In the past, I have written a few posts about baseball cards and my passion for the hobby. One of my favorite cards from my collection is the Honus Wagner T206 card. This card just screams class and baseball history to me. It’s a rare card that has been on the market for over 100 years.
The Honus Wagner T206 is arguably the most important card in the history of sports cards, and it is without question the most important baseball card of all-time. The only other card to ever eclipse the hype of the Honus Wagner T206 is the Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan T206. But the T206 is still the best, and it always will be.
It’s been called the “Holy Grail” of baseball cards, and at nearly a century old, there’s no doubt that the Honus Wagner T206 is one of the most valuable cards in the world. But what defines the card as the “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time)?
Nearly 100,000 individuals flocked to the 2021 National Sports Collectors Convention in suburban Chicago, vying for space and gazing through glass displays. Some were there to purchase, with cards ranging in value from a few dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others just wanted a sight of the most sought-after and divisive card ever created, one they had only ever heard about.
A little, rectangular piece of cardboard so precious that it was guarded by a fully armed, off-duty police officer lay hidden in plain sight, so small and slight that hundreds of people passed it without understanding what they were missing. On Sunday, that piece of cardboard sold for $6.6 million, making it the most expensive sports card ever sold in a market flooded with million-dollar record-breakers during the previous two years.
It was a T206 Honus Wagner, a sports card known as the “Holy Grail” or “Mona Lisa.” There are about 60 of them known to exist.
The T206 Wagner, which is less than two inches wide and three inches tall, is essentially the tale of the whole sports card business. A story about scarcity and ego, with a touch of scandal thrown in for good measure. A coming-of-age story about a pastime that evolved from a kids’ campaign into an investment possibility for the super-rich.
Despite this, the Wagner is just a mass-produced, low-cost piece of paper. Michael O’Keeffe, who co-wrote a book on the T206 Wagner, stated, “It’s simply cold cardboard.” “It has no monetary worth other than what someone is prepared to pay for it.”
People, on the other hand, are ready to spend exorbitant amounts. The sports card and memorabilia industry is booming, and it’s difficult to understand why without looking at the effect of the Honus Wagner card. So, how did a simple sports card, once a child’s toy, become — and continue to be — the lifeblood of a multibillion-dollar industry?
First and foremost…
Wagner, the son of German immigrants, began working in a Pennsylvania coal mine when he was 12 years old. He debuted with the Pittsburg Pirates in 1897, at the age of 23, 14 years before the letter H was ever added to the city’s name, and soon established himself as a star deserving of his own moniker, “The Flying Dutchman.”
Wagner is tied with Tony Gwynn for the most hitting championships in the National League with eight. Wagner hit.300 or more in 15 consecutive seasons, could throw the ball more than 400 feet, and led the league in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, stolen bases, and RBIs on many occasions. With 3,420 hits, he is seventh on the all-time hits list.
Shortstop with the Pittsburgh Pirates Honus Wagner in the batter’s box, ca. 1910. Getty Images/Bettmann/Corbis
Wagner tied with Babe Ruth for 215 votes in the inaugural Hall of Fame ballot in 1936, second only to Ty Cobb’s 222 votes. Cooperstown’s first class was completed by Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.
“We’d ask them, ‘Do you know who Honus Wagner was?’” Brian Dwyer, owner of Robert Edward Auctions, which sold the record-breaking card on Sunday, said. “‘No,’ they’d reply. He’ll be known for his baseball card, for the most part.”
Tobacco firms had been putting stiff paper inside cigarette and tobacco boxes for almost 50 years as a method to preserve the nicotine products until Wagner’s card was launched in 1909. The American Tobacco Company produced 16 various brands of “white border” baseball cards that year, including Sweet Caporal, American Beauty, and Carolina Brights.
A full white border collection includes 524 images, some of which feature the same player in several positions. There have been more than 4,200 Ty Cobb cards graded so far from the series. However, just a few of Wagners are known to exist.
The biggest argument among the sports card world is why there are so few Wagners compared to other players — something collectors love to chew over.
The Wagner printing plate may have broken during manufacturing, according to one hypothesis. Another theory claims that the artist and the cigarette business are in a copyright battle.
Wagner’s family and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, however, have proposed the most popular and romantic interpretation (which has a T206 Wagner in its collection). Wagner reportedly requested that his card be taken out of production because he did not want to encourage youngsters smoking cigarettes.
Other historians, on the other hand, are dubious of that idea. In his book “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession,” author Dave Jamieson stated, “Wagner evidently had no qualms about his picture being replicated on cigar bands, which appear to belie the notion that he opposed to advertising tobacco goods.”
Wagner, according to a more cynical interpretation, wanted more money in exchange for exploiting his name, image, and appearance. Wagner, according to this argument, was battling for his NIL rights more than a century before NCAA players took their case to the Supreme Court for compensation.
Wagner was a brilliant businessman. He became the first professional athlete to accept an endorsement contract when he agreed to put his name on a Louisville Slugger brand of bats in 1905. According to Roger Abrams’ book “The Money Pitch: Baseball Free Agency and Salary Arbitration,” he went on to promote a variety of products, including chewing gum, Coca-Cola, and gunpowder.
But O’Keeffe, co-author of “The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card,” wonders whether it was a mix of the two, with Wagner utilizing the kids-smoking justification to hide what was, in fact, a marketing ploy.
“He’s an all-American tale,” O’Keeffe remarked, “a kid of immigrants who made a lot of money.” “However, cigarettes were deemed low-class at the time, and laborers used them because they didn’t have time to smoke a pipe or a cigar. Despite the fact that everyone smoked or chewed, the Pirates’ owner and manager, both of whom had a major impact on Wagner, despised tobacco.”
Wagner’s card was no longer produced by the American Tobacco Company, regardless of the facts.
Jefferson Burdick, a pioneering card collector, was cataloging over 30,000 cards he had acquired throughout his lifetime by 1939. Burdick assigned the “white border” cards a new designation: T206, for the 206th issue of tobacco cards, in his landmark book “The United States Card Collectors Catalog.”
The T206 Honus Wagner was valued at $50 by Burdick, making it the card’s first known value. In 2021 currency, it would be about $980.
Officially, the T206 Wagner was the most expensive card in the world.
Mickey Mantle is a game-changer.
Mickey Mantle is the most popular player among postwar collectors.
“In the memorabilia industry, Mickey Mantle was sort of one of the first to earn significant money as a side profession,” Jamieson said. “He was renowned for signing a lot of signatures, like a lot of autographs.”
There are almost 30 distinct Mantle card kinds to collect. Long before the current card craze, a 1951 Bowman Mantle rookie card sold for $600,000 during the Great Recession in 2008, the second-highest price ever paid for a sports card. Professional Sports Authenticator gave the card a “10” rating (PSA).
When cards are auctioned, they are usually rated by one of three organizations: PSA, Beckett Grading Services (BGS), or Sportscard Guaranty Corporation (SGC). All three use a one-to-ten grading scale, with ten indicating gem mint quality. Some firms include ratings for signatures added to the card, as well as “subgrading,” which assigns number grades to the edges, corners, centering, and surface of the card.
However, when it comes to Mantle, his rookie card isn’t the most prized.
Instead, postwar collectors want the 1952 Topps, which has a turquoise backdrop and a comic book-yellow bat resting softly on Mantle’s shoulder as he gazes out into the distance.
Two 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards were sitting next to one other in a case at the NSCC in July. They seem to be similar at first sight.
However, a closer examination shows that one of the cards is off-center, with the turquoise backdrop pushed to the left. As a consequence, PSA gave the card a rating of 4.
The other is well-centered, although the turquoise near Mantle’s hand and around his jawline has tiny creases. Below his imitation signature, yellow ink spills out. Mantle’s hat has a particle of paper flaking off it. While the centering problem on the second card is more apparent, PSA gave it a lesser grade of 3 because to these minor flaws.
According to Rick Probstein, CEO of Probstein123, a consigner and one of eBay’s biggest sellers of sports cards and memorabilia, grading is “the lifeblood” of the card business. He said, “The difference between a 9 and a 10 might be a million dollars.”
The legend of the card, like that of the T206 Wagner, is important. Dealers returned unsold cards to producers in the 1950s to create space for the next year’s set. According to legend, the majority of unsold 1952 Topps were thrown by boat into the Hudson River or Gowanus Bay near the Topps headquarters in Manhattan.
The 1952 Mickey Mantle and the T206 Wagner, according to Jamieson, owe their legendary reputation to an enticing mix of history and scarcity. They’re “one-of-a-kind cards with a sense of intrigue and mystery about them.” There are just six PSA 9 Mickey Mantle cards in existence, according to reports. Rob Gough, a clothes entrepreneur, was interested in one of them. Gough told ESPN earlier this year, “I had virtually every industry expert, dealer, and auction firm searching for the PSA 9.”
When the card was put up for auction in January, Gough bought it for $5.2 million, making it the most valuable sports card ever sold.
Of course, just temporarily.
Rob Gough, an actor and entrepreneur, paid $5.2 million for a Topps Mickey Mantle card from 1952. Berk Communications provided this image.
The 1990s’ euphoria (and euphoria)
It was the new century, and card collecting had gone professional.
“I recall going into shops in the 1980s and 1990s and being outraged that they were now placing baseball cards behind glass cases that had to be opened by someone,” O’Keeffe remarked. “I was thinking, ‘This is just nonsense.’”
O’Keeffe worked for the New York Daily News as a sports investigative reporter. He’d been summoned to Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant and Sports Bar on Central Park West for a press conference. The “Gretzky T206 Wagner,” as it had become known, was going to be auctioned off.
O’Keeffe was taken aback as he stared at the famous card. The card was amazing. “When my brothers and I received baseball cards, we would destroy them in 10 minutes,” he recalls thinking. “How did that card manage to remain in such excellent condition?”
That query sent O’Keeffe and a group of reporters on a ten-year odyssey that resulted in hundreds of stories, his book, and one industry-changing criminal conviction.
“We got what we believe was the answer eventually,” he added. “It was tampered with.”
Getty Images/Chris Hondros
Bill Mastro, a sports memorabilia collector, controlled the sports card market in the 1980s, when he paid $25,000 for a Wagner and almost two dozen other T206 cards. He sold the Wagner for $110,000 to a card collector two years later. “That’s Bill Mastro’s beauty,” O’Keeffe remarked. “He blew this thing out of the water.”
Bruce McNall, the owner of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, had already heard about the card and persuaded Wayne Gretzky, his star player, to assist him in purchasing it in 1991. Mastro had a role in the $451,000 transaction.
The “Gretzky T206 Wagner,” as it would be known from there on, was the first card graded by PSA, earning a “8 Near Mint-Mint” rating. To put it in perspective, according to PSA’s most recent population report, no other T206 Wagners have earned a grade higher than a 5. With the exception of three, all of the students got a grade of 3 or below.
After confessing to cheating six banks out of $236 million, McNall was sentenced to jail. “Gretzky was trapped with the card and eventually sold it,” O’Keeffe said. In a promotional effort in 1995, Walmart purchased it and raffled it off. However, due of the taxes associated with owning a Wagner, the post office employee who won the card was unable to retain it.
The card was sold and resold by prestigious auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Robert Edward Auctions, as well as private collectors like MLB pitcher Tom Candiotti, until it was dubbed the “most expensive card in the world” after Ken Kendrick, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ principal owner and managing general partner, purchased it for $2.8 million in 2007.
In the same year, O’Keeffe and Terri Thompson released their book, accusing Mastro of “cleaning” the card by cutting its edges.
Card cleaning is “something that has developed through time,” according to O’Keeffe. “Collectors told me that they “always flattened cards” by placing them in a vice or stacking books or bricks on top of them. Alternatively, they may clip the corners off to prevent them from becoming filthy or floppy. As a result, they maintain their sharpness. In the 1970s, everything was fine. Nobody had considered it. Back then, a Wagner card might be worth a few thousand dollars on the top end. A nickel or a dime was the standard denomination for playing cards. As a result, people did it all the time.”
After all, it was cards that youngsters had used to make bike spokes.
With the advent of card grading in 1991, a new set of criteria emerged. It was OK to use distilled water. Stale gum may be removed by rubbing it with a nylon stocking.
Trimming, on the other hand, is absolutely prohibited. A card that has been “altered” may not get a numerical grade.
Mastro pleaded guilty in 2013 to a variety of federal charges, including mail fraud and “shill bidding,” an illegal practice in which associates bid on auction items to increase prices, following a multiyear government investigation that included grand jury subpoenas issued to some of the country’s most well-known card dealers.
During the inquiry, Mastro finally confessed to something that had been rumored for years: he had trimmed the Wagner with a paper cutter before selling it to Gretzky.
At the time, Assistant US Attorney Steven J. Dollear stated, “The long-running and systematic nature of the conspiracy undermines trust in the auction house and sports memorabilia businesses, and puts into doubt the actual worth of goods.”
Card cleaning is still an issue in the hobby, according to the Washington Post, which reported in 2019 that the FBI was looking into a fresh batch of problematic cards when amateur sleuths on a Blowout Cards forum started comparing before and after photos of suspicious cards.
“A lot of us felt these cards were never intended to remain in a case for a long time, examined by people in a dark room, under black lights in some bunker,” Jamieson said. “However, there is a clear need for it. In this business, there is some shadiness. The demand for third-party grading was fueled by a lot of doctoring.”
Kendrick, who still possesses the Gretzky T206 Honus card, refused an interview with ESPN, although he told the New York Times in 2019 that learning the card had been cut was “upsetting.”
“But I wanted to have the card, and I still want the card,” he told the newspaper, adding that he had heard the stories before purchasing the card.
“In our hobby, I think the PSA 8 Wagner is the one thing where the bad turns a good,” Dwyer remarked.
Because Kendrick also told the New York Times that he was offered four times the price he paid for his card. But he didn’t sell what is still the most valuable card in the world in 2019.
Mike Trout and a new age of cards, on the other hand, were about to cut out the youngsters and turn the pastime into a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
The contemporary epoch
Despite the 1980s boom, card trading saw a significant downturn in the early 1990s. The 1994 MLB strike and widespread overproduction, according to most analysts, were the two reasons that caused the bubble to collapse.
“Everything was ruined by overproduction. It took us at least ten years to recover “Leaf Trading Cards’ CEO, Brian Gray, said. “As you got into the 2000s, the level of card manufacturing dropped dramatically.”
Instead of waiting decades for cards to become scarce due to time and circumstance (such as Mom throwing away your prized childhood collection), companies like Topps, Upper Deck, Donruss, Leaf, and current industry leader Panini now release sets with highly sought-after serial-numbered cards limited to only 50, 25, 10, or occasionally five cards. Modern cards with the number “1/1,” often known as one-of-ones, are the most sought-after.
A fragment of a game ticket, a game-used cleat, or a piece of hardwood floor may be found in some of these restricted inserts. Holograms and reflecting surfaces are used by some (often called “refractors”). Rookie cards with a superstar athlete’s authenticated autograph (dubbed “autos”) or a piece of the athlete’s jersey are the most valuable (called a “patch”). A Rookie Patch Autograph, often known as a “RPA,” is obtained by combining the holy trinity of a signed rookie card with a piece of jersey.
A player may sign a sticker that will be placed to the card later. There are also “cut autos,” which include a signature cut from a check or document and implanted into the card, which are more popular among antique players. The most valuable signatures are those signed “on-card,” which means the player autographed the card’s physical surface.
A patch that includes a piece of a player’s number, name, or team logo is worth less than a patch that has a portion of a player’s number, name, or team logo. One-of-a-kind “NFL Shields” and NBA “Logomans” are almost priceless.
These cards are hidden away in packs with much less desirable “basic” cards, many of which aren’t worth anything. The desired cards, known as “chase” or “hits,” are extensively promoted by manufacturers, but the manufacturer does not disclose which pack, box, or case includes the sought card.
The entrance of foreign investors, small investment groups, and even family foundations seeking to park their old money in a new financial instrument, according to several industry experts, is also propelling the contemporary market.
In September 2020, Ken Goldin of Goldin Auctions told ESPN, “They don’t believe this is a short-term issue.” “They’d rather know they have the greatest LeBron [James], Kobe Bryant, and Mike Trout collections than look at a collection of paintings by artists who died 400 years ago that they have to have locked up in a safe. Individuals such as these are considering it as an asset class and a component of their portfolio.”
From 2007 until 2016, Kendrick’s Gretzky T206 was the most expensive card ever sold, followed by a PSA 5 Wagner that sold for $3.12 million via Goldin Auctions in 2016. However, a Mike Trout 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Superfractor sold at auction for $3.9 million in August 2020. In other words, it’s Trout’s rookie card, numbered 1/1, with a gleaming, prismatic surface and an on-card signature.
The most expensive NFL card ever sold was a 2017 Panini National Treasures Patrick Mahomes 1/1 NFL Shield on-card rookie auto, which sold for $4.3 million in July. In order to: The card has his entire NFL shield incorporated in it, as well as his on-card signature and is numbered 1/1.
A Patrick Mahomes 2017 Panini National Treasures 1-of-1 NFL shield signed card sold for $4.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a football card and the fourth-highest price ever paid for a sports card. Berk Communications is a firm that specializes in public relations
Upper Deck’s 2003-04 Exquisite Collection RPA parallel LeBron James card sold for $5.2 million in April, matching the record for the most ever paid on a card set by Mickey Mantle in 1952. You should be able to figure out what it said by now: James’ rookie card, numbered to 23 and featuring a patch and on-card autograph, has a BGS 9 grade and a perfect 10 signature rating.
At this year’s National, a dealer had an unopened 2017 Panini National Treasures Football case — containing 32 cards — from the same collection that produced the Mahomes record breaker for sale.
The typical case has 12 autographs and 12 memorabilia cards, but the Mahomes RPA isn’t certain to be in the box. In 2017, cases cost $2,000; at the National, they cost $145,000, which was enough to purchase a nice house in Kansas City when Mahomes was selected by the Chiefs.
With so much money on the line, the “hobby” has been vulnerable to the same issues that have afflicted sports tickets and athletic shoes in the past, with tales of computer bots purchasing up boxes online. Target restricted sports card sales to three products per client and subsequently halted sales outright “out of concern for its workers and consumers,” according to ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren.
In some ways, it all began with the Wagner card. Wagner is the founder of a multibillion-dollar business that has mastered demand via scarcity, whether he meant it or not.
And, despite the recent card craziness, card analysts like Jamieson were certain that Wagner would rule supreme once again. “What Michael Gidwitz, who sold the first million-dollar Wagner, said that struck me was how, in fine art, if you ask a group of contemporary art experts, ‘What is the finest piece of modern art?’ they all have different views,” he added. “When it comes to baseball cards, there isn’t much debate: it’s the T206 Wagner.”
The T206 responds.
Baseball cards weren’t simply cardboard and ink when Fred McKie was 9 years old. They served as a kind of social money.
“When I moved into a new area, it seemed like everyone was doing it,” said McKie, who is now retired in New Jersey. “I’d ride my bike to the movies, [watch] “Zorro,” and swap cards with other kids from the neighborhood in the rear.”
He and a young guy a few years younger connected through collecting while they were in college. “I wasn’t a huge collector of prewar cards, but he was, and it became into a rivalry,” McKie said.
His friend paid $1,500 for a T206 Wagner in 1972. “I had to have one if he had one,” McKie said.
Is it the same friend? Bill Mastro is an American businessman.
McKie refuses to discuss Mastro’s conviction, but he will tell you everything about the Wagner he purchased at auction for $1,100 in 1973 to compete with his friend: “It was simply part of my collection, kept in an album in my flat.”
Three years later, McKie was given $2,500 by a well-known collector called Barry Halper, which was a fortune for McKie, who intended to start a shoe shop. He remarked, “It was very nice money.” “It enabled me to establish a company, which grew into additional companies, allowing me to retire at the age of 55.”
McKie has kept a close eye on his Wagner as it has been sold and resold. His T206 Wagner, unlike his friend’s card, has never been accused of card cleaning. It was given a PSA 3 rating and sold for $1.2 million in 2012. “Every time,” McKie moaned, “it goes for more and more.”
McKie, on the other hand, is unconcerned with Wagner. He has no regrets about what might have been. He rationalizes that he would have been baseball-card wealthy but cash poor. He isn’t familiar with contemporary playing cards. He despises the sport’s professionalization.
Last night, on the other hand, I felt a twinge of sorrow.
Early Monday morning, a T206 Wagner Honus Wagner baseball card sold for $6.606 million, including a 20% buyer’s premium, breaking the record for highest-selling sports card of all time. Robert Edward Auctions is a company that specializes in auctions.
The new king of cards is that record-breaking Wagner, who is now worth $6.6 million. McKie was the one who said it.
“I used to own it, so you can brag about being a part of its history,” McKie added. “I couldn’t even come close to affording that these days.”
“I have a lot more cards nowadays that are rarer than the Wagner,” he chuckled.
And, given the current state of card collecting, one of those cards may soon be dubbed the “most expensive card ever sold.” Maybe it’ll be a card with a pro player who hasn’t even become pro yet. Also, the 1952 Topps Mantle is not to be taken lightly.
But you can guarantee that no matter whatever card wins the championship, a T206 Wagner will be ready to reclaim it.
Professional sports cards has a long and distinguished history of being the most popular trading card game. Although the value of the cards has declined in recent years, they still hold a special place in the hearts of collectors and old school enthusiasts. As a result, it was recently revealed that packs of baseball cards have been illegally manufactured as part of a bizarre Ponzi scheme.. Read more about honus wagner tobacco card and let us know what you think.
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