PSA/DNA bat expert Vince Malta gained inside access to Louisville Slugger’s records and the result is a new book that could be a big assist to collectors.
Late fall has been a momentous stretch of time for Vince Malta. He just finished his one-year term as President of the California Board of Realtors, a demanding appointment he executes from his office in San Francisco. More important to this lifelong baseball fan is that his ten-year quest to learn everything he could about Louisville Slugger bats is about to come to fruition. The finishing touches are finally being applied to a book he’s spent a fair part of his adult life writing and researching. “A Complete Reference Guide Louisville Slugger Professional Player Bats” will be released early in 2007.
“It’s like ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’..the project that never gets done,” he jokes. “I didn’t do this to make money.”
Malta believes the book, which features a young Ted Williams smooching a favorite bat on the cover, will have a major impact on the identification process for vintage Major League bats, which has in the past has required educated guesses and often leaps of blind faith. His research could call into question some bats once thought to have been player-used.
“Some people will hate me,” Malta confessed. “Others hopefully will love it. It’s probably not perfect but I’d rather hang my hat on Louisville Slugger’s records than more guesswork.”
While some may find the serious study of one piece of baseball equipment amusing, it is serious stuff to sports memorabilia collectors like Malta, who has acquired such expertise in the field he’s paid to authenticate bats for PSA/DNA along with fellow ‘bat man’ John Taube of Margate, New Jersey. Bats used by Hall of Famers, which was the group Malta studied for the book, can sell in the five and sometimes six-figure range.
Some focus on baseball cards or uniforms but Malta’s affection for lumber is as unwavering as his love for the sport. “You can learn more about a player by his bat than anything else. He could put pine tar on it, groove it, rub it with a bone, tape the handle for a better grip. All players care a lot about their bats and even if the player is long gone, a bat can talk to you.”
Louisville Slugger A Complete Reference Guide is not Malta’s first effort. Along with collectors Mike Specht and Bill Riddell, Malta wrote the first-ever reference guide for bats in 1995. He sent a copy to Jack Hillerich III, grandson of Bud Hillerich, maker of the first Louisville Slugger during the 19th century. “I explained to Mr. Hillerich that while I felt the book was good, it could be so much better if he would allow us access to their shipping records.”
It was well-known that Louisville Slugger had on file the various requests and orders for bats made by the players themselves. Every player under contract to the company, from Honus Wagner to George Brett, had been shipped bats made to their specifications numerous times. Those records were a gold mine to researchers like Malta who could use them to help determine how many bats a player ordered in a particular season and to what dimensions.
Impressed with the effort, the company allowed Malta’s group access to shipping records dating back to the early part of the century. “At that time, the records were stored on micro-film and we were allowed to reproduce it under three conditions. First, we were not allowed to mechanically reproduce the records provided to us. Second, we could not include current players, to prevent information from getting in the hands of the company’s bat-making competitors. Third, we were asked not to produce another ‘coffee-table’ book.”
Instead, Louisville Slugger was hoping Malta could write a book that would make their job easier. “They’re simply not equipped to handle all of the questions they are constantly asked by collectors,” Malta explained. “They were hoping I could provide that information.”
Malta took that directive to heart, making numerous trips to the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, the University of Louisville, the Baseball Hall of Fame and several prominent collections as he began gathering information for the second book. He copied, by hand, the records from company archives, creating his own charts that appear in the book. Some were basic and consistent. Others gave him headaches.
“Orlando Cepeda’s records were a mess. Some years were six pages long. I saw him not long ago and he told me he thought every bat only had one hit in it so he was constantly ordering more. He ordered some under other players names so you can have a Cepeda game-used bat but with a teammate’s signature on the barrel.”
The company began making bats many years earlier, but Malta was initially able to study only information on players from 1930 to the modern era since it was believed earlier shipping records had been destroyed in a 1929 fire. Early last year, however, Malta’s persistence was rewarded when Museum Director Anne Jewell found several ledger books in storage and among the volumes were the records from the 1920s, with the exception of 1924.
Combined with the knowledge already gleaned by collectors who are just as passionate, Malta attempted to compile each player’s personal history with Louisville Slugger. Much of what has been uncovered would go unnoticed by someone with a lesser trained eye.
Like a rancher protecting his herd, Louisville Slugger brands its bats with a company logo, patent information and other details. Over a one hundred year period, the company used only two branding machines to create thousands of bats. Occasionally, metal on the machines would degrade which affected subtle, but noticeable changes in how the brand mark ultimately appears on a bat. Those who’ve studied and compared bats from various years can determine when it was made simply by the variance in brand markings which remained consistent until the machine was corrected or fixed. There is a section in the book that explains the variations. “We really can nail the date of a Louisville Slugger down to a two or three-year period,” Malta boasts.
“It’s a very nerdy thing, I know,” he says. Yet the information that is used to successfully authenticate a historic bat can have a significant impact on the value. Combine Babe Ruth’s order chart with his known characteristics such as putting a notch in the bat for each home run and a branding mark that appears only in certain years can perhaps narrow the date of use to one particular historic season.
Early on, players would return bats to the factory with requests for changes in manufacturing, length or weight. A factory worker would use a grease pencil to write notes on the barrel including the date received and who had submitted the bat. The interest in these ‘side-written’ bats has grown substantially.
The book’s alphabetical charts include one for Sparky Anderson, who’s playing career was just a footnote to the success as a manager that earned him a plaque in Cooperstown, but since collectors often focus on Hall of Famers, Malta includes charts for any member who may have swung a bat. “If you’re in the Hall of Fame, you’re in the book,” he explained.
Pitchers rarely had signature bats made. Looking at the records leads Malta believe Sandy Koufax may have had as few as 19 bats with his name emblazoned on the barrel. Looking at Malta’s hand crafted charts can provide a fair estimate of the number of bats the player may have received during his career.
Authentication has improved as collectors begin to gather additional knowledge and compare notes more efficiently through e-mail and internet message boards. The increase in their value, however, has created more interest which has resulted in neophyte bat collectors sometimes getting burned with a bat of questionable origin or buying a pro stock bat, which was often made identical to a player’s specifications but may have been sold to the general public. Malta believes “there are thousands of pro stock bats out there.”
Looking at a player’s actual orders as received by the factory has allowed Malta to determine such things as whether a player ever ordered anything beyond a certain size and weight. “Ted Williams was so particular he would actually go to the factory and weigh the bats they were making for him. Chances are if there is a Williams bat out there that differs in length from what he ordered, it’s probably a pro stock model rather than something game-used.”
The recent explosion of large sports memorabilia auctions has brought even more bats to the pages of impressive looking catalogs and eBay listings. Many are deserving of the space, while others aren’t always what they seem.
“People see a glowing description of a bat with letter of authenticity from PSA/DNA and they say ‘it must be good’. But you’ve got to actually read the letter. We could have graded it very low which means it may have some redeeming characteristics but it’s highly unlikely the player used it.”
Malta has bought his share of bats that didn’t match the hype. “There’s an old saying that says ‘I collect my mistakes’. I’ve read a description and then been disappointed when the bat arrived. I won’t sell them to someone else. I keep them sort of as a reminder of how important it is to really do the research.”
The book’s development has become a large part of Malta’s busy life, but an endeavor he hopes will be regarded as worthwhile.
“I felt a moral obligation to Louisville Slugger and to collectors to make sure that there was a resource of accurate information. I think it’s a good foundation. Hopefully, as the hobby grows, collectors or baseball cards and other memorabilia will appreciate the strong collecting attributes of bat collecting.”
You can buy the Complete Reference Guide to Louisville Slugger bats hereon Amazon.