This week, I came to the realization that my story was incomplete without looking into what happens to players' bats after they are taken out of service. That is the focus of this article.
To get the scoop, I turned to an expert, a Cardinals fan named Jeff Scott. Scott has collected Cardinals' game-used bats for over ten years and has even started a very informative website devoted to his hobby, www.birdbats.com, Birdbats. Check the site out, as it also has a comprehensive yearly Cardinals uniform number inventory stretching back to when they first appeared in 1923.
Scott has been a free-lance corporate-focused writer since 1996 and prior to that, he had a corporate communication job for 12 years in suburban Chicago. So, he's tough. Scott grew up in Centralia, also the hometown of Gary Gaetti, and now lives in O'Fallon, IL. Like many of us, he's a lifelong Cardinals fan and baseball nut, in general.
Scott has a wealth of knowledge on the subject of bats, both as it relates to the Cardinals and in collecting in general, so I decided to pick his brain and share the results with you. Here's our conversation on the subject.
Jeff, how long have you been collecting game-used bats?
I bought my first game-used bat in February 1994. It was a Lou Brock Louisville Slugger from 1974. In hindsight, I wish I'd stopped buying baseball cards and started collecting bats 10 years sooner, but I didn't even know it was possible to buy game-used bats.
What got you started in the hobby?
I had a friend who started collecting bats. I really liked the idea that bats actually were used by players; they weren't just generic, mass-produced pieces of cardboard. So, I started selling my baseball card collection and using the money to buy bats. At the time, I was living in suburban Chicago near Dave Bushing, who is maybe the most recognized bat expert in the country. I'd go to Dave's house and he'd have items like Rogers Hornsby bats and Jackie Robinson jerseys in his basement. It didn't take long before I was hooked.
Have you always specialized in the Cardinals?
Yes. As a collector, I think you need a focus area or you can get into trouble in terms of spending. I do collect Gary Gaetti bats because we both grew up in Centralia, and if the price is right, I'll buy bats and jerseys of players with my last name, Scott. But, my emphasis is on Cardinals bats, particularly players on the championship teams from 1964, 1982, 1985, 1987 and now 2004.
Do you have any estimation of how many others collect game bats from any team? Or just Cardinals' bats?
The existence of eBay really opened my eyes to how many bat collectors are out there. There probably are hundreds of people who would consider themselves serious bat collectors. In terms of Cardinals bats, I'd say I've met maybe a couple dozen hard-core collectors, either through eBay or memorabilia shows, and I'm sure there are many I haven't met yet.
How do you acquire your bats?
There are several ways – eBay, auction houses (such as Mastro and Leland's), dealers who advertise in Sports Collectors Digest (SCD), memorabilia show dealers, and card and collectibles stores. I'm also a regular at the Busch Stadium retail store and Cardinals Care auctions. Two or three times a year, I'll exhibit bats at memorabilia shows and if someone comes in with a bat to sell, they'll often approach me first because they'll see I'm the guy with all the bats. I also know card shop owners and other dealers who will refer sellers to me because I specialize in bats and they really don't. I try to return the favor when I come across people looking to sell baseball cards, autographs or other things I don't collect.
How do you establish values for them?
The market dictates values, generally speaking. There are price guides, but they're not much help. I monitor auction results to see what bats are selling for; that's usually the best gauge. Values are tricky – for example, the Cardinals store at Busch can sell a Roger Cedeno bat for $120, but last month, I saw a 2004 Cedeno sell for $16 on eBay. The real value probably is somewhere in between.
How much more valuable are signed game bats vs. unsigned ones?
Honestly, in most cases, a signature adds little or nothing to a game-used bat's value. The value is in the item itself, not the autograph. There are exceptions, like for Pujols, who doesn't sign many bats. And once a noteworthy player or fan favorite dies, it can make a difference – you'll pay maybe 50 percent more for a signed Curt Flood or Darrell Porter than an unsigned one. But, a signed Lou Brock or Red Schoendienst bat isn't worth any more than unsigned one. Personally, I like to get bats signed just to see the looks on some of the players' faces – especially the older players. It's like the sight of the bat instantly brings back a flood of memories. They'll grip it and swing it and start telling stories. When that happens, it's worth the price of the autograph ticket.
Does being cracked hurt the value of a bat?
Some collectors want uncracked bats only. But, most serious collectors don't mind cracks and some even prefer them because cracks are the most obvious sign of use. As a result, a crack typically doesn't hurt the value, unless chunks of wood are missing completely. Along the same lines, there are some people who wouldn't repair a cracked bat because they think it's dishonest, like trimming a baseball card. Most collectors, though, have no problems with restoration, as long as it's done well. A professional-quality repair doesn't hurt the value of a bat, but a poorly done repair can.
What is the difference in value between game bats and non-gamers? How can a bat be certified as a gamer?
If a bat has obvious use, it's generally worth twice as much as an unused bat that was pulled from the bat rack and never used. It's a whole different issue if the bat was made strictly for the collectibles market to be autographed, or if it's a store-model bat – those can be worth a fraction of the value of a genuine game-used bat.
Determining whether a bat is a gamer is part art, part science. Through the years, collectors have worked with manufacturers to determine which characteristics identify pro-model bats. Generally accepted guidelines have developed through the years, especially for Louisville Slugger and Rawlings/Adirondack – they're available in books and on Web sites like mine. Thanks to resources like these, the average person can get a pretty good idea whether a bat is a gamer.
From there, you need to know a player's individual traits, like Edmonds' tape job or McGwire's pine tar pattern. That's where bat geeks like me come in handy – we pay attention and take notes about players' habits. If you're not comfortable with your own skills in identifying gamers, we can help. Or, if you really want to get "official," there are groups like SCD Authentic and PSA/DNA who will examine and "certify" your bat, assuming it's the real thing.
Do the values of bats correspond to the relative skills of the players?
For the most part, yes. But, there are exceptions based on factors such as rarity and popularity. A Bo Hart bat, for example, is worth more than it should be – given his skill level compared to others – because he was such a fan favorite. You'll also find that older bats of some "common" players will fetch unusual prices just because they're so hard to find. If you got a broken Musial bat as a kid, you probably saved it and passed it on to your kids. But, if you got a Barney Schultz bat – a guy who had 33 at-bats in seven seasons – you probably used it until it broke in half and then threw it away. Try to find one of those today. Then there are guys like Bob Uecker that fit both categories. Hardly anybody saved Uecker bats. When you combine that with his popularity today, you get a bat value that is totally out of whack with his skill level.
Why did you start a website?
As a free-lancer, I get paid based on the skills I bring to the table. I thought that creating Web sites could evolve into another marketable skill, so I decided to teach myself how to do it. I saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – learning Web design and creating a hobby site that actually could provide useful information to people. It also gives me an avenue to buy, sell and trade bats and make contacts with collectors I haven't met yet. I realize there's a small audience for a site like this, but it was a fun exercise. Now I'm learning what it takes to maintain a site. I don't expect many regular visitors, but I want to keep the content fresh so those few folks will keep coming back.
The site also allows me to share the work I've done through the years researching players' uniform numbers. I'm pretty sure it's the only place where someone can easily look up Cardinals players' numbers by name, number or season. I couldn't really sell that information for any tangible amount of money, do I decided to put it out there for free. My database has a few holes, so I'm always looking for scorecards from 1923, 1924 and 1932 to help fill in the blanks. But overall, thanks to friends who helped me double check the data, it's pretty complete and probably more accurate than any other source.
On the site, you have very detailed information about certain players' uses of bats. How did you collect that info? Are you sitting behind home plate with binoculars or something?
Since virtually every game is televised, it's not hard to keep track of what bats the players are using. If I know I'm going to miss a game, I'll tape it. I pay particular attention to Albert's bats because of his popularity and controversies about his bats among collectors. You see many Mizuno and Rawlings bats sold as Pujols game-used bats when, in fact, he doesn't use those brands (though he did use Mizuno in the minors and Rawlings early in his career). Albert uses about half Louisville Slugger and half Sam Bat, with an X-bat or Old Hickory model sprinkled in. I hope by making this information available to collectors, people will think twice before spending their hard-earned money on bats that might not be any good.
How do you decide which bats to keep and which to sell?
Given the choice of two similar bats – say, two 1982-era Ozzie Smith bats – I'll gravitate toward the bat that shows the most use, even if it's cracked. But generally, I decided to focus on Cardinals championship teams, and that focus really dictates what I keep for myself and what I'll trade. If I buy a collection that includes bats that are outside my focus area, I'll either use those as trade bait or sell them and hope there's enough profit to buy something I really want.
What are the most prized bats in your collection?
I'm fortunate to have gamers from Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Bob Gibson. I'm also lucky enough to have a nearly complete 1964 Cardinals team set. When I started collecting, these bats were much more affordable. I don't think I could afford to duplicate my collection if I was starting from scratch today.
Which bats do you want most, but haven't yet acquired?
I have a realistic list and a fantasy list. My realistic list is posted on my Web site – it includes mostly pitchers and bench players on the championship teams I collect. Guys like Danny Cox and Bob Forsch are both available and affordable. My fantasy list has players who are less affordable but still possible, like Joe Medwick and Henry Aaron, and some bats I can only dream about, like Hornsby, Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams. Dizzy Dean is the "holy grail" for many collectors; he had a contract with Hillerich & Bradsby, but I don't know anyone who actually has seen a real, game-used Dean bat.
How do you care for your collection?
I keep them out of direct sunlight and keep the humidity in our house at a comfortable level. I'll sometimes treat older bats with lemon oil to protect the wood. And I'll often fix broken bats just so the cracks don't get worse or so nobody will get hurt if they handle them. The most important thing is to have them insured because, let's face it, they're basically glorified kindling. I have them scheduled on my homeowners policy and give my agent an updated list a few times each year.
Do you have any interesting player encounter stories?
My favorite encounter was with Wally Moon. I needed his bat to complete a collection of Cardinals rookies of the year, but his bats are fairly tough to find. He was signing at a card show and I asked if he knew anyone who had one of his bats and might be willing to part with it. He said he'd look into it, which I interpreted as, "Leave me alone and go away." But, as I was walking off, he asked what I'd pay if he found one. I told him, to which he replied, "If you wrote a check for that amount to my high school's foundation, I bet I could find a bat." So I did, and a few days later, a game-used bat arrived in the mail accompanied by a terrific hand-written letter from Wally.
Where do you want to take your hobby?
I want to help educate people who collect bats so they can know the value of what they have and make wise buying decisions. The number of people who waste good money on bad bats on eBay, for example, is just sad. McGwire bats are a good example. I asked Buddy Bates about Mark's bats at the Winter Warmup a couple years ago, and he said in 1998, Mark was so locked in that he probably used only four dozen bats – which is a small amount for a power hitter – and he'd always use a bat until it was cracked or until the wood separated. It's just a slight exaggeration to say I've seen four dozen 1998 McGwire bats sold at auction, and most are not cracked. I assume those bats either were stolen from the clubhouse when the Cards were on the road, or they were gifts from Mark because he gave away many, many bats that season. They probably were never used by Mark in a game, and people need to know that. If a McGwire bat is still usable, and it didn't come directly from Mark, Tony LaRussa or the Cardinals, I wouldn't touch it no matter who "authenticated" it.
What advice would you give to others who are considering starting to collect?
Learn everything you can about bats before you spend a dime. Study the market so you have a realistic idea of what bats should cost. Don't spend more than you can afford. Focus on what you really like. And don't assume that just because a bat comes with a letter of authenticity that it is, indeed, authentic. Just last week, Cardinals Care was auctioning a Reggie Sanders bat at the stadium that didn't have any tape on the handle. I haven't seen Reggie use a bat without a taped handle since joining the Cardinals. I don't know who used that bat, but I have doubts it was Reggie, in spite of what the certificate of authenticity might say. Even the best sources aren't immune to errors, so it's important to know your stuff and be able to trust your own judgment.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.