Game-Used Bats: The Eras and Values for Collectors

This early Louisville Slugger dates to the Dead Ball Era.

In the first part of our series on collecting game-used bats, we examined issues relating to authentication. This included establishing provenance and identifying game-used characteristics. In this, part two, we’ll take a look at the values of game-used bats, examine some legendary lumber and provide resources for liquidating or acquiring pieces for your collection.

When it comes to many collectibles, including sports memorabilia, the customary point of differentiation in the marketplace is World War II. From there, items are referred to either being from the pre-war or post-war eras. When it comes to bats, there’s a further narrowing of those windows in time to Dead Ball Era, Pre-War Era, Post-War Era and Modern Era, which has subcategories of pre-steroid, steroid and post-steroid years.

These points of reference in these windows are important because they are used to designate a bat’s particular age. When searching secondary-market sites and auction houses, you will commonly see these time periods in query results.

This timeline shows the different eras of baseball-memorabilia collecting.

It’s also important to keep in mind that game-used bats that have had authentication narrowed to specific events and historic achievements will carry a premium. For example, bats used in the course of winning a World Series or breaking a statistical record are clearly worth more than that of a bat used simply in a day-to-day, regular-season game.

Another factor that can influence the price of a game-used bat is whether it has been autographed by the player. Game-used bats with an accompanying signature can easily add 30 percent or more to the overall value of the bat. This percentage can increase significantly depending on the particular player. As an example, early game-used bats from Mickey Mantle that carry an authentic autograph can see the price of the bat double.

Additionally, much like a player’s rookie baseball card, game-used bats that can be properly authenticated as having been used early in a player’s career will almost always be more valuable than ones used in later years. The exception to this rule is those bats that have been used during the course of record-setting events or achievements mentioned above.

Let’s take a closer look at some individual bats from each of the specific eras of the game and from players that helped to define those eras.

This 1914-1915 Honus Wagner bat sold in August 2011 for $89,625.

Dead Ball Era
As one would expect bats from the Dead Ball Era, even non-game used bats and store models, are extremely rare and when found can be quite expensive.

During this time period, bat manufacturers didn’t produce many player-specific bats, so determining provenance for a bat from this time period can be very difficult. Even those receiving authentication need to be thoroughly researched before purchasing.

Often times, players would simply purchase a store-model bat directly from a retail sporting-goods store. Players who helped define this era include Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson and, to some extent, Babe Ruth.

Historical Sales Data

• Honus Wagner, 1914-1916: $56,501 (November 2011);
• Honus Wagner, 1914-1915: $89,625 (August 2011);
• Babe Ruth, 1918: $537,750 (October 2009);
• “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, 1908-1919: $537,750 (August 2011).

This game-used bat from Ty Cobb in 1923-1925 sold for $77,675 in February 2013.

Pre-War Era
Between the end of the Dead Ball Era and the end of the pre-war period, many big names began to make their mark on the game. The fundamental shift in the overall strategy of baseball from base hits and stealing bases—what we call “small ball” today—to a game that relied on power hitting changed the game forever. As a result, players capable of hitting home runs became the focus of attention and, as would be expected, the popularity of those players grew commensurate with their fame.

Consequently, memorabilia from these players, including their game-used bats, have tremendous collectable appeal and value. Popular players of this era, to name a few, include Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mel Ott.

Historical Sales Data

• Ty Cobb, 1923-1925: $77,675 (February 2013);
• Babe Ruth, 1927: $388,375 (August 2012);
• Lou Gehrig,1927: $225,000 (November 2012);
• Mel Ott, 1933: $30,926 (June 2001);
• Joe DiMaggio, 1941: $21,780 (November 2011).

Mickey Mantle’s gear proves to be some of the most collectible. This 1953 game-used bat sold for $59,750 in October 2012.

Post-War Era
The Post-War Era technically encompasses everything from 1945 to the present. However, within that broad stretch, it is easier to break down that time period into slightly narrower timeframes. Anywhere between 1976 and 1980 can be used to designate the current or “modern” era.

The late 1940s through the early 1960s are often referred to as baseball’s Golden Era. This time period gave rise to such Hall of Fame legends as Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, to name a few.

Historical Sales Data

• Joe DiMaggio, 1947: $23,200 (2006);
• Hank Aaron, 1954-1957: $13,145 (April 2009);
• Mickey Mantle, 1953: $59,750 (October 2012);
• Roberto Clemente, 1968-1970: $6,083 (June 2013);
• Willie Mays, 1971: $10,446 (April 2009).

This game-used Don Mattingly bat from 1989—in the Modern Era, pre-steroid use— sold for $1,869 in April 2013.

The Modern Era (Pre-Steroid)
It’s unfortunate that specific designation needs to be used for the Modern Era. Unfortunately, unique circumstances created a divide in the timeframe that history has not yet clearly defined.

The growing popularity of baseball into the 1990s eventually gave rise to an unfortunate truth that forever left a black eye on the sport and wreaked havoc in the memorabilia market. During the well-documented home-run record chase of 1998 and the few years that followed, memorabilia from the game’s long-ball stars went through the stratosphere. Anything remotely associated with having been game-used by the likes of Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire commanded extraordinary prices. Leading up to that period of time, names like Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken, Jr., Rickey Henderson and George Brett were the game’s poster stars.

Historical Sales Data

• Cal Ripken Jr., 1995: $2,000 (June 2013);
• Rickey Henderson, Unknown: $700 (April 2013);
• Don Mattingly, 1989: $1,869 (April 2013);
• Fran Thomas, 1996: $814 (December 2011);
• Ken Griffey, Jr., 2000: $840 (June 2013);
• George Brett, 1977: $4,200 (April 2010);
• George Brett, 1988: $1,844 (April 2005).

Bats from the heavy hitters in the steroid years don’t pay out. This 1986-1988 Mark McGwire bat went unsold after it didn’t receive a minimum bid of $300 in April 2013.

Modern Era (Steroid)
While performance-enhancing drugs are still an unfortunate part of baseball, the league and the players’ union have put forth policies, testing procedures and ever more severe penalties to curb their use.

Recovering from the “lost season” of 1994 due to a bitter labor dispute that resulted in the cancelation of the entire season including the World Series, Major League Baseball was desperate to recapture its disgruntled fan base. One of the events that made it possible was the home-run record chase of 1998. That year saw Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battle game after game attempting to break Roger Maris’ long-standing record of 61 regular-season home runs.

Turning a blind eye to the issue of steroids, MLB welcomed the ratings and revenue. Unfortunately, it would be forever alleged that both players cheated the sport while attempting to break the famous record. After reaching the pinnacle of value on the secondary market, once it was acknowledged that PEDs played a part in the ability to break the record, memorabilia prices crashed through the floor. As a result, it is very difficult to accurately estimate the value of game-used bats from that time frame.

Historical Sales Data

• Sammy Sosa, 2000: $155 (February 2013);
• Sammy Sosa, 1999: $303 (November 2012);
• Sammy Sosa, 1992: $361 (April 2012);
• Mark McGwire, 1994: $837 (October 2012);
• Mark McGwire, 1986-1988: $0—unsold with a minimum bid of $300 (April 2013).

Prices after Major League Baseball began enforcing its drug rules reflect fans’ faith in the player. This Derek Jeter 2011 game-used bat sold for $2,516 in November 2012.

Modern Era (Post-Steroids)
While it would be wrong to implicate every player of the era with alleged steroid use, there certainly are players who remain under speculation for steroid use and several who fans and collectors can, with a fair degree of confidence, rule out. Two players from the era who have thus far eluded such scrutiny are Derek Jeter and recently retired Chipper Jones. Both were beloved by their respective fan bases, and as the dust settles, there is a potential upside on their game-used memorabilia.

Historical Sales Data

• Chipper Jones, 2009: $1,553 (April 2013);
• Derek Jeter, 2011: $2,516 (November 2012).

Fortunately for baseball, most of the players from the steroid era have retired and as a changing of the guard takes places, there are plenty of young talented players worth investing in their game-used material. Here are a few current players and price ranges of their game-used bats as of the time of this writing.

• Yasiel Puig: $600 to $900;
• Mike Trout: $1,700 to $2,100;
• Bryce Harper: $1,900 to $2,400.

There are several resources available to collectors to help determine general value of game-used bats. The most accurate of these would be to research completed auctions from some of the sports auction houses, including Legendary Auctions, Huggins & Scott, Heritage Auctions, SCP Auctions and Goldin Auctions.

Other resources include books and articles like “Complete Reference Guide to Louisville Slugger Professional Player Bats” by Vince Malta, “Mastronet Reference and Price Guide: For Collecting Game Used Baseball Bats” by Dave Bushing and Dan Knoll and Game Used Universe’s Introduction to Game Used Bat Price Guide by Christopher Cavalier.

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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