A transcribed interview with renowned baseball bat, glove, and cap authenticator John Taube (@gubats_jtsports).
Conducted by David Seideman, Collectable’s Senior Editor.
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David: John, welcome to Collectable U. It’s exciting to have you because you’re the hobby’s go-to-guy for bat authentication and grading through PSA. Collectors may not know it, but you’re also an expert in game-used fielding gloves and game-worn caps. Please tell us how you got into the business.
John: I have been involved in collecting bats for 35 years. At the beginning I started buying and selling to support my habit. There were a few bat collectors back then. Vince Malta and I established a relationship with the original Louisville Slugger company to educate ourselves just to make sure that our bats were authentic. They allowed us to go down there and examine extensive players’ records of what they ordered.
In the early 1980s,Ty Cobb bats sold for a thousand dollars or less. Mickey Mantle bats from the early 1960s were cheaper. Today his bats go for $75,000-$100,000. And a Cobb can be a million dollars.
I have handled them all. Knock wood. The reason I am the foremost authority is that I am the only authority. Being able to do this and make a living off what was a hobby is a gift.
David: You mentioned a recent Cobb bat selling for $1.1 million in a private sale. I looked up the details and the 34.5 inch, 40.1-ounce ash Hillerich & Bradsby war club and it received a perfect a perfect GU 10 score (on a scale of one to ten) from you, meaning it “must be fully documented or possess extraordinary player characteristics, match available factory records and exhibit medium to heavy use.”
John: It was a beautiful, beautiful Cobb bat that set a record price for his bat, It was literally black with tobacco juice and there were two letters from Cobb himself (attesting to its authenticity). He would spit on the barrels of his bats as one of his Intimidation factors. There were cleat marks on the upper barrel, which were well documented on his Louisville Sluggers from the late teens to the early 20s. When you look at pictures of him from the period, you’ll also see that Cobb did a spiral tape application. There are few Cobb bats within the hobby without tape.
David: One of the things I love about game-used bats like Cobb’s is that they often have such personality, showing each player’s individual characteristics.
John: Yes. There are notable examples. Ruth’s 52nd home run bat from the 1921 season (which Heritage sold for nearly $1 million in 2020) had heavy barrel scoring. That was a Ruth trait. He would take a nail or bottle cap and gouge the grain to improve the grip on the handle. In the mid-late 1920s, he would notch homers in his bat like a gun slinger. He was a character!The one in the Hall of Fame has 28 notches around the Louisville Slugger brand above the bat’s handle. Another at the Louisville Slugger Museum has 21 notches. [Both bats document his record-setting 60 homers in 1927.) A notched Ruth bat has not changed hands in the recent past. I would put it at a $1 million plus.
David: What are some other examples of individual characteristics on bats?
Obviously we know from the 1983 game that George Brett used heavy tar pine up the center label. Back then Johnny Bench put tar up to the center brand, too. But that looks like relatively little pine tar compared to the early 90s when the pine tar almost appears to have been poured on. The umpires revised the rule after the Brett game, leaving it to the umpire’s discretion. Otherwise, after Billy Martin, managers would be waiting for the moment.
According to baseball folklore, Eddie Colllins, was said aid to put his bats in a dung heap. Joe DiMaggio would sand the handle. One of his grip substances was olive oil and rosin. Rosin makes it tacky. It came from the bat boy, Johnny Orlando. When his would build up too much rosin. Ted Williams would scrape it off with a butter knife.
Among contemporaries, Ken Griffey criss-crossed his handles with tape. A-Rod and Derek Jeeter tended to leave cleat marks on the barrel to knock the dirt out in ways that are unique to each player. Jeter left small dents in the barrel. A-Rod’s were deeper. Wade Boggs had a heavy amount of tar from the center brand down to the lower handle.
David: I love the story a few years ago at Love of the Game Auctions of the Lou Gehrig bat propped up against a door for home defense in New Jersey. The auction house’s owner, Al Crisafulli, photo matched the manufacturer and the grain to a bat Gehrig held at the All Star game.
John: We authenticated it. Finding a photo used to be a needle in a haystack. Today, with contemporary bats, photo matching is almost required. Getty images takes 200 pictures. By the next morning, they are on the web. All are digital and sharp as a tack. We can look at the images and we can match. Photo matching is insurance for the bat.
I also still have a pretty extensive database thanks to Louisville Slugger. Years ago, we copied a lot. They are very cooperative as are other bat manufactures who have the ability to make sure a bat is professional and authentic. Plus a player’s identifying characteristics are important. I use as many resources as possible. For example, the Babe Ruth Story talks about him notching about his bats.
David: Ninety-nine percent of bats at flea markets and garage sales are store models, but I have found a few gamers. (One telltale sign is inch marks instead of model numbers on the knob.) An antique dealer I know even bought a Duke Snider gamer in a barrel of bats for $5.
John: We still hear the $5 and $10 stories. Placing it in the player’s hands is key. Snider had a wide and specific criss-cross handle application. The condition of these bats is generally poor to good, which makes it difficult to find the identifying characteristics. Without the tape, it’s graded a five to seven. If it has the tape, it’s an eight to ten. And there’s the uniform number on the knob. They have specific styles. Is it a vintage marker? Is it old paint? There are all the things you need to be made aware of.
David: Speaking of condition, what about cracked bats? You’d have to face a very hard throwing pitcher to break a bat. No?
John: Actually, on a hobby whole collectors prefer uncracked. A cracked bat lends more to the actual use. But it is a condition issue dictated by the hobby. Even if it’s a minor crack, the grade is knocked down half a point.
David: Your bat grading standards are on PSA’s website (https://www.psacard.com/services/batgradingstandards). A perfect 10, as noted, “must be fully documented or possess extraordinary player characteristics, match available factory records and exhibit medium to heavy use.” A PSA 5 must match available factory records, possess identifiable player characteristics and will, most likely, exhibit no evidence of use. In essence, this is a game ready bat that did not see action.” In layman’s terms, can you please briefly explain what distinguishes, say, an eight from a ten?
John: What distinguishes an 8 from a 10 is the condition of the bat, cracked or uncracked and the amount of use, the player characteristics displayed and provenance provided.
David: Give us an idea how many bats players have used per season. Relatively speaking, you see your share of Ruth bats, but they remain the most valuable.
John: In the older days, players like Gehrig would go through 30 to 40. Ruth would use up to a 100. Ruth and Cobb have a fair amount of bats in the hobby. Babe Ruth was a very known personality. He was outgoing and affable. Happy go lucky. The largest figure in sports. Probably no one surpassed him in magnitude . He gifted bats and autograph balls his entire career. Even after his career, he did so till the time of his death. He gifted items from trunks of memorabilia with his valet on barnstorming tours. He would sign them. This helped his popularity. He is as big in our hobby today as then and always will be.
Today players go through well over 100 bats, maybe 140-150. The game has changed. Between sliders, sinkers, and higher velocity, they are cracking the bats more. By the way, Joe DiMaggio used a single bat for 45 games of the streak. His record bat has not surfaced.
David: Besides Ruth, what bats command the highest value?
John: Generally speaking, the earlier the bat, the more desirable it is. This applies to vintage as well as contemporary material. The early bats are really scarce. The players didn’t become famous. They wouldn’t have saved them.
David: (A few average prices for regular season bats: George Brett: $5,000; Ken Griffey: $6,000-$12,000; Mike Trout, $5,000-$10,000, Derek Jeter: $10,000). Given their rarity and the red hot sports market, why don’t bats’ prices rival cards’?
John: I collected baseball cards. I had a full collection of Topps, Bowman, and Fleer from 1953-1990. I collected complete sets. Cards are universal. Many, many children collected them. They are easy to handle. There are a lot of plusses with baseball cards such as population reports.
That’s why PSA is soon Introducing its population report for game used bats. A collector is going to be able to look up a Cobb or a Griffey and know exactly what the population is. There may be only two or three from Mantle’s rookie year. Now we can refine and give the grade of the bat, too. Say, there are two nines of a particular player.
David: Speaking of rare memorabilia, you team up with Denny Eskin to authenticate game-used fielders’ gloves.
John: Denny is the lead. I do thousands of bats and, in comparison, a handful of gloves. They are so scarce and hard to prove that they are game used. Gloves are so esoteric. There’s the difficulty of placing it on a player’s hand.
Most players use one glove per season and have one or two as back ups in case the stitches rip. They don’t throw them away. Two seasons later they may come out and use the same glove again. Or a number of years later. Maybe it’s his lucky glove or he is superstitious. Once they break it in. It forms in their hand. To coin a phrase, it fits like a glove. It gets very comfortable for a player. They don’t want to lose it. That’s why game gloves are so rare.
They are continually pulling at the rawhide. Retying them again. Unless you have a very distinctive marking on the glove it’s very difficult to authenticate. The number or name is in marker (on older ones). What we often see is the creasing of the leather is the actual creasing of the leather on the back of the hands.
It’s also very difficult to photo match gloves. And the players get a lot of samples. Derek Jeter may have been sent a dozen DJ2 Rawlings.
David: Finally, you’re the top authenticator of game worn baseball caps.
John: Focus on vintage pre-war caps with names like Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio sewn right into the hat. These embroidered ones are very, very rare; the rarest part of a uniform and are authentic.
Starting in the 1960s when I was a kid, pro models were for sale in places like The Sporting News. They were the same type of cap with the same labels as the players wore. Anyone can put a number on a cap. Without provenance, we can only attribute a cap.
Contemporary players get boxes of caps.
Caps are just not as popular. There are very few people who just focus on caps. We do get requests each year. After the war, you just need to be careful. There may be an uptick.
David: What about the memorabilia such as caps you authenticate that the individual signs “my gamer.”
John: Players tend to be liberal. They don’t know themselves. We are the collectors. All they do is put caps on their heads. We are the guys who know a player’s characteristics or the provenance.
David: A little more on your cap authentication, please. Pre-war is pretty simple because the names are embroidered in the caps. Tell me a little about caps since the 1960s. I know you look inside for the proper professional tagging, manufacturers’ date codes, and consistency of a player’s cap size. But, as you explain, provenance trumps all.
With post 1960 caps, in my opinion, it’s all about credible provenance. Tagging and the appropriate size are easily determined but they do not determine authenticity. I like to see the cap coming from a team member, clubhouse attendant or the player himself. Short of this we can only “attribute” the cap as being worn by the player.
David: Back to bats, please. I understand you’re collaborating with Collectable on a Ted Williams Triple Crown bat which will be offered on the platform. What do you think is so special about this particular piece?
John: What is special is the ability to place the bat to one of his two Triple Crown Seasons increases the collectability of the bat. This is true of all Triple Crown winners. The Triple Crown is a category of its own for collectors. It also creates a niche of it’s own within the pop report of the player. If a player has say 40 bats in general population, of the 40 maybe 2 can be placed to a Triple Crown Season. So the Triple Crown Bat is extremely rare when a regular season bat may be common.
David: To close this interview. How bullish are you on bats in the future?
John: I am very bullish on the bat market right now. It could double or triple. I think you’ll have a pretty good indicator over the next 24 months.
With the value of cards rising, we will see a spillover coming into game used bats. It’s only going to continue. There will be the introduction of the PSA population report. PSA is also launching its Pinnacle Program for the creme de La creme with full documentation for bats like the perfect Cobb with letters from him. These are like Hall of Fame bats.
Fractional ownership is going to be a springboard for new collectors. This is where the future of the hobby lies. When people can come in and own Ruth and DiMaggio that opens the door for lower priced players. They may be able to afford Freddie Freeman. or Ronald Acuña for $3,500. [Editor’s note: Taube introduced a client to Collectable so that he could consign a 1965-1968 Roberto Clemente game-used bat. The IPO is on July 1].
We haven’t mentioned Mike Trout. There are Albert Pujols, Jeter, and Trout— the iconic layers of today and the players whom we have been watching.
It hit me that this is real memorabilia. From the time you’re in Little League, a bat and a glove are very personal to a player like Ty Cobb with the tobacco juice. Or the pine tar for Brett.
It’s not a piece of cardboard.
Each bat has a player’s name. Each piece is unique. I say that every time I write a letter. You really can’t rubber stamp it. No two bats are the same.