Interview with Expert Authenticator Dave Grob, conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.
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In August 2021, a 1950 Jackie Robinson Jersey sold for over $4.2 million, a sale many collectors view as one catalyst in back of game used memorabilia’s recent surge. For collectible historians, the sale represents a far cry from the $50,000 that a 1949 Robinson jersey, consigned by Rachel Robinson, fetched in 1992 at the dawn of the sports memorabilia craze.
Collectable’s Senior Editor David Seideman caught up with the top expert in vintage baseball jerseys, Dave Grob, who explained in depth the potential and perils of investing in the shirts off players’ backs.
Hi, Dave. Welcome to Collectable U. We’re excited to have you because you’re the leading authority on vintage baseball uniforms as the head of SGC’s game-worn uniform authentication division. You’re also the co-author of Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game’s Greatest Heroes and Moments (Smithsonian Books), which was nominated for a prestigious Casey Award. I own this book and highly recommend it.
David: How long have you been authenticating baseball jerseys?
The whole thing started for me in the late 1980s when I left Cincinnati for active duty with the Army. I was collecting Reds game-used uniforms as a way to stay connected with my hometown team. As I started looking at uniforms, I noticed there was not much information available on them, and what little there was, was very inconsistent and did not appear to be backed up by any real or significant research. As such, one of my first projects was to build a database spreadsheet that captured hundreds of previously offered uniforms by team, year, player, home/road, size, and manufacturer. This initial work enabled me to see trends and begin to identify inconsistencies.
You authenticated the two most valuable and celebrated jerseys in the hobby: a 1928-1930 Babe Ruth that fetched $5.64 million in a 2019 Hunt auction and a Ruth $4.4 million circa 1920 jersey in SCP Auctions in 2012. Do the prices surprise you?
At first, both of those figures were staggering. Then upon reflection and considering what they were within the context, player, artifact, significance beyond the world of sports, and extreme low density (known surviving examples) as compared to something like a Honus Wagner T-206s the numbers made much more sense. I would estimate that the known population of Ruth jerseys in private collections is less than a dozen, including his coaches and special event uniforms. (By contrast, there are about 75 Wagners.)
How long did it take you to authenticate them and were there any challenges?
Both uniforms took weeks to complete. While I did not experience any real technical challenges, there is always the challenge and pressure associated with working on items of this magnitude.
Do you do the same thorough research for all your gloves?
To be honest, as for a couple of “real examples”, collectors need to know and understand that for the most part, I follow the same research and examination protocols for a 1920s Babe Ruth jersey that I do for a 1980s George Brett jersey. My work involves asking and answering a fairly common set of questions. What differs is the references and resources used to answer the question.
When you authenticated the latest Ruth jersey you said that, “Every time I am presented with a historic uniform like this striking example, I am always rooting for the jersey because, if it proves to be authentic, it means that an extraordinary piece of baseball history has survived. However, I always make sure that my passion does not interfere with my final decision, which is based on detailed fabric and construction analysis.” Briefly, please, what do you mean by “detailed fabric and construction analysis?”
While looking at images certainly has its place in the process, what I am referring to here is the requirement and ability to conduct comparative analysis between the jersey in question and on-hand period reference uniforms. This involves factors such as looking at the fabric for the body of the jersey and then being able to make an informed assessment as to if the fabric is period to the time frame in question as well as making an assessment as to the comparative quality of the fabric (major league quality fabric as opposed to something found in a lower quality garment.) I can do this based on my exemplar library which includes major league and lesser quality uniforms that goes back roughly the past 100 years. In addition to the uniforms, I also have a number of manufacturer’s fabric sample catalogs that provide an accurate baseline for comparative analysis.
One basic rule of thumb is that poly knit replaced flannel in 1972, right?
Better to say “replaced by 1973.” Knits were first worn in 1970 by the Pirates, in 1971 by the Orioles and Cardinals, and by most teams in 1972.
What are simple things should collectors look for to detect fraud, common scourge for jerseys?
I’m not sure there is “simple” answer to this question since as a function of physical complexity, there are many more variables involved when looking at a jersey as opposed to a bat or card. Also, you have to consider the period in question.
By that I mean, a bat made in the 1920s, physically has a great deal in common with one made in the 1970s or 1980s. Other than some “cosmetic differences in the form of label branding” is there a significant difference between a 35″, H&B model R43 bat that was made in 1944 for a major league player and one made by them in 1974? Now compare and contrast that with a major league jersey made by Rawlings made for major league use in 1944 and one made in 1974?
Same with cards, but clearly not the same with uniforms. Between the 1920s and 1970s, there were significant changes in uniforms with respect to fabrics, manufacturing techniques, manner of construction, fit, style, and design. Any detailed analysis of a uniform has to have a very mature understanding of all of this as an initial point of departure. That being said, I will offer one thing your readers deal with by looking at the “name in the collar” (NIC) for many vintage uniforms.
While this can and does vary over time (direct embroidery, name embroidered on a swatch, etc..) this form of supplemental tagging for player identification typically involves this application being sewn or affixed only through the first layer or fabric in the rear of the collar. When collectors come across a jersey like this, they need to make sure the collar area has not been opened up and resewn in order to add this tagging. Some fakes are better than others, and at times it comes down to using a digital microscope to spot that the forger used a two- ply thread when the rest of the collar area was closed with a three-ply thread.
It sounds as though vintage baseball jerseys are some of the most daunting memorabilia to authenticate.
Yes, as I’ve noted, all of this is far more complex than bats or cards since there are far more variables to be considered against the backdrop of period of time, team, and manufacturer as well. For example take the hypothetical 1954 Ed Smith, Podunk Skunks home jersey.
Size: The jersey is tagged as a size 42. Is this the actual and true size of the jersey when measured and compared to other period jerseys by the same manufacturer? Is a size 42 appropriate for Ed Smith at this point in time as compared to other known jerseys of his as well as contemporary sizing data (team yearbook, Who’s Who in Baseball, Street & Smith Annual, newspaper account etc?) Remember static resources like Baseball Reference.com and Total Baseball only give a single entry.
Tagging: The jersey has a “Big League Brands” tag in the rear of the collar.
Did “Big League Brands” provide jerseys to the Skunks at this period of time: homes, roads, or both?
Is this style tag appropriate for the period by style, placement, manner of being affixed?
Do the same questions apply for any other supplemental tagging?
Is this tagging assessed as being original applications or are their signs or evidence of contrived application?
Construction: Are there things unique about “Big League Brands” jerseys from this period as opposed to Rawlings, Spalding, Wilson, MacGregor, etc?
Are the fabrics period appropriate and of a major league quality?
What about the manner of application? In-line stitch or zig zag stitch?
Manner of closure? Button and or zipper? Are these appropriate for the manufacturer and are they period appropriate as well?
Sleeve style? Set in or Raglan (sleeves that continue in one piece up to the neck of a garment, without a shoulder seam)?
Finally, what was the basis for making an assessment on all of this? If all you are using is a jersey that was previously offered in the hobby, how do you know that one was problem free if you never examined it?
Now mind you, there are probably things that are inherently different between the jerseys that “Big League Brands” produced in 1944, 1954, 1964, and 1974. Some of these may be common from team to team, others might not be…
What should astute collectors collect?
By “astute” I am assuming you are referring to return on investment (ROI)?
Yes, that’s what I mean.
Then look for uniforms that have an enduring appeal. This can be by rare styles (even of common players), players from teams that have and continue to have a strong historic appeal, and then the marque names from the game’s history. Look for value discrepancies that don’t appear to be grounded in data or any objective rationale. For example, a player whose career spanned the late 1960s and the early to mid- 1970s. Here we typically see much higher prices for a flannel from say 1969-1971 than we do for a knit jersey from say 1972-74. Mind you in many cases the flannel is no rarer than the knit with respect to surviving examples (in some cases, just the opposite), but the flannel will command a higher price just because flannels drove the market when the hobby was in its infancy in the 1980s and 1990s. Remember those 1970s knits are now going on being a half century old at this point.
What should they avoid?
I would caution collectors to be guarded about spending a significant amount of money on players whose legacy is not secure. In other words, the modern player or star may be just one slip in the shower or moment captured on a cell phone from being at best, a has-been, and at worst a social pariah.
As the co-author of an acclaimed Smithsonian book on jerseys, what are some of the most outstanding jerseys you have seen in person?
That’s tough to say decades of work as there aren’t many 20th century Hall of Famers I have not seen jerseys of. That being said, Jackie Robinson uniforms are always exciting to handle. Over the years, I have examined seven of them. Robinson’s impact on America transcends the game of baseball, and as such, his jerseys are more akin to historic artifacts than simply pieces of sports memorabilia to be displayed and collected. To hold and handle a Jackie Robinson jersey is a privilege, not a job.
You collect jerseys, right?
I do, but in recent years the majority of my favorite uniforms have made their way to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. These have included a 1936 Ernie Lombardi jacket, a 1940 Bucky Walters jersey, and 1969 jerseys of Johnny Bench and Tony Perez.
What makes you so passionate about jerseys?
I have both a passion for research and uniforms. To me, there is no more personal artifact than the jersey. A player on an off day may not even pick up a glove or a bat, but the uniform remains a constant. A player may use another player’s glove or bat, but the uniform remains almost exclusively personal.
What are the attributes that make jerseys desirable? I’m sure one is scarcity. Players were issued only one home and one road. Right?
Interesting question, and even more interesting you brought up the number of jerseys a player was issued. This too is something that changed over time and even varied between teams and even for individual players. The much banter about “two homes and two roads” was a hobby/convention/gospel that has not aged well. In most cases though, desirability has been influenced by condition or “grade”. As stated before, the density for jerseys, especially vintage offerings, is significantly lower than bats and cards. While a collector can and may afford to wait for an “8” bat or card, they may not be afforded the same opportunity when it comes to a jersey.
I’m sure you’re aware that modern cards have recently sold for millions of dollars. Why is key memorabilia, topped by vintage baseball jerseys, so undervalued in comparison? I know most knowledgeable people in the hobby feel this way.
I think there are a few factors in play here. First, a card is an easier “commodity” to buy, store, and resell as a function of size. They are also trackable via “pop reports” down to the individual example. I have been tracking uniforms, and in many cases jerseys, for decades and have assembled my own “pop report” if you will so I understand the rarity in very stark terms. My belief is that since so many of the same uniforms, even for big name Hall of Famers, have been offered in the hobby multiple times over the years, it has created an artificial perception that they exist in greater quantities than they actually exist.
In June, Hunt Auctions sold a 1950 Jackie Robinson jersey for more than $4.2 million. Collectable recently sold a 1964-1965 Sandy Koufax jersey for $511,800. Obviously, these are two of the biggest names in the hobby. But does this encourage you about the jersey market?
In some ways it does, but this is only a very narrow segment of the “jersey market”. In some ways, prices like this, while completely valid for what they are, can distort the market. By that, I mean if you’re thinking you will see the same level of appreciation on modern jerseys, you need to realize that only a fraction of the jerseys issued to and worn by Robinson and Koufax remain today. For the modern player, none of these are going anywhere except from the player/team to the hobby/industry. (Thus making them much more availlable).
Finally, since there are so many modern jerseys issued than vintage, do you see more upside with vintage?
I do, without a doubt. And for me I define “vintage as pre-1990. That year is a convenient cut-off for me as it is at the midpoint between the transition from Rawlings to Russell as the official supplier of jerseys to the major leagues and the point at which the proliferation of uniforms was really in full swing.