What Are Off-Brands and Why Does it Matter?
Louisville Slugger has been producing baseball bats for over a 100 years in this country and are as iconic of an American brand as you will find. Louisville Slugger will always be the bat brand of choice among the vast majority of bat collectors, and therefore, will always sell for a premium. But which other brands are considered "main" brands and which ones are considered "off" brands and what impact does this have on the value of the bat?
The two most formidable bat brands throughout the 1950's, '60's and '70's were Hillerich and Bradsby and Adirondack, now known as Louisville Slugger and Rawlings. There were other, less popular brands such as Hanna Batrite and Spalding, but no brands had the staying power like the Big 2. During the 1980's however, new bat brands made their way into Major League Baseball, such as Mizuno, Cooper and Worth. All three of these brands became widely popular among big league players, especially Cooper bats, which many players believed had harder wood coming from North of the border in Canada.
The 1990's saw a baseball bat manufacturer boom, numerous brands penetrated big league clubhouses such as Glomar, Hoosier, Sticks By Stan, Kissimmee Sticks, SSK, Young Bat Co, KC Slammer, Easton and Nike. Then the "maple" boom came in the late '90's and early '00's with brands such as Sam Bat, X Bat, Old Hickory, Zinger, Nokona, Trinity, Route 66 and the more recent brands such as Marucci, Victus and Dovetail to name a few.
Despite all of these brands becoming popular among players, collectors still preferred only collecting two brands, Louisville Slugger and Rawlings. Why is this? To be honest, I am not entirely sure other than these two brands have a much richer tradition and are more intertwined in the American fiber and history of the game. These brands may remind collectors of their childhood when they swung store model H&B and Adirondack bats in the sandlots across America. Some of these other brands may have a cheaper look to them or as was the case with many players, these other brands were experimented by the players for a short period of time, while they were in a slump, or during Spring Training or for a season or two before defaulting back to their trustworthy H&B model.
When collecting bats, you always want to put your money towards an H&B or Rawlings for players pre- 2000. It is simply a safer investment as the bat will appeal to more buyers and typically sell for a premium over other brands. Buying an "off" brand is a way to find a more affordable option of a player that you covet.
Let's take a look at a couple players as examples. Paul Molitor and Frank Thomas. Two of the greatest right handed hitters of all time, both HOFers and both players are criminally undervalued in my opinion. Both players began their careers swinging Louisville Sluggers, just like almost every other player as they work their way into the big leagues. Molitor's bat of choice however once he hit the prime of his career during the mid 1980's through early 1990's, were Cooper bats. He swung Coopers almost religiously. Then, at the tail end of his career, Molitor switched back to Louisville Sluggers once Cooper got out of the baseball business. Now, a well used Paul Molitor Cooper bat, his bat of choice from his prime, will typically have less demand in the market than a high-end, Louisville Slugger, either early career or late career. Collectors, simply love collecting Louisville Sluggers. Don't get me wrong, his Cooper bats still carry value, but you won't find the same kind of fury or desire to chase down a Cooper as you will one of his Louisville Sluggers. I personally, love Cooper bats. I think they have great eye appeal with the colorful rings and they were immensely popular during their time. I would prefer a Molitor Cooper over one of his Louisville Sluggers.
When it comes to the Big Hurt, Frank Thomas, Thomas swung Louisville Sluggers early on and then switched to Worth bats during his prime years. In the early 1990's when he won back-to-back MVP awards, he was swinging Worth bats. Then Worth went out of business and Frank went to another big brand, Rawlings during the late 1990's. During the early '00's however, Thomas switched over to Hoosier bats as he loved the feel of them and also loved the service he got as their biggest client. Frank Thomas Rawlings bats are by far, the most desirable bats of Frank's playing career, followed by his early career LVS despite the fact that Frank won his MVP's while swinging Worth bats and reached many career milestones while swinging Hoosier bats. The difference in value between a similar quality Hoosier and Rawlings Thomas bat is going to be four figures. It goes to show that the brand of the bat you are purchasing can play a vital role in the value, demand and ability for that bat to appreciate in value.
Now as I mentioned above, there was the maple bat boom of the late 1990's and early 2000's. Barry Bonds made such an impact with his Sam Bats and really put maple bats on the map, along with the visual appeal of the Sam Bat design, that Sam Bat became quickly accepted and the first new brand to break into- the accepted brands group among collectors along with LVS and Rawlings in my opinion. These bats were new to the hobby, looked awesome and arguably the greatest hitter of all time ditched LVS, tried a bunch of different brands and then fell in love with Sam Bats. Sam Bats would then sell for a premium, for all players in the hobby. Barry Bonds' Sam Bats typically sell for 2-3x what his other brands sell for. Go figure. The only other brand to ditch the "off brand" label in recent years would be Marucci. Marucci is another brand that became so widely popular among big leaguers and the fact that many players or former players have an ownership stake in the brand, let collectors know that this brand was not going anywhere and gave the brand instant credibility. Marucci had a clean, unique look to it and collectors will be OK paying a premium for them. The third current brand which I would say is on the border of ditching the "off brand" label, and may already be there, is Old Hickory. When the greatest player of a generation swings your brand religiously, then you know they are doing something right. Mike Trout single handedly saved Old Hickory and made them relevant again after they made a splash in the early 2000's with Albert Pujols but began to fade until Trout came along. Now that guys like Juan Soto and Nolan Arenado are swinging Old Hickory, and collectors are already paying crazy premiums for Trout's bats, Old Hickory may be officially out of the "off-brand" group among collectors.
So what makes certain brands acceptable and desirable among collectors over others? Who knows? There are many brands that I have felt have very appealing looks to them over the years, such as Cooper and Mizuno, yet the demand simply has not been there like the original Big 2 and the current, Big 3. There are players out there like Manny Ramirez, Vlad Guerrero and Gary Sheffield who used every brand under the sun- you can find their "off-brand" bats for absurdly cheap prices. It is important to know, that it may be worth saving and spending a little extra money for a quality LVS, Rawlings or Sam Bat of those players in case you ever need to sell the bat and hope to get your money back. The off-brands are a tremendous opportunity however to find legitimate game used bats from star players at a greatly discounted price. What do you guys think, do you agree with the brands listed as non- off brands?