One of the most talked about facets of collecting game used bats is that of specific player characteristics and how they are evaluated and how extra grade points are added. We will talk about characteristics as they relate to all game used bats and then we will examine specific player traits that allow us to further pinpoint the certainty level for a player being directly attributed to a specific bat.
When examining a game bat, there are criteria that are used to evaluate each piece. After each bat is weighed and measured, it is then checked against factory records to see if it matches those records and determined whether or not it can be pinpointed to a particular shipment. We have shipping records for most of the important players from 1930 onward as well as some shipping ledgers from 1920-29 and 1914-15.
This is a good spot in the article to make my point that these records are far from complete with most pre-1930 records noting the weight only with no regards to length or models (non existent). We have to look no further than the 38” 40 oz. Joe DiMaggio rookie era bat that had both photographic documentation as well as a contemporary newspaper article detailing Joe’s use of this bat, yet there was never a mention of any 38” bat in any of the personal or team records for DiMaggio. With regards to hand turned examples of pre war bats in which no records exist such as Hanna Batrite, Kren, Spalding, Reach, or Zinn Beck ( All of which are documented as having been used by Major League ball players) , we evaluate the specs on the bat as compared with documented examples such as side written or Louisville Slugger recorded models. Bats not found in personal records are then checked against team orders and index bats ordered for the players by the team themselves.
Once the above research is done, we look for uniform numbers on the barrel or knob and check them against the team rosters to determine if the player whose name is stamped on the barrel matches the uniform numbers. Often, with regards to a bat where a player is listed on several teams during a certain bat labeling period, we can determine to which team the bat in question was issued or whether or not a team-mate used the bat. (often referred to as a two player bat, issued to and maybe used by one then used by another, a very common occurrence). It is said, and is backed up with photographic proof, that Mickey Mantle used other player’s bats almost as often as he did his own. Often a uniform number, found painted or in black marker, has a style that is indicative of that player in that we have photographically documented the style of that number and it is often as distinctive as the player’s signature. This is usually found on famous player’s bats in which numerous photo’s and documented examples can be found such as the famous 21 of Roberto Clemente, Mays 24, Mantle’s number 7 (found mostly on mid 60’s gamers) Banks tiny little number 14 which is not often visible on first inspection because of its diminutive size, Hank Aaron’s distinctive number 44 and Eddie Mathew’s number 41. Some players wrote their name on the knob in marker such as Roger Maris (another player characteristic that is well documented in photographs).
When a number or name on the knob is so distinctive and characteristic to that player, this is considered a value added point of authenticity. When that number appears vintage but we have no documented examples to compare it to, then it is duly noted but is often not given any extra value points because it is not a photographically documented number style. This usually does not present a problem when we are talking about a bat of a player such as Johnny Logan or Andy Pafko but can present a problem when the bat in question is a Jackie Robinson or a Ted Williams as numbers are often added after the fact to give more value to the piece. This usually does not come into play until the 1950’s as it is quite rare to find a pre war bat with a player number on the knob or barrel.
Another player trait to be examined is ball and/or stitch marks. Let’s first delineate the difference. Ball marks can be the swelling or flattening of the grain caused by the repeated meeting of ball to bat (the norm for pre war bats in which the old ash and hickory had a harder surface and one in which deep stitch or lace marks are hard to decipher), they can be the lifted ink from the ball, (found mostly on the post 1970 bats) or simply denting to the barrel surface in which the ball met the bat with the smooth area of the ball instead of a seam. Lace and stitch marks found on the barrel of a bat are just that, the actual imprint that is left of the lacing pattern, often deeply imbedded, a sign that a very fast moving baseball was squarely met with a very strong swing.
This brings us to hitting surface, the area above, below or on back of the barrel beneath the center brand. It is a common misconception that the ball players go to the plate with the barrel facing straight up and as such, if most of the ball marks are found above the barrel label, the player hit right handed and if they are found below the barrel label, then hit was a lefty. Several years ago, Robert Edwards Auctions had an incredible pre 1921 Babe Ruth bat that met every criteria for a killer early gamer, 40 plus ounces, 36”, the best wood, perfect dimensions, everything you could ask for, EXCEPT, the entire area above the barrel brand had been hand scored and flattened from some thunderous hits. Pundits cried foul, couldn’t possibly have been used by Ruth who batted lefty since the marks were indicative of a rigthty, right? WRONG, a very thorough examination of dozens of photographs of Ruth batting showed that he clearly had a penchant for going to the plate with the label down, thus creating most of the hit marks above the barrel label. Now this does not mean that if you have a Ruth gamer with ball marks below the label or on the back that it is no good, absolutely not, just that a common misconception had been dispelled and saved a great bat from being labeled a dog based on this misconception.
Misconceptions, often not based on any solid evidence, spreading like wildfire amongst the hobby, have killed more great bats than any bad catalog description. After examining every Joe DiMaggio photograph that we could find of him batting, we found that fully 25% of those photographs show him with the label anywhere but up. Numerous situations can result in the bat turning in ones hands such as the pitch, sweat, or the situation. I find it inconceivable to believe that in a clutch situation, a player is more focused on the bat position than the pitch. Therefore, in our examination, ball marks and their concentration are duly noted, not qualified. What was the bat position of many Hall of Famers such as Coombs, Lazzeri, Roush, Waner, etc, etc. etc.? Not enough evidence survived to determine any reliable pattern for those type players let alone stars and journeymen. Even with the more modern players in which almost every at bat is documented, you will find that in most cases, ball marks will be found about the entire hitting area rather than in one concentrated label up or label down spot.
Another trait duly noted on game bat worksheets is that of cleat marks but to my knowledge, even though they are found on a vast majority of game bats, only one player has distinctive cleats marks on his well used and documented game bats and that would be Ty Cobb. Well known for the area of numerous cleat marks extending from barrel end up 3-4”, making this a distinctive player trait for Cobb. This does not mean that a Cobb bat that has few cleat marks is no good, just that most of the well used and documented examples display this trait.
Taping patterns on the handle are another area that is cause for strict examination. I would not want a game bat in my collection of Duke Snider, Sammy Sosa, or Ken Griffey Jr. without the tell tale tape pattern found on most of their gamers. Yet, Johnny Mize related to me years ago that he never went to the plate without a taped bat yet he owned several game bats sans tape. You will often find bats of Gehrig and DiMaggio with several rings of tape, a good sign but not a definite characteristic. Cobb usually used either a series of rings or a complete tape job on most of his gamers but several photographs exist of him at the plate sans tape. We have a picture of Joe Jackson in 1916 at the plate wielding a cork grip bat. Different styles for various situations but none of which can be considered either a negative or a positive as to that bat being good or bad based solely on tape patterns.
Bat rack marks are another trait found on most post war game bats but if the rack color does not match the team of the player, it simply means that that particular bat was used on the road. Rack marks and their color are duly noted but are never a qualifier as to a particular player characteristic. Prior to the Second World War, most bats were just laid out in front of the dugout so bat rack marks would not even be an issue.
Hitting surfaces and handles that exhibit scoring are traits that are well documented on player bats of such stars as Roberto Clemente and Stan Musial. In dealing with Cubs bats from the 1960’s, the famous “Yosh” marks found written in marker on the sweet spot of the barrel ( model and length written in black marker) are essential in placing that bat in the Cub dugout. Given a Banks bat with Yosh marks and his tell-tale little marker 14 on the knob given that the bat shows good use and matches records, is as good, if not better, than a bat sans those traits with a letter from some unknown bat boy or front office exec.
These observations are mentioned with regards to specific player traits that are well documented for a certain player is often as definitive and valuable as a letter. As such, these bats will often grade as high as a lettered example in that the bat itself needs no provenance letter yet these are exceptions and not the norm. In most cases, player characteristics are just not personal enough to add any points to a bat nor are they specific enough to pinpoint it to having been solely used by that player. Therefore, each trait is duly noted and compared with documented examples and an evaluation is rendered taking into consideration all physical evidence. From there, a logical conclusion based on absolute facts, not preconceived notions, is rendered and a grade given. Player traits will always be a hot bed topic and I hope this explanation of the work that goes into a bat evaluation will better help you understand what can or cannot be determined.
Until next time, David Bushing