Vault to Auction: Gehrig Bat History Trail Defined

Lou Gehrig signature model bat How do you really know Lou Gehrig once held that bat in his hands? You follow the paper trail–even the one that’s still stuck to the stick.

Mike Specht and Jim Caravello, game used bat experts for Game Used Universe, are used to being asked questions concerning baseball bats.

A lot of questions.

While many are answered publicly on the GUU forums in which they participate, both Specht and Caravello also receive numerous emails daily from collectors wanting to validate recent purchases or confirm records pertaining to items being considered for purchase. Last year, an email addressed to Specht immediately caught his attention.

“The question was one you don’t see every day,” said Specht, a 30-year bat collecting veteran and co-author in 1995 of the first published guide to collecting game used professional model baseball bats with Vince Malta, Bill Riddell, and Ron Fox. “Basically, the email asked if there were any records available concerning a bat ordered by Yankee Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig on May 13, 1931,” recalled Specht.

A close look at Gehrig’s factory records showed that the Yankee first baseman had indeed requested that a bat be manufactured to his specifications on that date 77 years ago. But there was more to come – a lot more. It took some detective work to form a timeline that resulted in a sort of ‘life history’ for the bat, which is now the featured item in GUU’s spring auction.

The object of the question turned out to be one of three Lou Gehrig bats that had been acquired directly from the Hillerich & Bradsby company in 1988.

Hillerich & Bradsby label on Gehrig bat

“The authentication of this bat turned into a significant research project, with well over 100 hours put into it, maybe 150,” calculated Specht. The bat was vault marked, side written, and branded, but what seemed like an easy verification of records ultimately necessitated a detailed analysis, the cross-referencing of H & B records of such baseball immortals as Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Earle Combs, and Jake Daubert, and even forensic analysis.

Lou Gehrig bat with Rogers Hornsby notation The bat was discovered to have had three separate incarnations. First, on May 13, 1931, Gehrig made a written request for H & B to manufacture a bat modified from his previous orders, “with Earle Combs handle,” measuring 36 inches in length with a weight of 37.5 ounces.

“The post-1930 records are pretty clear, as is Gehrig’s request. The difficult part here was finding the specific pre-1930 records that identified his earlier model which was to be modified," Specht explained. "The answer was found in an H & B journal from 1924, which for many years was thought to be lost. An entry dated July 16, 1924 confirmed Gehrig’s use of a very early Rogers Hornsby model, which on May 13, 1931 was modified as requested. This bat was then sent to Gehrig to test and approve before additional bats were manufactured.”

Shipping label remnants still on the bat after more than seven decades confirmed return transport from Yankee Stadium to the Hillerich & Bradsby Company. The detective work done on the bat even included forensic testing of the 1931 shipping label and some philatelic research to place the bat in Gehrig’s hands and document its return to Louisville.

First, adhesive residue was seen in this area of the barrel, with color variations Shipping label remnant from Lou Gehrig bat sent from Yankees to Hillerich and Bradsby suggesting the remnant of a postage stamp. Forensic examination identified this stamp as a 1919 issued Red Violet Franklin – 50 cents denomination, correct for the period. The return shipping label indicates that the bat was sent to the Hillerich & Bradsby factory from Yankee Stadium in New York. Forensic examination of the shipping label remnants identified characteristics of manufacture between 1900 and 1920, correct for the period. Additionally, under microscopic examination, the remnants of the shipping labels were specific to the residue present on the bat with a match probability of 99.5%.

To that point, the bat was already a great item—a bat manufactured at Gehrig’s request, to his specifications, used or tested by him in some manner, and returned to H & B with his approval. But it didn’t stop there. The bat was then used over the next 8 years — through the premature end of Gehrig’s career — as a template from which to pattern the majority of Gehrig’s future orders. It’s clear the Iron Horse was serious about his bats.

“Of particular interest in the authentication process were the tool room markings which appear on this bat in pencil,” said Specht. “There were several modifications requested between 1930 and 1939 that appear written on the bat and which match up exactly to H & B’s documented records. Things such as a one inch reduction in length…a Ruth knob to replace the Hornsby knob…a change in weights on specific dates. All of those little things attest to the bat’s authenticity and use in the tool room.”

Finally, after Gehrig’s retirement, the bat was used to pattern his marketing, or Pro Stock, model. In 1941 the bat, which had previously been vault marked H67 as an early method of identification (confirmed by H & B), was given the model number G69. This bat was then archived in the H & B vaults for over 20 years until it began its third life.

During the 1950s and 60s, according to Rex Bradley, H & B’s former Vice President, 125 Wood Division, this bat with several others was branded (post-career) with the Hillerich & Bradsby center brand and a Lou Gehrig barrel brand and was part of a Louisville Slugger Museum that traveled throughout the United States and Japan, further attesting to the bat’s significance. Bradley confirmed the information in a fax to an independent third party, the President of the Professional Bat Collector’s Club, in 1995.

Thousands of bats once resided in barns and other facilities in and around Louisville. Amazingly, between 1983 and 1988—before the game used bat hobby exploded in popularity, a number of vintage bats associated with Hall of Famers were actually gifted and sold as H&B sought to increase work and storage space. The other two Gehrig bats acquired with this one in 1988 (vault marked G76 and G93) found their way into the hobby, with the G76 selling in Sotheby’s 6/24/06 auction for $96,000 (including the buyer’s premium.)

The auction marks the first time since its acquisition by a private collector that the Gehrig bat has been offered publicly. Of the three bats originating directly from the H & B vaults, this may be the most intriguing, as it defines a relationship between two of the most accomplished hitters in baseball history, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby.

The bat has already generated significant interest from collectors but as always, GUU offers the chance for those with questions about the item to post them directly inside the auction listing. Other members who may have specific knowledge can then provide answers or additional information.

“Our goal is to make sure people can ask all the questions they would like in order to make an informed decision about what they are buying,” said CEO Chris Cavalier. “While it is true for every item in our auction, it is especially useful for items like this one where a great deal of analysis has been done. This is a fascinating item and we are thrilled that our auction format enables us to publicly answer any question a potential bidder may have.”