George Sisler would probably be amused by the fuss one of his old bats was causing nearly a century after it served as part of his record-setting arsenal but it’s serious business to a prominent west coast collector and the company where it was created over 97 years ago.
The well-traveled piece of lumber dates from 1920 and was once part of a traveling display of Louisville Slugger bats ordered by some of baseball’s biggest names during their careers. A newly filed lawsuit says it was almost destroyed by the company, which was looking to save space in the early 1980s by burning hundreds of old game-used bats. Said to have been rescued at the last minute by a Slugger employee and his friend, it eventually made its way into the hobby. Now, a collector who paid a six-figure price for the bat six years ago says Hillerich & Bradsby is hitting out of order by claiming the Sisler stick still belongs to them.
Mark Roberts, owner of the online National Pastime Museum and a long-time collector of historic baseball memorabilia, has filed suit against H&B, the Kentucky company which does business as Louisville Slugger, claiming, among other things, defamation.
Auction Leads to Dispute
The bat was part of a large collection of items Roberts consigned to Christie’s in a special auction last October. H&B learned of the auction and sent Christie’s a letter referencing the bat’s “mysterious disappearance” years earlier. In November, they filed legal action in Kentucky, claiming ownership and stating the bat had disappeared in 1967, after having been on display at the World Series in St. Louis.
The auction went on as planned. The bat and other items that were part of Roberts’ huge consignment, sold for a combined price of over $700,000. However, Christie’s withheld delivery of the bat to the new owner because of the dispute.
Roberts is asking for at least $2 million in damages from H&B, which he and his attorney say has no legal right to the bat, is interfering in the sale and damaging his reputation.
Fate of the Vault Bats
The story of what happened to more than 500 player bats dating to the turn of the 20th century, including the Sisler model, is the stuff of collecting legend and spelled out in Roberts’ lawsuit. The suit says the bats were originally purchased from Louisville Slugger by the players, who used them in games. Once the player needed additional bats, he would send a favorite model back to the company, which would create the new ones from the returned bat that was left in a company “vault” for future reference as a “pattern bat”.
During and just after World War II, H&B created model numbers for bats, thus doing away with the need for players to return them. The pattern bat “vault” remained intact and about 20, including the Sisler, were part of a touring display used in the 1950s and 60s. However, in the early 80s, H&B’s bat-manufacturing operations were moved from Louisville to a manufacturing location in Indiana formerly owned by the Baldwin piano company.
The suit, which names Roberts and the non-profit 33 Baseball Foundation as plaintiffs, references the company’s leadership being unable or unwilling to store the 500+ pattern bats after a move. It says H&B planned to burn them before Rex Bradley, an H&B sales rep and longtime employee, stepped in. Bradley and a friend took the bats and stored them, with Bradley documenting the transfer of ownership in a letter signed by one of the H&B officials. This letter, reviewed by an attorney, still exists according to Roberts. It’s that letter, Roberts and his attorney, Ted Parker claim, which proves the bats were willingly given up by H&B.
They also say H&B’s statements that the bat was stolen “were false and fraudulent, in that H&B did not own the Sisler bat, but had instead sold the bat to George Sisler in 1920, and H&B did not re-purchase or otherwise regain ownership of the Sisler bat, and also in that Plaintiffs had purchased the Sisler bat after an extended line of private ownership by collectors.”
The bat’s history in the hobby is well documented, having been owned and both privately and publicly a few times over the last three decades. Sisler likely used the bat during that 1920 season in which he established the single-season hits record of 257. It remains the 154-game record, although Ichiro Suzuki broke the recognized single-season mark in 2004. When it was purchased by Roberts for $152,647 via Lelands in 2010, Ichiro is believed to have been one of the underbidders.
“Due to the bat’s non-delivery as wrongfully demanded by Hillerich & Bradsby, a potential ‘material breach’ of the sales contract, plaintiffs are at risk for the loss of the entire sale amount for the Sisler bat and other items purchased by the high bidder,” the court filing states. “At the very least, plaintiffs are at risk for the $152,647.15 they paid for the bat, plus the $780,000+ aggregate purchase price paid at Christie’s auction.”
Roberts claims H&B’s actions are defamatory to Roberts and the National Pastime Museum because it “called into question Plaintiffs’ right to sell the bat, and by implication, wrongfully cast doubt on Plaintiffs’ reputation as collectors of authentic, museum-quality sports memorabilia worthy of collection.”