Just imagine what it would be like to hold the writing instrument that Francis Scott Key used to pen "The Star-Spangled Banner." Think about how it would feel to run your fingers across the keys on a piano that was owned by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Picture yourself strumming the strings of the white Fender Stratocaster Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock.
There is just something about seeing and touching a tangible item that has been connected to a historic event or iconic person that makes the moment and the individual come alive in a way no story, book, photo or film clip can ever replicate.
While each of us could easily come up with our own personal ideas for the historical artifacts we would most like to actually hold in our hands, for Ben Thornhill of Southern California, it is game-used baseball bats that top his list.
"Holding a game-used bat is something that stirs my passion and brings about a powerful connection to a player or a specific game or era," says Thornhill. "How incredible is that! To me, these things represent a much stronger, visceral connection than anything else I've ever collected. As someone who has loved and collected cards and signed-baseballs for many years, I know that game-used items take collecting to a more personal realm. I have great appreciation for magnificent vintage cards and all sorts of memorabilia that is connected to the game of baseball. But, to me, there is just nothing as special - as unique - as an item that has actually been used by a player in a game."
A professional in the financial services industry, Thornhill and his wife, Melody, are the parents of twin girls, Mia and Shannon, who attended their first professional baseball game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim this past summer. An Ohioan by birth, Thornhill says, that while he enjoys going to Angels games and has been a long-time season ticket holder, nothing will ever compare to the Cincinnati Reds games he attended at Riverfront Stadium as a kid.
BEN THORNHILL (BT): Growing up - while I loved the Ohio State Buckeyes - the Cincinnati Reds dominated everything. During that time in my life, it was all about the Big Red Machine. They were a part of the culture and I was obsessed with them. We would go to Riverfront Stadium and I always found it to be awe-inspiring. The players of that era, the 1970s and 1980s, were huge - Johnny Bench, Tony Pérez, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey. It was a great time to be into baseball in Ohio.
SPORTS MARKET REPORT (SMR): Along with going to games, were you also a participant in any sports?
BT: I was the jock of my family. I played basketball, baseball, football, tennis and racquetball. But, my favorite was always baseball.
SMR: Did you collect anything as a kid?
BT: I was a card collector - mostly baseball cards. I also tried to get autographs when I went to games, but I was really never an autograph collector. Cards were a different story. That's what I was into. I would go down to the drugstore on my bike and load up with cards.
My mom knew how much I was into cards - how important they were to me. So, unlike most moms, she never threw my cards away. Because of that, to this day, I still have all my childhood cards that are pretty beat up from being handled and obsessed over. Because of their condition, they aren't worth anything. But they mean a lot to me because of the memories they hold. They are priceless to me because they are reminders of my childhood.
SMR: Did you collect anything besides cards?
BT: Not as a kid. But, as time went by, I also started collecting autographed baseballs.
SMR: So how did the interest in game-used bats begin?
BT: That came about much later - about 2007. The thing that got the spark going for me was when I first learned that game-used items were, not just out there, but that they were available to private collectors. That was a huge turning point for me.
When I first got into collecting game-used items, I was amazed that these things were actually available. Up until then I had never really thought about where they went. I guess I just assumed the uniforms and equipment used in games were kept by the players or the teams, and that the stuff that was more significant - things that had been worn or used by the more famous players - went to a museum or the Hall of Fame.
As I began to learn more about the game-used memorabilia hobby, it never ceased to amaze me that these things were out there and available for sale. That was when I learned: not only are game-used items available, but there is a tremendous amount of great and very significant items in the hands of private collectors. I was astounded by that.
SMR: So, it sounds like upon learning that, a new passion was born.
BT: [Laughs] I was amazed and totally hooked. I sold off all of my cards that had value and a lot of my signed baseballs and started buying game-used items, mostly baseball items; although I had no real idea of what I was doing.
SMR: What do you mean?
BT: When I first started out I didn't know what to look for and certainly had no idea of the ins-and-outs of game-used items. It's like anything else. When you first get into it, you are excited, unfocused and you make mistakes until you figure out what you are doing. As time went by I learned a lot and became more focused. When I first started, I was buying just about anything I came upon - anything I thought was cool.
What I soon found out was that I was all over the place and my approach was just way too scattered. I would acquire things and then didn't even know why I had bought them. I would say it has really only been over the last few years that I have narrowed my focus on particular players and items.
SMR: What other types of game-used items do you have?
BT: I collect game-used jerseys, some batting helmets, caps and baseballs. I also have a few game-used gloves, but by far, the focus of my collection today is on game-used bats. I have gotten to a point that I am much more discriminating and only purchase things I really connect with - things that really speak to me.
Â That comes from educating yourself and becoming a smart collector. I have gotten to that place by taking my lumps - getting burned with some bad stuff and buying things that I then questioned because I had no connection to them. As time has gone by, I have figured out what I really love and enjoy. I think most collectors follow a similar path.
SMR: Ben, you use the word "connect." Tell us what you mean by connecting with an item?
BT: My connection with game-used items, especially bats, is that I can actually hold something that was prepared and used by a player during a specific time period or, if there's documented provenance or a photo match, even to a specific game or hit. How cool is that? To me, these things represent a much stronger, visceral connection than cards or anything else you can collect.
Although I was someone who loved and collected cards and signed-baseballs, I always felt there were just so many of them out there. Unless you have the rarest of the rare cards or signed balls, they aren't as unique as a one-of-a-kind game-used item.
When I was collecting signed baseballs, I had things that were signed by players who are still out there today at private signings or shows autographing more and more balls. So, while I appreciated those items, they weren't as scarce or unique as an item that had actually been used by a player in a game.
SMR: Once you began focusing on bats, how did you move forward with your collection?
BT: One of my earliest bats was a Derek Jeter game-used bat. Although I was a big Reds fan, I have also always been a big Yankees fan and a huge fan of Jeter. So when I started collecting bats, of course, I wanted a Jeter bat.
I remember when I got my first one. At the time it was a big expenditure and I thought I would never top it. But I did. That just turned out to be the launching point for me, and now I have 15 or so Derek Jeter bats [laughs].
I have a few of his early bats including one tied to his first professional order. I also have one of his rookie bats. Bats from early in his career or ones tied to specific years, like 1998 when the Yankees proved to be such a significant team, are the ones that are really in demand.
SMR: Of your 15 or so Darek Jeter bats, do you have a favorite?
BT: I have some home run bats, including a two-home run playoff bat, and a few from 2012 that are unique in that they were used to set certain career milestones. I have the bat he used to tie and pass Willie Mays to move into the 10th place on the all-time hit list. That's a pretty special bat. I have a few from 2009, the Yankees' last championship title year - including one that Jeter used in the 2009 World Series, so I'd have to say that might be my favorite one of the group.
When it comes to Jeter bats, the ones that are the most special are the ones tied to career milestones and his early bats, which are tougher to get. What happens is that as players go on to have great careers, the collectors, the teams and even the players themselves begin to realize the demand for their bats and their early ones become very difficult to find. With Jeter, as he winds down his career, I have seen them become even tougher to find.
SMR: Wow, it's kind of surprising, all of your excitement over Jeter. We thought your heart was with the Reds?
BT: [Laughing] When I started to focus on collecting game-used bats, I did go with things that struck a chord and brought me back to my childhood. I have Reds items from 1970 through 1976. I set out to get something from all the positioned players from 1975 and 1976. I really like the 1976 bats because of the unique thing that Hillerich and Bradsby did to honor the nation's bicentennial. Every bat they produced in 1976 had a Liberty Bell on it.
The 1976 Reds team was also known to be one of the best in history. My favorite Reds player has always been Johnny Bench. I have a collection of Johnny Bench items, with a good number of bats including a rookie bat and a bicentennial bat, along with a 1975 home jersey, but my favorite is the one he used in the 1976 World Series, when he was named MVP in their four-game sweep over the Yankees.
I also have three Pete Rose bats - a bicentennial bat, one from the mid-1960s and a 1975 bat. The interesting thing about Reds material from the 1970s is that they actually sold game-used items through their gift shop back then. The Reds were pioneers - ahead of everyone in terms of offering direct, authenticated, game-used items.
This was one of the early forms of first-hand provenance directly from a team. They would issue a certificate or wrap athletic tape around the bat and write the day it was taken out of play so you could pinpoint when the bat was retired. The Bench bat I have has been taped and dated October 19, which was Game 3 of the World Series in Yankee Stadium.
SMR: Because the Reds were pioneers in offering game-used items, does that mean there is more of it out there?
BT: When it comes to stuff associated with the Big Red Machine, obviously there are a lot of other guys out there who have the same feelings and connections with the team and the players that I do. They are just like me - once they get a hold of something, they are not going to sell it. Every guy I know who collects Reds material is always looking to buy, but never sells anything. So it's not easy to come by older or significant Reds stuff.
SMR: What are some of the other things in your collection?
BT: I have some Cal Ripken items along with some George Brett items - two players that I really appreciated. I also have a large Mike Trout game-used gear collection, as he's a player that is fun to watch from this era.
SMR: Do you have anything of a more vintage nature?
BT: I wanted to build a Hall of Fame collection, so I began looking for a nice example for each player. I have nice vintage stuff including a Mickey Mantle bat from the early 1960s. I have a 1950s bat from Ernie Banks, a 1947 bat from Stan Musial and a Henry Aaron bat from the 1960s.
It's amazing to hold these vintage bats and notice how styles have evolved. I have a Don Drysdale bat from the 1960s that looks like a giant club. You compare that to modern-era bats that are light with thin handles, and they feel like toothpicks compared to the bats used prior to the 1970s.
So yes, I do have stuff from the guys from the 1950s and 1960s, and I believe those things will just go up and up in demand and value as time goes by. Collectors love scarcity, and to find scarcity in game-used items you have to go to the early-1980s and back.
Remember, back then stuff was tossed - just thrown out. Some of it was given away. But they never thought of game-used items as an industry, because it wasn't. There is just not a lot of older game-used material around today.
SMR: Are all of your bats authenticated and graded?
BT: Most everything in my collection has been authenticated and graded by PSA/DNA. I have learned so much about the older bats from working with them, as far as the nuances on the font style and the branding. You can usually tell in what era a bat was made, but the experts can pinpoint things further down to a specific year.
I have a Frank Robinson bat that I knew was from 1965 to 1968, but PSA/DNA pinpointed it down to 1966 by looking at the ordering records, the font and the branding. Knowing that makes a huge difference in that bat's value because that was Robinson's Triple Crown and MVP year. Dating gets tricky with older bats, and PSA/DNA means all the difference in knowing what it is that you have.
SMR: Do you only buy authenticated material?
BT: For the most part, I do buy authenticated and graded material. However, one of the most fun things is finding something that is new and fresh to the hobby that has been tucked away for years and has surfaced out of some obscure private collection. Then you get it, have it authenticated and find out you have something really special. That is a great feeling - one of the most exciting things for any collector.
But, you have to be so careful. Whenever significant money is involved, there are those out there who will try to present something that is not what they are claiming it is. We all know there are fakes out there, and while it's tough to properly fake bats, there are those that have been known to sand down the knob of a bat, remove the stamp and then re-stamp it to make a store-model look like a legitimate bat.
You can never let your guard down when it comes to game-used items, and that is why PSA/DNA is so important. The brand counts, within the industry and with other collectors - it means everything. If you own something that you ever want to sell, trade or auction, having a PSA/DNA letter of authenticity keeps everyone protected and safe. It is a trusted resource that is terrific. John Taube, who does the bat authenticating and grading for PSA/DNA, is the best there is. Having his expertise behind something brings peace of mind.
Everyone in the hobby always recommends that collectors should do their homework, research and learn as much as they can - and they should. But I've learned by trial and error, and some of those errors were costly. So, when the PSA brand is associated with an item, it eliminates the errors.
SMR: Speaking of costs - you obviously have a very valuable collection. How does your wife feel about you spending this kind of money on bats?
BT: I consider myself very lucky in that my wife is supportive and understanding. I think she just figures I could be into something a lot worse [laughs]. So, she's fine with it. She sees that it is fun for me, and that I do get so much enjoyment out of it. When it comes down to the prices, I know some people are taken aback by what these things cost, but Melody understands both the monetary and enjoyment value.
SMR: We have to ask - are there any holy grails out there you are chasing?
BT: Well, I do have one - and I know where it is - but I'm not going to talk about it. I think having holy grails is dangerous because they may not exist, or if they do, they may never become available. But if they do, they may only be available to those who are way outside of most collectors' tax brackets. So, I'm always looking for things that I want, but I also try to keep it in perspective.
SMR: Are you the type of collector who displays your items or squirrels them away?
BT: I display them. I have some in nice cases. It's like matting and framing a fine piece of art. I have some standup displays set up in my den. I rotate things from time to time. Anyone who walks into my den will know right away that I'm bat collector, a big Jeter fan, a big Bench fan, a big Reds fan and a big Yankees fan.
SMR: Your connection and passion for these items is so strong. Is that hard to explain to those who don't get it?
BT: It is totally a passion. My Big Red Machine collection takes me back to my wonderful childhood. I had great parents and a wonderful family. Ohio was a great place to grow up, and the 1970s were a great time to be a Reds fan. By owning these bats, I have a physical connection to that time.
I think more than any other sport, we all tend to romanticize baseball and everything about it can take you back to a special place. Other collectors get that. You don't have to explain the passion and the connection to them. But, I have found even people who don't know anything about the hobby find these things to be amazing.
For those who are not in the hobby, their jaws drop when you tell them what these things can cost. If someone comes into my house, they would most likely walk right past a piece of artwork on the wall, but they go right up to the bats and are amazed. They say: "This was actually used by Willie Mays?" That blows them away. Even non-sports fans are mesmerized by these items because, even for those who know nothing about baseball, they know Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
When people see my stuff they have the same reaction I did when I first started. That it is unbelievable that these items exist and are in the hands of private collectors and not in museums. I've had people who have almost been accusatory, asking me why I have something. I've had people say: "Do they know YOU have this?"
A special thanks to Natalie Shirin Bouroumand for providing the photos for this article.
Copyright © 2016 PSA – A Division of Collectors Universe. Nasdaq: CLCT. All rights reserved.