HEIDELBERG, Pa. — Grant Hartley had gotten lucky before.
When Hartley, a 24-year-old student and summer intern from BYU at American Logistics Company, walked into the Heidelberg, Pa. Goodwill on July 1, he was hoping to find something “weird or cool.” So it goes for thrift-store shoppers like him.
Maybe he’d snag another brand-new, wool Pendleton coat for $7, like he did last year. That’s a $193 markdown.
“I paid more to dry-clean it,” Hartley said.
What Hartley walked out of the building with was a lot cooler than a jacket, though. Mixed in with bins of yellowed books, legless G.I. Joes and cracked salt shakers was an old baseball bat. A really old baseball bat. A really valuable baseball bat.
“The place isn’t super-organized,” Hartley said. “Everything’s just in bins, so you just have to dig and look under things. Then in one of the bins, I see this bat, and I realized it looked a lot older than I initially thought.”
A Harold “Pie” Traynor baseball bat, specifically; one the Pirates Hall of Fame third baseman used at some point between 1926 and 1934 that could be worth several thousand dollars, according to Troy R. Kinunen, the owner of Mears Auctions. The bat’s knob — thinner and far less pronounced than anything used by players for decades — tipped Hartley off.
It cost him $2.22. The Heidelberg Goodwill sells their stuff by the pound. Hartley paid with a $5 bill. Not bad for a real-deal artifact.
“Pie Traynor used that at Forbes Field,” Kinunen said Friday. “At the end of the season or the end of the game or whatever, he gave it to somebody. He gifted it. He said ‘Here.’ It was common for players. The kid took it home and probably put it in the corner of his basement or garage, and it probably sat there through the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s.
“So for 90 years, it sat laying around somewhere and then somebody bought the house, or they cleaned it out and said, ‘Hey, let’s take this junk to the thrift store.’ It went from Pie Traynor to the thrift store, basically, with one stop at the original owner’s house. Pretty cool.”
And, potentially, pretty valuable. We’ll find out how much it’s worth starting on August 25, when the bat goes up for auction on Mears’ website. Hartley, a Nampa, Idaho native, began the process while he was still inside the store by Googling words stamped on the bat. Hand-turned; No. 200; oil temp. Not bad for a baseball merch novice.
“I had no idea about antique bats or bat stamps or anything like that,” Hartley said. Though he went to two Pirates games at PNC Park while he was in town, he’s not a particularly huge baseball fan.
“But I think every kid growing up in the 90s watching ‘The Sandlot’ instantly becomes one,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be able to find something like, a piece of baseball history.”
After a 20-minute crash course on his iPhone, Hartley had figured out that Spalding, the bat’s manufacturer, periodically changed those stamps — and the version on his Traynor bat was used for eight years in the 20s and 30s. One from that batch that belonged to Traynor’s grandson had gone for $7,000. Another went for about $1,900 in 2016.
Mears ran the auction for the latter, so after some more research, Hartley — with the bat sitting in the closet at the Doubletree he lived out of for six weeks — contacted Kinunen. It seems like he called the right guy; Kinunen runs what’s essentially a fully-staffed private museum out of a 15,000-square foot converted church hall in South Milwaukee.
His first major purchase, back in the late 1980s, was a collection of 700 antique bats. In 2012, he used Mears’ 40-point authentication process on a Babe Ruth jersey that sold for $4.4 million.
The warehouse — with what Kinunen calls “a pretty extensive library of facts, data, shipping records [and] exemplars” provides the info necessary for authentication on Kinunen’s auction items. Only player bats got “hand-turned” stamps in the wood, a tell that Hartley’s thrift-store find was the real deal.
Hartley’s story left Kinunen impressed; the word “cool” came up a lot. One of Traynor’s bats, Kinunen said, will pop up every couple years.
“They’re rare. They don’t just show up,” he said.
It wasn’t just the name on the bat, either; it was how Hartley found it. Mears runs monthly auctions of several hundred items, and he figures once a year, a thrift-store purchase is in the mix.
“I wouldn’t say it happens a lot, and when it does happen, it’s a big story,” Kinunen said.
The example he gave: a West Point sweater worn by Vince Lombardi that sold for more than $43,000 in 2015. Someone bought it for 58 cents at a Goodwill. Kinunen didn’t run that auction, and Traynor’s bat won’t fetch as much, but in 2012, Kinunen sold a bat with a similar story.
A Louisville Slugger used by Cubs Hall of Famer Hack Wilson between 1926-30 popped up in a basement within walking distance from Wrigley Field.
“Some lady bought this house and in the corner was one of the most phenomenal examples of a Hack Wilson bat you could ever find,” Kinunen said. “He had a little, thin handle and a distinct tape pattern, and it still had the tape on it from when he taped it in the late 20s. And it was in the shadow of Wrigley Field.”
Eventually, the homeowner’s grandson called Kinunen. The bat went for $11,596.
Hartley’s find is unlikely to net him quite that much — but a few grand is better than $2.22. From Florida, where he’s finishing up his internship, Hartley said he’s not solely focused on the price tag, either.
“I just think it’s a way to give back to the Pittsburgh community. I’m from out West, and out West the love isn’t as great for baseball. And so I just thought it’d be a cool way to share that with the community,” he said.
“If I was a resident there and I were a huge Pirate fan, I would be interested to know that something like that was found. You never know what you can find.”