, are first and foremost, enamored with game-used bats because of their love of the game. However, there is no doubting that there is also a lure, when it comes to the investment potential of these items. The value of game-used bats has been on a steady rise over recent years and even in the post 9-11 downturn and subsequent tight economy, the price of classic game-used bats has shown no sign of decline.

And just how high can values go? Well, consider this. A few years ago, when two Babe Ruth bats set back-to-back records for the highest price ever paid for game-used bats, the interest they generated seemingly set the stage for the frenzy that ensued when Shoeless Joe Jackson's famous "Black Betsy" bat came up on the eBay block. The first Ruth bat, an autographed model that was used by The Bambino to hit his first home run of the 1924 season, sold for $225,000, which established a record for a game-used bat. It was one of the shortest held records in baseball history. Just a few weeks later, a 1929 sidewritten home run notch bat used by The Babe sold for a whopping $320,000.

Those rapidly increasing prices were a harbinger for Jackson's Black Betsy bat, which was authenticated by the world's leading sports authentication service PSA/DNA, and offered via eBay. When the dust settled on the close of that auction, Jackson's bat had a new owner - an owner who paid the record price of $577,610.

Vince Malta, a native of San Francisco, has been an avid collector of professional game-used bats for over 15 years. His passion for collecting turned into an absolute obsession in his pursuit of knowledge on accurately authenticating the time period a bat was manufactured for a player. Well-known as a person who is always willing to share his bat collecting knowledge, he has been a great ambassador for the bat-collecting hobby.

Malta is the co-author of the very first book ("Bats") exclusively devoted to collecting game-used bats and his book has been relied on as a primary reference guide to countless collectors, auction houses, and baseball museums, including the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He is currently working on completing a comprehensive collector's guide to Hillerich & Bradsby professional model bats, entitled "100 years of Louisville Slugger".

Malta is also Taube's partner at PSA and he handles the western United States, and was one of the experts responsible for verifying the Jackson bat. He wasn't surprised in the least, over the interest that was generated by such a historical piece. "(That) bat just had so many things going for it," said Malta. "The combination of Joe Jackson - the fact that this was his "Black Betsy" and that he kept this bat with him for his whole life was just incredible. How many players do that? It was a bat of very special significance. People are also starting to realize just how unique game-used bats truly are. They are also willing to pay a premium for provenance and historical importance. The same spark that occurred during baseball card collecting nearly a dozen years ago is starting to happen in game-used bat collecting."

Recognizing and responding to that growing popularity, game-used professional model baseball bats can now be submitted for authentication and certification by Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), the world's largest sports memorabilia authentication service. PSA, a division of Collectors Universe, jointly conducts this service with Taube and Malta along with Grey Flannel A.A., Inc. of Great Neck, New York.

Authenticated bats are certified using the PSA/DNA technology with a synthetic DNA strand. Although invisible to the naked eye, the DNA mark on the bat becomes fluorescent green when illuminated with the proper laser frequency. Using this technology, authenticity can be determined many years from now, even when the bats have changed hands.

"Game-used bat collecting has become very popular over the past few years as more information has surfaced about authentication," said Joe Orlando, PSA President. "Collectors are intrigued with the idea that they can hold in their hands the same historic "weapon" that some of the greatest hitters of all time have used on the field. We are very excited to offer bat authentication to the collecting public."

The authentication services include all game-used bats from the early 1900s to the present. Malta said he and Taube are both "eagerly looking forward to authenticating collectors' bats."

"When I started collecting bats about 15 years ago, I realized there was a need for accurate authentication services," explained Malta. "I remember attending a show, where someone was offering what they claimed was a genuine, game-used, signed Jackie Robinson bat, however, that bat was manufactured in 1973, many years after his retirement from baseball, and one year after Robinson passed away."

For further information on game-used bats, or to arrange for authentication services, you can visit psacard.com or call 800-325-1121 and ask to speak to a PSA representative.