One of the primary joys of paying a visit to a yard sale is unexpectedly coming across a total bargain. Antique dealer Bruce Scapecchi of Des Moines, Iowa, can certainly attest to that, as he loves to mix business with pleasure. The 69-year-old claims to visit thousands of similar events over the warmest months every year. However, in summer 2013 he discovered a unique treasure for just $1 at a yard sale right in his hometown.
Yard sales allow householders to clear out any unwanted items from their home, whether it be old toys, books, furniture or sports equipment. And for charity executive Sue McEntee it was no different when, in June 2013, she was looking to sell on various of her family’s surplus possessions outside their house in Des Moines. With everything in place, then, the 50-something pitched up a sign signaling the start of the sale.
McEntee’s display eventually caught the attention of bargain-hunter Scapecchi, who prides himself on his eye for a steal. However, it would turn out that Scapecchi was scrupulously honest that day. “I go, in the summer, [to] anywhere between 2,000 to 5,000 garage sales,” he later boasted to CBS-affiliated local Des Moines TV station KCCI that month. However, here one item in particular, hidden away under an old ping-pong table, piqued his interest more than any other.
In fact, it was an item hiding in plain sight among many. Scapecchi discovered a collection of baseball bats, most of which were metallic, under that table. Yet nestled among their number was an old wooden bat that immediately caught his attention. A few moments later, then, he grabbed the lumber and approached its seller with just one question on his mind…
McEntee told KCCI what happened next, explaining, “[Bruce] picked this particular [bat] up, and he looked at me and said, ‘Do you know what this is?’” The seller was no doubt nonplussed. She recalled her reply, saying, “I thought, well yeah it’s a bat! Then he pulled me off to the side, and he said, ‘I think you might have something here.’” And while McEntee may not have noticed it, there was indeed something very distinctive about that old bat.
Scapecchi noted at once that the bat had a unique grip to it, which indicated to him that it had once belonged to an incredibly famous baseball player in the dim and distant past. However, for all the years she’d had it in her possession, McEntee was none the wiser as to its apparent historical importance. In fact, prior to the sale, her now grown-up children had played with the bat in that very same yard.
Still, Scapecchi thought the item may well have been swung in far more prestigious venues. “That was Jackie Robinson’s style,” the baseball fan informed McEntee about the bat’s grip. Stunned by this discovery, then, Scapecchi wanted to apply a clever technique to see if his hunch was correct. McEntee told KCCI, “When [Bruce] looked at it, he said, ‘It’s hard for me to tell, but there’s one true way…’” So, the venerable guy then made what may have seemed like a very strange request.
What followed metaphorically knocked the ball out of the park for McEntee. “[He said,] ‘I want you to go get a pencil,’ so I went in the house and got a pencil and came back out,” she continued to the KCCI cameras. “There’s an area on the bat where he rubbed a pencil against [it], and if you’re out in the sun you can see the name ‘Jackie Robinson.’ And I was like, ‘Holy cow!’”
In a matter of minutes, then, McEntee discovered that she was the proud owner of a very valuable bat. Yes, it was a piece of equipment that had once belonged to one of the most influential sportsmen in history – and an African-American trailblazer. Unsurprisingly, the Des Moines native couldn’t quite believe it. She remembered, “So [the bat] went from being on the ground, under a table, ready to be sold for $1, to in the house very quickly!”
And while many sports fans might question how one of Robinson’s bats ended up at the McEntee residence, the woman herself had a surprising explanation. “My uncle, Joe Hatten, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers,” she informed KCCI. “He was a left-handed pitcher – they called him ‘Lefty Joe’ – and he and Jackie played baseball together in the ’40s.”
So, although he’d already been struck by the potential significance of the bat, Scapecchi was stunned by McEntee’s subsequent revelation. “[Hatten] was one of the few players who would room with Jackie Robinson,” he admiringly recalled to KCCI about her unprejudiced relative. “And I just thought that was incredible.” Understandably, meanwhile, news of the fantastic find spread fairly quickly.
At the same time, in Omaha, Nebraska, the 2013 World College Series baseball tournament was hosting two exhibitions on the history of African-American players in the game. These special showcases were being promoted by the city’s Great Plains Black History Museum. Hence, Jim Beatty, the chairman and president of the institution, soon heard about the Des Moines discovery.
Beatty was informed of the yard sale find by two excited fans who had watched a news story on television. And were the bat to be officially authenticated, the museum man planned on speaking with McEntee to see if his attraction could get her permission to display it in pride of place in one of the World College Series exhibitions.
Robinson’s importance to the game of baseball, and American sports in general, is beyond words. Born in 1919, he took center stage in 1947 as the very first black player to compete in the Major League, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. From there, wearing the number 42 on his back, the “Dark Destroyer” racked up an impressive roll call of honors, including Rookie of the Year in 1947 and National League Most Valuable Player for 1949.
Robinson’s burgeoning career then reached new heights in 1955 when his team won the World Series. Unfortunately, he retired from the game in 1957, largely due to problems related to diabetes. Robinson became a sporting icon, though, and in 1962 he made more history – as the first black player to be welcomed into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sadly, he passed away ten years later, with the Dodgers retiring his number 42 shirt soon afterwards.
In 2013 Robinson’s story was adapted into a film, simply titled 42. Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman took on the lead role of the iconic player, while Hollywood legend Harrison Ford played Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ then-manager. As a result of the movie’s release, Beatty at the Great Plains Black History Museum noticed a spike in interest in its Robinson exhibits.
The museum president said as much in an article on the online baseball community Minor League Ball in June 2013. “Everyone coming in, especially the kids, the first thing they ask about is Jackie Robinson,” he said. “So we point them to the display. The movie has been a huge plus in terms of increasing awareness of not only Jackie Robinson, but also the courage of many – not the least of whom was Branch Rickey – in order to make that happen.”
At the same time, back in Des Moines, someone else was enjoying the benefits of this increased awareness. And McEntee’s grip on the bat ultimately remained firm following its uncovering at her yard sale. “We’re going to keep it,” she confirmed to KCCI in June 2013. “I mean, the stories with my uncle and [Robinson]. Yeah, it’s not going anywhere.”
Meanwhile, Robinson’s legacy continues to be honored year-on-year by the professional Major League Baseball organization. Every April 15 the sport observes Jackie Robinson Day, marking the date on which the legend made his MLB bow. As for the Dodgers, the team moved west the year after Robinson retired and became the Los Angeles Dodgers. And in April 2017 a bronze statue of arguably the team’s most famous player was unveiled at Dodger Stadium, commemorating the 70th anniversary of his first appearance.
So, in the summer of 2013, Bruce Scapecchi discovered an unexpected piece of history in the unlikeliest of places. Thanks to his keen eye and baseball knowledge, a bat owned by the legendary Jackie Robinson was saved from being sold for $1 in a yard sale. Now, this precious item, once treasured by a valued teammate, continues to be cherished by a grateful Sue McEntee.