The good old days or were they? Looking back at the state of the memorabilia hobby when I first began collecting during the early 90’s, I shake my head at how incredibly different the times were. Often times, we collectors are heard saying, “If I knew then, what I know now, I would never have to work again.” While this is probably true in all facets of life, it is no different in the game used bat world where prices were shockingly cheap. The growth of the hobby and appreciation in value are all great signs and hopefully indicators of times to come. However, the old days had its challenges as well. Think no internet, cell phones or technology. No bat ordering records or authenticators. It truly was the Wild Wild West. Rules were few and far between and you never knew what you were going to get. Purchasing game used bats through newspaper/magazine publications such as the widely popular, bi-monthly “Sports Collectors Digest” was both fun and dangerous. To say that the descriptions of your purchases were brief is a gross understatement. Often times, incomplete sentences of code words such as “crked/uncracked, vg, good use” were all you got in the description. You were relying on the reputation of the dealer and/or a brief conversation with the dealer over the phone discussing what he thought of the bat. “The bat shows nice use and the crack’s not that bad”. That is about all you got. So although prices were shockingly cheap, you were susceptible to buying low quality or flat out bogus bats. Make no mistake about it, if you have been in the hobby since the 90’s, you have been a victim of buying a bogus bat. It simply was the way of the times and somewhat a right of passage or paying your dues. Player shipping records from Louisville Slugger were not available to the public yet or even to authenticators. We take for granted the fine work that John Taube and Vince Malta have done in making the shipping records available to the public for most super star players. The “Anaconda Kaye” era of ’86-’89 flooded the hobby with player branded bats that were simply pro stock bats for minor league players or retail models yet look strikingly similar to actual pro gamers. One of my favorite gifts as a kid was a Tony Gwynn game used bat from my parents one Christmas. I never thought my parents would pony up the money for a Gwynn bat, but they surprised me with a beautiful, hickory LVS T141 signature model bat with great game use, pine tar, taped handle and a bold gold signature on the sweet spot, no doubt an authentic Gwynn autograph. My prized possession. As I scoured photographs, baseball cards and magazines of Gwynn during my youth, I noticed a common theme, he swung hickory LVS during his rookie season, black Adirondacks during the ’84 & ’85 season and only swung blonde LVS and two-tone black/natural LVS from ’86 on (he ended up swinging all black LVS at the very end of his career). As I read Tony’s book and did more research, I noticed that he always swung a short bat, either 32.5” or 33” and I never saw him using the criss cross style tape job that my bat had. I had my suspicions about the bat but nevertheless, tried to convince myself that it was the real deal. The bat had a legitimate signature on the sweet spot, why would Tony sign a bat that was not his? It also came with a LOA from the auction house. I held onto the bat and enjoyed it for years, all while suspicious of its authenticity. Then the National Sports Collectors Convention came to Anaheim in 2006. I had my chance to bring my bat to John Taube’s booth. I brought the bat in a bat tube, excited to have John look at it. On my way to the booth, I was introduced to legendary bat collector Marshall Fogel via a mutual friend. Marshall was very nice and took the time to check out my bat as well, he said he didn’t see anything wrong with it and it looked good to him. That made me feel better. Then I walked over to John’s booth and I showed the bat to Vince Malta. Vince took all of two seconds to glance at the bat and said nope, no good, Tony never swung that model, then walked away. The assistant who introduced me to Vince stood there with a consoling look on her face, like she was sorry about the news and also sorry that Vince seemed to care less about delivering the blow before carrying on with his duties. My suspicions were confirmed. I was bummed and such were the risks of collecting during these murky times in the hobby. When you receive the news that an item you buy is not what you thought it was or not authentic, most collectors I know cannot even stand the site of the item anymore and such was the case with this bat. Although the bat was a gift from my parents, the site of the bat would anger me so I decided to sell the bat, with full disclosure of its legitimacy/history and put those funds towards a legitimate Gwynn gamer.
On a positive note, one of the real success stories during these days was my somewhat blind bidding on a Paul Molitor bat. I had my mother phone-in and bid on an auction for me and I ended up winning a Paul Molitor game used 1992 Cooper bat with my allowance. Although the bat had a very brief and limited description, I lucked out and received a very nice, quality Molitor gamer. As you can see in the photo below, pictures and descriptions were extremely limited.
Overall, the hobby was in its infant stage back then and odds are, you were able to find way more good deals than bad. Many collectors have come and gone since then but the ones who have rode the wave of the ups and downs have been able to amass very impressive collections. It is always a great time when I connect with fellow collectors who were around during this era and swapping stories- some good, some bad- but nonetheless, ones that add to the nostalgia of collecting.