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How Does One Place a Value on History? Pricing a Military Baseball Uniform Group

Seeing an historic baseball jersey sell for more than $2 million is mind-blowing. Knowing that the sale price of the only surviving game-worn jersey from Jackie Robinson (from his 1947 rookie season) fell considerably short of the pre-auction estimate (in excess of $3M) and yet it broke the auction house’s previous record for a post-WWII jersey (Sandy Koufax’s 1955 jersey sold for $573,600) is even more awe-inspiring. While these legends’ jerseys will continue to garner riches when they come to market, the uniforms of utility players are valued at mere fractions of the select few elites from the game’s history and lore. To contrast, a recent auction for a jersey from (then) San Francisco Giants Hall of Fame outfielder, Willie Mays sold a few days prior (to Jackie’s auction close) for a mere $701. Yet another jersey from Hall of Famer, Nolan Ryan (from his 1986 season with the Houston Astros) garnered greater interest selling for more than $10,700 shows how wide-ranging game worn apparel pricing and interest can be within the collectors’ marketplace.  The same holds true for those who collect militaria, or more specifically, military baseball.

A uniform grouping from a notable general, admiral or decorated service member can garner considerable collector interest as the sales can reap four and on rare occasions, five digit returns. The perceived value of their uniforms are impacted depending on what the veteran did during their service (valor decorations earned, battles that they participated in, etc.). One of my favorite uniform groups (owned by a friend and fellow collector) is that of Rear Admiral Robert W. Copeland who sailed his ship, the USS Samuel B. Roberts headlong into battle against the Japanese battle group, led by the Yamato in the Battle off Samar. His actions ultimately saved the American carrier group that he was protecting by inflicting damage on the Japanese (though his ship was destroyed). The Copeland group would be worth a few thousand dollars to collectors though to me, it is priceless and would be well-received into my collection (he and I share the same hometown). Copeland received the Navy Cross, the Navy’s highest decoration for combat valor (beneath the Medal of Honor) for his heroic actions.

It is difficult to compare uniform groups’ values; the service of a veteran such as Copeland is far more noteworthy than that of one of my own relatives. I would never sell a uniform from my family’s history thought if that were to be a need, I would have to price it comparable to other comparable groups. To me, my uncle’s service and history is priceless but that doesn’t translate to a fellow collector having the same association with the items nor would they be willing to pay a premium price for an otherwise humble military history and uniform.

When I saw this listing, I was intrigued. I initially made the assumption that the veteran must have been a Hall of Fame player due to the $5,000 asking price (image source: eBay screenshot).

RARE Army Baseball Uniform w Jacket 1951-2 Karlsruhe Germany AAA EUCOM $4,999.94

 (sic) Super rare genuine post WWII – Occupied Germany collectible. Our soldiers didn’t all leave once the fighting stopped- the cleanup/restoration began and   baseball was played to boost moral. This is from a veteran-one of the lucky ones who got to play baseball (in his words), he was a pretty good player in his day, even scouted by the Yankees at one time-with a letter to prove it (not included)!”

This uniform grouping is quite intriguing for collectors of military baseball. I assume that the black flannel “A” represents “Army” however there is an absence of any other direct evidence that these two pieces were used for a military ball club. Even the photograph provided by the seller showed the veteran wearing a different uniform. One has to use judgement regarding the provided provenance (image source: eBay image).

$5000 is a lot of money for most collectors, regardless of their income or how much they have invested into their collection (through buying, selling and trading) throughout their years in this hobby. Understanding what factors drive collectors’ interest and how they value items would help sellers be more prepared when deciding to part with artifacts and in particular, family history.

What value can be placed upon provenance in relation to an historical artifact or object? How does one arrive at a valuation of an artifact? How much is an item worth? These questions perplex those who are in possession of antiques, especially when the time comes to decide to downsize a home and pare down collections to a more manageable size. Often, surviving family members left with the considerably uncomfortable task of liquidating a loved-one’s estate grew extremely wearing from wading through a lifetime of personal effects, documents, household items and other pieces in preparation for clearing a home for sale. In many cases, one (or both) of the elder individuals are being relocated into long-term care and the value in the estate is the only means to provide a means to exist in the new care facility. Any object that has monetary value must, from the vantage point of those performing the liquidation, be maximized.

Those familial artifacts that I have inherited possess significantly more than monetary value to me. The military-specific artifacts that I have in my collection that originated from my grandfather, uncles, etc. aren’t necessarily rare or highly desired by militaria collectors however to me, they are priceless. Many items from my uncle’s service ended up being donated or sold in an estate sale before I had the opportunity to lay claim to them. The most desired (by me) pieces from another relative’s estate (who was an avid militaria collector) were essentially given away for nothing (to the estate seller) after I made the decision to leave them off my want-list. My list was prepared by me with the understanding that I would compensate the estate for the honest valuations that I assigned to each object. The most valuable artifacts were omitted from my list due to my limited funds to pay for them. Those items went unsold and the estate seller kept all unsold items and I received everything on my list, free and clear.

I have written several articles about baseball uniforms, jerseys and equipment that I would have been honored to be the caretaker of, showcasing these pieces among my collection. These artifacts are often listed, considerably overpriced by most collectors’ standards. On some occasions, I encounter listings where the seller over-values their pieces with prices that are on par or exceed the value of artifacts from legends of the diamond or the armed forces. Considering the importance that I place upon historical objects from my own family as well as my experiences in selling historical objects in order to fund assisted-living care, it is with that understanding that I don’t initially and negatively react to (these sellers’) exorbitant prices. Several weeks ago, I had such an experience with a family member charged with a similar task and with the goal of working to pay their deceased-veteran family member’s estate debt.

After spending the better part of eight-ten years observing, documenting and purchasing World War II and older military baseball uniforms, I have a solid understanding of their value and what one should expect to pay or sell them for. In addition to my experience with these uniforms, I have paid considerable attention to game-used uniforms of professional ball players (including notable and Hall of Famers). I am often comparing uniforms and jerseys from both the military and professional teams of the same era (1940s) as they are very similar in terms of construction and design.

The auction title and description for the Post-WWII Karlsruhe, Germany baseball uniform caught my attention. The group of baseball militaria included a wool flannel jersey and matching trousers along with a wool letterman-style jacket. The jersey was plain and had a large black flannel “A” on the left breast and numerals (“15”) on the back and double black soutache surrounding the sleeve-cuffs, collar and placard.  The trousers lacked embellishments and both garments were devoid of manufacturer’s tags and quite soiled. The most desirable item in the group was the jacket which was a burgundy-colored wool shell, lined with a tan satin material with tan-colored elasticized cuffs, collar and waistband. What really makes this jacket noteworthy are the two dated patches (one affixed to the left breast and the other on the right shoulder) from EUCOM Northern and Western Conferences (1951 and 1952).

The front of the Karlsruhe, Germany baseball uniform shows the flannel “A,” black soutache and heavy soiling (image source: eBay image).

After an email exchange with the seller, I was able to conclude that the veteran was assigned to either the USAREUR base at Smiley or Gerszewski Barracks in Karlsruhe, Germany. His group assignment was with the 12th Antiaircraft Artillery (AAA) Group of the 34th AAA Brigade. Leading up to the veteran’s activation and move to Germany, the Korean Conflict caused the Federal activation of several units from this service member’s home state of New Mexico. Along with the three AAA units, the ballplayer’s guard unit, the 717th AAA Gun Battalion was called to federal active duty. The battalion was first ordered to Fort Bliss, Texas where it remained until March of 1952 when it was ordered overseas to become a part of the 12th AAA Group at Karlsruhe, Germany. The patches on the baseball jacket show the 1951 and ’52 seasons which coincide with the veteran being “transferred to the Army Reserve on 20 October 1952,” according to the seller.

Condition is always a factor for vintage collectibles and all three of these pieces have overall minor issues. The jacket’s waistband is has moth-damage on the rear of the garment. For some collectors, the evidence of game-use is a plus while others enjoy pieces to be clean and fairly free from permanent staining. Some of the garments in my own collection have very minor usage stains which by comparison (to the Karlsruhe uniform) are all pristine. I have my doubts as to how much these pieces would clean up when properly laundered after 60-plus years of being stored while filthy.

After some nice exchanges with the seller regarding the auction description (it had several misleading and erroneous details) and what proper valuation should be, the auction was relisted one additional time and remained unsold. Without a doubt, the seller was disappointed that there were no buyers who placed the same value upon this veteran’s items and so, decided to take another approach. Hopefully, there was a family member who saw that the real value in these items were that they should remain in the care of the family and the documentation that I provided to them (the unit and veteran’s history and instructions in how to obtain the specific details of his service) will help to properly tell the veteran’s story for future generations.

I remain ever vigilant watching for these historic military baseball uniforms, hoping that they find their way into the hands of collectors who see both the military and baseball historical values as I do should I be incapable of landing them for my collection. I also hope that family members are able to see past the emotions in order to properly gauge the market value in order to achieve their goals.

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