By Glen Sparks
The Baseball Hall of Fame did not officially open in lovely Cooperstown, N.Y., until June 12, 1939.
Baseball writers, though, elected the Hall’s first members in 1936. Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner were chosen.
Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America cast 226 votes, according to an article written by Matt Kelly on the HOF’s web site. Nominees needed 170 votes, or 75 percent of the total, for election. Writers sent in their votes by Jan. 25; Hall officials announced its first class Feb 2.
Cobb received the most votes with 98.2 percent, followed by Ruth and Wagner (95.1 percent each), Mathewson (90.7) and Johnson (87.6). The next five, eventual Hall of Famers but not members of that first class, were Nap Lajoie (64.6), Tris Speaker (58.8), Cy Young (49.1), Rogers Hornsby (46.4) and Mickey Cochrane (35.3). Everyone in the top 24 in the voting eventually made it into Cooperstown. Hal Chase, a solid hitter and smooth fielder at first base for the New York Highlanders and other teams, was the lowest finisher who is still on the outside looking in. (I’ll be writing a post on Chase later this week.)
This is a brief overview of that first class. You’re probably already familiar with these guys.
Cobb played 24 seasons (1905-28) and retired with a .366 batting average and 897 stolen bases. The center-fielder hit better than .400 three times and won 12 batting titles, including nine in a row. Cobb mostly toiled during the Deadball era and hit just 117 career home runs. He led the American League in 1909 with nine homers and topped the circuit in RBI four times. The left-handed batter, known as the Georgia Peach, played 22 seasons for the Detroit Tigers and two years for the Philadelphia A’s. Cobb batted .240 over 150 at-bats as a 19-year-old rookie in ’05. His next lowest season-ending batting average? .316.
Quote: “The great American game should be an unrelenting war of nerves.” (Source: baseball-almanac.com)
Born in rural Kansas, Johnson grew up on the plains. His family left for California shortly after young Walter turned 14 years old. Scouts spotted him during his high school days at Fullerton Union High School. Johnson, a.k.a. the Big Train, played his entire career (1907-27) with the Washington Senators. He retired with a lifetime won-loss record of 417-279 and a 2.17 ERA. The two-time A.L. MVP won the pitching Triple Crown (leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts) three times. All told, he led the league in strikeouts 12 times, wins six times and ERA five times. He retired with 3,508 strikeouts.
Quote: “I throw as hard as I can when I think I have to throw as hard as I can.” (Source: baseball-almanac.com
Baseball people called Mathewson “The Christian Gentleman.” He did not smoke, drink or even cuss at a time when practically every other player did. Mathewson employed a fastball, screwball and pinpoint control to take care of batters. He sported a career won-loss record of 373-188, pitching mostly for the New York Giants (1900-16). He topped the National League in wins and ERA five times each and hurled two no-hitters. In four World Series, the right-hander from Factoryville, Pa., went 5-5 but with a 0.97 ERA over 101.2 innings. He won all three of his starts in the 1905 Classic against the Philadelphia A’s. His lungs seriously damaged after exposure to chemical weapons during training in World War I, Mathewson died from the effects of tuberculosis in 1925 at the age of 45.
Quote: “A boy cannot begin playing ball too early. I might almost say that while he is still creeping on all fours, he should have a bouncing rubber ball.” (Source: christymathewson.com)
Like Matthewson, Wagner grew up in Pennsylvania. The son of German immigrants took the American game of baseball to heart. He broke in with the Louisville Colonels in 1897 and was sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900. Wagner hit .329 lifetime and recorded 3,430 hits. He won eight batting crowns and five RBI titles. The shortstop could run, too. Wagner led the league in steals five times. Fans called him “The Flying Dutchman.” Wagner retired following the 1917 season. His 1909-11 T206 baseball card, rare for debatable reasons, fetches north of $2 million at some auctions.
Quote: “There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer.” (Source: honuswagner.com)
Where do you start? George Herman Ruth Jr., the troubled youth from Baltimore, the kid who ended up at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for boys, the teenager who learned the finer points of baseball from a Roman Catholic brother, the young man who signed with the Boston Red Sox to pitch, who turned into one of the game’s best hurlers, who was sold to the New York Yankees because the Red Sox owner liked Broadway more than baseball, who quit pitching because he wanted to play every day, who slammed 60 homers in 1927, more than any other team hit in the league, who crushed 714 career home runs, twice as many as anyone else when he retired … His story is incredible, unbelievable and 100 percent true in every way that really matters. The Bambino, the Big Bam, the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout. He remains an American legend.
Quote: “If I’d tried for them dinky singles I could’ve batted around six hundred.” (Source: baberuth.com)
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.”