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Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market

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 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.

Hillerich & Bradsby low-end retail bats center brand examples. Not the middle bat features the “No. 14” which indicates that it is a “Safe Hit” model (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

This well-used Special Services U.S. Army stamped Safe Hit bat is the Babe Ruth endorsed model (eBay image).

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.

Five of the bats pictured are wartime U.S.N.- stamped H&B model bats The Jimmie Foxx endorsed bat is part of Hillerich and Bradsby’s lowest retail product line, “Safe Hit.” The “NAVY” marked bat dates from the 1960s and was used at the Naval Academy (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).
A wartime H&B “Safe Hit” stamped with “U.S. Army.” (eBay image)

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.

All of the H&B Safe Hit line bats by Hillerich and Bradsby, such as the Special Services U.S. Army Babe Ruth example. feature the “No. 14” catalog number (eBay image).

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.

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