A comment I often hear from those who collect game-used bats is that they don't feel it is important to have a provenance letter to know that the bat they own was game-used.
Donning my collectors cap, I couldn't agree more. I know that the bats on my wall were all game-used by specific players. I'm fortunate to know the source of my bats and only collect bats that possess what I know to be perfect player characteristics. Are my bats all "10's"? I'd like to think so, but of course they aren't. Most of the bats in my collection vary in grade from 5 to 10, based on use and player characteristics. For example, I have a bat with a team LOA. It's a World Series bat with a slight crack in the handle, medium use and perfect player characteristics. Without the team LOA, it's a "10."
Now let's consider a bat that would normally grade as a "7." For a bat to grade PSA/DNA GU 7, it must match available factory records, possess some player characteristics, and exhibit at least medium use. Slight cracks or minor repairs may be acceptable, and team ordered and index bats may qualify, provided the model number, matching length, and weight specifications appear on the team record while the player was on the roster. If the bat were to be accompanied with solid provenance, the question may rise if it should be elevated to grade at "9" or "10."
When it comes to a bat deemed to have been team ordered, with light use, and a letter from a teammate, the question often arises: Should we disregard the criteria for the lower grade and give the bat that "9" or "10" based on the provenance alone? In this month's column, I'll discuss the importance of provenance as it relates to the final grade of a game-used bat.
Let's start by breaking down game-used bats into two eras – modern, 1960 to the present, and vintage, pre -1960. Let's define the vintage era as the "Age of Interpretive Player Characteristics" and the modern era as "Defined Player Characteristics". Most players in the vintage era have no easily identifiable player characteristics. A majority of the gamers we have authenticated for stars such as Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott and Hank Greenberg have common player characteristics. If the bats have a nice amount of ball marks on the correct side of the barrel, and can be identified in the player's factory records as being ordered by the player during the bat's labeling period, we can assume the bat has in fact been used by the player. Lacking provenance, the bat will receive a grade based solely on condition and the amount of use. Vintage stars like Babe Ruth, with his handle and barrel scoring, and Ty Cobb, with his classic tape application to the handle, leave little doubt that the bat was used by the player.
In the above examples, the importance of provenance to a bat cannot be overstated. Without it, the bat, even if heavily used and in excellent condition, cannot receive a grade higher than "7." With verifiable provenance, the same bat can be elevated to a "9" or "10."
In the case of bats that match factory records as having been ordered by the player, and display perfect player characteristics, such as a Ruth bat with a defined hitting zone on the left barrel and a scored handle and barrel, or a Cobb bat with a taped handle and a barrel covered in tobacco juice, these bats warrant a "10" without provenance. An accompanying letter from a teammate or family member simply serves as reaffirmation that the bat was used by the player. Think of it as icing on the cake.
Modern era bats, from 1960 to the present, are much easier to place in specific player's hands, which lessens the need for verifiable provenance. The marking of a player's number on the knob, which first appeared in the 1940's (though rare), became commonplace by the 1960's. Pine tar, which is also easily identified, saw much wider use during this era. Both of these easily identified player characteristics have appeared in a variety of baseball magazines as well as in photos on baseball cards. The 1980's gave us videotape and VCR's, which made the recording of games and players holding and swinging bats at the plate an easy task. The videos served as an invaluable reference source enabling fans and collectors to photo document the equipment the players were using. During the 1990's, we all began to travel on the information highway, and, today, the Internet serves as an unending source for player information, statistics and photographs. Always remember however, that photos available on the Internet represent only a handful of the player's at bats during any given season. They are a representation of some of the bats, not all, being used by the players. If you come across a great bat, with identifiable player characteristics, and can't find a photo, it should not be a reason to pass it up.
To some extent, the sports memorabilia business has made a mockery of player provenance. Many of today's stars sell their own equipment, making us all familiar with the LOAs signed by the players that accompany items. However, many bats signed and represented as "game-used" are not what they appear to be. Too many mistakes are made. We have seen bats signed as game-used that have only been used in batting practice, and bats signed with specific Home Run notations that do not match the bat being used by the player when viewing the game film. We have also seen promotional model bats with bogus use signed off as having been game-used by the player, and even bats that have seen no use at all, signed as having been game-used. Believe us, you name it and we've seen it. All this adds up to a lack of credibility for the provenance letter that accompanies some of today's player's bats, and this sometimes even includes the LOA's signed by the players themselves!
Many collectors are only interested in bats that are accompanied by unquestionable provenance. This provides them with a level of confidence in the bat and the piece of mind that the bat has come directly from the player. But as we've discussed, many bats with provenance display very little use, and in some cases, no use at all. Granted they came right from the player, but were they game used? This is a question that can only be answered by considering the amount of use that is present, and the visible player characteristics. While solid provenance lends to the authenticity of a bat, and can place it in a player's hands, it by no means confirms that the lumber has been used in a game.
When it comes to provenance, I tend to be an "old dog." The best provenance is provided by someone outside of the hobby and sports memorabilia industry who has no expert knowledge of game-used bats. When I get a call from a retired player's family member or friend who has a bat that was given to them years ago, or has been in the family and passed down from generation to generation, the excitement begins to flow. Most of the time, a bat such as that will have a labeling period that will match perfectly to the dates of the story. The owner, having no knowledge of our industry, would have no way of knowing that the bat they have described was only made during the season in which the bat was obtained. At that point, nothing more needs to be said. I just keep my fingers crossed that when I actually see the bat that it will show nice use with identifiable player characteristics. In a case like that, origin is rock solid.
Remember, before you consider buying and investing in a game-used bat, do your due diligence and learn as much as you can about the use characteristics of the players you are collecting. Provenance letters, regardless of their claims, are valuable only if the bat can validate those claims. Validation is established by factory records, visible use, and identifiable player characteristics. The way I see it – a 5 is a 5 regardless of the provenance letter.
John Taube is the owner of J.T. Sports. With well over two decades of experience, his expertise on physical attributes of game-used bats and dating have pinned him as one of the world's leading experts in bat authentication and grading. Working in conjunction with Vince Malta, Taube has an ongoing commitment to expand the existing knowledge of game-used bats. With over 35 years of combined expertise, bat experts Taube and Malta are the formidable team for PSA/DNA's game-used bat authentication service. Their reputation and integrity is second to none in the hobby. The duo exhibits strong attention to detail, expertise with labeling variations and insight to restoration. Most importantly, both share a commitment to provide the hobby by adhering to the most standardized and recognized game-used bat evaluation criteria.
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".
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