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Healing Battle Scars: Double-Ott Rejuvenation

 
Now that the regular season of baseball has ended and the postseason is underway, the ballparks have fallen silent as players pack their personal effects and head off to their off-season activities. For curators and collectors alike, there is no down time as artifacts require attention whether for care and maintenance or for acquisitions and research. Earlier this year, we spotlighted the maintenance program which we use to care for and preserve the leather fielding equipment in our collection (see: Maintenance Stop: Caring for 75 Year-Old Fielding Leather) and also planned to document preservation processes used for other artifacts in our collection 

Baseball bats, like gloves, are a highly tangible and tactile part of baseball history and represent one of the most significant aspects of collecting. To most collectors, a wooden implement that has been turned on a lathe, sanded smooth and applied with a finish, would not appear to require much, if any, preservation. For a substantial percentage of collectible bats, limited intervention is all that is required. However, many of the military-used bats have been subjected to years of use and improper storage, resulting in destabilized wood cells, grain separation and even decay (rot). 

World War II bats, while not entirely scarce, can be quite a challenge to source. When they do surface on the market, they are typically well-used and replete with more than their share of battle scars, cracks, divots and other signs of long-term abuse. Often stored for decades in harsh environs and exposed to moisture, paints and solvents, service-marked baseball bats tend to have hardly any aesthetically pleasing traits that would make them display-worthy. Our U.S.N-marked Ted Williams signature model bat was in such poor condition when we acquired it that it appeared to have been used to smack line drives with crushed stones (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved); however, with cautious preservation it is now displayed among our rarest baseball artifacts. 

With retail or store-model bats, the brand and model markings are lightly applied with stamps and colored foil (most often black) to simulate the burned brands seen on professional bat models. Through normal use, the foil flakes away, leaving a faint indentation that is barely discernible. One of our earliest non-military bat acquisitions, an early-1950s, Ferris Fain signature, store-model bat, was completely devoid of the black foil. After cleaning and reconditioning the wood, we carefully restored the brand, model markings and Fain’s facsimile autograph with display-worthy results (see: Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat). 

In May, we provided guidance on Hillerich and Bradsby store-model bats that were stamped and distributed throughout the armed forces during World War II (see: Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market). In focusing attention on the two levels of “H&B” store models, player-endorsed (which feature facsimiles of player autographs) and player models (marked with the catalog number “No. 14” and the “Safe Hit” brand), we spotlighted the most prevalent of service-used bats. Offerings in these two lines are pursued by collectors who focus on specific players and include the potential of acquiring two different bats associated with a favorite player.  

We have several service-marked, store-mode bats in the Chevrons and Diamonds collection with player endorsements, such as those of Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Charlie Keller and the aforementioned Ted Williams. While we prefer to source bats with endorsements from players who served, we take pieces as they become available, regardless of the player’s name stamped onto the barrel. A fair amount of these wartime service bats tends to be associated with the game’s legends, such as Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth and others who did not serve during WWII, if at all. Yet other bats endorsed by players who served, including Charlie Gehringer, Joe DiMaggio, Musial and Williams, are of great interest to military-focused curators and collectors. In some instances, drawing correlations between players and the armed forces in order to satisfy an unwritten acquisition rule can make for an enjoyable exercise in the exploration of the notion of “six degrees of separation.” Perhaps it is more honestly stated that stretching facts in order to justify an accession of a non-veteran-associated bat came into play with two specific pieces within our collection.  

By the fall of 1944, 34-year-old Mel Ott, longtime right fielder for the New York Giants, achieved his twelfth All-Star selection and finished his third season as the manager of the team that finished fifth in the National League. With a lengthy list of Giants players serving in the armed forces, including Johnny Mize, Morrie Arnovich, Buddy Blattner, Ken Trinkle, Harry Danning and Willard Marshall, Ott signed on with the USO to visit the troops and provide a morale boost to the men who were engaged in pushing German forces out of the nations they occupied. Joining Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bucky Walters, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Frankie Frisch, and Washington Senators pitcher Dutch Leonard, Mel Ott and the rest of the men traveled to the European combat theater. 

December 27, 1944 – European War Front: Manager of the New York Giants, and an outstanding major league batter, is shown autographing a baseball for a grinning Yank when Ott and a group of famous ball players visited a rest center near the front. The boys got quite a thrill upon meeting their diamond favorites (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The men saw the war in ways that Americans could not comprehend as their tour put them in front of GIs whom they addressed from makeshift stages in precarious conditions. These included being on flimsy platforms in shambles that were once buildings during some of the worst winter weather conditions on European record. Their tour took them into Belgium as the Wehrmacht began their massive offensive that would be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Wearing Army combat uniforms, the ballplayers toured areas that were, at times, within a half-mile of the enemy lines. Dutch Leonard recalled the following spring, “I’ve gone through some bad winters around my home in Illinois, but what we had on the trip around the front beat anything I’d ever experienced. No matter how much I put on, I never felt warm.” The players witnessed the horrors of combat just hours after an appearance. Leonard continued, “…and the boys who listened to us at night would be in action the next morning.” Ott and the rest of the men did not back out of their mission despite the harsh and dangerous conditions and instead pressed on to finish the tour. Appearing before more than 300,000 GIs, the men took the time to engage with the service members after the shows, signing autographs and talking baseball.  

Recognizing Mel Ott’s Hall of Fame playing career along with his time spent with the troops, we acquired a “U.S.” marked Melvin Ott Model H&B Safe Hit bat that had some condition issues but would make an aesthetically pleasing display once meticulously cleaned and conditioned. Just weeks after receiving the Safe Hit Ott model, a “U.S.N.” marked, Mel Ott signature model became available, which we did not hesitate to add to the collection. The condition of the U.S.N. bat was as close to “poor” as could be without being worthless in terms of collectability.  

In assessing the condition of each Ott bats once in hand, it became quite apparent that both would require considerable reconditioning effort to stabilize and make them presentable among the other pieces in our collection. Our approach to conditioning is to preserve as much of the original wear and natural aging as possible while removing the decades of accumulated dirt and foreign substances. Once the surfaces are prepared, we assess the condition of the brand marks to determine if additional intervention should be taken and restoration work done. One of the challenges in collecting service bats in particular is that they have seen a lot of use after the war.  

In the post-war years, the armed forces began to sell off outmoded or aged equipment that was considered surplus as each branch of the military contracted to significantly reduced manpower sizes. Baseball equipment was sold as inexpensive alternatives for industrial and Little League teams and advertisements proliferated in periodicals such as The Sporting News, featuring military-marked mitts, gloves and bats. Though some equipment sold was in new condition, having never made it to the GIs, much of it was used before beginning another cycle of game activity.  

Both of our Mel Ott bats showed significant use, including breakage and field repairs in order to extend their usefulness. Broken bat handles complicated our rejuvenation process, adding multiple steps as we strove to maintain the aged appearance. After gluing a break, the removal of excess glue and the smoothing of the wood surface required abrasives such as sandpaper which easily cleared away the oxidized top surfaces and left behind a new, lighter surface.  

The Ott Couple 
The condition of our Safe Hit, Melvin Ott Model, H&B (catalog) No. 14 bat was fair. The crack extending from the upper reach of the handle towards the backside of the center brand was not obvious when viewing the stamped markings, which meant that the bat could be left as it was and displayed to conceal the most severe damage. However, with paint and what appeared to be tape residue on the barrel, restorative work had to be done, including closing and stabilizing the crack. Working through the process, we worked to remove the paint and soften the discoloration left behind by the tape. Desiring to retain the original patina of the wood, our crack repair did not conceal the crack, but when we completed our efforts, the crack appeared less obvious than it was when we acquired the bat. 

Describing our second Mel Ott bat as a basket-case would be a mild description. With nearly all of the black foil worn or flaked off, little remained of the contrasting markings. Fortunately, the impressions were quite deep, leaving the brand, model number and signature somewhat visible. The upper third of the handle was wrapped in grip tape, leaving a rather unusual appearance. Applied decades ago, the tackiness was long gone, having left behind an almost shell-like covering over the handle. To properly preserve and revitalize this piece, the tape was removed, revealing a sizeable crack. As with the Safe Hit Ott bat, the ensuing crack repair was minimal in order to preserve much of the aged and worn appearance while providing stability to the bat.  

Revitalizing Methodology 
Considering that both bats required cleaning and removal of layers of dirt, grime and other foreign substances, we employed a safe and very mild adhesive remover (Goo Gone) possessing subtle solvent properties and, with light application, is safe for wood finishes. With stubborn substances such as paint, we combined the solution with .000 fine steel wool and a light pressured motion moving with the woodgrain to begin stripping away the surface buildup. To preserve the original finish of the bat, we took our time with the most difficult areas. Once we were satisfied with the results, we removed all the loosened material with a clean cloth that was lightly soaked in the solvent. Once the Goo Gone had fully evaporated, the next step was to address the cracks. 

Our process for repairing cracks was rather lengthy. Two essential elements that we used were carpenter’s glue and enough clamps to provide enough compression to squeeze the crack tightly. After carefully and generously applying glue into the full extent of the crack, pressure needed to be applied so that it forced the excess to emerge. Wiping away the excess, we allowed each bat to sit for 12 hours before releasing the clamps.  

With the glue hardened, the next step was to use an abrasive to smooth away any remaining excess glue while limiting removal of the aged finish from the surrounding areas. Inevitably, some of the surrounding wood surface would be impacted and could be addressed in a subsequent step. For each of our bats, we briefly employed 240-grit sandpaper to wear down the heaviest glue deposits before switching to 800-grit to remove the majority of what remained. To ensure a smooth surface, .000 steel wool removed the last remnants of the excess glue.  

With the crack repairs complete, the area surrounding the crack was lightened due to excessive material removal and it almost screamed of repair work. Since the wood of both bats was hickory, the aged finish darkened to a reddish-brown hue. Applying a rub of wet coffee grounds directly to the area provided a subtle stain to soften the brightness of the fresh wood surface. 

Filling in the lettering is not as simple as it seems. The “n” impression was very shallow-to-nonexistent making replication a challenge. This shows the markings after a round of synthetic aging (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Evaluating the brand stamps and lettering applied to each bat, we determined two separate paths to address the dulled appearances. With the Safe Hit Ott bat, the brands were applied deep enough that they were quite visible and merely needed to have the dirt and dust deposits carefully removed. We determined that the signature Ott bat would be negatively impacted by any attempts to manually restore the center brand as it remained somewhat visible. However, the signature and the U.S.N. stamp were candidates for restoration. 

Restoration of black foil stampings can be a challenge. In assessing the impressions, some first-time restorers may be inclined to use a black art ink pen with a fine tip. Considering the porous nature of the wood, the cellular structure is absorbent and will draw the ink away from carefully applied lines and leave an unsightly and amateurish appearance, regardless of the careful hand-applied markings. We recommend using fine tipped acrylic paint pens. The black paint does get absorbed into the wood and mistakes can be easily corrected (wiping with a paper towel). Once the marks have dried, the black paint is easily aged. With careful and precise application, the “U.S.N.” stamp and the impression of Mel Ott’s signature were filled with black paint however, some excess extended beyond the lines which we opted to address once the paint cured. After the paint dried overnight, the appearance did not align with the markings of a worn and battered bat. Using a fresh piece of steel wool, we began to remove the excess paint. The result of the synthetic distressing resulted in an aged appearance of the markings. 

Utilizing toothpicks to remove crusted dust and dirt from the Safe Hit Ott bat’s stampings revealed a much more crisp and dark impression for both the barrel and center brand markings. After preparing the stamps and marks, each bat was ready for a final cleaning before applying the surface-conditioning linseed oil.  

Before applying the conditioning, the surfaces of the bats required one final surface cleaning to remove the debris and dust and to ensure a clean surface to receive the oil finish. Using a clean cloth or fresh paper towels generously saturated with the gentle solvent, we thoroughly wiped down each bat, ensuring that all substances were removed. With another 24 hours of drying, we undertook the last step of coating the wood with linseed oil. This final step might have taken a few applications over the course of multiple days. We allowed the bats to absorb the oil and to dry coats. When the wood no longer absorbed the oil, the excess was wiped away and the bats were staged to provide for complete drying.  


 
The ultimate step of our process was to gently buff the wood with a clean and dry cloth, which brought a dull shine to the wood, revealing its natural beauty, emphasizing the years of use and providing a visually pleasing artifact for display. 

Our efforts to preserve these two bats resulted in two display-worthy artifacts. (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Related Chevrons and Diamonds Articles 

Vintage Bats 

 
References

Equipment Fund Raising Events 

*- Hubler, David, and Joshua H. Drazen. 2015. “The Nats and the Grays: how baseball in the Nation’s Capital survived WWII and changed the game forever.” 

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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