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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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Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat

Recognizing Sgt. Ferris Fain’s Army Air Force service, I stanged this photo with his restored bat, a singed baseball (modern) that Fain inscribed his American League batting championship years (1951 and ’52) along with a 1943 U.S. Army-stamped Goldsmith glove and a 7th AAF shoulder sleeve insignia (Fain’s unit and team during the war).

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.

The grit and grime on this poor old (60-plus years) stick was not going to easily give way. (Image source: eBay).

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.

The Hillerich and Bradsby oval brand is very faint due to the typical shallow impressions seen on store model bats. The years of use have worn away the black foil that helped the lettering versus the burned branding seen on pro-model bats) to stand out (Image source: eBay).

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.

Ferris Fain’s faint signature and the Louisville Slugger trademark are barely discernible among the filth (Image source: eBay).

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.

The restoration nearly completed (save for the linseed oil finish), the bat already displays nicely with the signed baseball, original type-1 print, the glove and the two Hillerich & Bradsby pieces of advertising ephemera.

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.

 

 

 

Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead

With the changes in my employment, my pursuit of artifacts must also change as I am actively seeking a new position to bring my expertise, knowledge and experience to bear for a new employer. After contracting for for the last several months, I believe that I am ready to settle down with an employer and to give them my undivided attention (seeking follow-on employment while working is not something that I want to be a part of my daily routine). In terms of my research and writing, I believe that I will be able to commit some of my free time to work on some of my outstanding projects and perhaps bring some of them to a close.

What is odd is that when I sat down to write an article about military baseball, I drew a blank as I searched for a subject. I looked back at my previous articles and saw that I was following the influx of artifacts and as the mailbox grew silent, a mental block appeared and cut me off from the ideas that had previously been swirling around within my mind. Oddly, I am incapable of coming up with a topic even at this very point. Imagine writing a 2400+ word essay one week and having literally nothing to discuss the next.

While preparing for an upcoming public showing of part of my militaria collection over the last few days, I have been gathering all of the World War I pieces that I own, some of which were inherited from two of my uncles who served during the Great War. While sorting through containers of stored century-old artifacts, I have viewed several pieces of my military baseball collection and was reminded (at each encounter with a piece) that there was yet another opportunity for researching, writing and photographing a piece for this site. Yet today, I can’t recall a single item.

Even as I was discussing a possible public showing of my military baseball artifacts (in conjunction with an upcoming Armed Forces Day event) with a representative from our local Pacific Coast League team, I recalled that there was a specific piece that I wanted to document and photograph for an article to be published here. That idea has also faded from my consciousness.

While it isnt in terrible shape, this store-model Ferris Fain signature Louisville Slugger should make for a nice display. Fain bats are not very prevalent due to his brief, yet fantastic major league career (Image source: eBay).

As I recall each of these situations where ideas were stirring within my mind over the last week and yet the ideas have long since dissolved, I suppose that the best option for me today is to take a momentary pause and spend time with my wife and children, watch a ballgame or two and continue my job search. I even have some artifact preservation and restoration work that has been in the queue for quite some time. I have been meaning to breathe new life into a 1950s Ferris Fain signature Louisville Slugger bat that was used (and abused). While I am not a bat collector, per se, I do like to have pieces that have some correlation to what I do collect. Since Fain was such a prominent figure on the U.S. Seventh Army Air Force team (a team mate of Joe DiMaggio and Joe Gordon) during World War II prior to his nine-season major league career (with the Athletics, White Sox, Tigers and Indians) crushing two back-to-back batting titles (1951 and ’52) before ending his career following a string of injuries.

Due to the grime, Fains signature and part of the “Louisville Slugger” stamp is visible despite the black foil in the signature and lettering having long-since faded (Image source: eBay).

This bat, produced by Hillerich and Bradsby (famous bat makers notable for the Louisville Slugger bats that are commonplace throughout the sport), was made in the 1950s during the height of Fain’s career. Based upon the Hillerich & Bradsby oval center brand design, my Fain signature bat dates from a period between 1948-1964 as indicated by the very faint yet visible “REG. U.S. PAT. OFF.” that is centered beneath the oval. It is through deductive reasoning and speculation that I am dating the bat to the early 1950s.

By 1955, Fain’s production was dramatically tailing off along with his playing time. Ferris was an All-Star for five consecutive seasons (1950-54), only to be traded to Detroit in the off-season of 1954. By mid-season of 1955, he was released and signed by the Indians eight days later. He was released by Cleveland in November of 1955, signaling the end of his major league career. Fain found himself back in the Pacific Coast League in 1956 with the Sacramento Solons appearing in only 70 of the team’s 168 games. Based upon Ferris Fain’s career trajectory, I may be stating the obvious in suggesting that no further Louisville Slugger bats bore his name after the 1955 season (it is my assumption but it is possible that they continued manufacturing his bats for an additional season).

The Hillerich and Bradsby oval brand is very faint due to the typical shallow impressions seen on store model bats. The years of use have worn away the black foil that helped the lettering versus the burned branding seen on pro-model bats) to stand out (Image source: eBay).

Though this artifact has only an associative connection to military baseball (due to Fain’s service before he had his own signature bat), it is still a piece that I enjoy having in the collection. I am taking some steps to restore certain aspects without removing the signs of age in order to make the bat more display-friendly. With that, I am pushing the keyboard aside, taking out some cleaning cloths, steel wool and a bottle of Goo Gone and begin to carefully remove the grime and dried paint to see what I can uncover for the next restoration steps.

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