For those of you who have collected game used bats in the MLB Authentication era, say the last 10 years, the idea of focusing on things other than that shiny silver sticker may seem like an unnecessary effort. You wait for the authenticated bat to pop up and know with certainty when, where and who used the bat. Then you might surf on to Getty Images or MLBTV and find a picture or screen shot of the bat in use and you are done, certain that you have your favorite player's bat. Simple.
Then you decide you want to collect the 81 Yankees, uh oh. No authentication, did not exist. Likely no photomatch, there just weren't that many pictures taken and the resolution (at least online) is not sufficient. So how do you get comfortable with your purchases? First, forget about having the same absolute certainty you do today and welcome to what bat collecting was before the last 5 years. Second, get ready to play detective.
We are starting with the assumption that the player's name is on the barrel. 99.999% of all players use bats with their name on the barrel. If someone is offering you a bat with a generic label on the barrel such as "PRO STOCK" or another player's name, proceed at your own risk and beware. Pro players have bats specially made for there specifications. Players absolutely do use other players bats, but those are tough to authenticate.
While in no way exhaustive, here are a few tips that will help you in the effort:
KNOW YOUR LABELING: every few years bat companies change their bat labeling with new logos. Once you know when a certain labeling was used, then you can figure out if your bat was manufactured during the time period you are looking for. Your next question is probably: "how in the world can I do find the time to do that and keep my job?" Answer: bat collectors are forever indebted to Collector Vince Malta for doing this for us. Vince is the primary author of two books on bat labeling. The first is called Bats and covers labeling for Hillerich and Bradsby now known as Louisville Slugger as well as Adirondak now known as Rawlings. This book is exceedingly rare as it was short printed so if you can find it grab it. The second book is "A Complete Reference Guide to Louisville Slugger Professional Player Bats" and is available on Amazon. These books will allow you to determine if a bat was manufactured for a professional player, as opposed to a bat made to sell in stores, and generally the time period of manufacture.
KNOW YOUR UNIFORM NUMBERS: because bats are typically stored knob up in boxes, on shelves, in bags and in ball park bat racks, players or clubhouse staff have historically written the player's uniform number on the knob of the bat. Twenty years ago, figuring out all the uniform numbers for a player, particularly the minor leaguers who bounced up and down and might have worn several different numbers, meant finding the teams programs, examining photos or looking in the sporting news. Now this is readily available online.
KNOW YOUR PLAYER CHARACTERISTICS: looking at available photos or baseball cards try and figure out how the player prepared his bat for use. Was he a pine tar guy, heavy or light, how far up the handle? Did he shave the handle of the bat? Did he bang the bat on his cleats a lot to knock out dirt? If so the metal cleats will leave dents and chips. Was he a barrel up or barrel down hitter. Most players when standing at the plate will turn the label so they are looking at the center label. The belief is that when the bat strikes the ball, the hitting area is on the side of the bat that players think is stronger given the way the grain of the bat lays. The result: left hand hitting barrel up hitters will have more ball marks on the area under the player's name, while a right handler will have more above. Not a perfect science, but it is generally true. What was the color of the dugout bat rack? That may sound crazy, but it will leave paint scrapes on the bat . . . . Seriously. These types of things can give you some certainty. C.heck out the BAT COLLECTION section to see Red Sox bats and examine player use characteristics.
KNOW WHEN TO CHILL OUT: many a collector has obsessed about the above indicators, but you also need to keep it all in perspective. Ask yourself, how likely is it that someone would fake a bat of the certain player. Also, keep in mind that the bat may be the only one you find. You may look back 20 years later, when it is the last bat you need to complete your run, and say why in the world would did I pass that up. We speak from experience. Worst case, buy it and then look for an upgrade. Good luck with your collecting!