Market Observations: Sports Militaria Trends
It is incredible that we are more than halfway through the summer of 2021 and well into the latter six months of the calendar. The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection has experienced steady growth that has been capped off with a few fantastic additions. With the current local, national and global news shedding light on the immediate and long-term future as being anything but promising, we have focused our attention instead upon extracting history from the artifacts that have arrived since January.
Consider this story to be a mid-year report card of sorts as we reflect upon the bright spots of baseball militaria curating and our role in telling the story of these artifacts and the people who were a part of the history that the items are connected to. Only a handful of our 2021 acquisitions have been featured in a Chevrons and Diamonds article and some of our social media followers have wondered when they might see those other artifacts receive consideration and in-depth coverage. Digging into the details regarding ballplayers gives us an opportunity to see their contributions to the war effort and the positive impact these players had during their service careers.
We have acquired an incredible selection of vintage photography, much of which answered longstanding questions. Many of our recent photograph acquisitions served as an impetus to prepare highly detailed narratives of ballplayers’ wartime careers both on and off the military diamond. Some of the highlights of the photo-driven pieces include stories about Hugh Mulcahy (Southern Region Service Baseball Dominated by Former Pros: Mulcahy and Gee), Red Ruffing (Red Ruffing, an Airman’s Ace) and our most recent work detailing Pee Wee Reese’s naval service (The Navy’s Little Colonel: Chief Athletic Specialist Harold “Pee Wee” Reese). Considering the research advancements made through the photographs displayed in those articles, more discoveries have been revealed in photos that we have yet to share.
A few autographed baseballs that are centerpieces in our collection arrived this year. One of the balls, a team-signed 1949 Washington Senators piece, features several autographs from players who served during WWII. One of the names inscribed, Mickey Harris, is featured in an assortment of vintage photographs that we also acquired this year. Harris is depicted while serving and playing baseball in the Army in the Panama Canal Zone (Visual Traces of a Wartime Service Career). A second baseball features select members of the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station’s “Bluejackets” (Bluejacket Ink – Professional Base Ball Fund Signatures) and our first softball addition is highlighted in another article (A Hall of Fame Softball Greeting).
It may seem that a considerable amount of our attention is given to vintage photography and to ballplayers while in some readers’ opinions not enough is spent on the artifacts of the game such as equipment and uniforms. Perhaps such thinking amounts to fairly assessing our activities; however, such articles are simmering on the back burner while we serve up what has been cooking for quite a while. A simple self-assessment reveals that we have not focused enough attention on the pieces that predominate in most militaria and baseball collections. Our article regarding wartime bats and the present market status (Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market) resonated quite well with readers as did our piece detailing our glove and mitt care and conditioning program (Maintenance Stop: Caring for 75 Year-Old Fielding Leather). Unfortunately, just two articles regarding equipment don’t quite address collectors’ needs or align well with what has been happening within the marketplace.
One of the more bothersome trends that we touched upon in May concerned the state of baseball memorabilia and the skyward-bound prices that are being realized. The wild spending appears to demonstrate that new entrants in the market who are in search of “anything related to military baseball” are willing to buy nearly anything, no matter the condition or cost. Bidding wars for online auction listings, while a boon for sellers, set unrealistic expectations that will take considerable time to recover from once the free-spending trend reverses course.
For baseball collectors, the delineation between their game and softball is well defined. For a small percentage, there may be some interest in pursuing artifacts from both sports but for the most part, softball items generate a significantly smaller amount of collector passion. The same cannot be said for militaria collectors seeking to add a bit of visual interest to their displays and to give some insight as to the day-to-day activities of soldiers, airmen, marines or sailors during World War II. Since baseball was our nation’s national pastime, gloves, mitts, bats and balls do just that.
In the militaria sphere there are discerning collectors who pursue baseball equipment that is exclusively service marked. Beyond that small percentage, it appears that the rest of the collectors in that area are less concerned about the game and instead zero in on the military markings on the equipment regardless of it being baseball or softball-centric. The emphasis on ensuring authenticity of the display drives collectors to pursue a piece that adds an accurate aesthetic. When collectors are accustomed to spending hundreds on each piece as they complete a World War II airborne sergeant’s combat uniform, pack, weapons and web gear, unknowingly overpaying for a baseball piece is easy.
Market prices for 1940’s softball gloves in good condition can vary from $20-30 on average, though buyers can pay more for new old stock (gloves that are unused and in their original boxes). For everyday softball leather, such a range in price is normal regardless of the presence of military markings. Twelve months ago, service branch-marked gloves sold consistently with their civilian counterparts.
Less than two weeks ago, the phenomenon we have been observing with service-marked baseball bats became the norm in the softball glove market. To the seller’s credit, the glove was fairly well described, though it was identified as a baseball glove. “Up for bids is a vintage World War II U.S. Army Special Services baseball glove manufactured by Gold Smith.” Regardless of the other stampings or the glove’s design, the only identification that mattered to the three bidders pertained to the U.S. Army’s entertainment branch that was responsible for disseminating recreation equipment to the troops. To militaria collectors, that designation equates to the piece being an authentic, service-used artifact.
Softball gloves from the 1940s are easy to spot without checking for model name or numbers. A quick inspection of the glove’s palm reveals the double-stitched area that accommodates the larger diameter ball to be caught by deflecting it inward towards the webbing. This particular model not only features the stitching but the stamping that is arched over the GoldSmith logo confirms that it is not a baseball glove. The seller’s description continues, “The glove is stamped with ‘Gripper Stopper’, ‘Licensed Under Pat. No. 2231204’, ‘Gripper Pocket’, and in the center of the pocket I can make out ‘Soft Glove (sic) – GoldSmith – Cincinnati – Made in US’.” Concealed in the fold between the middle and third finger is the word “BALL,” which when seen in the context of the full marking, reads “Soft Ball Glove.”
The condition of the glove would be fair-to-good with considerable wear on the leather edge binding in the normal areas including the wrist opening . The leather appears to be supple and soft despite the years of accumulated dirt adhered to the hide. The lacing grommets are not heavily worn nor do they show signs of corrosion. It is difficult to determine the condition of the lacing, though it seems that replacing it would be recommended at the time of cleaning and conditioning the entire glove.
When the softball glove was listed, the $25 starting price was already at the upper end of the normal market range for a softball glove in this condition, leaving it out of our consideration. Following the first bidder’s opening amount of $28 placed on July 22, it became clear that the item was now the target of militaria collectors. Three days later, the eventual winner placed his (unknown) top bid. On July 29, a few days before the close of the auction, another potential buyer dropped seven bids in succession in a span of under 60 seconds, raising the price from $29 to $201.50 before giving up and raising the winning bidder’s purchase price by $172.50. While it isn’t possible to see the specific items purchased by bidders, one can see the categories in which they focus their spending. In analyzing the purchase habits of each bidder, it is easy to determine that all three are heavily into militaria collecting rather than vintage sports equipment, which serves to underscore our assessment of the change in the market pricing.
Since June 14, 2021, there have been two other examples of the same GoldSmith softball model gloves that have sold through the online auction site. Bearing the same Special Service U.S. Army markings, one glove sold for nearly three times the market value at $67.00. In generally poor condition, the glove didn’t draw nearly the same attention as the latest iteration. An earlier listing featured the same glove in similar condition to the $201.50 iteration but lacked the Special Services markings, bearing only a “U.S.” stamped onto the wrist strap. This piece sold for approximately four times its value at $99.
A check for non-service models shows four 1940’s GoldSmith softball gloves lacking service markings that sold for prices ranging from $10 to $25, further underscoring our assertion that militaria collectors are fueling the temporary spike in prices for service-marked items.
There are always exceptions as realistic prices can be realized as well as good deals for those who do their homework and are patient. Whether your objective Is a service-marked baseball glove or one for softball, taking the time for due diligence both in understanding the market and being in possession of glove knowledge will assist you in acquiring the correct glove for the right price.
Dugout Art? Hand-crafted Baseball Militaria Created by Tennessee Historian and Artist
Not all of the Chevrons and Diamonds artifacts and treasures fall neatly into traditional collecting categories. One of the most collected areas of the militaria hobby centers on artifacts (trench art) made by GIs in the field. For our baseball memorabilia collectors who are unfamiliar with soldier or sailor-made artifacts, we have published a few articles that discuss this very common GI practice (see: Following the Flag and Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option). “How could trench art possibly tie into baseball memorabilia (or baseball militaria),” one might ask?
The game of baseball has a long and storied history and was spawned from games that were played in the American Colonies. Perhaps the seminal establishment as the game played by members of the armed forces occurred during the American Civil War with soldiers forming teams and competing on either side of conflict (though there are no accounts of opposing forces facing off on the diamond). Short on recreational equipment during the Civil War, troops had to improvise in order to have a ball or bat to play the game. While baseballs weren’t mass-produced nor did there exists sporting goods manufacturers, the rules of the era dictated the construction of the small orb.
“The ball must weigh not less than five and three-fourths, nor more than six ounces avoirdupois. It must measure not less than nine and three-fourths, nor more than ten inches in circumference. It must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather, and, in all match games, shall be furnished by the challenging club, and become the property of the winning club, as a trophy of victory.” – The Rules of 1860, as adopted by the National Association of Base-Ball Players.
Commonly referred to as the “lemon peel” ball, these baseballs were created following a specific pattern using standard materials. However, what was used by troops in the field might vary depending upon the resources that were available. A soldier of that era who crafted a baseball would have been forced to improvise the materials and the results would have born little resemblance to what we see on today’s diamonds (to get glimpse of a baseball purportedly retrieved from the Shiloh (April, 1862) Battlefield, see: A Baseball Salvaged From A Civil War Battlefield).
In the tight-knit community of baseball memorabilia collectors, we have encountered some incredible people who are leaving their indelible marks upon the hobby with their attention to history and passion for sharing their knowledge and love of this game. Some of these folks have knowledge that transcends authoritative publications. Among this group are highly knowledgeable (if not experts) in player autographs, identifying equipment such as bats, gloves, mitts and catchers’ equipment. One can gain insights in how to stabilize the leather of 70-100-year-old glove or mitt or how to clean a player’s game-used bat without removing the game-wear. Breathing new life into a glove by re-lacing according to the original manufacturer’s specifications is an art form that only a handful of craftsmen and women possess and one will find such talent among this group.
True craftsmanship is revealed within small segments of collector groups among those who merge the skills of artifact preservation with history and creativity. One such innovator has taken a step into a different direction. The East Tennessee craftsman, a passionate Civil War reenactor and former assistant baseball coach organically developed the skills necessary to accurately restore vintage gloves to their former glory. Having restored more than 500 vintage gloves as he strives to maintain the historical integrity, Don Droke has encountered a considerable share of baseball leather that were beyond saving only to begin to see an accumulation of battered and decayed vintage gloves and mitts.
“’This all came about by a fluke,” Droke said. “My wife and I are Civil War reenactors, and all of the sudden out in the middle of a field, (other reenactors) were playing baseball, so I walked over, looked at their baseball and thought, ‘I can make that.’” – Piney Flats man has unique way of re-purposing old baseball gloves
Don Droke approached me with the idea of creating a handmade baseball from the salvageable leather remnants of a wartime service glove that was stamped with “U.S. Special Services” markings. The ball that Don created is an amalgamation of Civil War ingenuity, necessity and World War II history. As with all of his projects, Droke began mine with a dilapidated WWII- glove that was issued to and used by soldiers. Working around the glove’s damage and decay, Droke sought out the best areas to cut usable material taking caution to preserve the stampings (including model number, maker, player endorsement signature, etc.) as possible before he applies the sections over the re-purposed windings of a donor baseball. The pieces are cut and pulled tightly so that they lay flat against the inner surface of the ball (picture a globe-shaped, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle) finishing the work off by stitching them together. The end-result is a one-of-a-kind work of art that showcases the features of the former military-veteran glove.
Over the next several months, Mr. Droke’s artistry and skills evolved as word got out to other collectors. As demand increased for his work, so did his ideas which further inspired creativity. Don reached out to me about doing another ball however, this time it was to pay homage to one of my favorite players, Ferris Fain, former American League first baseman (1947-1955 for the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians) who won back—to-back batting titles in 1951 and ‘52. The basis for the ball would be a Ferris Fain signature model (MacGregor brand) first baseman’s glove (Trapper design) from the mid-1950s that was worse-for-wear. What made this project even more unique was the addition of tooling to some of the panels to honor Fain’s battle crowns, his first major league team and his World War II service.
When the ball arrived, I was overwhelmed not only by the craftsmanship in the fitment of the leather and stitching but also by his skills in illustrations on the leather. Among all of the vintage jerseys, gloves, bats, scorecards and programs, vintage photographs and medals, Mr. Droke’s creations are some of my favorite pieces in our collection.