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Market Observations: Sports Militaria Trends

It is incredible that we are more than halfway through the summer of 2021 and well into the latter six months of the calendar. The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection has experienced steady growth that has been capped off with a few fantastic additions. With the current local, national and global news shedding light on the immediate and long-term future as being anything but promising, we have focused our attention instead upon extracting history from the artifacts that have arrived since January.

Consider this story to be a mid-year report card of sorts as we reflect upon the bright spots of baseball militaria curating and our role in telling the story of these artifacts and the people who were a part of the history that the items are connected to. Only a handful of our 2021 acquisitions have been featured in a Chevrons and Diamonds article and some of our social media followers have wondered when they might see those other artifacts receive consideration and in-depth coverage. Digging into the details regarding ballplayers gives us an opportunity to see their contributions to the war effort and the positive impact these players had during their service careers.

We have acquired an incredible selection of vintage photography, much of which answered longstanding questions. Many of our recent photograph acquisitions served as an impetus to prepare highly detailed narratives of ballplayers’ wartime careers both on and off the military diamond. Some of the highlights of the photo-driven pieces include stories about Hugh Mulcahy (Southern Region Service Baseball Dominated by Former Pros: Mulcahy and Gee), Red Ruffing (Red Ruffing, an Airman’s Ace) and our most recent work detailing Pee Wee Reese’s naval service (The Navy’s Little Colonel: Chief Athletic Specialist Harold “Pee Wee” Reese). Considering the research advancements made through the photographs displayed in those articles, more discoveries have been revealed in photos that we have yet to share.

A few autographed baseballs that are centerpieces in our collection arrived this year. One of the balls, a team-signed 1949 Washington Senators piece, features several autographs from players who served during WWII. One of the names inscribed, Mickey Harris, is featured in an assortment of vintage photographs that we also acquired this year. Harris is depicted while serving and playing baseball in the Army in the Panama Canal Zone (Visual Traces of a Wartime Service Career). A second baseball features select members of the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station’s “Bluejackets” (Bluejacket Ink – Professional Base Ball Fund Signatures) and our first softball addition is highlighted in another article (A Hall of Fame Softball Greeting).

It may seem that a considerable amount of our attention is given to vintage photography and to ballplayers while in some readers’ opinions not enough is spent on the artifacts of the game such as equipment and uniforms. Perhaps such thinking amounts to fairly assessing our activities; however, such articles are simmering on the back burner while we serve up what has been cooking for quite a while. A simple self-assessment reveals that we have not focused enough attention on the pieces that predominate in most militaria and baseball collections. Our article regarding wartime bats and the present market status (Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market) resonated quite well with readers as did our piece detailing our glove and mitt care and conditioning program (Maintenance Stop: Caring for 75 Year-Old Fielding Leather). Unfortunately, just two articles regarding equipment don’t quite address collectors’ needs or align well with what has been happening within the marketplace.

One of the more bothersome trends that we touched upon in May concerned the state of baseball memorabilia and the skyward-bound prices that are being realized. The wild spending appears to demonstrate that new entrants in the market who are in search of “anything related to military baseball” are willing to buy nearly anything, no matter the condition or cost. Bidding wars for online auction listings, while a boon for sellers, set unrealistic expectations that will take considerable time to recover from once the free-spending trend reverses course.

The final bid for this $25 glove was a bit of a shock as we watched the bid amounts absurdly increase. What has made these artifacts such a hot commodity for militaria collectors in the last 12 months (eBay image).

For baseball collectors, the delineation between their game and softball is well defined. For a small percentage, there may be some interest in pursuing artifacts from both sports but for the most part, softball items generate a significantly smaller amount of collector passion. The same cannot be said for militaria collectors seeking to add a bit of visual interest to their displays and to give some insight as to the day-to-day activities of soldiers, airmen, marines or sailors during World War II. Since baseball was our nation’s national pastime, gloves, mitts, bats and balls do just that.

In the militaria sphere there are discerning collectors who pursue baseball equipment that is exclusively service marked. Beyond that small percentage, it appears that the rest of the collectors in that area are less concerned about the game and instead zero in on the military markings on the equipment regardless of it being baseball or softball-centric. The emphasis on ensuring authenticity of the display drives collectors to pursue a piece that adds an accurate aesthetic. When collectors are accustomed to spending hundreds on each piece as they complete a World War II airborne sergeant’s combat uniform, pack, weapons and web gear, unknowingly overpaying for a baseball piece is easy.

Market prices for 1940’s softball gloves in good condition can vary from $20-30 on average, though buyers can pay more for new old stock (gloves that are unused and in their original boxes). For everyday softball leather, such a range in price is normal regardless of the presence of military markings. Twelve months ago, service branch-marked gloves sold consistently with their civilian counterparts.

Less than two weeks ago, the phenomenon we have been observing with service-marked baseball bats became the norm in the softball glove market.  To the seller’s credit, the glove was fairly well described, though it was identified as a baseball glove. “Up for bids is a vintage World War II U.S. Army Special Services baseball glove manufactured by Gold Smith.” Regardless of the other stampings or the glove’s design, the only identification that mattered to the three bidders pertained to the U.S. Army’s entertainment branch that was responsible for disseminating recreation equipment to the troops.  To militaria collectors, that designation equates to the piece being an authentic, service-used artifact.

Very clearly, this service-marked GoldSmith glove was made for softball use as noted by the curved pattern stitching in the palm (eBay image).

Softball gloves from the 1940s are easy to spot without checking for model name or numbers. A quick inspection of the glove’s palm reveals the double-stitched area that accommodates the larger diameter ball to be caught by deflecting it inward towards the webbing. This particular model not only features the stitching but the stamping that is arched over the GoldSmith logo confirms that it is not a baseball glove. The seller’s description continues, “The glove is stamped with ‘Gripper Stopper’, ‘Licensed Under Pat. No. 2231204’, ‘Gripper Pocket’, and in the center of the pocket I can make out ‘Soft Glove (sic) – GoldSmith – Cincinnati – Made in US’.” Concealed in the fold between the middle and third finger is the word “BALL,” which when seen in the context of the full marking, reads “Soft Ball Glove.”

The curved-pattern stitching in the palm is unique to softball gloves. The seller missed the full “Soft Ball” stamp arched over the rest of the markings (eBay image).

The condition of the glove would be fair-to-good with considerable wear on the leather edge binding in the normal areas including the wrist opening . The leather appears to be supple and soft despite the years of accumulated dirt adhered to the hide. The lacing grommets are not heavily worn nor do they show signs of corrosion. It is difficult to determine the condition of the lacing, though it seems that replacing it would be recommended at the time of cleaning and conditioning the entire glove.

When the softball glove was listed, the $25 starting price was already at the upper end of the normal market range for a softball glove in this condition, leaving it out of our consideration. Following the first bidder’s opening amount of $28 placed on July 22, it became clear that the item was now the target of militaria collectors. Three days later, the eventual winner placed his (unknown) top bid.  On July 29, a few days before the close of the auction, another potential buyer dropped seven bids in succession in a span of under 60 seconds, raising the price from $29 to $201.50 before giving up and raising the winning bidder’s purchase price by $172.50. While it isn’t possible to see the specific items purchased by bidders, one can see the categories in which they focus their spending. In analyzing the purchase habits of each bidder, it is easy to determine that all three are heavily into militaria collecting rather than vintage sports equipment, which serves to underscore our assessment of the change in the market pricing.

Since June 14, 2021, there have been two other examples of the same GoldSmith softball model gloves that have sold through the online auction site. Bearing the same Special Service U.S. Army markings, one glove sold for nearly three times the market value at $67.00. In generally poor condition, the glove didn’t draw nearly the same attention as the latest iteration. An earlier listing featured the same glove in similar condition to the $201.50 iteration but lacked the Special Services markings, bearing only a “U.S.” stamped onto the wrist strap. This piece sold for approximately four times its value at $99.

A check for non-service models shows four 1940’s GoldSmith softball gloves lacking service markings that sold for prices ranging from $10 to $25, further underscoring our assertion that militaria collectors are fueling the temporary spike in prices for service-marked items.

There are always exceptions as realistic prices can be realized as well as good deals for those who do their homework and are patient. Whether your objective Is a service-marked baseball glove or one for softball, taking the time for due diligence both in understanding the market and being in possession of glove knowledge will assist you in acquiring the correct glove for the right price.

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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