Baseballs for Sale: Lightly Used, Heavily Marked Up

There are usually many game-used balls for sale from, say, a pitcher’s first MLB win. (via Keith Allison)

Typically, used goods are cheaper than new. Even swapping out “used” for the euphemism “pre-owned” doesn’t change that. For many, there is a stigma to hand-me-downs and second-hand goods. Baseball artifacts, however, are a notable exception. Used is worth more than pristine.

Now we all know Cooperstown-caliber artifacts have great value. Remember all the scrums that resulted whenever Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds hit an historic home run? People fought over those baseballs just as they would have over winning lottery tickets. Given the potential payoff, it might be worth the risk of a black eye or a chipped tooth (though probably not a lawsuit) to come away with a home run ball that made history.

The ultimate home run ball, Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning shot in 1951, has never turned up. The ball’s fate has inspired almost as many theories as the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. The best known treatment of it is Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, the opening of which (“Pafko at the Wall”) is frequently excerpted as a novella.

The missing Thomson home run ball also inspired a documentary (Miracle Ball), but to date no major motion picture. Perhaps one day Steven Spielberg will give us Indiana Jones and the Shot Heard Round the World. Come to think of it, whatever happened to that high-powered telescope the Giants used to steal signs? Has that ever been auctioned off?

A famous home run is one thing, a foul ball another. If it’s not a line drive and it’s headed in your general direction, it could be a nice keepsake, but there’s no point in knocking yourself out for it. After all, it isn’t worth much. Or is it? My recent visit to Houston was a revelation.

Minute Maid Park, like all major league ballparks, has a team store. It also has a smaller, boutique-style shop with collectibles (not mere souvenirs) for the more discriminating fan called “Astros Authentic.”

The items for sale in the store are either limited-edition items or game-used artifacts. Cracked bats certainly qualify as “authentic,” assuming they were cracked while in active duty and not during batting practice. In the days of old, a player might give one to a kid. More than likely, the kid would tape it up and use it on the local sandlot. The rest of those broken Louisville Sluggers probably were used for firewood. Until a half-century ago.

In late 1968, baseball writer Marty Appel, a Yankees employee in those days, kept the cracked bat Mickey Mantle used in his last plate appearance. He got $15,000 for it at an auction 30 years later. There’s no telling how much it would go for today. You can’t help but wonder how many millions of dollars went up in smoke in fireplaces all across America before that 1988 auction.

Little by little, more mundane, everyday used objects has turned up in boutique stores at ballparks. Dirt-stained bases are now available, as are the handwritten lineup sheets posted in the dugouts. Obviously, there is only one of those per team per game. You can purchase one secure in the knowledge that it is unique. That’s about as limited-edition as can be.

But what about game-used equipment that is not in short supply? In other words, what of baseballs? The average life span of a major league baseball is six pitches. The number of baseballs used during a 162-game season is roughly 113,850. Until recently, game-used baseballs were saved for batting practice or sent to minor league affiliates.

Of course, during the course of a game, some balls end up in the stands–most as foul balls, some as errant throws, ground-rule doubles, or home runs–and thus into the possession of fans. Bought in bulk, baseballs one cost about $3 each; in other words, less than a small box of popcorn at the concession stand.

But what about all those baseballs that do not leave the field? It could be a foul ball that doesn’t go into the stands, or a batted ball that results in a hit or an out. Those is taken out of play as the umpire throws a new one to the pitcher. What happens to those balls?

Well, at Minute Maid, a team employee catalogs them. He keeps score but not in the way you or I would. As each ball is taken out of play and its history is noted (e.g., the date, the pitcher, the inning, the batter, and the fate of this particular ball: singled to left, fouled back to screen, grounded to short, or what have you).

After the game, the baseball, along with a slip of paper describing its brief history, is encased in a plastic cube and put up for sale. Naturally, the price depends on the players involved and what happened. A strikeout pitch thrown by Justin Verlander is worth more than a random pitch thrown by a September call-up. A double by George Springer is worth more than a foul tip by a bench player.

The Physics of Being Hit by a Pitch
It may still leave a bruise, but physics suggests a few ways to lessen the impact of a hit-by-pitch.

Who would pay $40 or $50 or $60 for a smudged baseball of no particular historical significance? The magic words are “game-used.” If you go out to the ballpark early and shag a 550-foot shot during batting practice, it makes it a memorable day at the ballpark, but you haven’t hit the jackpot. That ball isn’t game-used! The feeblest foul ball ever hit is worth more.

If you’re interested in something extra, you can get a game-used baseball that has subsequently been autographed by the player who hit it. I made a brief survey of several game-used items at the end of October, though I’m sure some may sold in the time since I began writing this piece. For example, the Astros web site once had for sale an “Authentic Game-Used Foul Back to the Screen Baseball from September 03, 2016.” This ball, which actually came into contact with George Springer’s bat, can be yours for just $999.99.

Curiously, another George Springer ball from the same date, a “Game-Used Pitch in the Dirt Baseball,” is available for the same price. One would think that since Springer’s game-used bat never touched the game-used ball it would be cheaper, but no!

Springer’s 2017 World Series MVP status likely hiked the price on all of his game-used items. If you need to economize, you can get an autographed Jose Altuve foul ball from September 21, 2016 for just $899.99. For the same price you can get an autographed Carlos Correa baseball; a “Game-Used Pitch in Dirt Baseball from September 19, 2016,” or a “Game-Used Foul from July 18, 2016.”

If you’re really strapped for cash, you might have to settle for a ball from a Jason Castro single from a May 1, 2016 contest against the A’s. That is available for just $99.99. Aside from his 2013 season, Castro has had a lackluster career, and he left the Astros via free agency after the 2016 season, so it’s understandable why this artifact has been relegated to the bargain bin.

I don’t know where this documenting and marketing of game-used balls started, and I don’t know if they’re available at all major league parks. I can say that a couple of weeks after my visit to Houston, I noticed game-used balls for sale at a Rangers game in Arlington. The prices appeared comparable, but the packaging was less attractive.

Thanks to the internet, even if you live nowhere near a major league ballpark, you can still acquire game-used baseballs. Just go to MLBshop or eBay and start scrolling and browsing. Obviously, there is more variety than you’d find at a ballpark.

So far I don’t see any game-used World Series balls, but I have no doubt they are being cataloged as I write this. In the meantime, the acquisitive fan is not short of options.

For $479, you get your choice of Lorenzo Cain’s career hits No. 492 or 504, both autographed by the batter. Not exactly benchmark totals, but I guess Cain himself kept No. 500. I imagine he hasn’t tried to keep all 976 of his hits, as that would create a storage problem; I wouldn’t count on No. 1,000 being available to the public in 2019.

If you’re a Tigers fan, you can get game-used baseballs from the first victories of Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer. I’m sure these are not the actual last game-winning baseballs used in those games. No doubt those ended up in each pitcher’s trophy case. Remember, each baseball’s average life is just six pitches, so every time a pitcher wins his first game, there will be plenty of game-used baseballs available for interested buyers.

If you are a David Ortiz fan and have deep pockets, you have two possibilities.

The price of the baseball David Ortiz hit for his 500th home run is way out of my league. Yours too, more than likely. But for just $1,599.99 you can obtain an autographed, game-used ball from that September 12, 2015 game. If you prefer, you can get an autographed game-used ball from September 15, 2016, when Big Papi hit his 537th home run, thus surpassing Mickey Mantle. This is marketed as a limited-edition (1/20) baseball, yet it is going for a mere $1,119.99.

This marketing of game-used balls from a game containing some historic event has ramifications for fans attending such games. If you are attending a game in which some player is on the verge of an historic achievement, you might want to make an extra effort to get that foul ball headed your way. If the player doesn’t make history, it’s just another game-used ball, but if he does, then you have something of value, such as the two David Ortiz balls described above.

At the other extreme, if you’re counting your pennies, you can get generic (no players or games specified) game-used balls from 2018 Cardinals games for $39.99.

Also of interest are the mementoes that are made from game-used baseballs. They are, in effect, skinned and used to to adorn bottle openers, cuff links, wallets, bracelets, pendants, keychains, and watches.

I honestly don’t know whether to deplore or admire this game-used marketing phenomenon. On the one hand, it seems absurd to pay so much for a used baseball just because it appeared in a major league game. If you’re of the opinion that we live in a decadent society, then such a ball might be Exhibit A.

On the other hand, America is the land of opportunity, no matter where you find it. One day a light bulb went off in the mind of an enterprising soul who looked at all those baseballs being taken out of play and saw a revenue stream just waiting to be tapped! The profit potential of that epiphany is now being realized.

But are there more? “Game-used” applies to a lot more than a baseball that had a life span of six pitches, more or less. So here are my suggestions on how to turn that revenue stream into white-water rapids.

For one thing, players take showers after games. Players dry off with towels. The astute clubhouse attendant will note which players used which towels and on which game date, then deliver them to the appropriate shop at the ballpark. I must admit I have no idea what the price points should be.

Don’t forget the towels in the dugout used to mop sweat from players’ heads during innings. These must not be sent to the laundry, lest their value decline. Remember, the player’s DNA is included in that sweat! The gold standard here would be a discarded towel with an injured player’s blood on it. What a world.

Many players shave in the locker room. I’m guessing most of them use disposable razors. The sharp-eyed locker room attendant will note whenever a player tosses the razor. Retrieve the razor from the trash but do not clean it! It’s worth more if stubble remains on the blade. If a player has nicked himself and some blood remains on the razor, so much the better.

And the clubhouse attendant is not the only employee who can be deployed in the service of revenue enhancement. The clean-up crew responsible for sweeping out the dugout can also be enlisted to the effort. After every game, a small fortune in expectorated sunflower seed husks lies there for the taking. Granted, it would be impossible to match up each husk with an individual player, though it could certainly be verified that the seeds came from the home team on a given date. Consequently, after every game, the husks could be swept into a plastic bag, dated, and put up for sale. Just think, 81 bags per season. And don’t forget those discarded paper cups!

Of course, the same is true of the visitors dugout. You have 81 games of sunflower seed husks and paper cups for all the other teams in the league, plus whatever teams appeared for interleague games.

Discarded bubble gum is also worthy of attention, though identification with specific players may be problematic, to say nothing of collecting the specimens.

Of course, ballparks, like airports, are under perpetual renovation. So when the locker room toilet facilities get remodeled, do not let them cart those old toilets and urinals away to the dump! They have been used by major league baseball players! A pity we can’t bag, tag, and sell the erstwhile contents of those receptacles, but the Health Department would likely disapprove.

Do my suggestions sound far-fetched? Let’s go back to Minute Maid Park in Houston for a moment.

Remember Tal’s Hill? That was the gratuitous mound, supposedly the brainchild of former Houston GM Tal Smith, that was installed in front of the center field fence. It’s gone now but not forgotten. In fact, you can buy dirt from Tal’s Hill at Astros Authentic. The perfect stocking stuffer for those Astros fans on your gift list!

Believe it or not, on MLBShop and eBay, ballpark dirt is as common as dirt if not dirt cheap. You can get the dirt in a phial or a bag or something more presentable. How about a team pen filled with major league dirt? A team set of coasters with major league dirt?  A Florida Marlins dirt-filled paperweight (I assume the dirt is from the old ballpark)? How about a Christmas tree ornament of Comerica Park dirt? I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Ever heard of taking a dirt nap? Well, for $899 you can take a dirt map; in other words, a framed collage of the U.S. map with samples of dirt from all 30 major league ballparks. I can’t help but wonder, will it be marked down as new ballparks come on line? Or will supplemental dirt be made available, like software updates?

The phrase “game-used dirt” sounds redundant. I’ve never seen a baseball game that didn’t involve some volume of dirt, even if it was just the pitcher’s mound. Once the grounds crew deposits it on the field, it will surely be game-used.

Come to think of it, in the future will dirt be marketed at various prices depending on where it was located? Will dirt from the pitcher’s mound or the batter’s box be worth more than dirt from the warning track or foul territory? I have to believe that MLB dirt, like all real estate, is not exempt from the classic maxim of “Location, location, location.”

Each park has unique marketing possibilities. Imagine the Red Sox repainting the Green Monster. Surely the surface would be scraped before a new coat of green paint was applied, so all those scraped-off paint chips could be bagged and sold. Same goes for Pesky’s Pole.

And what would happen if Pesky’s Pole was replaced? Well, several years ago, the Rangers replaced their foul poles, sawing the old ones into portable segments and putting them on the market. Fenway Park could surely profit from that example. I can only wonder whether the left field (i.e., the Green Monster) foul pole or Pesky’s Pole would be worth more.

Speaking of classic ballparks, what about Wrigley Field? After the grounds crew trims the ivy, the workers should collect the clippings, put them in plastic bags, add water, and take them immediately to the team shop. Yes, fans, if you plant them and tend them lovingly, perhaps one day you too can have Wrigley Field ivy growing on your house! Think how it might enhance the resale value. Unless the prospective buyer is a White Sox fan, of course.

Like used baseballs and dirt, gold is where you find it, and every major league park is a potential gold mine! P.T. Barnum, thou shouldst be alive at this hour!

References and Resources


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.

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4 Comments on "Baseballs for Sale: Lightly Used, Heavily Marked Up"

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dodgerbleu
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dodgerbleu
I don’t know if I should feel good or bad that I’ve bought game-used balls and the pens. And right now, I pretty much HAVE to have that map.. Angels stadium sells game-used balls for like $20. They did the second to last game of the season at least. I bought 3 of them from the merchandise stand. They COULD have been $25 each, I don’t remember – but they literally had bins full of them. I also bought a Bobby Shantz autographed ball that same merchandise stand – 1952 MVP – Yankees ball. It was $129. They had some… Read more »
tramps like us
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tramps like us

Remember Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who was captured at gunpoint and returned to his father in Cuba? At the time he came ashore, some people captured and listed on eBay vials of Atlantic Ocean water from (I guess) the Miami shoreline and touted them as genuine water Elian swam in. The vials sold for $10 each and went like hotcakes. Only in America.

14689142745
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14689142745

what ever happened to eli manning’s fraud case?

SucramRenrut
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SucramRenrut

To what case is this referring? I assume it a not simply a leather case in which Eli Manning holds his fraud.