One of the greatest pleasures derived from being a member of the authenticating team at MEARS is that I get to examine, and I mean really examine, some of the greatest sports memorabilia in private hands. One of the most asked questions when I am meeting someone and the subject of employment comes up pertains to the subject of the greatest game used memorabilia that I have seen. Well, I have seen a lot over the last twenty years but for the purpose of this article, I will limit my comments to pieces that I have actually examined for MEARS. Yes, I have seen and held some great shirts in both private and public collections but to say that I really examined and studied them would not be a fair statement so I will confine myself to the ten most exciting items that I have had the privilege to examine and grade, items that can be found in the MEARS population report.
Having been asked to render an opinion on just about every high ticket and high profile piece coming into the hobby in the last couple of years, it was a bit difficult to round it down to just ten items. I picked these items not based solely on value but on aesthetics and historical significant. The fact that most of these items have traded hands in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars just further re-enforces the notion that the best stuff brings the best prices but that was not my major criteria. In addition, the following list does not reflect an order of importance but each piece listed below is on my list for very good reason so here goes.
1. How could I not list the game bat that was used by Babe Ruth to hit the first home run in Yankee stadium, autographed by him and fully documented. It was given away as a prize to a lucky youngster in California and remained in the family for over 80 years before coming to the auction block last year at Sotheby’s. It hammered at well over a million dollars and tied the famous T206 Wagner card as the most expensive piece of baseball memorabilia behind the now infamous and over priced Mark McGwire home run ball (my list of the most over priced and over hyped memorabilia would take more than one article) The bat was a beautiful behemoth and given that the House That Ruth Built was christened with this very piece of lumber, this has to place it in anybodies top ten list of game used items.
2. Let’s stick with Ruth while I am on the subject. If there has ever been a finer Babe Ruth jersey than the circa 1932 road potential called shot shirt, I’ve yet to see it. Sold last year for almost a million dollars, it could very well be the shirt Ruth wore in one of the most talked about events in baseball folklore. Did he point or didn’t he. Depends on whom you asked. Every Yankee swears he did and every member of the Cubs who were there for game five of the 1932 series at Wrigley and were asked flatly denies it. The Babe was, for my money, the greatest player of all time and the greatest home run hitter when the home run wasn’t even a catch phrase. Did he call the shot? I’ll go with the Babe, still bigger than life over fifty years since his passing; there will never be another. To own the bat and this jersey would be a collection in itself and worth more than most homes on today’s market.
3. One can’t talk about Babe Ruth without talking about the current, and in my mind, the all time Home Run King, regardless of any records surpassed by the current crop of Home Run chasers. Hank did it the hard way, without the help of any additives, unknown or otherwise. What better game used item could one want for their collection than the very first professional shirt worn by Hank? And that is just what is being offered for sale this summer at Sotheby’s, Hank Aaron’s 1954 road jersey. Some of you may know that Hank wore number 5 when he came up with the Braves in 1954 and that he played his first major league game on the road as well as hitting his first ever major league home run on the road. The offered shirt has signs of the original number 5, now removed, with the 44 on both sides just as it was changed in 1954. I do not view this as a number change per say since it was changed during the season for Hank and is just as he wore it that season. I consider it the most historic Hank Aaron jersey ever offered or will ever be offered. You have to add this incredible historic item from one of baseball’s all time class acts and the greatest home run hitter of all time to the dream collection. As for the value, priceless but one well-heeled bidder will eventually fill in the blank.
4. Let’s move to the mound for my next pick. I cannot believe that my next pick is in the same auction this summer with the Hank Aaron. The item I am referring to is the only known Walter Johnson game worn jersey in private hands, the other being forever locked in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The shirt is a late teens or early 20’s road with the simple “W” on each sleeve and the fine filigree stitching of “Johnson” in the collar. In absolutely stellar condition and coming from a teammate family member, this one has it all. If one had to pick the top five pitchers of all time, Walter Johnson would, or should be, on every list. One of the all time greats, his prowess on the mound has not diminished in over eight decades.
5. This would have to be the Roger Maris 1960 home jersey sold my Mastronet last year for over $350,000 and the shirt that was photo imaged as to having been the very shirt Maris wore when he hit number 61 in 61. Why was he wearing a 1960 shirt in 1961? Simple, the equipment manager kept one shirt of each player from the prior season in case one was needed. Why did Maris wear a year old shirt on this famous day? Who knows, but with the help and expertise of MEARS Auth, LLC in the study of photographs and matching areas on the shirt against such photos, it was a dead on ringer. We had been doing this type of imagery analysis for years but MEARS Auth, LLC took it to a new level and taught this old dog some new tricks and the results are irrefutable. This shirt, along with the Ruth and Aaron round out my dream team home run jersey collection without peer.
6. Let’s take a trip back in time when major league baseball didn’t cross the Mississippi and baseball on the left coast was as good a game of baseball as was being played in the east. Now lets take the most famous player who ever graced the field for the San Francisco Seals and you have my next dream collection pick. The Seals road jersey recently sold by Mastronet. Autographed, dated and once housed in the famous Barry Halper collection, this piece was a collectors dream, the earliest known shirt of the most heralded Yankee of the 1930-40’s. It didn’t hurt that the style was a thing to behold and the fact that PCL items captivate my interest due to their scarcity and the big name players that started, or ended, their Hall of Fame careers in that league. It sold for upwards of 60K but given the resources, I considered that a bargain for what it was.
7. While we are on the subject of Joltin’ Joe, I have to list an item that was near and dear to my heart. An item that caused such controversy as to rewrite the way in which not only I, but the industry in large, had to address the issue of potential conflicts of interest. It was business as usual until the prices started topping the six-figure mark and then, all eyes were upon us. This item is none other than the 56 game hit streak 1941 game used bat acquired by me from teammate Tommy Heinrich. The dust has settled and through provenance, photographs and factory records, have proved that our theory was correct (it took a while) even to the point of recently having a 1941 DiMaggio bat attributed to Spud Chandler having been given to him personally by Joe which had the same sanding on the handle and hit marks on all sides of the barrel just as the streak bat exhibited. This bat is historic in the baseball sense but is historic to me personally as it changed the nature of the way we did business and the way in which an item, and provenance, was viewed. It was expected to sell for under the 100 mark but shocked everyone when it soared to over 350K. Now residing in the Louisville Slugger museum, it represents the tool used to clout the greatest hitting streak ever amassed and a record that should stand for the ages. If one could add the Keltner game used glove given by the family to Joe DiMaggio and now being sold by Hunt auctions as part of the DiMaggio personal family collection, you would have another complete collection. I hope the powers to be add this piece to the Louisville Collection as they belong together.
8. I have to get off the Yankee bandwagon lest some of you readers think I am a Yankee fan. I am not but I appreciate greatness and have a sense of history and one cannot talk about baseball history without mentioning the Yankees and the colorful characters that roamed that stadium but I will move on but I am only traveling over the Hudson for my next pick. Coming up this summer is one of the best game used bats that I have ever graded and one that I would love to add to my dream collection. How does the game used bat of Jackie Robinson, sold by his wife Rachael, and dating to the first All Star game ever played that included not one, but three black baseball players (All members of the Brooklyn Dodgers) and it just happened to be his MVP season and played in his home field at Ebbetts, sound to you? Well, that’s what it is, a 1949 All Star game used Jackie Robinson bat with use and from his wife. One of my personal all time favorite players, not just for what he did in Brooklyn but for what he did for baseball, this bat has it all. I’ve no idea what it might bring this summer at Sotheby’s but I know I won’t be taking it home but some lucky Dodgers fan is sure going to make that trek back across the Hudson one happy camper albeit a bit poorer in the pocketbook.
9. My number 9 pick is another game used bat (surprise). This one is the Joe Jackson side written and vault marking rookie bat sold a couple of years back by Mastronet. An incredible item from one of the greatest, and most tragic, figures in baseball history. What makes this bat even more interesting is that for a time, some well-known hobby pundits said the bat was a fake, and that it was made up. But low and behold, one day while doing some work for the folks at Louisville Slugger, I came across a 1955 photograph of a bat display sponsored by H&B and what bat sat front and center in the dated photograph, you guessed it, this very bat, chipped knob and all which proved once and for all that while opinions are many, photographic evidence trumps them all. I supplied a copy of this photograph to the present day owner of the Jackson bat and he promised it to me in his will. Too bad I am older than he is. My father in law is a third generation White Sox fan and this bat would sure look good over his mantle.
10. For my last pick, I am going to list a jersey just for the shear fact that it was the most beautiful shirt I’ve ever held in my hands. Not earth shattering historic and made for a player of note but not one that you will find listed in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. My choice for most gorgeous shirt ever submitted has to the be the World Tour shirt sold last year by Heritage Gallery, that of noted back stop, Muddy Ruel. From the embroidered sleeve flags to the Chicago lettering on the front, you can have your Tiffany or Picasso, for sheer beauty, I’ll take this jersey and it doesn’t even have to look good with the furniture.
There you have it. I could go on for hours and by the time I stopped I would be listing items in my top 100 or maybe 200 or, who knows. I love it all and that’s what makes this job such a joy. And lest any of you out there think that I am retiring, no time soon. Who could ever offer me a job with so many perks and one with the proverbial next big thing just over the horizon just to keep my interest.
Until next time, David Bushing