The minor leagues got game bats too!
Not a week goes by that I do not get a letter such as this; Dear Dave, I have an H&B 125 model bat with nothing on the knob and the name Jolley stamped in block letters on the barrel. I know from your book that this is a game model bat dating from the 1921-30 era. I checked the baseball guide and found that Smead Jolley was the only major league ball player that matched the era of my bat and that he played from 1922-38. Is it safe to assume that the bat I have once belonged to Smead?
Well, we can tell you a few things about this bat. The fact that the bat is a block letter last name only bat, means that it is likely that the player did not have a signature contract with H&B at that time. We can also tell you that you are correct in the fact that only Smead played in the major leagues during the era of your bat’s manufacture. What we can also tell you is that Smead Jolley did have a contract with H&B but that the bat could pre date his contract. Oh yes, and one more fact, Smead was not the only Jolley who played organized ball during this era, lest we forget Jim Jolley. Jim Jolley you may say, who is that? Can’t find him in the Baseball Encyclopedia? Well, with a little diligent research, you will find that a Jim Jolley played from 1922 thru 1923 with the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League, a pitcher who went 3-3 in 1922 and 1-3 in 1923 for the team that placed second in the Coast League in 1922 but fell to last place in 1923. That was it for Jim in organized ball, at least as far as our research can tell.
It has long been a common mistake that collectors make that if they date their bat to a certain era and there was only one major league ball player from that time, then this bat must be a bat from that player yet that analogy could not be further from the truth. The real truth is that H&B made game bats for just about anybody who ordered one regardless of how far down the organized ladder they fall. Everybody who has been collecting for a while has made this error at least once. About a year ago, I bought a 1980-82-era block letter Perry bat that I assumed was Gaylord or worst case, Jim Perry. Well, I bought the bat before checking the records and low and behold, neither Jim nor Gaylord had ever ordered the model I was holding. It wasn’t until I got hold of some minor league records that I now realize that it could have been Glynn (1982 Yankees Gulf Coast League), Gerald (Braves and Cardinals), Ken (1972-82 never making it above triple league International League), Ron (1980-81 Glenn Falls of the Eastern League), Steve (1979-84 Triple A Pacific Coast League highest level), or Scott who played in 1981-82 with the Rangers of the Gulf Coast League.
Take a bat with the last name only Lombardi. It is possible that you have a pre contract bat of Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi. To determine, you would have to date the bat and if it has a model number, it could be checked with records. If not, then you would need to know the style of bat Ernie used, the dimensions, and when Ernie signed a contract. Otherwise, you could be holding a bat used by either Vic (41-59), Lou (1938) or Frank (1942-48). Sound complicated, it is. Evan a fairly scarce name may have 3-4 different players in organized ball, both major and minor league, at the same time.
And lest you think that only block letter bats were made for minor league ball players, think again. Louisville Slugger made hundreds, if not thousands, of signature model bats for players that never made it into the major leagues. I have signature model bats of players such as Rudy Tanner, Sam Suplizio, Jacques Monette, John Malangone, Bob Meisner, Jim Engleman, and Les Sheehan just to name a few that I have in stock presently or recently. The period of minor league bats spans the gamut from beginning to current and even most of the big stars of today had bats made for them before they entered the major leagues. We have had pre major league bats of Ripken Jr., Munson, Bonds, and Griffey, just to name a few. At what point did a player get specially ordered bats and when did they get offered a signature contract is a question that must be answered for each and every player.
To spin the possibilities into a positive spin, it makes for some interesting collectibles. I sold the Engleman and Meisner bats to a former player in the minor leagues who not only played with Engleman and Meisner but knew them both as well. Given the rarity of two such bats, it might seem like finding a needle in a haystack but here they were, probably the first time these two bats had seen the light of day since the 1950’s and to my knowledge, the only examples to ever surface. Forget the monetary value, which doesn’t even warrant a blip on the collecting radar but for the former players, family members or minor league collector, a rare find indeed. The minor leagues have legions of collectors, especially the Pacific Coast League which was the major league of the west coast before 1958. There is also a huge following for collectors for teams in the International League such as the Buffalo Bison’s, Montreal Royals, or Newark Bears. The Southern Association has a large contingent of collectors seeking bats from the Atlanta Crackers, New Orleans Pelicans, and the Nashville Vols. Texans love the Texas League with teams such as Houston Buffalos, San Antonio Missions, and the Tulsa Oilers.
There are collectors for player model bats from every organized league and their hunt for examples is far tougher than their counterparts who collect bats from any major league team. The reason of course is that bats of these minor league players are, in most cases, far rarer than their major league cousins which adds much more challenge in that collecting field. I recently wrote an article about collecting common player bats and the reason behind their rarity and this holds true, and is even more magnified, with regards to player model bats of guys who never made it to the majors. Couple low output along with low survival rates and you have a truly scarce collectible. And it’s not about the money, it is all about the hunt. The money spent to collect, lets say, game bats of players from the Texas League, will ultimately be far less than any contemporary major league team yet the challenge it presents is increased a hundred fold.
Until next time,