Even with excellent game-used characteristics, the job of authenticating baseball bats challenges the best of experts.
One of the most highly desirable pieces of high-end baseball memorabilia that collectors pursue is the game-used bat. It is also one of the hardest to authenticate, especially when it comes to vintage pieces prior to the 1980s. Collectors looking to enter this aspect of memorabilia collecting need to beware of some simple guidelines applicable to many different types of collectibles.
In this first of a two-part series, we’ll look at how bats are authenticated and where to find resources to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.
One of the most important rules of thumb is to follow the old adage: “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Because of the numerous bats utilized by teams and players, there are plenty of unscrupulous dealers who, with the use of self-created letters of authenticity (LOA) or certificates of authenticity (COA) and a compelling back story, can appear to provide all the provenance needed to sell a bat as game-used.
While even “experts” makes mistakes, it’s best to be self-educated as much as possible. However, there does exist within the hobby two primary companies that serve as third-party authenticators providing generally accepted LOAs within the sports-collectibles marketplace. The companies are Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA/DNA) and Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services (MEARS).
Both companies use similar processes when evaluating and authenticating bats as being game-used. While individual criteria might vary slightly from one company to the other, the general process is as follows:
• Determine whether the manufacturer labeling is correct for the period;
• Examine wood grain and finish for cracks and alterations;
• Measure the length and weight of the bat;
• Compare results of known examples for each athlete;
• Assess game-use traits.
Notice that assessing the presence of game-used traits is last on the list. Before considering such things, the labeling of the bat must be that of recorded specifications required by the player and verified as coming from the manufacturer. Once that has been determined, only then should the bat be examined for game use.
Game-use traits can consist of any number of visible characteristics of the bat, including but not limited to ball marks, pine-tar usage, the presence of tape and player number markings. The combination of authentic labeling and presence of game-use traits alone can only truly provide an opinion from even the most respected bat authenticators and experts. The only ironclad proof to determine actual game usage is an affidavit from the player and detailed photo of the player using the bat in question.
While photo matching is an accepted form of authentication, it has its own limitations, especially regarding vintage pieces due to the obvious technology restrictions of the day. The current use of digital imaging and photo restoration gives authenticators another tool to help determine game-used authenticity. However, even with all of this circumstantial criteria, the bottom line is that game-used authenticity comes down to an educated guess and a little bit of faith.
This bat, listed as game-used by Cal Ripkin, Jr., has a number of excellent characteristics, but is it real?
Let’s take a look at what is purported to be a game-used Cal Ripken, Jr., bat from early in his career, circa 1983-1986, currently available on the secondary market.
Closer examination reveals the correct labeling, use traits and individual player characteristics.
So far so good, or is it?
Notice the photographs from the same time period of his career. In neither picture is Ripken using a two-tone colored bat or tape on its handle. While neither of theses observations are enough to fail the authentication in question, it does raise some concerns.
In this photo, Cal Ripkin, Jr., holds a solid-color bat.
In this photo, as well, Ripkin, Jr., hold a solid-color bat.
Additionally, a closer look at the bat-knob of the “authenticated” sample shows no player number. Yet here are two images of authenticated bats clearly showing Ripken’s number on the knob, one of which is a two-toned variety.
These authenticated Cal Ripkin, Jr., bats do contain a two-tone version, but both employ pine tar, rather than tape.
Also notice that neither example displays any batting-tape usage but pine tar. While it’s easy to dispel such inconsistencies as a player’s preferences and individual characteristics changing over the time of a lengthy career, it shows how important thorough research is before making a bidding or buying decision on items carrying a hefty price tag.
You can also check out other links to “authenticated” Cal Ripken, Jr., bats and do some further sleuthing on your own.
So as you can see, despite utilizing commonly used and accepted best authentication practices, it’s hard to determine with any degree of certainty that the sample bat in question is game used. This perfectly illustrates why such authentication can best be referred to as an opinion and not a science, regardless of the expert or company used to determine the item’s authenticity.
If choosing to add to or start a game-used bat collection, there are several available resources that, when used cumulatively, can at least prepare and educate you for one of the most daunting and yet rewarding niches of sports memorabilia collecting.
The resources I recommend are PSA/DNA Bat Authentication Services, MEARS Bat Grading and Authentication Criteria, Louisville Slugger Museum, the National Pastime Museum Bat Exhibit and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
These resources can be particularly helpful when researching or verifying authentication of bats from retired players.
As a result of the growing sports-memorabilia market, Major League Baseball in 2001 instituted a multi-step authentication process that is overseen by one of the world’s leading accounting firms—similar to those employed to oversee the legitimacy of state-run lottery games. This authentication process is one of the most trusted and respected in the industry today. Its use makes it easy to determine the authenticity of game-used bats from today’s active players and even those recently retired. For a complete understanding of the process, visit the MLB Authentication’s website.
In my next installment on game-used bats, we’ll take a look at the current marketplace, determine a valuing benchmark, speculate about which players may be worth of investing in and offer a gallery of some legendary game-used pieces.
Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.
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