Is there any piece of sports memorabilia as classic, iconic, and quintessentially American as the baseball?
If your answer is "no", many would agree with you, and when you're talking about one of the biggest and most sports-inclined countries in the world, that's really saying something.
And while holding any red-stitched, cowhide covered piece of cork may invoke a sentimental response, determining the value of antique, autographed, or game-used balls can present some pitfalls.
Whether you've just caught a home run on the upper deck of Great American Ball Park, or have happened upon a mysteriously signed dusty ball in dad's attic, here are some important factors to guide you on your journey to authentication.
When you consider the number of years professional baseball has been around (roughly 140), the number of major league teams (30), and the number of regular season games in a modern season (162), it's easy to imagine that quite a few professionally used game balls are in circulation.
It's estimated that most teams use 100 to 140 balls per game with the Major League using about 900,000 balls per season. Most balls are only used for a maximum of a couple pitches, assuming they aren't home runs, foul balls, or simply tossed in the stands. The result is that the supply for typical MLB game balls is very high, and it is not difficult to find them being sold at online auctions for $10-20 per ball.
Of course, not every ball is typical, and if you happened to have caught Barry Bonds' record breaking 756th home run, you may have fetched $752,467.20 on the auction market. The more closely the game ball is associated with a popular player, team, or moment, the more demand it will have.
Besides having the distinction of being used in a live, professional game, what is the other major factor most people think of when it comes to collectible baseballs? Signatures.
The signed baseball has its own place in American lore, and anyone who has seen The Sandlot knows that stealing your father's Babe Ruth autographed ball for batting practice is a very, very bad idea.
As with any signature, the popularity of the person signing will be the biggest factor in determining the demand. If you have one of the top 20 baseball signatures on the market, you've probably got something valuable. Collectible baseballs signed by non-athlete celebrities such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton can also be found at auction or for sale. There are numerous factors that can affect the value, such as where it was signed, if it is a complete team signature, and the condition of the ball itself.
One of the biggest issues with appraising, collecting, or selling signed baseballs is forgery. As the demand for sports memorabilia has increased over several decades, so too have the efforts of con artists flooding the market with fake signatures. Even the world's most determined autographed ball collector is thought to have a quite a few in his collection. For this reason, most educated buyers and sellers will not spend much on a ball without having it authenticated, an industry-accepted inspection process that is offered by James Spence Authentication, Professional Sports Authenticator, and Major League Baseball.
Before investing in authentication you also want to check that you do not have a facsimile ball, where the signature is actually a mass-produced stamp. These balls are very common, and while an experienced collector or authenticator will quickly spot the difference, they can be convincing.
With spring in full swing and baseball season right around the corner, now is the time to oil up the old glove and hit the park to catch a game.