As I write this the 27th Annual National Sports Collectors Convention has just concluded, and judging by the activity at my booth I'm happy to report there continues to be a growing interest in the collecting of game-used bats. Many veteran collectors stopped by to say "hi" and catch up, and many new faces came over to introduce themselves. A frequent question from the newcomers was what tips I could give them to build a collection on a modest budget. We had on display a nice selection of vintage game-used bats that included Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and many more. The bats were real crowd pleasers, but with five and six-figure price tags, they were out of reach for most of the visitors.
This month's article will offer a few tips for collectors who are just getting started or considering collecting game-used bats. We'll offer a few alternatives to the high priced bats of many of the vintage Hall of Famers and share a few ideas that will get you started without having to refinance your home.
As with any collection, an area of interest must be determined. You may want to focus on a favorite player, team, specific season, home run hitters or pitchers. There are many categories to choose from. You can even create your own. That's part of the enjoyment.
Once you've selected your area of focus, do some homework. If you are unfamiliar with bats, we can recommend a few publications to give you a basic insight into the identification and dating of professional model game used bats. The Mastronet Reference and Price Guide for Collecting Game Used Bats, offers the most thorough look at the identification and dating of pro bats. Prices are also referenced but are dated. If you can find an original copy of Vince Malta's book Bats, it will provide a concise review of Louisville Slugger and Adirondack bats from 1950 to the present. Vince's new book A Complete Reference Guide: Louisville Slugger Professional Player Bats, available this fall, will offer a complete review of Louisville Slugger pro bats, including players ordering records, from the turn of the century to the present. Don't be afraid to call the experts. We receive several calls and emails daily. Remember, the only foolish question is the one you don't ask.
Once you have a general understanding as to what to look for in an authentic pro bat, it's time to assess your budget and make your first purchase or trade. Again, vintage Hall of Famers such as Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Foxx and Ott are among the most sought-after bats in the hobby and demand the highest prices. Sluggers and home run hitters are the most popular areas of interest for collectors of game used bats. If you have the resources to buy game used bats of these stars, you can look forward to assembling a Hall of Fame caliber collection. While most of us can only dream of owning these very expensive bats, we still have the craving for the 500 Home Run Club and 3000 Hit Club members. How can we satisfy this craving?
The first alternative that I would recommend for vintage bats of 500 Home Run Club and 3000 Hit Club Players are "off label" pro model bats. Familiar "off labels" are Spalding, Hanna Batrite and Zinn Beck. Each of these bats were used by players at the major league level. There's no question that collectors favor the more popular Louisville Slugger. As a result, these "off label" bats can be purchased at prices well below those realized by Louisville Slugger bats. The best example that I can think of is a Lou Gehrig side written Hanna Batrite that I purchased at auction for only $26,000. A side written Louisville Slugger would sell for five to six times the value of the Batrite.
The second alternative I would recommend is to look for "game ready" bats of the vintage superstars. Our definition of "game ready" is a bat that possesses identifiable player characteristics, such as the player's number on the knob, but shows no evidence of game use. Price wise, the rule of thumb for a game ready bat is 50% of the retail value of a game used bat. Therefore, a $20,000 Mickey Mantle bat, game ready should only cost $10,000. Game ready bats of current stars such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, among others are attainable between $250 and $750. While the game ready bats of vintage Hall of Famers are still expensive, they are well below the game used price. Remember, despite not being game used, these bats still saw the clubhouse and dugout, and were possibly prepped by the players themselves.
Next are mint bats. These bats are generally brand new and have an out of the box appearance. They are authentic pro bats, ordered by the player. Prices for mint bats are generally, 25-35% of the price of a comparable game used bat. The bats display no evidence of use whatsoever, but still have a personal connection to the player they represent. I'd say that's worth 25% of the value of the bat, especially if a used gamer is out of your reach.
Another alternative to an authentic gamer is a "team ordered or index bat". These bats made their debut about two years ago. Generally, these bats have model numbers that were used by the player during their pro career, but not during the labeling period that appears on the bat. The best examples I can offer are the Ted Williams O1 model and Joe Dimaggio D29 (small knob) model. Dimaggio stopped using small knob bats in the 1930's and Williams has one O1 model on his record in the 1950's, and that one had Lefty Odoul's name burned on the barrel. A quick review of auction results over the past year, indicate these bats sell any where from 25 to 40 percent the price of a comparable gamer.
Keep in mind, while a great percentage of these bats are used by teammates, there is no reason not to believe the bats could have been used by the player themselves, especially if the bats appear on team records during the players active career. We have seen examples of team orders that reference for the player. Additionally, a retired Hall of Famer told me that the clubhouse manager ordered bats for the players all the time. Use characteristics are the determining factor. If the bat has identifiable player characteristics and cannot be found on the player's ordering record, yet the bat does appear on the team's ordering record, it's hard to say the bat was not used by the player.
I hear your concerns already! I have to have a Ruth or Gehrig bat in my collection, but at 25% of the retail value of a gamer, I still can't afford to pay $20,000 to $25,0000 for a pro model bat. This is a problem most of us face when it comes to the upper echelon of bats. Really, there is no way to find a professional bat, from the player's career, that can fit our budget. Luckily, there is still an option. A post career pro model or "coaches" bat can fill the gap, until that windfall comes our way. In most cases, the bats are identical to the player's bat from his active career, and can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a gamer.
If you must have a vintage model bat from the player's career, a store model H&B 40 series or a pro model 125 with the length stamped in the knob offers an excellent alternative. The 40 Series bats and 125's with inch marks were identical to the players pro model bat. The notable labeling variation for the 40 series was the insertion of 40 and the player's initials within the center brand instead of the familiar pro model 125. The 40 series bats also had the length of the bat stamped into the knob.
Some of these bats actually saw use in the big leagues. Players would run out of bats and a clubhouse employee or player himself would go down to the local hardware store and buy a few bats. Many 40 Series bats can be found in the vaults of Louisville Slugger, having been returned by players to have the exact model reproduced for them. Price wise, the bats can't be beat. A nice example of a Lou Gehrig 40LG, made during his career, sells between $600 and $900. Comparable prices apply to 40 Series bats of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Jimmie Foxx. Prices for 125 models of will be a little higher.
For modern players, there are still many bargains to be found among members of the 500 Home Run and 3000 Hit Clubs. I still scratch my head when I see bats of Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez selling for more money than bats of recent Hall of Famers Eddie Murray, George Brett, Rod Carew, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey and Billy Williams to name a few. The named active players are outstanding but still have long careers ahead of them. Many current players sell their own equipment personally or have companies representing them. There is no shortage of their game used bats and, in many cases, the material offered has questionable use. I guess the proverb "out of site, out of mind" is applicable to our group of recently retired Hall of Famers. My advice is to buy these players now. While currently overlooked, we have seen prices on several of these Hall of Famers moving upward.
We've talked a lot about Hall of Famers so let's step back and take a look at team collecting, which is an area that's very appealing to many collectors. The same rules apply to teams and common players bats that apply to Hall of Famers. If the price of a gamer is out of reach, try the second alternative and so on. Commons from a given era can generally be bought, depending on condition, between $25 and $250. Prices will increase as we move up the roster to players in the starting line ups and the stars of the team. Of course, if you are a collector of Yankees, Dodgers or a team with multiple championships and a cast of stars, prices will be more expensive. Team collecting also presents the greatest challenges because many of the toughest bats to find are the bats of the most obscure player. Harry Chiti, where are you?
A few words of advice, if you fall in love with a current player, don't load up on his game used equipment. A great year or two doesn't open the door to the Hall of Fame. Issues to consider are injury, the player's ability to flood the market with material and the alleged use of performance enhancing supplements. You do not have to look any further than Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds. The steroid cloud surrounding these players has destroyed the value of their game used memorabilia. In most cases, collectors are fortunate if they can recoup 30% of the money spent in recent years.
So, now you're ready. Find that area of interest and pursue it with passion. Buy what you like and not what you believe will be the best investment. That's the fun of bat collecting. Batter Up!!