'Thrilling:' Man learns he has, possibly, the 'earliest known Hank Aaron bat in existence'

MILWAUKEE -- Sometimes the greatest things are hiding in plain sight. A Milwaukee man found treasure in the back of his closet, and it has led to nostalgia, and an unknown future.

"When you walk into a place like that for the first time and you look at that expanse, I mean, it was really, quite a sight to see," Bryan Downey said.

Old County Stadium captured Downey's imagination the first time he walked through its gates.

"The Braves had just come to Milwaukee, so I naturally just started following them. My buddies did the same thing, so that's where it started," Downey said.

Bryan Downey

And what a start it was to a lifetime love of the game, as he would see some of the greatest to ever play in Milwaukee.

"Spahn, Buhl and Burdette, Adcock, Logan, Matthews, you know, they're all, Aaron, they were all big names to me anyway," Downey said.

Each game he went to had its own level of excitement, but there was something even more exciting for a kid afterwards.

"I got some autographs, yeah. You could go down under the stadium and you could stand by the ramp which went from the dugout up to their locker room, and that was just like a wooden ramp as I recall with a chicken wire fence, and you could put your arm through there with a piece of paper and a pencil and you could get your autographs," Downey said.

Hank Aaron

That wasn't all. Downey came up with a bigger prize after one game in 1954.

"I did, just by coincidence. I got a bat that was used by Hank Aaron, and it was cracked and so the bat boy came up the ramp and flipped it over and I was standing close and grabbed it. It was exciting. I mean, 'look Mom, look Dad. Look what I got, you know?' It was a thrill," Downey said.

Years would go by, but the bat stayed with Downey in maybe the most inconspicuous place.

"In my closet. It was just there, just hanging there," Downey said.

During the fall of 2017, Downey started to think about what he should do with the bat.

"I stopped at Louisville and went to the manufacturer there of the Louisville Sluggers and I asked if somebody could authenticate it for me. And they said 'I'm sorry, we don't do that,'" Downey said.

They put him in touch with a man in Green Bay.

"We talked and he said 'send me a picture of the bat.' So, I did. It wasn't just a few minutes later, he sent me an email that said 'call me ASAP,' so I called him and he said, 'you know what? Your bat might be the earliest known Hank Aaron bat in existence,'" Downey said.

The two would meet, and that's where the details of its existence became more clear.

"It's got ball marks on it and all kinds of stuff that he pointed out, and plus on the bottom of the knob, that's the code for a bat by Henry Aaron," Downey said.

Further research also showed just how rare an artifact the Louisville Slugger is.

"He ordered three bats that year, at the beginning of the year, and he ordered two more for the All-Star Game that year, and that was it. It caught me, certainly, by surprise, and it was kind of thrilling since I really hadn't planned on doing much," Downey said.

However, after the conversation, those plans changed.

"He works for a place called Heritage Auction. I agreed to let Heritage Auction it off, so I left the bat with him. I signed a contract. He gave me a receipt," Downey said.

Some might have a hard time parting with such a special piece of history, but it's quite the opposite for Downey.

"No, not at all. It brings back very pleasant memories and thinking about all the games that I went to and the players that I saw. I can kind of picture them on the field in those days. It was, it's good," Downey said.

After more than 60 years tucked away safely in his closet, Downey said he hopes the bat's new home will keep the memories alive.

"I'm only hoping that it'll end up in some place that protects it and it lasts," Downey said.

The bat is currently up for auction, which ends Saturday night, Feb. 24. CLICK HERE to learn more.