By Glen Sparks
Honus Wagner led the National League in batting average eight times during his storied career. A member of baseball’s first Hall of Fame class, most experts rate him as the greatest shortstop in the game’s history. Which still doesn’t fully explain why collectors sometimes pay more than $2 million for his 1909-11 T206 baseball card, more than they do for any other card.
Tim Wiles, former research director at the Hall of Fame, writes why the Wagner card is sometimes called the “Mona Lisa of baseball cards” or the hobby’s “Holy Grail.”
From 25 to about 200 of the cards still exist, Wiles writes, all the original products of the American Tobacco Company. ATC created a set of 500 cards, the biggest, grandest set of cards yet offered, in full color no less.
Even so, Wagner, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, asked ATC to stop the presses.The myth, a popular one, especially for parents and for Little League coaches hoping to teach little Johnny a lesson, is that The Flying Dutchman so objected to tobacco in all forms that he nearly sprinted to ATC headquarters and demanded that workers quit printing his card be halted—immediately—lest he set a poor example for the kids. Well, as Wiles explains, the truest part of that last sentence is that it’s a myth.
Wagner smoked cigars and chewed tobacco. We have pictures of him doing both. The other myth is that a penny-pinching Wagner wanted just compensation for his picture to appear on what was in effect an advertisement. That isn’t true, either, Wiles writes. Rather, it was cigarette smoking specifically that bothered Wagner. In those days, one could smoke a cigar or a pipe, and even chew, in polite company. Cigarette smoking, though, was just plain nasty to many folks.
So, what was it about the Wagner card that made it so valuable? As mentioned, it is not the rarest of cards. And, while Wagner is an all-time great, he still lacks the name recognition of Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth.
Wiles tells the story of a particular collector who put together a card catalog in 1937 and listed the Wagner card at a whopping $50. The price keeps going up.“The card is valuable because it is famous; it is famous because it is valuable,” noted Paul M. Green and Kit Kiefer in a baseball card book.
Add: A Wagner card went for $2.1 million on April 6, 2013, following some rabid bidding. Another card, one considered in very good condition, sold for $1.2 million about a year before that in St. Louis. This article by Joe Holleman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gives a good rundown on some other baseball memorabilia that was purchased that day.
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky and then-Los Angeles Kings Owner Bruce McNall teamed up in 1991 to buy a Wagner card for $451,000. This card is considered the top Wagner out there and has been sold several times since the Gretzky-McNall purchase. Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, bought it in 2011 for $2.8 million.
In 2010, the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore sold a Wagner card in poor condition for $220,000, (Other web sites report different prices.), or $70,000 more than the expected price. The brother of one of the School Sister nuns had donated the card. The order’s treasurer, Sister Virginia Mueller, did some research and soon discovered how much Wagner cards were worth.
“I very carefully put it back into my files,” she said. “Then, quickly insured it.”