Justin Cornett owns an oil brokerage firm in Houston. This month, the sports memorabilia collector drilled down into his photo collection and hit the jackpot, matching a game-used bat of Ty Cobb he won at an auction last year to an iconic image of the Georgia Peach and Shoeless Joe Jackson.
“I started shaking a bit,” Cornett, 43, said when he made the discovery.
Cornett bought the Cobb bat for $155,000 ($187,000 after the buyer’s premium) last year at the All-Star FanFest Auction.
“I would have paid well over that,” Cornett said. “It was so heavy (39.2 ounces) and exudes Ty Cobb.”
As it turns out, the bat is likely to be worth much more than Cornett’s original investment.
The bat is a J.F. Hillerich & Son Louisville Slugger model that measures 34.5 inches long. It has cleat marks, with ball marks on the front and right barrel of the bat. Grain swelling on the bat had been repaired with nails, and the handle is taped in a spiral pattern.
“It’s reeking in Cobb characteristics,” said John Taube, owner of JT Sports in New Jersey and the bat authenticator for PSA/DNA who originally analyzed the bat.
The bat was autographed by Cobb with the inscription, “To Mr. Maier from Ty Cobb, Sept. 18th, 14.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” said JP Cohen, owner of California-based Memory Lane. “I wish I owned it.”
Eddie Maier was a wealthy brewery owner in California and owned the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. In 1914 he moved the team from Vernon to Venice but returned to the franchise’s original location in 1915. Maier also was one of the first documented collectors of baseball memorabilia and specialized in game-used bats.
Cobb, meanwhile, was in the prime of his career, enjoying a stretch in which he won nine straight American League batting titles. That included marks of .420 in 1911 and .409 in 1912. For the five-season period between 1910 and 1914, Cobb batted .397.
On Sept. 6, 1913, noted Cleveland photographer Louis Van Oeyen snapped a photo of Cobb and Jackson, the two hitting stars facing each other with bats over their shoulders. Cobb would win the batting title with a .390 average that year, while Jackson was the runner-up with a .373 mark.
This was the photo Cornett used to find a more exact date for the bat. And he stumbled on that revelation by accident. Originally, he was trying to photo-match a Lou Gehrig bat that he bought last year. Then, he had a Babe Ruth bat that the slugger used at the Polo Grounds.
“I’m a photo junkie, I am constantly looking through old baseball photos,” Cornett said. “I had this idea, ‘Let me see if I can could match these bats (I own) to these photos.”
As he pored through photographs, Cornett noticed an angle of the top bat in the Cobb-Jackson photo that was “eerily similar” to the Cobb bat he owned.
Intrigued, Cornett contacted Taube and sent him the image. Taube responded within an hour.
“He said, ‘Overnight it, I need to look at this,’” Cornett said. “He calls me back an hour after he got the bat. He was freaking out, which is not his regular style.”
Taube was certainly impressed.
“I had to see it to believe it,” he said. “It’s a perfect Cobb bat. There was never any question of that. But finding something that early (in Cobb’s career) and having the detail within the image — it’s really an incredible find.
“It’s very obvious when you see the grain line,” Taube continued. “It’s fairly new in the photograph. (By late 1914) the finish had aged to a caramel patina. The grain pattern is covered in cleat marks, which is normal for a Ty Cobb bat.”
Joe Orlando, CEO of Collectors Universe and formerly president of PSA/DNA, said a collector needs “a virtual perfect storm to confirm a true match.” The Cobb bat may now be the hobby’s earliest photo-matched game-used item.
“When it comes to modern-era bats and jerseys, there is at least some reasonable chance at achieving a photo-match because of the sheer volume and exceptional quality of the images that are available for reference even though the level of difficulty remains high,” Orlando said. “On the other hand, when it comes to vintage items, the probability of photo-matching anything is reduced dramatically. The further you go back in time, the harder it becomes.
“That’s what makes a vintage photo-match, of any kind, so extraordinary.”
Cornett began focusing on Cobb several years ago. Like most kids growing up in the Houston area, Cornett considered himself a “lifelong Astros fan” and collected baseball cards from the late 1970s and 1980s. He was an infielder as a youth, playing second base, third base and shortstop. After graduating with an entrepreneurship degree at the University of Houston in 1997, Cornett entered the business world, working for Enron. He left the companyt after a major financial scandal hit the energy company and in January 2003 founded Liquidity Partners, an oil and gas brokerage firm.
In 2014 Cornett returned to collecting but on a more ambitious scale, beginning with high-end baseball cards.
Even then, Cobb piqued Cornett’s interest.
“I thought Ty Cobb was undervalued,” he said.
Cornett soon expanded into vintage baseball photographs. That’s how he was able to match the Van Oeyen photo to the Cobb bat.
The aftermath has been exhilarating.
“On it’s own merits it is a very special bat,” Cornett said. “But to have a bat that was in (Cobb’s) hands for multiple seasons at the peak of his career and have matching photographic evidence. … You can’t come up with a better piece of memorabilia.”
Some of the other memorabilia Cornett owns also benefited from image-matching.
Last year he outbid other collectors for a Tiger Woods putter. Cornett had a winning bid of $1,838 through Goldin Auctions for the Titleist Scotty Cameron TEI3 model, which had eventually passed from Woods and was being sold by NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Andre Reed.
Cornett said he used video from the 1997 Masters through the 1998 PGA Tour season to match the putter as being the one Woods, then 22, used in May 1998 to win the BellSouth Classic at TPC Sugarloaf in suburban Atlanta. It was Woods’ lone victory on the Tour in 1998.
“I got lucky on that one,” Cornett said.
That’s for sure. A 2001 backup putter belonging to Woods sold for $44,401 in an April sale held by Green Jacket Auctions.
Cornett concedes that the Cobb bat is now worth “exponentially more than when I bought it” — a figure into the millions is probably not a stretch — but he has no plans to sell it.
He said he has contacted the National Baseball Hall of Fame and has offered to lend the bat for an exhibit at Cooperstown.
“I want people to see it and enjoy it,” he said.
“Cornett said once the proper paperwork is done, he will send the bat to the Hall.
“We did the initial authentication,” Taube said. “We will revise it to include the imagery.
“It’s perfect in every respect. It’s impeccably documented. All the stars aligned for (Cornett).”
“It’s so fun to know I got lucky enough,” Cornett said. “There was a little bit of luck, a little bit of skill and some desire.”
“High-five to Justin for finding the photo and making it happen,” said Cohen, who said he has handled “some amazing pieces” of memorabilia but none at this level. “Now he’s got me wanting to go through photos.
“I told Justin, ‘That’s your new calling. Photo-Match Guy.’”