I have never been a bat dealer. My buying and selling has been at the collector level and centered around Cincinnati Reds players to a large extent. I have followed the bat market for a number of years and have always been amazed at the price difference between early Spalding and Hillerich and Bradsby bats. Before the conspiracy theorists begin getting all warmed up, I will state publicly that I have never owned an early Spalding bat nor do I have a stash I am waiting to pounce on to buy on the cheap and then flip for mad money.
In talking to people who do collect bats over the years,the basis for their shying away from them by and large falls into either “there just isn’t the documentation you have with the H&B factory records” and or “you never see pictures of players using them.” The purpose of this piece is not to start a rush on Spalding bats. If that was my intent, I would have been buying them before publishing this article. Rather it is to offer some insights or things for people to consider before they dismiss early 20th Century bats out of hand.
Long before there was “the Donald”,there was “the Albert”; Albert Goodwill Spalding. Spalding was the dominate manufacturer of baseball related equipment in the late 19th and early 20th century without question. Spalding began supplying baseballs to the National League back in 1879. In 1880, Reach was contracted by Spalding to manufacturer Spalding trademark balls. In 1885, Reach sold the majority interest in his company to Spalding. In 1891, Spalding purchased Wright & Ditson. If a baseball was being bought and used in a major league game, regardless of what brand name was on the ball,it was a Spalding product.
If you consider uniforms worn by professional clubs prior to 1920,then I think you have to give the market edge to Spalding and previously mentioned Spalding owned companies. To help illustrate this let me offer a few reference points. In my data base of uniforms,I have some 33 major league uniforms from the period of 1900-1919. The break down is as follows:
Horace Partridge: 7
Wright & Ditson:4
Unknown:3(these are Cubs/White Sox which are known to have used both Spalding and Wilson)
Draper – Maynard:1
Spalding or Spalding owned companies account for almost 73% of the grouping.
This same trend is also evident,although without the same time qualifier, in the introduction to Jeremy T. Chrabascz Masters Thesis done as part of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Jeremy, as part of his graduate studies, actually conducted an inventory of the Hall of Fames uniforms as part of his thesis titled “Dressing America’s Game: A Guide the History of making Major League Uniforms.” I am familiar with this work as I helped support it after having my named provided to Jeremy by Mr. Peter Clark, the Curator of Collections at Cooperstown. What Jeremy’s numbers show is of uniform items in the Hall of Fame’s collection, Spalding one again leads the way:
All others = 34%
But as we all know,there is more to baseball than a ball a uniform worn in the game. Consider baseball gloves as well. If you have not picked up a copy, I would recommend snagging one of the Vintage Baseball Glove Catalog Source Books by Joe Phillips. This guide is just what it says. A compendium of catalogs showing what the various companies offered in the way of baseball gloves by year, model, and price. This is very helpful in identifying top of the line or professional quality gloves over the years. Even the most cursory look will once again show Spalding’s dominance in a specific aspect of having the ability and desire to equip the National Pastime in the early 20th Century.
So where does this leave us with respect to bats? Spalding and his collection of companies were producing what appears to be the lion’s share of balls, uniforms, and gloves. We also know by his business practice of buying up rival companies that “the Albert” was man after “the Donald’s” own heart. I found it interesting at first to consider why Spalding would have acquired all of these various firms (and there were others), but kept them operating under separate names. Mr.
Chrabascz attributes this to “his (Spalding) being aware of the public sensitivity to monopolies.”
But Spalding was not simply content on providing product, but also influencing the brand name recognition through the publication of “Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide.” As expected, these volumes included advertising for Spalding products and those of the companies he owned. It is with this concept of market share and brand name recognition that we will begin to look at upstart period rival Hillerich and Bradsby. In Bob Hill’s book, “The Crack of the Bat: The Louisville Slugger Story,” the author gives insight to what may have been the state of affairs between H&B and manufacturing giant Spalding. On page 51 it is offered that, “In 1919, Hillerich and Bradsby launched an aggressive, forced advertising and promotional campaign to overcome what was still a name recognition problem.”
Remember at this time, H&B was working on extending its product line for bats. If they needed to work on name recognition with respect to bats, who were they in competition with for market share? Given what we have seen for balls, uniforms and gloves and overall market dominance, the likely candidate is Spalding.
Now remember that H&B did not become a giant overnight. They employed many of the same practices as Spalding with respect to buying smaller outfits and introducing publications to support marketing through efforts like the Famous Slugger Yearbooks. However, these endeavors are not part of the period from 1900-1919 in any large scale measure.
While it is true that there is not the Spalding production information available to the degree that it is for H&B during the period of 1900-1919, you have to remember that the H&B information is far from complete as well. My point in all this is to show that an opinion that major league players did not use Spalding bats is equal or greater number based on the fact that H&B production information has survived in greater detail than that of Spalding ignores a much larger and well documented market trend which is supported by Hillerich and Bradsby’s own need for name recognition in 1919.
The fact of the matter is, players were using bats made by someone in the period of 1900-1919. Because of Spalding’s previously mentioned and well documented dominance, here is where their store model bat catalogs and general manufacturers’ characteristics can come into play. These enable you to see what players’ names will appear on retail bats manufactured by Spalding and in what sizes they were offered. These bats were available in whole number increments such as 32”,33”,34” and so on. Also the manufacturer of these bats will not feature hand turned knobs.
Now consider if a player was using a Spalding bat and then later switched to H&B,it is not unreasonable to assume that he would desire H&B to make those bats in terms of length, weight, barrel or knob shape/size that he was accustomed to using as a Spalding or other product. What I think this does on some level,is enables the hobby to view a players H&B bats in a retrospective manner to possible Spalding models.
The next point I would like to address deals with the second reason that has been offered by collectors as to why the pass on Spalding bats. That being “you can never see pictures of the players using them.” Once again I would ask collectors to consider what this statement actually entails. It means in a very real sense that based on looking at a photograph, they can’t tell if he is using a Spalding bat. I would submit to you that if the basis for this opinion is that because they were using H&B bats during the 1900-1919 period, you may want to reconsider for two reasons.
As I stated in a previous article titled “What do We Really Know About Baseball Bats,” I offered an observation about photographic bat information. In looking at
“The Image of Their Greatness: An Illustrated History of Baseball from 1900 to Present” in an “empirical manner”, one thing becomes very clear. Consider that this book devotes some 221 plus pages to cover the period from 1900 to 1950. Of that:
Of those 221 pages,194 feature pictures…
Of those 194 picture pages,79 of them include bats…
Of those 79 bat pictures,they contain approximately 168 bats…
Of those 168 bats,only 30 permit you to discern a manufacturer by the label…
What this means is that only about 18% of the available data provides any relevant information. The converse is that we don’t know what brand or manufacturer is found within 82% of the bats we can see. Does this mean that any certain percentage from this unknown sample have to be of non- Hillerich and Bradsby manufacturers? Of course it does not, but once it again it makes blanket statements about how they where never used not an entirley defendable position.
There is one other thing I would like to highlight and this involves a long time favorite of mine as a Cincinnati Reds fan, Heine Groh and his bottle bat. There is a wonderful picture of Groh on page 75 of Donald Honig’s book, “Baseball: The Illustrated History of America’s Game.” The picture shows Groh with low and behold his unsurprising and famous “Bottle Bat.” What may be surprising to some is that the word SPALDING is stamped clearly in the center brand area for all to see. Of course there are some who will say this is a posed picture, and while that is true, I can’t help but point out that this bat does not simply feature a player characteristic like tape or cleat marks, but that the bat itself in Groh’s case is a player characteristic. The larger “CREDS” crest and the absence of red trim on the button line, according to Mark Okkonen’s, “Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century: The Official Major League Baseball Guide” would seem to indicate the photo is from the 1914 season. It could in fact be a bit later as indicated by the photo of Reds Manager Pat Moran in the 1919 World Series as seen on page 53 of “Reds in Black and White: 100 Years of Cincinnati Reds Images” by Greg Rhodes and Mark Stang.
In either case,Groh became an H&B endorser on September 28th, 1920. This probably had something to do with the fact that the Reds obtained a position of national prominence in the World Series the previous year. I found this date interesting to note for a couple of reasons. First ,why a full year after the 1919 World Series? Did Groh have some sort of relationship with another manufacturer that would prevent him from endorsing H&B products? I found this date on page 36 of “The MastroNet Reference and Price Guide for Collecting Game Used Baseball Bats” by Dave Bushing and Dan Knoll.
Pages 35-36 of this work features the names and dates of some 93 players with respect to their endorsement dates. While the authors only reference this information with respect to its use in establishing what players may have signature model bats and when those might begin to appear, I thought about it in the same vein as I viewed the Groh signing. We know as stated above that H&B was looking for ways to increase name recognition. They hit upon this in 1905 with the signing of Wagner. Why is it that it took so long to sign so many other players? Consider this list of players of prominence in relation to on field achievement versus delay in signing with Hillerich & Bradsby:
Harry Heilmann signed his endorsement contract on October 2nd 1920. By this time, Heilmann was a fairly well established player in the American League with the Detroit Tigers and had been since 1914.
Harry Hooper signed his contract with H&B on August 28th 1921. Hooper had been a regular with the Boston Red Sox since 1909 and a part of four World Series teams in 1912,1915,1916, and 1918.
Rabbitt Maranville,another well established Red Sox player since 1913 signed his endorsement deal with Hillerich and Bradsby on July 7th 1924.
Sam Rice had already logged a number of .300+ seasons with the Washington Nationals prior to his signing on September 11th 1921.
Ray Schalk signed his endorsement contact with H&B on August 22nd 1921. He had be a regular behind the plate for the White Sox since 1913 and part of tow World Series teams in 1917 and 1919.
Zack Wheat had been a solid hitting outfielder with Brooklyn since 1909, including a league leading .335 in 1918. Yet he was not signed until August 4th 1921.
These guys,like Groh signed late with H&B. But unlike Groh, all of these guys are Hall of Famers. Once again, why the delay?
Getting back to the original reason brought up the Groh bat. First is yes, we have a picture of a professional player with a Spalding bat that clearly shows his player characteristics. I also think that this picture itself has some bearing for why we don’t see more players with Spalding bat. Consider this simple experiment, and yes kids,this is safe to try at home.
For the purpose of illustration I have placed a strip of paper in the approximate height of the word SPLADING on the Groh bat over the center brand label of a 1921-1931 H&B bat. While I know some might say I am comparing a pre-1920 Spalding bat to a post 1920 H&B bat, I think that after looking at the Groh photograph, you will agree that the word SPALDING is no where near as high as an H&B center brand is as measured from top to bottom.
The tape on the bat is just over ½” inches in height. It has been affixed along the same axis as the H&B center brand. As an example, a similar Edd Roush bat branded the in the same manner featured the world SPALDING at 3 3/4″ long and 1/2″ high. What you will see in this series of rolling pictures is that the SPLADING would not appear in all the pictures in which an H&B bat would have been able to have been identified. This must be considered relative to both bats and in conjunction what bat images show us in general.
Here is what I think we can safely say:
1. The fast majority of bat pictures don’t permit us to really know what manufacturer of bat a player is holding.
2. Even if we were able to identify a bats manufacturer, there is a better chance we would be able to identify it as an H&B bat before we would a Spalding. By that I mean even if both Spalding and H&B bats were produced in similar quantities,based on the roll of a bat in a photograph,you are much more likely to identify a bat as an H&B product than a Spalding.
Both of these statements have nothing to do with which bat may have been the dominate bat of the day. Therefore frequency of identification may not be the decisive indicator it was once thought to be by those who assume that because you don’t Spalding bats as often as H&B they weren’t used as often
Here is what I hope you will do. Go back and pick any other book that has a significant number of bat photographs as see what percentage of those images enable you to discern the bats manufacturer.
Without going on too much of a tangent, I would like to address why collectors seem to not to have the same level of reluctance with Adirondack bats as they doing with early Spalding. It may have something to do with time. Adirondacks as a product exist in greater quantity as surviving examples since they where not produced until the 1940s. Also since the time of the beginning of their production, both photographic techniques have improved and the number of those images has survived in far greater quantity. Additionally, the fact that Adirondack also produced World Series and All Star bats offers year specific gamers for comparison. I highlight all of this, as they too are without the same level of recorded production information as Hillerich and Bradsby/Louisville Slugger.
As I said at the start of this article, my goal was not to create a market for a stash of Spalding bats that I have. But rather to offer what might be some helpful insights on why I think early Spalding bats are undervalued as it relates to collectors concerns. I would ask folks to consider:
1. Spalding documented market dominance within the period across the sport.
2. Why Spalding bats do not show up in photographs within the larger context of a comparison to H&B bats and the number of photographs that actually indicate any bat manufacturer.
3. Hillerich & Bradsby’s self acknowledgement for the problem of name recognition in 1919.
4. Players had to be using something before H&B bats and what they may have based their initial H&B bat orders off of.
5. The value of being able identify and exclude store model bats.
6. Consider player characteristics,even those that may not be as obvious as the Heine Groh (bend that h around and you have Grob).
7. Players of prominence may have come late to endorsing H&B bats because of either previous agreements with or a preference for another brand of bats.
Do I expect you to rush out and begin to corner the market on pre-1920 Spalding bats? No I don’t, but I hope you may begin to see them in a bit of a different light. I know this would make “the Albert” happy.
MEARS Auth, LLC