A paint brush, created by fastening various densities of fur from the tail tips of ermine to a carved wooden handle, is just a device for delivering paint to a surface unless it has been guided by the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn or August Renoir.
The quill from a goose is just a part of the bird's outer wing flight feather unless its point was sharpened, dipped in ink and used by John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin or John Adams to affix their signature to the Declaration of Independence.
No matter how magnificently a guitar may be hand-crafted of beautifully carved and lacquered wood, it is simply a well-made musical instrument unless it was played by the likes of Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or B.B. King.
It is through the physical connection with a titanic tradesman that commonplace tools are magically transformed into coveted treasures. It is a phenomenon that proves the manifestation of alchemy: that with the very touch of an immortal base, metals can truly be made into the purest of gold.
In the early years of the 20th century, a father and son woodworking team, J. F. and Bud Hillerich, teamed up with a salesman, Frank Bradsby, to produce a commonplace product - baseball bats - transformed from Northern White Ash trees grown on the New York-Pennsylvania border. Their product, deemed to be so well-manufactured, soon became the tool of choice for professional tradesmen who personally customized them to perform their trade.
These tradesmen also proved to be alchemists, turning Hillerich & Bradsby's White Ash bats into timeless treasures. They were tradesmen and alchemists whose order forms for the bats bore the names Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
"Game-used bats - the ones that have been used by legendary players to get significant hits in stadiums that don't even exist anymore or in historic games that have become a part of the lore of baseball - bring you as close to these players and those historic events as we can ever get," says Scott Foraker, who is widely considered to be one of the hobby's premier game-used bat collectors. "They are unique, one-of-a-kind pieces of history. They're the tools of the trade of the greatest players to have ever played the game."
An attorney and executive with a Southern California-based biotech company, Foraker has amassed what is considered to be one of the finest game-used bat collections. Recently, he sat down with Sports Market Report to talk about his fascination with the lumber of the legends and the resulting impressive collection.
Sports Market Report (SMR): Before we get totally "batty" here, tell us a bit about yourself and when you were first bitten by the collecting bug.
Scott Foraker (SF): Sure. I grew up in Northern New Jersey and, as a kid, was a huge Yankee fan. We then moved to California when I was a freshman in high school, and I went to UC Berkeley [the University of California at Berkeley] and law school at USC [the University of Southern California]. I then went on to practice law with one of the most prestigious firms in the world. I did that through 1993 and then transitioned to working with the largest biotech company, where I now serve as a company executive.
SMR: Before you go on to describe how you became a collector, tell us more about being a Yankee fan as a kid. What era was that for the "Bronx Bombers"?
SF: [laughing] I refer to the era as the Horace Clarke era, which makes it all the more remarkable that I was such a loyal Yankee fan. It was the late 1960s, right after Mickey Mantle had retired - the beginning of the darkest of years for the Yankees. But at least we had Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson to keep us going until 1975 when they turned it around.
SMR: It probably would have been a lot easier to just shift your allegiance from the Bronx to Queens and become a Mets fan during that time.
SF: [laughing] You're so right. That was the era of the "Miracle Mets" and Tom Seaver. They were terrific. So it was ironic that I remained a diehard Yankee fan.
SMR: So back to collecting. How and when did you start?
SF: I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1970. I was nine years old, and my interest in cards was sparked by kids who would bring their cards to school. I was already a huge baseball fan by that time. I loved the game from as far back as I could remember, so I was naturally attracted to cards. After I had bought that first pack, I was hooked. I collected every card I could get a hold of, and I always tried to complete sets. I was even collecting vintage cards.
I would buy cases directly from Topps and was even a small time dealer during my high school days, so I was truly enamored with cards. I did that through the early 1990s but took a time out during the 1980s, as most people do, for college and law school. You know, it's the time in every collector's life that cards fade a bit from their interest to some extent - money is tight, girls are hot and school keeps you busy [laughing]. But that was my only interruption from collecting.
SMR: And when did your love of cards turn to bats?
SF: After my hiatus from collecting, I had started practicing law and began making money. That was when I really started getting into collecting vintage cards - buying all the things I could never afford before. But then, something hit me. I found myself getting a bit bored with cards and wanted to start collecting something that was unique and closer to the game if you will.
Coinciding with this feeling, I read a series of articles on collecting game-used bats in Sports Collectors Digest entitled "Gone Bats." The author was an attorney who took a very analytical, thoughtful and logical approach to collecting game-used bats. That was my introduction to bat collecting. Those articles inspired me to start educating myself about game-used bats. I came to realize how special, unique and very rare some bats can be.
I was intrigued by the historical significance of these one-of-a-kind tools of the trade. Bats are what the players use to do what they do. And I learned you can trace bats back with factory records to verify their authentication in very reliable ways. I also began to see how the different players prepared their bats in so many different ways. The bats become very personalized by the players. They do special things to make them not just a tool for hitting, but a very personal tool that is unique to them.
So that was when I started getting into bats - which was at the forefront of the hobby. Not too many people were collecting game-used bats back then, so I was one of the pioneers on that frontier. I would say it wasn't really until the late 1980s and early 1990s that game-used bats began to be recognized as collectibles. So I got in on that early wave.
SMR: Tell us about your first bat.
SF: It was a Mickey Mantle bat. That first bat gave me great joy - it was one of the best collecting experiences I have ever had. In April of 1994, I got the opportunity to go to a show in Atlantic City and have Mantle sign that bat. I flew all the way across the country just for that reason.
At that time there were some players, Mantle included, who began a moratorium on signing bats because they were getting their standard $25 or so to sign an autograph, and the bats, once signed by them, were becoming extremely valuable. But for that particular show, I think the promoter had shared a bit of the wealth with the players, and that got Mickey to open up and alter his policy against signing bats. So I got him to sign my first bat.
I was the first person in line and had a fantastic experience with him. I handed him the bat and took a cut with it and confirmed it was one of his bats. He asked me how I would like it signed and couldn't have been more gracious, which was so great. He did have a bit of a reputation, at times, for not being at his best. But on that day, he was everything I could have hoped for. I had my picture taken with him as he was signing my bat, and it was just perfect. My wish is that every collector could have an experience like that.
In April of 1994, Foraker got the opportunity to go to a show in Atlantic City and have Mickey Mantle sign his first game-used bat.
SMR: How did your collection progress after obtaining that Mantle bat?
SF: I was still getting my career underway and had a young family, so I had a slow start. But then, as my career began taking off, I had an occurrence in my life that changed everything. I was in my early 40s and had a serious health issue. I went through intense treatments - the strongest available - and had a miracle recovery. That caused me to realize our time here is short and that I really wanted to live my dream. For some people, that dream may be to travel around the world and see every country. For me, [given that I was] working for a Fortune 500 company, I had done that. So my dream was - as odd as it may sound - to create a world-class collection of game-used bats.
I had come to appreciate and love them so much that I wanted to become a custodian of history - of these very special tools of the trade of the game I loved so much and players I admired. So while I had already picked up a handful of bats, when I decided to put my foot on the gas to chase my dream, I really ramped it up. This was in 2004, and since then I have aggressively put together a collection focused on the very best bats of first tier Hall of Famers. My goal has been to get the best of the best that exists - substantially all graded PSA/DNA GU 10s.
Since then, I feel like I've climbed the Mount Everest of the bat collecting world by amassing a world-class collection. I was fortunate to have the financial means to pursue the best, and I was lucky to have had opportunities arise where the best became available. It was the coming together of those two things that has resulted in the collection I have today.
SMR: So, tell us about some of the highlights of your collection.
SF: The one that stands out as the highlight of the highlights is an amazing Babe Ruth bat. It is the only Ruth bat with photo provenance, and it also has a great story behind it. The year was 1920, Ruth's first year with the Yankees, and it was just as he was becoming a big deal. It was coming towards the end of that season, and Ruth had hit more home runs than total teams combined. The Yankees were in Chicago playing the White Sox, and the mayor of Chicago wanted to meet Ruth and get a photo with this guy who was transforming the game.
So the mayor - "Big Bill" Thompson - who was thought to have connections to organized crime, got to meet and have his photo taken with "The Babe" on September 17, 1920. In that photo, Ruth is handing him an inscribed game-used bat. It's one of those amazing early Ruth war clubs - 43 ounces! Imagine swinging a bat like that? Well, when Thompson finally left office, he gave it to his secretary and it remained in her family until it came up for auction in the mid-2000s, which is when I got it.
SMR: That is quite impressive. What other bats do you have in your collection?
SF: Next would be my Ted Williams' 400th home run bat. That came straight from his bat boy. Williams actually used that bat for about a week after he hit number 400, and then when he cracked it, he gave it to his bat boy who kept it all these years. That is a very historic piece. Just as an aside, I also have Mike Schmidt's 400th home run bat.
I have Stan Musial's game-winning home run bat - when he hit the home run in extra innings that won the 1955 All-Star Game. I have Ernie Banks' last home run bat that has been inscribed by him. This bat originated from an auction that was held to raise funds for his daughter's school, and I then bought it from the winning bidder. And I also have a couple of very special Hank Aaron bats. I have the bat he used to hit his 521st home run, which tied Ted Williams, and a bat he used in the 1958 World Series.
SMR: Keep going!
SF: Along with that first Mantle bat I got, I also have two other very special bats of his. I have one he used in the 1960 World Series and also one of his from the 1961 All-Star Game. That was the magical year when Mantle and Maris were challenging Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, and I also have one of Maris' home run bats from that year.
I also have a very special Willie Mays bat - his 1954 World Series bat. This was the series in which Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch. I had done a lot of research on that bat before I bought it. And I actually tracked down the man who had been the bat boy in that game and had him tell me the story of how he had obtained it. In addition, I have two of Mays' bats from his 1965 MVP year - one was a home run bat that has been inscribed by him. And I also have his 1965 All-Star Game home run bat and his 1970 All-Star Game bat.
I have Roberto Clemente's 1960 World Series bat, which had been given to a police officer after the series. I also have a 1959 bat of his and another bat he gave to a friend in 1964 that he had hit a home run with. Then, let's see, Jackie Robinson. I have a bat that he gave to two boys on the field at the Polo Grounds. I've actually become great friends with one of those guys who got the bat when he was a nine-year-old boy. And it just goes on and on.
SMR: Is there any Holy Grail out there that you covet but have not yet found?
SF: I've been so fortunate to amass the collection I have. And, I guess, the only two that are missing are ones that are extremely rare: one would be Honus Wagner and the other Joe Jackson. They are the only ones I'm missing, and that is because they are so rare - I've only seen two that I would want to own. I demand the highest of standards [when it comes to] authentication and provenance in the bats I purchase. And when it comes to Wagner and Jackson, there are only a couple I would buy for my collection.
SMR: Let's talk about authentication and provenance.
SF: Sure. It's paramount to me. And because of that, another focus of my collection is side-written and vault-marked bats, of which I have some bats that were used by the greatest players in the game - Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Roger Hornsby, Tris Speaker.
A side-written or vault-marked bat is considered to be one of the best forms of provenance. When the bats were created for the players, each one was logged at the factory for model, length and weight, and that became a part of the factory's records. Those records became public in the 1990s, and they serve as a great source of provenance.
Here's how that worked: if a player especially liked a certain bat, they would send it back to the factory to have other bats made just like it. Back then, bats were all handmade. The returned bats were side-written, [which means] the recipient at the factory would write on the side of the bat with a grease pencil the name of the player and the date it was returned. Those bats would then be set by the lathe as an exemplar to make more bats just like it. These bats, of course, have excellent provenance, having been returned by the players and thus placing it in their hands.
SMR: You mentioned earlier that all of your bats are substantially PSA/DNA GU 10s. Tell us about the role you feel PSA/DNA has played in the game-used bat hobby.
SF: As someone who will only consider the best of the best, substantially all of my bats are PSA/DNA GU 10s with outstanding provenance, which in some cases includes photo provenance. I would never consider purchasing a bat without the highest comfort level that the player actually used the bat in a particular event. That is what my collection is about - bats with historical significance. What I mean by that is: the bats I collect have to have been, without question, used by a top tier Hall of Famer, usually used to hit a home run or other milestone hit or in World Series or All-Star Games. That's the focus of my collection.
PSA/DNA has added tremendously to making game-used bats a viable collectible. John Taube is hands down the foremost authority on game-used bats in the world - PERIOD! He has more knowledge on game-used bats than anyone, and he's totally honest, straight-forward and highly respected. He gives the people who spend the kind of money I do complete confidence in what we are purchasing or considering to purchase.
One of the reasons game-used bats did not become a viable collectible sooner is because there was very little knowledge, understanding or information about them until PSA/DNA came along. When Hillerich & Bradsby invited John and other big game-used bat collectors to see their records - after they were getting inundated with calls from collectors - that was when the confidence began to exist.
Along with John, Vince Malta is also one of the pioneers in game-used bat collecting. He was the guy who first understood, compiled and disseminated the information so collectors would have a knowledge base. John and Vince have been instrumental in providing the confidence that is necessary for any collectible to become significant. I don't have the proper words to give both of them high enough praise for what they have done for this hobby. Without them, I would in no way have the collection I have today.
SMR: Does your wife understand your fascination with, and the prices you pay for, pieces of lumber?
SF: [laughing] She may think it's a little crazy, but she trusts and respects my knowledge. She also knows I am financially responsible. So, when it comes to bats, she has taken a leap of faith with my judgment.
SMR: Are you totally a bat guy or do you also collect anything else?
SF: Bats are my top passion and my focus, but I do also collect other game-used equipment. I have cleats, jerseys and home run balls. I have World Series and All-Star jerseys from some of the biggest names and ticket stubs from some of the most historical games ever played. I have also started collecting original Type I photographs and some iconic graded cards.
SMR: Sounds like a whole other story! But, back to bats. Scott, is this genre of sports collecting one that is limited to those with great financial wherewithal? Is buying the bats of the heavy hitters only for heavy hitters, or can a collector of moderate means think about collecting game-used bats?
SF: It is definitely a hobby for anyone. I know many fellow game-used bat collectors who don't have the means that I do. I never take the privileged position I am in for granted, and I try to help other collectors because I feel this is a hobby that is open for anyone. I tell people who are looking to get into bat collecting to focus on the players they love and grew up with - the players who meant something to them. That may be a Bobby Murcer or a Thurman Munson, or maybe a more modern player, a Rickey Henderson or Buster Posey.
Bats of players from the last 30 years are very collectible and surprisingly affordable. I would even go as far as saying that I think many great bats that are available today are being undervalued in the prices for which they are selling. You can get very special bats of some of the best players from the past 30 years for a couple thousand dollars.
In this genre of collecting, there are some things that are very rare and special that, of course, are just out of sight from a price standpoint. But, there is still a huge opportunity and place for collectors of modest means. I know many game-used bat collectors who don't collect on my level but who still have great collections that they are very satisfied with. Bat collecting is still a young and maturing genre of collecting with lots of future potential. We are still only in the third inning.
SMR: We both know, from a logical standpoint, they are just pieces of wood. But to be able to sit and hold the handle of a bat that was once swung by Babe Ruth, that has to be an amazing feeling.
SF: That's what I love about bats. You can sit and hold the handle of a bat and marvel at the fact that the greats of the game had their hands in that same spot. To think of the amazing feats - the historical feats - they have accomplished with these tools of their trade. I sometimes can't even believe they exist and that I can own them and hold them. You would think things like this would only be found at the Hall of Fame or in some museum.
I feel so fortunate that I have been able to put this collection together. So my hope is that someday I will donate many of them to the Hall of Fame so they will always be protected and can be viewed by the public. From the time I began this collection, I have always viewed myself as the temporary custodian of these historical pieces. I consider myself to be a conservator of history, and I want to make sure they will always be conserved and never cut up or lost to time in any way. That is, and always has been, a huge part of my driving force.
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