Category Archives: Bats
Whether it is the love of sports history or the nostalgic desire to reconnect with youth, memorabilia collecting satisfies many needs for those who partake in the endeavors of artifact hunting. Since the first quarter of 2020, several collector markets have seen astronomical surges in market pricing that have caused many to question the driving factors as well as to wonder when it will come crashing to a halt.
Some analysts speculate that the pandemic is largely to blame for the surge in prices. Sports fans have been trapped at home allegedly facing boredom with cancellations and abbreviated seasons which prompt a turn to sports collectibles. The trend started in the two years preceding the virus scare. In August of 2019, a 1931 Lou Gehrig game-used jersey obliterated the generous pre-auction $1.5-million-dollar estimate as the winning bid pushed the final sale price to just under $2.6M. This sale was a follow-up to the record $5.64M sale price for a 1928-1930 Babe Ruth game-worn jersey sold two-months earlier.
One indication that the market was beginning to outpace expectations was when Heritage Auctions sold one of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 rookie-year jerseys for $2.05M on November 19, 2017. Four months later, the jersey sold again for $2.6M in a private-party transaction.
Since the Robinson jersey sale, the entire sports memorabilia market has been rapidly gaining valuations that have short-term investors salivating and searching for treasures to flip for quick profit.
While the market has yielded incredible paydays for flippers and for collectors divesting their collections, negative impacts are being levied upon collectors who are in the game for the long haul.
Baseball Memorabilia Market Trends:
- The Market for Sports Memorabilia Continues to Score Big – Dan Weil, Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2019
- Baseball Memorabilia Market Skyrocketing – Tim Newcomb, Baseball America, June 1, 2020
- How the coronavirus, the internet and tons of money unexpectedly fueled sports cards’ biggest boom – Dan Hajducky, ESPN.com, October 2, 2020
- Rising Card Costs Creating an Unhealthy Gap? – Rich Mueller, Sports Collectors Daily, October 14, 2020
- Sports Memorabilia Market Is Booming, But Buyers Must Protect Investments – Dan Schlossberg, Forbes, February 4, 2021
- Baseball cards are booming during the pandemic, with long lines, short supplies and million-dollar sales – Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune, February 12, 2021
- Collectible sports cards increase in value to all-time high, decrease in availability to original audience – WBNG, February 19, 2021
- Mickey Mantle baseball card sells for $5.2M, breaking all-time record for trading cards – Gabriel Fernandez, CBS Sports, January 14, 2021
- Collectible market sees surge amid pandemic – Heather Bushman, The Independent Florida Alligator, March 22, 2021
The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection was born more than a decade ago from our passion for military history and militaria collecting. At that time, a large segment of collectors was pushing heavily for 101st Airborne Division militaria on the heels of the airing of the highly popular HBO television miniseries Band of Brothers. When Band of Brothers creators and producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg collaborated to create the WWII Marine Corps-focused series The Pacific, a new crop of militaria collectors arrived in search of WWII artifacts from Marine Corps veterans. The two series seemed to have an impact upon militaria prices as the competition increased.
Baseball militaria is an intersection between baseball and the military that until recently saw light traffic. Aside from militaria collectors seeking unit-specific baseball artifacts to complete their collections, few militaria collectors took notice or gave much thought to flannels, bats, gloves, baseballs or ephemera from the armed forces. Similarly, very few baseball memorabilia collectors did more than dabble beyond seeking artifacts that had ties to favorite players.
We purchased our first baseball militaria artifact in 2009, commencing our slow transition into this area of focus over the course of a few years. The need for due diligence prompted a rapid quest for knowledge as we began to research and document in earnest while acquiring artifacts. For more than a decade, prices for baseball militaria remained consistent. Occasionally, we encountered a seller who would list a piece at 2-3 times the comparative market price and later retreat to a more realistic and reasonable value after a long period with no buyer interest.
The Chevrons and Diamonds collection holds a sizeable group of field equipment including uniforms, caps, gloves, mitts, baseballs and bats. These game-used pieces were largely overlooked by collectors until the markets began to increase. The high-dollar artifacts seemed to create a gravitational pull for items that were previously ignored by mainstream hobbyists.
It is unsurprising to see the increases in vintage game-used professional baseball pieces that are attributed to specific, notable players. For artifacts from lesser-known players, the market has remained consistent with regard to valuations. For player-endorsed retail equipment such as bats and gloves, values have nominally increased depending upon the player’s name and the model of the piece.
Curiously, military baseball equipment is the focus of a dramatic surge in both interest and demand that is fostering competitive bidding and escalating prices by factors of 10 or more. Our speculation is that deep-pocketed militaria collectors have recently discovered this genre, judging by the specific artifacts that are prompting the increases.
A common misconception regarding GI-used sports equipment is that all of it was marked with stamps to indicate the branch of service that each item was distributed to. The marked equipment is what draws collectors into the genre, with the majority of the new hobbyists focusing their pursuits on a very specific marking. However, significant evidence indicates that bats, balls, gloves, catchers’ and umpires’ protective gear, bases and even uniforms were distributed to the troops without markings. The unmarked equipment, yet appropriate for militaria collections, is largely ignored.
One of the areas of baseball militaria that we research and about which we have written extensively is service-marked baseball bats.
Service-marked baseball bats can be a bit confusing for veteran sports memorabilia collectors let alone novices. Aside from the service markings, collectors need to understand the variants of bats that were sent to the troops. Although there were several manufacturers providing bats to GIs, we will limit our discussion to those pieces made by the largest WWII manufacturer, Hillerich & Bradsby in Louisville, Kentucky because they comprise the majority of items seen on the market.
The preponderance of the Hillerich & Bradsby bats provided for troops through the bat and ball funds were retail models (known by bat collectors as “store models”).
There are a few ways to distinguish between professional store models made in that era. Professional models are quite literally branded with a red-hot die that burns the oval center mark, the model and the player endorsement into the barrel of the bat. The deep and dark markings are the result of the wood being burned in this process. Store model bats feature very similar style markings but rather than being burned, the dies are pressed into the wood. A layer of black “foil” is set in place between the wood and the die that fills the imprinted recess and simulates the charred markings of the pro bat.
Wartime Hillerich and Bradsby professional model bats, according to the Louisville Slugger Bat Dating Guide by KeyMan Collectibles, all feature the same center brand, with a “125” catalog number marked consistently across bats made between 1934 and 1949. To the right of the center brand, pro models are also marked with “Powerized.” The barrel ends are marked with the player’s signature. Player-ordered models also feature specific markings on the knob, which we won’t spend time examining as they were likely not used by GIs.
There are four levels of retail bats that were manufactured during the war by Hillerich and Bradsby and many of them found their way into the hands of service members. Bats with the professional specifications and marking were available to purchase through retail outlets and though they appear to be exact matches to the ones the players used, they lack the markings found in player-ordered bats. A secondary level of bat that was nearly identical to the pro model featured lower quality wood that was denoted by a “40” catalog number in the center brand. There are few examples of these two types of retail level bats that were stamped for service use and were likely sent to the professional players serving in the armed forces.
The balance of Hillerich and Bradsby bats are inexpensive store models that were set apart from the professional-style line and featured a very different foil-stamped center brand marking. Instead of the “Louisville Slugger” mark, the inexpensive bats were imprinted with “H&B” and “Made in the USA” along with a catalog number. The H&B product line had an upper and lower level with corresponding price points. The upper level featured varying catalog numbers and included a player endorsement consisting of a black foil-stamped autograph in the barrel end while the lower-level bat was part of a specific product line known as the “H&B Safe Hit Professional Model.” Though they included lettering to indicate player endorsement, these bats lacked stamped foil autographs. All wartime Safe Hit model bats carried a “No. 14” catalog number in the center brand. Another indication that the Safe Hit bats were cheap was that they were available for under $1.50 each.
Collectors seeking service bats typically seek specific branch-indicative marks that were usually impressed at the time of manufacturing, though there are no data available that would shed light upon the numbers of armed forces-bound bats that left the factory with markings. There is plenty of photographic evidence to show that a significant amount of sports equipment was delivered to military units without service markings; however, in the absence of provenance, these pieces are not as desirable in this genre of collecting.
While we suspect the existence of four distinct markings, there are three confirmed markings that are seen on these bats. Easily identifiable are two specific markings: “U.S.N.” for Navy pieces, “Special Services U.S. Army” and “U.S. Army” for those distributed to Army units. A third, more generic marking is a simple “U.S.” which could be used for all pieces distributed throughout all branches.
Until eight months ago, service marked Safe Hit model bats maintained their value on the collecting market. Collectors saw steady pricing in the $40-60 range for bats in excellent to near-mint condition, with certain player endorsements such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams commanding double the value or more. The H&B signature bats commanded slightly higher prices ($50-70) due to the presence of the player autograph. However, the valuations have changed dramatically.
Prices for all service bats have increased in the past nine months. Those marked with “Special Services U.S. Army” have experienced a considerable uptick in demand. In the last month alone, we observed four separate auctions (listed by the same seller) that featured H&B Safe Hit Special Services U.S. Army-marked bats with Hall of Fame Yankees player endorsements. Each bat showed some indications storage wear rather than game use. The bats that were sold were endorsed by Yankee legends Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. The prices realized for each bat far exceeded the values of comparable pieces. Of the four, the lowest price attained was for the Bill Dickey (who served in the Navy during WWII) model, selling for a mere $216.50. One of the player endorsements that typically garners greater values, Lou Gehrig, did not seem to wow the bidders as that particular bat closed at $286. With a significant step up from the first two bats, the Joe DiMaggio (who served in the Army Air Forces during the war) model listing closed at $668.00. Not to be outdone by the younger Yankee outfielder, Babe Ruth’s H&B Safe Hit model was the final of the four, garnering 16 bids and closing at $710.00.
Four Special Services U.S. Army bat sales, while eye-catching, are not necessarily indicative of a trend. However, in the past few months, we have seen other equipment bearing that mark such as gloves, mitts and a uniform garnering considerably greater attention than similar items bearing the other service marks. Gloves that sold for $40-50 a year ago are now pushing $200 even with severe condition issues while values of beautifully preserved U.S.N. or U.S. marked pieces remain constant or sell for slightly higher sums.
Historically inexpensive wartime softball bats bearing the Special Services U.S. Army stamps in excellent condition used to sell for $25-$40 but are now achieving similar attention with prices approaching nearly $300.
The new attention, in our opinion, indicates that a different collector audience has recently discovered service baseball equipment and is unaware of the normal. pre-pandemic market trends. This new segment appears to be an influx of militaria collectors who are augmenting their displays with recreational pieces in order to demonstrate what life was like for wartime servicemen and women who found baseball to be a significant recreational outlet. As with militaria collectors, areas of collecting outside of combat regiments such as airborne and armor divisions, Ranger battalions, 8th and 20th Air Force or other historically-popular units are not nearly as interesting. Navy uniforms, decorations and other artifacts tend to have less competition and thus are comparatively more affordable. The newcomers have carried this mindset with them infusing it into how they pursue baseball militaria.
As with all rapidly increasing markets, the bubble will eventually burst, leaving behind a large number of losers and some winners. For the patient and studious collector, affordable pieces can still be found.
- Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved
- Tools of the Trade: Wartime Equipment used by (Former) Professional Ballplayers
Collecting vintage baseball bats is an interesting venture and those who (nearly) exclusively pursue these old pieces of wood (and for some people, aluminum) can be quite rewarding. Understanding the nuances within this part of the baseball memorabilia hobby requires substantial knowledge of all of the manufacturers, models, market levels, brands, marks and other differentiators in order to make informed investment decisions. The arena of bat collecting has many specializations, ranging from those who pursue game-used bats (meaning those used by major or minor leaguers in their games) and those who collect at-game, stadium giveaways for special events. Still, there are individuals who chase down baseball bats from obscure or defunct manufacturers that can date back into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Clearly, baseball bats are a central component within the realm of collecting baseball militaria as they were a component of the kits that were shipped throughout the combat theaters to troops during the war. As athletic equipment was non-essential to the war-fighting effort, tax dollars could not be used to appropriate sporting goods for the troops to use during recreation. Recognizing the physical and mental benefits that playing sports had for GIs in boosting their morale and well-being, considerable fund-raising efforts were taken on by notable Americans to provide the necessary equipment (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved). In addition to the sports equipment purchased through fundraising events, manufacturers such as Rawlings, GoldSmith, Spalding and Hillerich & Bradsby donated their wares directly to the War Department for distribution to the ranks.
The game-used market can be an eye-opening experience when one discovers the prices and values of bats from journeyman players, let alone those from stars and legends of the game. A 1934 game-used bat from Philadelphia Athletics first baseman Jimmie Foxx sold at auction in 2018 for a paltry $90,000 while a 1939-1942 Ted Williams piece sold for $24,000. Contemporary game- used bats can sell for far less than the aforementioned examples yet one could easily see four-digit selling prices.
In the realm of military-used wartime bats, collector interest is significantly reduced and so the prices for these artifacts follow suit. Service-used bats we have seen were manufactured by Hillerich & Bradsby (maker of the famed Louisville Slugger brand) yet bats from other makers were also used. In terms of market availability, most of the examples of military baseball bats were made by the historic company that remains in the city where it was founded, Louisville, Kentucky. Our pursuit of vintage bats is nearly entirely focused upon military-used (or issued) examples.
Service or military baseball bats are by no means rare and they command prices that are mere fractions of their professional game -used counterparts. One of our most recent acquisitions, a Hillerich & Bradsby “Safe Hit,” U.S.N.-stamped, Stan Musial signature model, is one of the nicest examples that we have seen in recent years. Often referred to as a “store” or “consumer” model bat, this “H&B”- brand bat was sold as an inexpensive product geared towards entry-level players. The bats are typically marked with a different (from that of the Louisville Slugger line) center-brand stamp that features a catalog number. The barrels of the bats are limited to the player endorsement signature unless they were also marked with a service branch stamp above or below the autograph (Stan Musial served in the Navy from January 22, 1945 until March 1, 1946, playing baseball for Navy teams at Bainbridge, Maryland, Fleet City (Shoemaker), California and Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. See: 1945 US Navy Road Gray Uniform: Stan Musial).
The markings of the center brand are consistent with Hillerich & Bradsby’s H&B-line, 1932 – 1952 bat label manufacturing period, which includes bats used during the war years. Considering that Stan Musial’s major league debut was at the end of the 1941 season and he didn’t establish himself as an everyday player until the 1942 season, it is reasonable to think that he would not have seen a consumer product endorsement until well into the 1943 season, the year of his first All-Star appearance and his being named the National League Most Valuable Player. With Musial’s ascension to star status,, it is most likely that Hillerich and Bradsby began to capitalize on his name recognition with signature model bats in their 1944 catalog. Based upon this timeline, it is safe to assume that our Stan Musial bat dates from 1944 or 1945.
It is safe to assume that service-marked bats are game-used by definition though it is impossible to trace them to a specific player (as can be done with major league game-used examples). The service bats in the Chevrons and Diamonds collection are all game-used and are in varying states of condition. While a spotless, near-new condition bat displays incredibly well in a collection, we prefer to preserve the signs of play (ball marks, dings and dents) that serve as reminders of service members’ wartime use. “Game used” to a baseball militaria collector is a common factor within our collections as practically all (marked) uniforms, gloves, bats and other tools of the diamond saw action by veterans.
Our Stan Musical model is made from the darker hickory wood (rather than the typical ash wood) and the knob is stamped 35”, indicating the overall length. The condition of our Musial bat shows some game use and also appears to have been subjected to a restoration attempt. A significant portion of the bat’s finish has been removed through a very light sanding process, predominantly on the barrel. Fortunately, the stamps are still very much intact. The surface of the barrel end is considerably worn, most likely from the bat being stored for years standing on end in continuous contact with a hard surface, perhaps a concrete floor in a basement or garage.
To return our H&B Stan Musial signature model bat to a more original state, surface cleaning followed by a simple coating of linseed oil will provide a consistent appearance across the entire surface of the bat while also providing a measure of preservation and protection from oxidation and decay.
A key function of Chevrons and Diamonds’ mission is to provide an in-person and hands-on educational experience through artifacts. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the reaction of a youth or elderly veteran when he holds a bat or glove that was used by veterans who served nearly eight decades ago.
Related Chevrons and Diamonds Articles
- Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved – February 7, 2019
- Hard to Find Military Sticks: “Double-X” Joins Our World War II Baseball Lumber Pile – April 9, 2019
- Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence – May 8, 2020
- Tools of the Trade: Wartime Equipment used by (Former) Professional Ballplayers – July 9, 2020
- Nothing to Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead – June 12, 2018
- Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat – July 10, 2018
- Bat Restoration: New Life for Ferris Fain’s Signature lumber – August 8, 2019
Equipment Fund Raising Events
- A Passion for the Troops: Joe E. Brown’s All Pacific Recreation Fund – October 17, 2019
- Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches – October 2, 2019
- Inexpensive Store Model Bats with H&B Center Brand – KeyMan Collectibles
- Hillerich & Bradsby H&B Safe Hit Baseball Bat Guide – KeyMan Collectibles
Chevrons and Diamonds was founded with the principal purpose to inform and educate readers who are interested in the rich history surrounding the game of baseball and its intertwined history with the armed forces of the United States. Incorporating artifacts such as uniforms, photographs, ephemera and game equipment, we research every possible angle and aspect of a piece in an attempt to share details about players, teams, units or anything that can illustrate and demonstrate each item’s associated history. With many of our readers sharing our interest in collecting baseball militaria artifacts, we end up fielding a fair volume of questions surrounding authenticity, valuation or preservation.
One of the most common areas that readers ask questions about concerns baseball equipment used by troops during World War II. Discovering a common baseball glove or mitt with additional markings such as “U.S.” or “U.S. Army Special Services” at a flea market, estate or garage sale tends to create a bit of a stir for the baseball militaria collector but can leave most other people wondering what they are seeing. Many assumptions are made by both novice and expert alike surrounding the markings as to their purpose and what they may indicate. Perhaps the most common understanding is that all equipment disseminated to each branch bears such markings.
Baseball equipment used by members of the armed forces was not issued to them in the same way that military equipment was provided. Troops were issued uniforms and personal gear along with the appropriate tools that were needed to perform their duties (including weapons and ammunition). These materials were purchased through war department appropriations contracts with dedicated funds allocated through Congress. Every piece of equipment was accounted for through accounting and inventory operational procedures. Though sports equipment was managed through the war and branch departments followed supply department practices, the way that a glove reached a soldier, airman, sailor or marine was far different.
Sports and recreational equipment was not purchased using funds appropriated by Congress (taxes and war bonds). Recognizing the need for troops to maintain physical fitness, athletic agility, hand-eye coordination and dexterity as well as providing for respite from the rigors of combat and operational monotony, baseball men such as Clark Griffith (owner of the Washington Senators) took action to begin raising funds for the purpose of providing baseball equipment for the troops (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved). Besides Griffith’s efforts, major and minor league club owners donated equipment and uniforms, both newly purchased and used, to the troops. Manufacturers such as Rawlings, GoldSmith MacGregor, Hillerich and Bradsby, Wilson and Spalding all got into the game and donated to the cause. Hollywood stepped up to the plate and contributed as they participated in actor and comedian Joe E. Brown’s tremendous fund-raising efforts (see: Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches).
Ultimately, millions of gloves, bats, balls and bases as well as catchers’ and umpires’ protective kits were acquired and distributed throughout the domestic and combat theaters. Our educated opinion is that, despite the abundance of military-marked sports equipment, only a small percentage of the bats, balls, gloves and protective gear was actually marked before being distributed to the troops. With two examples of non-military-marked gloves in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection that bear personalization from their wartime owners (see: Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate and An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove), it is a safe conclusion that much of the wartime-manufactured equipment could have been used by service personnel despite the absence of military stamps.
For baseball collectors, game-used uniforms and equipment have significant meaning. Owning a jersey worn by a famous major leaguer provides a connection to that player and to his on-field exploits. Holding a bat that was used to hit notable home runs or the glove that caught the game-ending out of a historical game is the ultimate for baseball memorabilia collectors. For baseball militaria collectors, this principal holds true; however, provenance is far less attainable for a number of reasons. Regardless of the player’s stature as a professional, service in the armed forces is the great equalizer. A private, whether he is Joe DiMaggio or Joe Smith, is still a private. Their uniforms, bats and gloves were not provided to them through their professional channels that they were accustomed to with endorsement contracts. Once a professional player enlisted or was drafted, his contracts with glove and bat companies ceased. Bats used by players were acquired through the same channels for all men and women who were serving with an exception. In 1943, Zeke Bonura requested a shipment of his signature bats to share with players in his North African baseball leagues. See World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees).
Unless a player brought his equipment home with him (like S/SGT McRoberts or PhM 2/c Gerald Benninghoff) after his service during the war and provenance is attached to the item by that player, proof of personal attribution is nearly impossible on military-used equipment.
Bats and gloves sold to the general public typically bear player endorsements and stamped signatures with the idea that an amateur or youth player would want to use the equipment of his/her on-field heroes. These same “store-model” bats and gloves were the commonly-used consumer examples that were also purchased or donated for service personnel to use. Until we acquired proof, we could only assume that this same equipment was used by the game’s top (former) professionals while playing on wartime service teams.
A few weeks ago, we acquired a type-1 press photo showing Ted Williams (in his Marine Flyers flannels) kneeling next to his former Red Sox and Cloudbusters teammate, Johnny Pesky, (clad in his Naval Air Station Honolulu Crossroaders flannels) at Pearl Harbor’s Furlong Field in 1945. Close examination of the photograph’s details on the bat held by Pesky provided confirmation of our assertions surrounding professionals and the fund-supplied equipment. The bat held by Pesky bears the signature stamp of George “Babe” Ruth with “U.S.N.” stamped directly above the “autograph.” The Hillerich and Bradsby center brand featured the markings that confirm the bat is not a professional model. Rather than the typical “125” placed at the upper center inside the oval (directly above the “Hillerich & Bradsby Co.” word mark that stretches across the oval’s center), Pesky’s bat is clearly stamped with “125BRS” (perhaps indicating “Babe Ruth Special?”), the mark of a consumer bat.
One photo does not prove that all equipment used by wartime active duty major and minor leaguers was fund-purchased but it certainly supports our assertion. Logic would also dictate that actively serving baseball players would be hard pressed to travel between duty assignments bogged down with unnecessary sports equipment in addition to their duffle bags, seabags and flight bags filled with their full complement of uniforms and personal gear. Additional proof along the lines of the Williams and Pesky photo would certainly lend credence to our theory.
As the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photo archive continues to grow, each image is scanned at the highest possible resolution and corrected to ensure that we have the best possible digital copy preserved for subsequent use in our articles and other related projects. All of our images are heavily scrutinized for details that can help to tell the story of the game or provide useful evidence in support of (or dispel) theories regarding military baseball. A new acquisition arrived in the past day that provided additional support to this idea surrounding professionals and fund-supplied equipment.
Twenty-year-old Cleveland Indians rookie Gene Woodling enlisted into the United States Navy following the conclusion of the 1943 baseball season. With just eight games of major league experience (plus four seasons and 462 games in the minor leagues), Woodling was tapped by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets’ manager, Mickey Cochrane, (following the completion of his boot camp training) to play centerfield for the team during the 1944 season (batting .342 for the year). Following his Great Lakes tenure, Woodling was transferred to Pearl Harbor and would play on the Navy’s All-Star team in the Service World Series, facing the Army’s All-Star lineup. Our newly acquired photo shows Woodling kneeling in his two-color, pinstriped Navy flannels with his left hand inserted into what appears to be a GoldSmith MacGregor “DW” Model Elmer Riddle signature glove (see: A War Veteran Who Never Served). The wrist strap is clearly marked with the familiar “U.S.N.” stamp.
With these two examples showing major league professionals with fund-appropriated equipment, our assertion seems to be supported by the visual evidence within each photograph. Collectors may still acquire period-correct equipment for their collections with certain confidence of wartime use despite the lack of military markings. However, gloves and bats bearing branch markings add so much more to a collection and make for fitting accompaniments for both militaria and baseball displays alike.
Related Chevrons and Diamonds Articles:
- Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence
- Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt
- Hard to Find Military Sticks: “Double-X” Joins My World War II Baseball Lumber Pile
- Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat
- 75 Years Later, WWII Navy Baseball is Still Giving
Baseball militaria can be one of the more challenging areas in which to curate be it for museums or personal collections. Our regular readers are, no doubt familiar with the difficulties we have encountered as we continue to pursue artifacts. In terms of game-used equipment, uniforms and gloves have been relatively easy to procure while baseballs have been to the contrary in sourcing. With precisely four service-used bats in our collection (two baseball models and two for softball use), it may be more realistic to accept that military lumber is the most elusive.
More than a year has elapsed since we acquired our most recent arrival; a “U.S.” stamped Hillerich & Bradsby H&B “Safe Hit” Jimmie Foxx model bat. Like most of the bats in our collection, the Foxx bat was in rough condition due to extensive use and nearly eight decades of decay leaving the bat more suitable as firewood than as treasured baseball artifact. However, after a modest prescription of cleaning and oiling the Jimmie Foxx bat has become quite a display piece both in our home display and for public showings. The same situation surrounded our “U.S.N.” Stamped Ted Williams signature H&B model bat regarding condition. It seemed that we were destined to source pieces that most collectors and curators would consider to be filler (items that fill collection “holes” until nicer examples can be located).
The lack bat of activity over the last year wasn’t due to the absence of suitable pieces but rather the result of considerable competition for the few that were on the market. With models bearing the names of baseball legends such as Ruth and Gehrig emblazoned on military baseball bats, the market tends to drive the prices to stratospheres well beyond a reasonable budget. Sometimes, the roadblock is purely (poor) timing resulting in missed opportunity.
With the dry spell showing no signs of ceasing, the opportunity arose when another military-marked Hillerich & Bradsby-made bat surfaced on the market in an online auction. This time, the bat was in slightly better shape than our previous acquisitions yet still showed since of heavy usage. The finish of the hickory-wood bat was relatively intact yet nearly all of the black foil was worn away from the brand and signature (all that remained of the markings was the very slight indentations where the bat was struck during the manufacturing process. We encountered a similar situation with an earlier bat arrival to our collection – the early 1950s Ferris Fain model – that was nearly devoid of markings. Restoration of that Fain bat left it as a showpiece in our non-militaria collection. The lack of foil markings on this potential candidate didn’t give us pause.
Aside from the missing black foil (“store model” or commercially available bats lack the “burned” brands present on professional models), this piece was clearly a viable candidate for our collection. The accompanying photos (in the listing) of the bat revealed markings indicating that it was another “H&B” model with a designation of ether “NO. 60” or “NO. 80” within the center brand. On the barrel is a rather deep “U.S.N” stamp above a faintly depressed “Charlie Keller” signature. While Keller’s name isn’t nearly as recognizable as both Williams and Foxx (the two names on the aforementioned service bats in our collection), His career was well-known to anyone who was a baseball fan during the “Golden Age” of the game (1930s to the 1950s).
Charles Ernest Keller was born on September 12, 1916 in Middletown, Maryland. He was raised on the family farm and in addition to his schooling, he, like all three of his siblings, put in hard day’s work, rising at 4:00 before heading to school. In the afternoons, Charlie would be at home on the farm, sneaking in some baseball along with his younger brother, Harold before resuming chores after school. Charlie worked hard as a student and athlete resulting in a scholarship to the University of Maryland after graduating from high school in 1933. Continuing to hone his talents in college, his play caught the attention of Yankees scouts who signed him to a contract following his junior season (1936) with the provision of allowing him to finish his senior year and to graduate.
Entering professional baseball, Keller was assigned to the Yankees’ International League affiliate, the Newark (New Jersey) Bears. In his first season, Keller acquitted himself hitting .353 in 536 at bats with a .541 slugging percentage. In the late 1930s, the Yankees roster and their farm system was stocked to the point of embarrassment. Though he demonstrated his skills by easily adapting to professional pitching in his first season at Newark, the logjam in New York kept him from moving up to the big leagues. Despite being held back, Keller’s skills and abilities improved and his offensive output (.365 batting average and .589 slugging percentage with 22 home-runs) made it difficult for Manager Joe McCarthy to keep him down any longer. Charlie Keller earned a roster spot for the 1939 season, splitting 105 games in the outfield (57 in right and 48 in left field) while managing a .334 batting average in 398 at-bats. Not missing a beat from his two seasons in the International League, Keller maintained his power, clubbing 11 homeruns and a .500 slugging percentage as a part-time player. The following season, still platooning between left and right field (sharing time with George Selkirk and Tommy Henrich), Keller was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance despite his batting average slipping to .286 (though his power increased – 21 homers and a .508 slugging percentage), while hitting third in the order. Keller’s major league career was nothing, if not a picture of consistency.
By the end of the 1943 season, Keller owned three World Series rings with championships in 1939 (versus Cincinnati), ’41 (Brooklyn) and his most recent from the four-games-to-one dominance over the defending champions St. Louis Cardinals (who defeated the Yankees in 1942). In his 19 series game (in four world series), Keller carried a .306 average with five home runs, a .367 on base percentage slugging his way to .611. Keller’s career was peaking at the age of 27 with World War II in full swing. The Following the final out in the fifth series game against the Cardinals, the Yankees saw the balance of their stars exiting for military service (Joe DiMaggio was already serving in the Army Air Forces following the conclusion of the ’42 season): catcher Bill Dickey and George Selkirk joined the Navy, Joe Gordon entered the U.S. Army Air Forces. Other players who departed included Ken Sears (Navy), Billy Johnson (served in a war production plant and was drafted into the Army in ’44) and Johnny Murphy (worked at Oak Ridge Mountain where the atomic bombs were developed). Instead of joining one of the armed forces branches, Keller enlisted on January 23, 1944 into the U.S. Maritime Service and was commissioned as an ensign. Though he initially was to be assigned as an athletic training officer, he ended up serving aboard merchant ships in the Pacific Theater for the majority of his tenure. Unlike service aboard a warship, merchant vessels were considered prime targets by enemy submarines and aircraft as cargo carried in their holds sustained combat forces with needed supplies. Keller’s life was very much at risk with his ship constantly at sea between ports.
The U.S. Maritime Service (USMS) was the most risky proposition for those who served aboard merchantmen during World War II. During WWII, (according to USMM.org) approximately 243,000 Americans served in the USMS, aligning its ranks with that of the wartime U.S. Coast Guard. With 9,521 killed (either on the high seas, murdered while in captivity as a POW or succumbed to wounds) or approximately 3.9% of all merchant marines, the 1:26 ratio for loss was the lowest compared to the armed forces. Merchant Marines sailors had a one in 26 chance to be killed (a Marine had a 1:34 ratio). This shipping losses were staggering.
In the last few decades, historians and Hollywood have shed considerable light upon the treacherous duty and challenges faced by the North Atlantic Convoys plying the waters between the eastern United States and Europe and through traps set by the Kriegsmarine “Wolfpacks” during the Battle of the Atlantic. However, with the vast Pacific Ocean and convoy routes between ports spanning the length of the U.S. West Coast and the South Pacific, the plight of merchant sailors is largely forgotten. Regardless of his shipboard assignment, Ensign Charlie Keller faced considerably dangerous odds. Keller was a fairly quiet man throughout his life and apparently didn’t speak about his duties during the war.
After more than a year at sea, Ensign Charlie Keller was discharged from the U.S. Maritime Service in mid-August. Rather than spend his pos–war service readjusting at his home, Keller reported to the Yankees during their abysmal 23-day, 24-game road trip (with prior stops at Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis) when the “Bombers” were visiting the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park, for a six-game final stop before heading home. Keller made his first appearance of the 1945 season on Saturday, August 18 for a pre-game workout before Chicago hosted Boston for their final game of the series with the Red Sox (the Yankees were still in St. Louis facing the Browns). The visiting Boston club showed Keller the returning war veteran a measure of courtesy by loaning him a Red Sox uniform and allowing him to take up his familiar position in left field. With 678 elapsed days since the final out of Game 5 of the 1943 World Series, the workout with the Red Sox was his first time in a professional setting.
With no time or opportunity to swing a bat or throw a baseball, his Saturday morning exercise at Comiskey was welcomed. Keller told reporters that he was in good physical condition suggesting, “with a couple weeks work I think I’ll be ready to play ball again.*” Aside from fielding and working on his throwing abilities, Keller was afforded time at the plate during the Red Sox’s batting practice, taking several swings at pitches. “I could hit it all right, and my eye seems good,” Keller told reporters after the hitting session, “but there’s a lot of difference hitting in batting practice and hitting that ball in a game.” Charlie Keller’s biggest concern was getting his batting up to speed with major league pitching asserting that he faced a challenge, “the hardest thing about getting back in condition to play,” the Yankee emphasized, “hitting that ball.” Despite his thoughts regarding his readiness for game action, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy inserted Keller into the second game of the series-opening double-header on Sunday, August 19 to face Chicago’s starting pitcher, Orval “Lefty” Grove. Batting from his familiar three-spot in the lineup, Keller struck out (behind Bud Metheny’s single) to record the second out of the first inning. Leading off the top of the fourth, Keller found his major league stroke and grooved a single off of Grove for his first hit of the 1945 season. The day belonged to Lefty Grove as he blanked the Yankees 2-0 surrendering just five hits and two free passes. Keller went 1-4, contributing two of Grove’s five strikeouts.
Charlie Keller would remain with the Yankees through the 1949 season but his 1943 World Series was the last time he played in a championship game (despite New York’s post-season crowns secured in 1947 and ’49) due to his seemingly annual late-season chronic back injuries. Keller’s abilities were steadily diminishing resulting in his outright release by the Yankees on December 6, 1949. Two weeks later, Keller signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers though he was limited to just 104 games in two years (1950-51). Keller was released by the Tigers following the end of the 1951 season and was out of baseball until he drove from his Maryland home to New York to meet with Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, asking for the opportunity for a tryout. The Yankees, deficient in left-hand hitting power, signed Keller as a pinch-hitter for just $3,000. Keller appeared in just two games, recording just a single plate appearance on September 18, 1952 (the day after his , pinch hitting for pitcher Vic Raschi and facing Chicago’s Marv Grissom. Keller was struck out looking. In his final game, Keller spelled Mickey Mantle at center-field in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Yankees ahead of Cleveland, 7-0. With Allie Reynolds on the mound in full command, the bottom of the Indians order were retired consecutively with infield ground-outs. Keller never touched the ball in his final career game.
Due to Keller’s pre-war all-star status, his name was a commodity for baseball equipment manufacturers seeking to market their gloves and bats to youth and adult ballplayers, alike. The Hillerich & Bradsby company, aside from producing his professional model bats for Keller’s game use, sold store model bats endorsed by the left fielder and bearing his signature. Our pursuit of the H&B model bat was fruitful as the seller was supportive of the Chevrons and Diamonds mission with a very accommodating offer. Within a few days, the bat arrived. Despite the extensive wear and aging, our assessment is such that the bat is restorable in terms of stabilizing the decay, revitalizing the finish and bringing the black foil brand’s appearance into alignment with the age and wear of the bat (it shouldn’t be “like new” since the wood is heavily worn).
The demands of life and circumstances will prevent us from performing the bat restoration in the near-term but we hope to have this piece presentable before the end of Spring. Stay tuned for a follow-up article detailing the restoration process along with the end result. This Charlie Keller signature model bat will be a centerpiece in our collection as we continue to share the story of military baseball while honoring Ensign Keller’s World War II Maritime Service.
*Keller Rejoins Yankees Today – Poughkeepsie Journal, Sunday, August 19, 1945
When more than a year creeps by before one realizes that a two-part article was left unfinished (with just the initial piece published), it is a commentary on one or more of the following issues: I am aging and my memory is taking a beating; I have too many irons in the fire and my memory is lagging; I am completely disorganized and distracted by too many activities and my memory failing. The reality is that all three are true.
Last July (the one that occurred in 2018), I published an article about restoring a 60+ year old chunk of Louisville lumber that bears the name of one of my favorite ball players and former WWII U.S. Army Air Forces airman, Ferris Fain (see: Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat). The article in question has been one of Chevrons and Diamonds more popular pieces as it seems that there are many collectors who are seeking to rejuvenate their aging, decaying and damaged vintage bats. Fortunately for me, the condition of the Ferris Fain signature model Louisville Slugger bat wasn’t bad and it was absent any damage.
In the absence of vintage baseball bat restoration manuals or step-by-step guides, I had to tap into the resources available to me. Turning to my bat-collecting colleagues, I gathered tips from those who have touched on certain aspects of revitalizing the wood, slowing progress of wood rot and breathing new life into the black foil brand marks. It was also helpful that I spent time in doing extracurricular work many years ago (in high school) at the invitation of my high school principal to perform some restoration work on several vintage wood administration chairs (I was a very giving person with my advice for certain teachers) over the course of a week at the end of my sophomore year.
Despite removing very little wood material with the steel wool (sanding would have removed the patina and usage markings entirely), the surface of the bat had a fairly fresh appearance once all of the cleaner had dried. Also, my free-hand restoration of the brand (with an ultra-fine black paint pen) looked a little sloppy and too vibrant in places. Since the goal was to retain as much of the original patina and scars, I first took the steel wool over the fresh brands to remove some of the material before applying the linseed oil treatment. I also left the bat to sit untreated for a few months to allow for some oxidation and darkening of the wood before sealing it with the oil, which is where I left off in early July of 2018.
By winter, the wood of the bat darkened quite a bit. After wiping the bat down with a cloth to remove any dust or particulates that settled onto the surface over the previous several months, I cracked open the linseed oil, soaked a wad of paper towels and began to cover the bat from the bottom, working my way upward towards the handle and knob, leaving the bat saturated with the material. Leaving the bat to stand (vertically, with the handle up) for an hour allowing for the wood grain to absorb the oil. When I returned, I reapplied the oil as before and again left the bat to stand in order to allow for absorption.
After a few days of standing in the garage, the bat’s surface was dry and felt as though it needed to be rubbed out with a terry shop cloth. Through this process, excess oil was lifted and the bat’s surface responded with a satin shine that enhanced the aged patina. The oil naturally darkened and drew out the wood-grain while providing a true vintage aesthetic to the finished product.
Since completing the Fain bat, I faced a more daunting challenge when a 1940s U.S. Navy stamped Ted Williams endorsed Hillerich & Bradsby bat arrived (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved). Drawing upon the Fain bat experience, the Williams and subsequent bat restorations have become a fairly simple process.