For this month's column, my partner Vince has stepped back and allowed me to take center stage, don my collector's cap, and share some insights on my own personal favorites when it comes to game-used bats.
For over two decades, my passion and hobby focus has been on collecting game-used bats. That love affair began back in 1984, when I obtained my first gamer through a New York Yankees batboy whom I had befriended. He was a great kid who shared my passion for baseball cards. One day, when I was out at the stadium, my batboy buddy and I began discussing some of the cards we were each looking for. Quickly discovering that we were each holding some of the prized possessions the other was looking for, we started talking about a trade. I asked him what he had in mind to offer me for the cards he wanted and before answering, he disappeared into the Yankee dugout for a few moments. When he reappeared he was holding a bat. I'll never forget the skip of my heart when he handed me a Mike "Pags" Pagliarulo, game-used Louisville Slugger model M110 with a slightly smug look that said: "How will this do?"
From that moment on, I became a huge fan of two things - game-used bats and Mike Pagliarulo. I followed Pags career from then on. As a strong left-handed pull hitter, Mike's prowess at the plate peaked in 1986 and 1987 when he hit 28 and 32 homers respectively. I continued to follow his professional career after the Yanks traded him to the San Diego Padres in 1989. After a year and a half in San Diego, Pagliarulo moved back to the American League when he joined the Minnesota Twins just before the start of the 1991 season. It was with Minnesota that Pagliarulo would win his only World Series championship as the starting third baseman. Pagliarulo would remain with Minnesota for the following 1992 season, and part of the 1993 season before going to the Baltimore Orioles where he finished the season. After sitting out the strike-shortened 1994 season, Pagliarulo resumed his career with the Texas Rangers where he would finish out his career before retiring after the 1995 season due to an elbow injury.
From the moment I took possession of that Pags' bat, to my current work as PSA/DNA's game-used bat authenticator, I've always favored bats that have great player characteristics such as taped handles, scoring of the barrel or handle, heavy tar use, and the holy grail of player characteristics, home run notches made by The Sultan of Swat himself - Babe Ruth. These are the characteristics that define the character of a great gamer. So allow me to share with you a few of the bats that make up the list of my own personal all-time favorites.
My list of great bats starts with lumber swung by The Babe. I remember the first time I ever saw his notched home run bat on display at the Louisville Slugger Museum. It was an incredible experience for someone who is so fascinated with game-used bats. As I stood looking at that piece of legendary lumber, I could visualize The Babe sitting in the dugout notching the barrel of the bat like a gunslinger marking his kills on the handle of his gun. This practice of notching home runs has appeared on a few Ruth bats from 1927 until 1929. I've had the pleasure of owning a notched Ruth home run bat and authenticating another. The latter is a bat that tops my list of favorites. It resides in the renowned collection of Dr. Richard Angrist and bears eleven notches that have been carved around the center brand. Another thing that makes that particular bat one of my all-time favorites is that The Babe had returned it to Hillerich & Bradsby where it picked up an additional characterization that adds to its provenance by way of a factory side-written notation: "G. H. Ruth 7-26-29". That bat is not just a classic piece of Ruth memorabilia, but also a monumentally important piece of American history.
Continuing down my list of faves would be bats swung by Duke Snider. The "Silver Fox" is best known for his trademark criss-cross tape application to the handles of his bats. Throughout his career, Snider's weapon of choice was the Hillerich & Bradsby model C117L. This model has a large barrel, medium handle and large knob. Duke also had a habit of knocking the dirt out of his spikes while batting so his game-used bats will usually show noticeable cleat marks on the barrel. Now and then you'll find a Snider bat with a "4" on the knob, but that doesn't mean that much. It is by all means the existence of that criss-crossed tape that places a bat in Duke's hands and proves the use. Snider's tape application is so well known that bats without it will usually sell for half of what a taped handle bat will command.
Ty Cobb is another vintage player who ranks very high on my list when it comes to gamers. His bats are instantly recognized. Throughout Cobb's career, his favorite bat was a 34.5 inch Hillerich & Bradsby, weighing between 37 and 39 ounces. Cobb used bats with and without a taped handle and was known to spit tobacco juice on the barrel of his weapons. Like Snider, Cobb bats with a taped handle demand a significant premium over a bat without the tape. Add the tobacco juice on the barrel and you have one of the hobbies most desired game-used bats.
Give me pine tar! Heavy pine tar!!!
Now for me, pine tar means one thing - real character! Many collectors favor game-used bats that have an abundance of the sticky grip substance. Conversely, I've also had a few customers who refused bats because the tar was too heavy and gummy. When it comes to pine tar, I guess every fan thinks of George Brett and his tirade in 1983 that made pine tar a household word. That incident has created a strong demand among collectors for heavily tarred Brett gamers. A very nice Brett bat with light to medium pine tar may sell for $1,500, but find one with a very heavy application of the sticky goop and the bat will sell for two to three times as much as the lightly tarred offering. In addition to heavy pine tar, a perfect Brett gamer will also have a very confined hitting zone on the right barrel.
If, like me, you are a lover of beautiful, thick, rich pine tar, Wade Boggs has also provided our hobby with some great looking bats. Boggs was consistent with the sticky stuff throughout his career. From his rookie year until the end of his playing days, his gamers had a heavy coat of pine tar around the center brand and the lower handle. Like Brett, great Boggs gamers also have a defined hitting zone on the right barrel.
No matter what your opinion may be on the controversial Barry Bonds, the fact of the matter stands that he is the second all-time home run hitter and very few bats in the hobby have the sex appeal of Barry's Sam bats from late in the 2000 season to present. To begin with, the bats themselves are beautiful. They are finished with a black barrel and a medium brown handle with the barrel labeling in gold. Add Barry's trademark tape application to the handle and you have the perfect display gamer. My personal favorite is the 2K1 model with black and white tape. Sam Bats were one of the first maple bats to be used in the Major Leagues and Barry first used a Sam in 1999. His first model was the Bonds 1 followed by the 2K1 model that he used during his record breaking 2001 season.
I'm also a big fan of bats that have been swung by Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome and Gary Sheffield. The heavily taped knobs that are evident on these beauties give them a personal touch from each player. In the case of Sosa and Sheffield, both players incorporate a heavily taped knob as a counter weight to the weight of the barrel. The taped knob reduces the top-heavy feeling of the bat, resulting in better balance, allowing each player to increase his bat speed.
From Ruth to Sheffield, it's clear these great hitters had special relationships with their bats. Tape, scoring, tobacco juice, pine tar and home run notches are all the very personal modifications, executed by the players themselves, that take ordinary pieces of wood and transform than into pieces of history. For me, and for the many lovers and collectors of gamers whom I work with, it is the player's personal attachment to their bats that is the essence of the allure when it come to collecting game-used bats.
You can contact John and Vince in regard to column ideas, suggestions and questions by e-mailing them at: [email protected]. For information specifically on having bats authenticated or graded by John and Vince log on to www.psadna.com and click on "Professional Bat Authentication".