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
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
Baseball memorabilia is a highly specialized sub-category of militaria collecting that poses many challenges ranging from availability of artifacts to resources that can be used to facilitate authentication. The two most challenging types of baseball militaria that pose considerable struggles for sourcing are with baseballs and bats. Though a handful of game-used military bats have surfaced over the years, we have only been successful in securing a small number of them for my collection.
In a few collectors circles, discussions surrounding methods for determining factors and features for what constitutes military or service team equipment. Unlike issued military gear (uniforms, weapons, tools and equipment) that has procurement markings that are applied either via labeling, stenciling or engraving, sports equipment can be and often is unmarked. Considering that during World War II sports equipment wasn’t procured through government contracts or appropriations, a large and unknown percentage of the gear was distributed and disseminated to the troops without being marked. It is highly likely that gloves, balls, catchers’ protective equipment and bats were commonly lacking indicative military (U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S.M.C, etc.) or government marks (U.S.). As this was the case, aside from provenance directly connected to a piece, all of this equipment is relegated to simply being specific-period sports equipment.
Much of the equipment sent to the troops did receive markings that are can be a bit of a challenge to understand (especially in the area of gloves). Regarding baseball bats, inconsistencies abound in terms of both applied military or government-esque markings and with the varying brands and models that were distributed. Although bats made by Hillerich & Bradsby dominated the market during the 1940s, their brand wasn’t the only one finding its way to the combat-theater diamonds and domestic-base fields as examples of other makers could be seen in the hands of ball-playing GIs from makers such as A. J. Reach, Wilson, Goldsmith and Spalding. Other considerations must also be made for brand subsets as Hillerich & Bradsby catered to different markets such as professionals, collegiate, little leagues and amateurs for their products. Aside from the well-known Louisville Slugger models (which had both professional and consumer variants), Hillerich & Bradsby also manufactured the H&B branded bats which were a lower grade and inexpensive offering (see: Louisville Slugger Bat Dating Guide at KeyManCollectibles.com). Considering that equipment originated from various sources (purchased on behalf of the troops through the Professional Baseball Fund, the Bat and Ball Fund, the USO, etc., donated by minor league teams or even produced and donated by the equipment manufacturers themselves), collecting and verifying military-use (without the aforementioned military markings) can pose an authentication challenge for collectors.
For our collection, military-used bats have been difficult to acquire due to the limited numbers that have come to market since we have been on the hunt. The first piece that we were able to acquire wasn’t a baseball bat but rather a WWII H&B model 102 Soft-Ball bat with a U.S.N. stamp (1940s softball bats had significantly smaller barrel diameters than their baseball counterparts) with a taped handle. The condition, though used is excellent showing no signs of rot or grain separation. After a minor cleaning and coating the bat with linseed oil, the bat looks fantastic. It took several years before we were able to land our second bat, this time an actual baseball model, which turned out to be a rather rare Ted Williams signature H&B version (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved) which is a welcome addition to the collection, especially after giving it a slight restoration.
Recently, another bat that came by way of a fellow baseball and (new) militaria collector is a Louisville Slugger Model 102 Soft Ball bat with a simple U.S. stamp. This particular bat arrived with a fairly heavy-handed in-process restoration (the finish was removed and the wood had been sanded smooth). Thankfully, the stamped brands were still very apparent (if not slightly softened from the finish removal and resurfacing) prompting me to apply a few liberal coats of linseed oil. With the new finish applied, the grain of the wood was intensified and the appearance was greatly enhanced. Within the span of a few months, my military baseball bats collection tripled though two of the three were softball pieces.
In the last few weeks, yet another piece surfaced that looked to be a fantastic fit in several aspects: condition, player endorsement, military markings and bat model. Similar to the Ted Williams bat already in our collection, this piece also carried the H&B brand but with a Model 14 designation. The best part of all was that the price was right. Aside from the lengthy shipping time, we were elated when the package arrived intact. When we removed the stick from the box, we discovered that the condition was in a bit worse state than had appeared in the seller’s photos. On the face of the barrel (opposite the brand and markings), there is some grain separation with a layer of the wood pulling away leaving a very apparent crevice. Also not visible in the photos is a missing wedge section from the knob which, for a 75 year-old and well-used bat is fairly minor. The brand and the stampings are somewhat shallow and appear to be either worn or perhaps sanded during an older restoration attempt. Despite these minor aesthetics issues, the bat will clean-up nicely and look exceptional with a liberal coating of linseed oil.
Having mentioned in a smattering of articles over the years that this author’s teams are the Dodgers and Red Sox, it should make sense that the endorsement on this new acquisition (as with the Ted Williams bat) features a prominent Boston slugger who was nearing the end of his storied career during World War II. By the start of the 1942 season, 34 year-old Jimmie “Double X” Foxx was suffering from a broken rib that he sustained during spring training which nagged him throughout the season. By June 1, “The Beast” (as he was also known) sold to the Chicago Cubs by the Red Sox much to the disappointment of the Boston faithful. Foxx appeared in 70 games for the Cubs but his production was greatly diminished (as compared to his career) prompting him to announce his retirement at season’s end. In 1943, Foxx spent the year away from the game, spending time with his new wife and her two children before volunteering for military service only to be rejected due to a medical condition. Instead of Jimmie Foxx finding his way into an armed forces uniform and serving overseas, his name traveled the globe to far away diamonds on signature gloves and endorsed bats such as this one.
With the Red Sox represented in our collection with two endorsed models from these legendary (and Hall of Fame) hitters, the hunt is on for a WWII service team Dodgers bat.
Under the darkened late-January skies in a prototypical winter downpour, the for putting pen to paper for this article was taking shape as the anticipation of the day’s impending announcement of the 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame voting results was swirling in my head. This off-season’s hot stove league has been relatively cool in terms of the big names that had become available following the commencement of free agent market. With so much to write about, I am wondering why today’s topic kept rising to the surface.
Several weeks ago, a fellow baseball memorabilia collector discovered bat that he would otherwise have ignored (for his own collection) until he looked closely through the grime and extensive wear and abuse to discover three black-foil stamped letters positioned just above the imprint of a ball-player’s signature. With consideration of the bat’s abused state and a previous bat restoration project in mind, my friend chose to send this particular piece of lumber my way. Additionally, the vintage bat that my colleague found had significance and would be a perfect augmentation to the baseball militaria that I collect.
During World War II, there was an incredible undertaking by several organizations to raise money in order to provide special services to give the troops basic creature comforts that would otherwise have been unavailable. United States citizens (taxpayers) were financially responsible to properly train and outfit soldiers, sailors Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen with uniforms, weapons, toiletries and to feed them while they performed the duties of defeating enemy forces. Utilizing precious resources for recreation or entertainment was not part of the financial responsibilities of the American people though such activities were truly needed in order to maintain the morale and well-being of the troops.
From December 7, 1941 through September 2, 1945 (VJ-Day), more than 16 million Americans served in the United States armed forces (Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard) which accounted for more than 11-percent of the nation’s population (73 percent of those served overseas). The need for morale-boosting and recreation of the troops was considerable. World War II was entering into its golden era during which the game was reaching its pinnacle as the pastime of Americans. Though other sports were certainly part of the recreation offerings, baseball was central. GIs could carry gloves and a ball in their rucksack or sea bags, have bats and other equipment stored aboard their ships, inside their tanks or aircraft and have them accessible for a pickup game or just to have a catch between operations or training cycles.
The numbers of bats, balls, gloves, mitts, catcher’s protective kits and bases distributed throughout the European and Pacific Theaters and domestically is staggering. Washington Senators owner, Clark Griffith reprised his WWI efforts in fund raising (“The Base Ball Fund” used to purchase baseball equipment for the troops). Just four Pearl Harbor was attacked, Griffith rekindled the program and began fund raising and negotiating for discounted equipment pricing with Spalding, Wilson and Goldsmith makers of balls and gloves and with Hillerich & Bradsby (makers of Louisville Slugger bats). By the end of that December, Griffith raised $25,000 from the American and National Leagues, the Baseball Writers Association and from Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis’ MLB discretionary fund and a subsequent order for 18,000 balls and 4,500 gloves and mitts was placed. The “Baseball Equipment Fund” (also often referred to as the “Professional Baseball Fund”) raised enough money to purchase more than 280,000 baseballs and nearly 45,000 bats by the end of 1943. Griffith’s effort wasn’t the only game in town. Aside from funds being raised by professional athletes, celebrities, companies and even civic leaders donated both money and privately sourced baseball equipment. Sporting Goods manufacturers donated equipment and uniforms to the armed forces as did dozens of minor league teams.
By the war’s end, the numbers of balls, bats and other related equipment would reach into the millions. Unfortunately, not all of the pieces used by GIs were specifically marked beyond the original brands or stamps placed by the manufacturer. Those that did receiving some sort of imprinting make connecting these pieces to the armed forces quite simple (save for the counterfeiters that have flooded the market with doctored baseballs. See: Faked Military Baseballs). With 45,000 bats shipped overseas through 1943, one can easily extrapolate that upwards of 100,000 bats (of not more) were used across both combat theaters and domestically throughout the war. One would imagine that the availability of game-used military bats to be significant and yet, marked examples are somewhat scarce.
In the world of sports memorabilia collecting, game used item are obtained at a premium value as opposed to the more traditional pieces. With auction prices being realized for baseball memorabilia that are attributed to the game’s greats yielding dollar figures with six and seven digits, the idea of obtaining such treasures is but a passing thought or a fantasy for most collectors. In a few instances, baseball militaria memorabilia (with player attribution and provenance) is experiencing a similar, though less significant, effect. In the last 24 months, a post-World War II baseball uniform group that was attributed to Herb Bremer, a three-season utility infielder and catcher for the legendary “Gashouse Gang” of the St. Louis Cardinals, sold for at auction for more than $2,500. A little more than three years earlier, the Navy jersey that belonged to Bremer’s Cardinals teammate, netted nearly $17,000 proving that Hall of Fame provenance garners greater interest and value.
As mentioned previously, in early 2018, I received a 1950s Louisville Slugger store model (I.e. non-professional) bat that bore the endorsement (I.e. facsimile signature) from one of my favorite ball players who also happened to have served during WWII, Ferris Fain. The bat was heavily worn and virtually all of the black foil had been worn out of the shallow stamped markings (professional models have a burned-in brand). Since the bat wasn’t a particularly valuable piece, I opted take the route of restoration so that the wood and the stampings would display well and so that people could discern the specific model of bat. The Fain bat looks fantastic and will look great with any baseball memorabilia showing. Regardless of my efforts with the Fain lumber, the pursuit of a game-used military baseball bat continues.
In the arena of game used bats, there is a substantial line of demarcation between what professional ball players use (within the professional game) and what was seen on diamonds during World War II for service members playing on unit teams or in recreational games. Unfortunately, there is no documentation available to shed light on the models of bats that were distributed to troops. It is very possible that professional ball players found themselves withdrawing store model bats from the dugout bat racks during games played in overseas and combat theaters. However, it is just as likely that the stars of the game (such as DiMaggio or Ted Williams) were still able to receive their preferred bat models while serving during the war.
When I opened and retrieved from the box that shipping box this most recent treasure, I was astonished to see this wretched and predominantly disfigured piece of lumber that, more than 70 years ago resembled a bat. Though the black foil markings were heavily worn, the signature of the bat’s endorser, belonging to Navy Pre-flight Chapel Hill Cloudbusters’ left fielder, Ted Williams practically leapt off the tattered surface of the wood at me. Rather than bearing Hillerich and Bradsby’s markings of a Louisville Slugger brand model, this particular bat was marked with the “H & B” center brand indicating that it was an inexpensive store model of lower grade than the aforementioned Ferris Fain bat in my collection. Not only did the H&B models carry a lower retail price but they were made with lower grade materials. Based upon specifics within the brand markings that were used on these models for a 20-year span beginning in 1932, it is easy to assume that the bat was used during WWII with the additional “U. S. N.”
As I assessed the dozens upon dozens of gauges, cracks and the grain separation due to moisture damage (with a bit of rot), it was very apparent why my colleague sent this bat to me rather than to retain it within his own collection. In examining the battle scars one can draw the conclusion this bat was used to swing at sizable rocks (rather than baseballs) that created dents and divots in the bat’s surface. At the end of the barrel, the wood blackened as the result to prolonged exposure to water which also resulted in the decay and erosion of the softer cellulose material between the wood-grains. The center brand was in acceptable condition despite all of the wear and damage but the player’s endorsement signature had been severely and negatively impacted.
Understanding the scarcity of these bats, the decision to stabilize and preserve the bat in its present condition was simple. Taking into account the bat’s game use and historic value (in the context of use during WWII), the approach of doing no harm during the restorative process kept the effort minimal. There would be no sanding or wood filling and no attempts to mask any of the damage. The goal was to decrease the wood decay while working to make the bat a little more presentable. Incorporating grade #0000 super fine steel wool (as the only abrasive material) combined with judicious amounts of Goo Gone and elbow grease, my work began to cut through the years of grime (and some spilled paint) revealing the beauty of the dark wood as it began to emerge.
Moving slowly while taking care to avoid removing any of the remaining black foil markings in the brand, a few hours had elapsed and I began wiping off the steel wool and Goo Gone residue. The rough areas had been rendered smooth and the bat looked considerably improved. For nearly two weeks, the residue from the cleaner dried which showed that the wood was in serious need of preservation with the wood grain revealing a significant need for some sort of sealing. Seeking to maintain the natural look of the wood and to avoid detracting from the aged aesthetics, I opted to apply linseed oil to the entire surface. For the first two applications, the bat absorbed the oil like a thirsting man in the desert in desperate need of water. After the third linseed oil application, I left the bat to dry for a few hours before rubbing down with a soft cloth to remove any unabsorbed residue and to bring out a little bit of a shine. While the results of the preservation are were pleasing, the bat would never be the centerpiece of a collection.
- KeyMan Collectible Louisville Slugger Dating Guide
- WWII Professional Equipment Fund (KeyMan Collectibles)
Last week I mentioned (see: My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps) that I was preparing for a public showing of my collection of baseball militaria at a local minor league ballpark. As a brief follow-up (ahead of an upcoming article about that experience) I should say that the experience and reception was incredible and a great success! Since I am on the subject of reviewing my recent open ended articles that may have left some readers wondering, I did have a great experience with my first restoration of a vintage baseball bat (read: Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead).
In recent years, I connected with a few groups of fellow baseball memorabilia collectors with the idea that I wanted to learn from and share my own information among a gathering of others who have a wealth of knowledge. Sharing with and drawing from others who have been collecting for decades longer and in areas that I hadn’t previously committed much energy has served me well and opened my eyes to the extent of passion that others possess. In terms of collecting bats, I only had a smattering of pieces of lumber that I either acquired in anticipation of obtaining a player’s signature or that I landed while working at the aforementioned minor league ballpark, decades ago. Though my scant collection included some game-used wood from players who never went far with their professional careers, it was fun to have their bats (which were signed at one point since I obtained them). The other sticks in my collection were vintage store-model (they look very similar to what professional players receive from manufacturers but are sold in sporting goods stores for amateur use or autographs) bats.
Last year, I obtained an early 1950s store model, Ferris Fain signature bat that had seen a lot of use and abuse. In addition to the heavy wear, accumulation of dirty grime and house paint spills, the bat had extremely faint manufacturer’s stamps and the player’s signature mark was nearly impossible to see. Professional model bats (for game use) have deep and distinct, burned-in markings that are quite difficult to obscure with use and time but the same is untrue for these lightly-marked store-purchased pieces of lumber. Rather than the burned-brands, thes Louisville Sluggers have foil-stamped (the stamps are subtle) marks that get worn or rubbed off with use. By no means am I a vintage bat expert but I have some excellent resources to draw from. In terms of Hillerich and Bradsby (maker of the most famous brand, Louisville Slugger), this reference is very detailed in providing information to discern age and models of ‘Slugger bats.
Store model bats, though sought after by collectors, are quite affordable and can be great display pieces when shown with other items (jerseys, caps, gloves, autographed photos, cards, etc.) when costly game-used bats are unavailable or unobtainable. Player-signature store model bats were made bearing the autographs of the more prevalent stars of the game. Some signature models were continued far beyond the career years of players that transcended the game. However, with some of the more mercurial stars like Fain whose career burned brightly and faded quickly due to his all-out style of play and propensity for injuries (and fighting), signature bats are considerably more scarce. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily drive demand or values upward as they do for well-knowns such as Mantle or Williams (with store-model bat production in orders of magnitude far above Fain models) however, for collectors like me, landing one of his bats in any condition is a bit of a boon. In terms of baseball militaria, a Fain signature (store model) bat would not be a part of any collection as he wouldn’t have had such a bat made for him until he was established in the major leagues in the years following his wartime service in the Army Air Force.
When I brought this bat home and shared it among my fellow collectors, the reception for such a beat-up old stick was mixed with one collector (whom I greatly respect) offering the suggestion of unloading it in favor of one in better condition. The recommendation was that my bat wasn’t worth any restorative effort. Taking this input with a grain of salt, the collector also gave me guidance on how I should proceed and the careful steps that I should take along with the products that I should use in order to protect the patina and signs of use while cleaning it up.
Removing the grime
This bat was quite darkened by usage and years of handling and storage (no doubt in someone’s garage among the paints and garden tools). The surface was heavily oxidized to a dirty gray hue and had a variety of stains and markings from various objects that made contact with the bat. Soaking a small area of a paper towel with Goo Gone, I began to gently massage the handle of the bat exercising a bit of caution and hesitancy as the dirt began to slightly dissipate on the wood’s surface. Moving around the handle and downward (towards the barrel), I continued to wet the paper towel and lift away the dirt a little bit at a time. After nearly an hour, I completed the entire surface and noted that very little was removed despite the appearance of the nearly blackened paper towels that I had been using. After a few more hours of working the bat and noting only slight improvements (while absolutely none of the paint was removed), I decided that something more aggressive than paper was required to cut through the years of soiling.
Needing something with a bit more abrasive power, I grabbed a section of 0000 steel wool, wetted it with the Goo Gone and repeated the cleaning cycle. The steel wool began to peel away the layers of dirt with relative ease leaving a warm, aged color to the wood while retaining the usage markings and indentations in tact. The paint required a bit more attention but was no match for the fine grit of the steel pad.
Restoring the Foil Stamps
Fortunately with store-model Louisville Slugger bats, the brand and signature markings can be distinguishable even if the black foil (which resembles the burned-in brand has faded or been worn off. Since none of the black foil remained on my bat, I decided to replace it with something indelible and that would hold up to the final step in the restoration process (reconditioning the wood surface with oil). Any novice restorer might be convinced that locating an extra fine tipped pen (to re-trace the near-needle-thin lines) would be well-suited for such a task. However, ink would be problematic when met with linseed oil. If one were to forego the oil-reconditioning, the ink would be subject to oxidation and fading with time. What my fellow collector recommended was to use a pen that, instead of paint as its medium, acrylic black paint would be used to fill in the stamps and markings. The challenge that I faced in seeking a paint pen marker was to locate one with an extra-fine head and unfortunately, the best option was a 1.5mm tip. I used the Molotow ONE4ALL Acrylic Paint Marker, 1.5mm and a boatload of patience.
At my age, free-hand tracing of fine lines required the use of ample light and magnification to be able to see the original markings. Using a jeweler’s magnifying lamp afforded me with the best opportunity to carefully guide the pen through each stamped indentation. For those who are not familiar with the mechanics of paint pens, they can be quite a challenge as they require depressing of the tip (in order to draw the paint downward) which can be a bit messy and cause more paint to flow onto the bat’s surface than intended. I recommend using a newspaper to press the tip of the pen to the desired paint-saturation. I spent a few hours, stopping to rest my eyes and hand at intervals and to allow the paint to dry and avoid transferring it to my hand and to other areas of the bat.
Once the painting was done on both the brand and the signature stampings, I didn’t like the crispness of the paint. I also had a few spots where I was unable to keep the pen tip within the lines. I followed the painting with careful and deliberate application of dry steel wool removing the over-painted areas and the shiny paint surface to match the used and aged condition of the bat.
All that remains with the restoration of the Ferris Fain bat is to carefully apply linseed oil to properly treat the surface of the wood. Looking through my wood finishing supplies I see that I am lacking in linseed oil which will leave this Fain bat unfinished at present.