By Peter J. Nash
April 4, 2014
(Scroll to end of article for updates)
Heritage Auctions recently sold a game-used Hillerich & Bradsby baseball bat they say was swung by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in 1911 when he hit .408 as a rookie. Sources indicate that movie mogul Thomas Tull was the buyer of the bat which has the name “Joe Jackson” burned into its barrel and also side-written in grease pencil by H&B employees. Tull dropped close to a million bucks for the historic lumber that the bat experts at PSA/DNA call, “The only Joe Jackson bat in existence that is factory documented as being game used.”
Now, just a month after that record-breaking sale, Robert Edward Auctions is selling another alleged Jackson artifact with game use—one of his famous “Black Betsy” bats. This bat, however, doesn’t have Jackson’s name burned into the wood or written in grease pencil. To the naked eye, its just a prototype of a Dead-Ball era bat with a “black betsy” finish administered to its surface.
Despite that fact, the experts from PSA/DNA say this one was owned by Jackson and REA’s president, Rob Lifson, goes even further suggesting that Shoeless Joe may have used the bat in the infamous World Series of 1919. Lifson even sent his employee Brian Dwyer on to the set of ESPN’s “Mint Condition” to show it off and tell host Cary Chow that, “He (Jackson) could have very well used it in the 1919 World Series.” Chow responded, “Which I assume has got to boost the value?”
Bingo! Dwyer told Chow the bat was “game used” just like the million dollar Heritage bat. The REA offering also comes with a letter of authenticity from PSA/DNA bat experts John Taube and Vince Malta who claim the war club was “authentic and game used by Jackson.” The PSA opinion catapults this bat into an exclusive category far removed from examples which can only be “attributed to Shoeless Joe Jackson.” These “attributed” examples that have been examined by PSA/DNA have historically fetched prices in the $10,000-20,000 range—a far cry from Heritage’s million-dollar Jackson gamer.
But although REA and PSA/DNA have christened the bat as “game used,” it significantly differs from the Heritage bat which was actually cracked via game-use by Jackson and sent back to the Hillerich & Bradsby factory in Louisville, Kentucky. Unlike the alleged Black Betsy featured in the REA catalog, the Heritage bat has an H&B provenance and was handled by an H&B employee who added the “Joe Jackson” name on the barrel and the vault marking “J13″ on the knob and barrel head. The rest is memorabilia history.
Although the 1911 Jackson rookie-bat is said to be one of the rarest baseball artifacts in existence, REA is hoping that their bat follows in its footsteps with a blessing from the boys at PSA/DNA. According to the experts, the REA bat is “one of only six Joe Jackson game used bats in private hands known to exist” and auctioneer Rob Lifson claims in the lot description that “the offered bat is VIRTUALLY IDENTICAL to what is generally regarded as the finest Joe Jackson pro-model bat in the hobby,” the 1911 bat that just sold at Heritage for $956,000. In addition, Lifson says that Troy Kinunen of MEARS, who also filed a report on the bat, states that the bat is a “100% verifiable game-used Black Betsy bat.”
But how could the bat be “VIRTUALLY IDENTICAL” if it doesn’t even feature “Shoeless” Joe’s name or the H&B factory vault markings?
It ain’t so. And it’s not even close.
Upon reviewing the images of the bat and reading the fine print in the REA catalog, its clear that this “Black Betsy” offering has no verifiable provenance and no identifying markings that show the bat was made for or used by Jackson. There is no script or block-letter name burned into the barrel or even a grease pencil factory notation with Jackson’s name written upon its return to the H&B factory.
In an attempt to minimize the lack of a Jackson identification on the bat, REA notes in its lot description: “Both PSA/DNA and MEARS emphasize in their respective letters (sic) that aside from Jackson, few other major league players used a “Black Betsy” bat, and of those who did, their bat specifications (size, weight, knob, barrel dimensions etc.) were noticeably different than Jackson’s.” PSA also added, “The ‘Black Betsy’ finish, though not unique to Jackson, was very rare on professional players’ bats.”
Despite the confidence the auction house has in PSA/DNA’s definitive assertions, Hauls of Shame couldn’t get past this particular claim of “Black Betsy” game use without further examining the veracity of REA’s claims. We’re not sure what resources the companies utilized in preparing their reports, but in one day of reviewing auction websites, BlackBetsy.com, the Library of Congress photo archive and even the MEARS website, we found substantial photographic evidence illustrating that many players other than Joe Jackson used what appears to be the exact same “Black Betsy” style bat.
Researcher and Joe Jackson historian, Mike Nola, who operates BlackBetsy.com, told us, “I am not sure how anyone can attribute the REA (bat) as having been game-used by Joe Jackson. There were many players during that era that ordered Jackson style bats with thick handles and darkly stained.”
Nola provided us with an image of Jackson’s teammate, Buck Weaver, using such a bat and even PSA/DNA has stated that they’ve examined two bats with a “Black Betsy” finish attributed to Hank Gowdy and Chick Gandil. However, the PSA/DNA “Leter of Grading and Authenticity” says that Gowdy and Gandil “did not use the J13 model and both players had endorsement contracts with Hillerich & Bradsby, indicating bats produced for them bearing their branded facsimile signature on the barrel.” In conclusion, PSA claims, “This bat (in REA) was manufactured for Joe Jackson.”
How could the experts at PSA/DNA make such a definitive claim considering all of the images existing of players other than Jackson who were swinging what appears to be the same model bat? In regard to H&B player endorsements, Louisville Slugger Museum curator Nathan Stalvey told us that the Museum and H&B factory have only one document related to Joe Jackson and its his 1915 endorsement contract for his own branded signature on bats.
And speaking of Jackson’s White Sox teammate, Chick Gandil, what about additional photos we found showing that his other teammates Hap Felsch and Swede Risberg appear to be holding (along with Jackson) the same two-tone Black Betsy style bats as well?
Back in 2011, Robert Edward Auctions offered a different Black Betsy style bat which sold for a modest $18,800 because it was advertised only as a “1916-1917 “Black Betsy Bat Attributed to Joe Jackson.” The same bat was also sold by Mastro Auctions in 2008 for over $25,000. The bat had something in common with the current REA Jackson bat offering in that it also had no identifiable markings that linked the lumber to ownership or game use by Jackson.
In the lot description REA sang a different tune clearly stating nothing more than attribution: “Because there are basically no available H&B records predating 1920, and the fact that Jackson’s name is not stamped on the barrel (there is no barrel stamping as this is how Jackson’s “Black Betsy” models were produced), MEARS has conservatively graded and evaluated this bat as a “Black Betsy” bat with attribution to Joe Jackson.”
As far as we could tell, there is virtually no discernible difference between this 2011 REA offering “attributed” to Jackson and the current REA bat being offered as a “Black Betsy” gamer. In fact, the MEARS letter posted on the current REA auction site identifies the bat as a “Professional Model” that is only “attributed to Joe Jackson.”
In their letter of opinion, MEARS never says the bat was game used by Jackson and when we asked Troy Kinunen what he thought about the “game-used” claim made by PSA he replied, “The title of the item in my letter (of opinion) speaks for itself.” Kinunen believes the bat is a 100% authentic “Black Betsy” model, but by no means a 100% authentic bat actually swung by Jackson.
Kinunen’s letter of opinion for the 2011 REA “Black Betsy” bat is also consistent with his current stance. He said, “There are no known catalogs, records, or ledgers showing other players being offered the Black Betsy model bat in these dimensions with a blank barrel, but it is possible. We know that other players did use bats with the black betsy finish, but those examples were found with the players name stamped on the barrel.”
Again, Kinunen’s statements do not address the recent photographic evidence we have compiled showing that many more MLB players utilized the same dark finish on their own Black Betsy style bats, including Jackson’s own teammates. Unlike PSA/DNA, however, Kinunen does not claim that he can put the bat in Jackson’s hand at any time between 1919-1922.
MEARS clrearly states that the current REA bat is a game used pro-model “Black Betsy” that could have been used by any Major Leaguer, but Rob Lifson chose to highlight Kinunnen’s statement that it is “a 100% verifiable game used Black Betsy bat.” In what can only be described as an exercise in deceptive creating writing, Lifson attempts to couple Kinnunen’s statement with the PSA opinion to elevate the bat to game-used status without ever mentioning that the actual MEARS letter fails to say the bat was ever game used by Jackson.
When Lifson sold the 2011 bat that was merely “attributed to Joe Jackson” bidders and collectors had the final word and the bat sold for only $18,800. Meanwhile, the current alleged “game used” Black Betsy bat in the REA auction has a hefty reserve and opening bid price of $50,000. Why?
It’s that one line in the PSA/DNA report where Taube and Malta say REA’s bat “was game used by Jackson during the referenced labeling.” With one sentence, it appears that the PSA experts have transformed a rather generic relic from the Dead-Ball era into one of the hobby’s holy grails.
It appears that PSA/DNA is relying solely on their comparisons of this bat to other alleged authentic Jackson “Black Betsy” bats they have examined, including the million dollar Jackson “rookie bat.” PSA/DNA in its letter states that the bat itself is a “J13″ model although “no model number appears on the bat.” But PSA also states that “the handle, knob, and barrel dimensions conform to the vault marked and side written J13 Joe Jackson bat that appears in our database.” In addition, PSA reveals that they also factored in their opinion that “the length of the bat (at 35.5 in.) matches the vault marked J13 and the weight at 40.1 ounces today is in the range of weights of the three Jackson bats noted below.” Having compared the bats they conclude that “the dimensions as well as the “Black Betsy” finish also duplicate three Joe Jackson professional model bats in our database.”
But with no factory records available, how can there be any definitive determination made based upon the length, width and weight of the suspect bats? While there are no known period records at H&B for pre-1920 Jackson orders, there does exist one letter sent to Jackson from H&B in 1915 which actually shows that Jackson was changing the weight of his bats during that season. The document shows that Jackson requested three bats to be made at a lesser weight than his previous orders (the actual weight is not specified in the letter.) In response, H&B sent him those bats but noted it was “a very hard proposition to get good driving wood in the weights that (Jackson) asked for.” So, in addition, the bat company also sent Jackson, via Wells Fargo Express, three bats which were made “from the weight that (Jackson) formerly used.” H&B suggested that if Jackson would “continue to use this weight bat,” as opposed to his recent order of reduced weight bats, he would ultimately have “much better results.”
We don’t know what Jackson chose to do after he received that order of reduced weight bats. We do not know what his ordering preferences were from 1911 to 1915, nor do we know the changes he may have requested later in his MLB career from 1916 through 1920. The existence of this letter underscores the fact that the bat authenticators at PSA/DNA can’t be sure of anything when it comes to pre-1920 H&B player bats. While Taube and Malta have made considerable research contributions that help collectors date H&B bats and determine whether bats are professional or store models, most of their conclusions regarding game-used bats are nothing more than guess work and hyperbole. Joe Jackson could have used hundreds of H&B bats during his baseball career and its virtually impossible for the bat experts to say with certainty that a bat they’ve examined was actually held in his hands in the course of a baseball game.
Based upon their research, PSA experts Vince Malta and John Taube have established the manufacturing date of the current REA Jackson bat as “1919-1922″ and the “attributed” Jackson bat sold at REA in 2011 as dating from “1916-1917.” Since both of those bats do not have Jackson’s name burned in the barrel, both PSA/DNA and MEARS have theorized that Jackson’s bats during this period were blank.
What is even more troubling about these more recent determinations by the bat experts is a report they filed in 2008 when they authenticated another Jackson “Black Betsy” bat for SCP Auctions and Sotheby’s. That offering is proof that John Taube already knew of the existence of a professional autograph model of Jackson’s “Black Betsy” bat. That same bat was offered with a PSA/DNA report as a “1917-1921″ H&B pro model featuring Jackson’s name burned into the barrel appearing as a script “Joe Jackson” signature with a trade mark designation underneath. The bat had long been considered the only known authentic Jackson “Black Betsy” bat in existence dating back to its first public sale by Lelands in 1994 as part of the Dennis Goldstein Collection.
The Lelands catalog described the bat as the “only authentic Joe Jackson bat from his Major League playing days ever to be offered for public sale. The true Black Betsy is a Louisville Slugger 125 with dot-dash-dot labeling.” Lelands also noted that the 35.5 inch and 40 ounce bat actually had a verifiable provenance and “came directly from the famed Hillerich & Bradsby find” in 1979. Lelands said the bats were “discovered in the yard of Hillerich & Bradsby and sold by a company executive.” The bat was sold to current SABR VP and author Bill Nowlin as “the only known verifiably authentic Joe Jackson game used bat.”
At the time the “Black Betsy” sold in 1994 there was no recognized entity that authenticated bats outside of hobby equipment experts Dan Knoll and Dave Bushing. It was during that time period that Joe Jackson bats became a prime target for forgery and fraud. At the time, New York Yankee partner and collector Barry Halper claimed to own a game used Jackson “Black Betsy” and said he purchased it from the sluggers widow at her home in the 1950’s along with his 1919 White Sox jersey. Both of those items were sold by Halper to MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame as part of an $8.5 million acquisition of Halper’s top artifacts in 1998, but after a Hauls Of Shame investigative report was published in 2010, it was determined that the jersey was a forgery constructed with elements produced after Jackson’s playing days and the alleged “Black Betsy” was nothing more than a Spalding store model bat that was never used or owned by Jackson.
If the Hall of Fame had done their due diligence, they would have discovered that by 1998, the only recognized authentic Joe Jackson bat belonged to Rounder Records founder, Bill Nowlin. Nowlin’s bat was even publicly displayed as the only known Jackson example along with others from his collection at the Ted Williams Museum in Florida. The bat was displayed at the museum for several years until Nowlin decided to sell the bat for close to $300,000 in the 2008 SCP/Sotheby’s auction. At the time of that sale PSA/DNA issued a report and letter of authenticity for the bat SCP/Sotheby’s described as “one of only two known bats and the only full name signature model manufactured by Louisville Slugger Inc. that can be attributed to being used by Joe Jackson during his active Major League career.” The other bat referenced was the 1911 side written bat sold at Heritage.
Now, in 2014, Robert Edward Auctions says that the “rarity of an authentic Joe Jackson bat cannot be overstated” and that both PSA/DNA and MEARS now claim that there are “six Joe Jackson game used bats in private hands.” According to Lifson and the experts, the population of this ultra rare “game used” artifact has tripled since the sale of Bill Nowlin’s Black Betsy model at SCP/Sotheby’s just six years ago.
To illustrate just how far the auctioneers and authenticators are willing to push the envelope in the unregulated memorabilia industry we point to Rob Lifson’s own 2005 endorsement of SCD Authentic’s “Grading Scale For Bats.” Lifson’s views on game used bats nine years ago starkly contrast his current stance working with PSA/DNA and MEARS. Back then, Lifson believed that although the bats he was offering his customers “were most likely game-used bats, there was no way to know with certainty the precise history of any given game bat.” Lifson added that, “There was no way to know if perhaps a given bat was used only in batting practice, or given away as a gift, having never been used at all, or borrowed by another player for use.” Lifson was correct in his determination that, “It can often be very difficult or impossible to distinguish game-used bats from those intended for use but never actually used by the player in a Major League game.” Nine years later, Lifson and REA are willing to say that the Joe Jackson style bat has verifiable game use and suggest that he may have used it in the 1919 World Series.
Knowing that he has conflicting reports issued by two experts with different opinions, Lifson has done everything in his power to conceal that fact from the general public who have seen the bat touted on ESPN as an unquestioned Shoeless Joe gamer. Like all auctioneers, Lifson and REA will ultimately hide behind the opinion of their third-party authenticator and plead ignorance when it comes to the process of evaluating bats and explaining the conflicting opinions of his two expert reports. REA does include slightly out of focus and grainy images of the MEARS letter of opinion on its website, so collectors who read the information carefully can see the fraud that REA is attempting to perpetrate with the aid of PSA/DNA. Yes, for PSA and REA to say the bat being offered is a game used Jackson bat is outright and intentional fraud. Neither PSA or REA have any evidence to back up their claims and the existence of the MEARS opinion should have put both on notice that a “game-used” designation would be highly problematic.
The REA bat for sale is not a new hobby discovery as it was publicly displayed at the MEARS booth at the National Convention in 2012 as a consignment to MEARS and comes with an c.2005 LOA from SCD Authentic that REA does not post on its auction site. Troy Kinunen told Hauls of Shame this week that the bat was consigned to MEARS but never sold. ”We never owned or purchased that bat and we returned it to the consignor.” MEARS issued their letter of opinion on July 27, 2012 and the owner at that time was fully aware that Kinunen had determined that the bat was not game used by Jackson. It wasn’t until the bat was submitted to PSA/DNA on September 23, 2013, that the bat transformed into an iconic baseball artifact.
Hauls of Shame contacted PSA/DNA expert John Taube to ask for an explanation of his determination that REA’s Black Betsy style bat was actually used by Jackson in Major League games, but he did not return calls for comment. We also contacted Vince Malta at his San Francisco realty office, but Malta did not return our calls requesting an interview.
Like the other bat authenticators including Troy Kinunen and Dave Bushing, John Taube also buys and sells bats as a dealer and is the owner of J. T. Sports, a company he founded in 1991, before he started working for PSA/DNA. Taube was originally authenticating bats for Grey Flannel Auctions when PSA entered an agreement with the company to start a bat authentication division. Bats were sent to Grey Flannel for authentication by Taube and Vince Malta who would issue a PSA/DNA letter of authenticity. At the time PSA President Joe Orlando told SCD, “The combination of PSA’s brand name, John Taube and Vince Malta’s expertise and Grey Flannel’s hobby presence form an unrivaled service.”
Having buyers, sellers and dealers in positions as the “experts” who are also authenticating their own material is a system riddled with conflicts of interest. PSA stipulated that their autograph authenticators divest their interests as dealers but they have not made the same request with Taube and Malta. It’s a dangerous proposition for experts to be in such a position to make or break artifacts that could be worth upwards of a million dollars with their seal of approval. The current REA Jackson bat is a prime example of the big flaws in the system and clear-cut evidence of bats being fraudulently authenticated and sold. One industry source told us the REA Jackson bat could have ramifications beyond this one sale. He said, “This has the very real potential to call into question the value of both collections and personal and professional reputations.”
When it comes to bats, collectors put their faith in the experts and auction house executives expecting they are not being taken advantage of. When Bill Nowlin bought his own Black Betsy at Lelands in 1994 he relied solely on Lelands’ representation that the bat was genuine and that it came from the original 1980’s Louisville Slugger “find.” Nowlin, a renowned SABR baseball researcher, never thought to research the bat himself and looking back now says, “I should have asked for more information at the time.” Nowlin got lucky picking up his own Black Betsy since it appears to be the genuine article, but he wasn’t as lucky with others. ”I later learned that one or two other bats I bought from dealers were not legitimate,” says Nowlin.
While writing this article we were contacted again by Mike Nola at BlackBetsy.com and he passed along some images that were sent to him of a Black Betsy style bat that was purchased in a yard sale and looks exactly like the bat being offered by REA. Nola told us. “The yard sale bat has about as much potential as being used by Joe Jackson as the REA bat does. They both are Joe Jackson style bats, with blank barrels, both appear to be professional model bats, both have similar specs to a Joe Jackson gamer, but so do other bats ordered by players other than Joe Jackson.” For Nola and many other collectors we spoke with the PSA/DNA determination of game use lacks any credibility. Nola summed up the situation saying, “There is just too much reasonable doubt here for me or anyone else in their right mind to pay more than $1,500 or so for either of these bats.”
At the time this article was published the fraudulent REA Jackson bat already had two bids and stands at $55,000. Calls to REA president Rob Lifson for an explanation as to why he and PSA/DNA are trying to pass off the generic Black Betsy as game used were not returned.
Who knows, maybe the yard sale purchaser can send his bat into REA on consignment. We hear they can turn “Shoeless Joe” stuff into gold.
UPDATE (Mon. April 7th): High Bid of $55,000 Retracted on REA’s Fraudulent Shoeless Joe Jackson Bat; REA Said MEARS Expert Certed Black Betsy Bat As “Game Used” When He Didn’t; When Will Misrepresented Bat Be Removed From Sale?
Since the time this article was published last week, the high bid of $55,000 appears to have been removed or retracted for Robert Edward Auction’s premier lot, the alleged “game used” Shoeless Joe Jackson bat. A call to the auction house this morning for details on the lot’s downward turn was not returned.
A Hauls of Shame reader also pointed out that REA and Rob Lifson didn’t just attempt to conceal the fact that the PSA/DNA and MEARS reports clashed, they actually lied and wrote that MEARS certified the bat as “game used” along with PSA/DNA when they did not in their 2012 letter of opinion. MEARS expert Troy Kinunen did not return calls and emails requesting comment on REA’s false claim regarding his opinion. REA officials did not respond to our inquiry as to whether the bat would be removed from the sale.
UPDATE (April 7th 4:25 PM): Auction Adds Addendum to Joe Jackson Bat Lot; REA Now Says No Way To Prove Game Use:
Late this afternoon REA posted this addendum on Lot 3, the alleged Shoeless Joe Jackson “game used” bat:
While MEARS has authenticated and graded this bat as a “Game used Black Betsy model bat attributed to have been used by Joe Jackson” and PSA DNA has authenticated and graded the bat as a “Black Betsy professional model bat that is “authentic and was game used by Jackson during the referenced labeling”, REA does not believe there is any way to prove with certainty (as is the case with virtually all vintage bats attributed to use by any player) actual game use by Joe Jackson.
The addendum represents a 360-degree turn-around for REA and Rob Lifson who appear to be siding with the more conservative determination made by MEARS as opposed to the fraudulent determination made by PSA/DNA that the bat was “game used” by Joe Jackson. PSA/DNA has no evidence whatsoever that can put the bat in Jackson’s hands at any time during his career. Although REA has posted the addendum, they have still not corrected the line in the lot description which falsely claims that MEARS said the bat was game used by Jackson and one of only six game used examples known to exist.