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.”
(This is the second in my series of quizzes on players from a particular team. This one focuses on the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs joined the National League in 1887 and have won nine pennants and five World Series titles.)
By Glen Sparks
1. Which Pirate player ranks second to Cy Young on baseball’s all-time list in innings pitched and complete games?
2. Which Pirate pitcher recorded the win in Game 1 of the 1903 World Series, the first Series game ever played?
3. Which Pirate manager led the team to the only 100-win seasons in franchise history?
4. The Pirates are known more for its great hitters than its outstanding pitchers. Who is No. 1 on the team’s all-time wins list?
5. Which Pirate player batted .340 in his 15 years with the Bucs and won the N.L. MVP in 1927 when he hit .380 and drove in 131 runs?
6. Roberto Clemente is the Pirates’ all-time leader with exactly 3,000 hits. Who is No. 2 on the Bucs’ career list?
7. Which Pittsburgh Pirate led the National League in home runs seven times and as a broadcaster once said, “All the Mets’ road wins against the Dodgers this year occurred at Dodger Stadium.”
8. Which future Hall of Famer was released by the Dodgers as a youngster and quickly picked up by the Pirates?
9. Bill Mazeroski hit his historic home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. He hit the homer off the Yankees’ Ralph Terry. Which Pirate was the winning pitcher?
10. Which Pirate slugger hit home runs completely out of Dodger Stadium?
1. James “Pud” Galvin is not nearly as well-known as Cy Young, but the St. Louis native was every bit as durable. Galvin completed 646 games in his career and threw 6,003 innings. He threw 70 complete games in 1883 and 1884 and 65 in 1879. His lifetime won-loss record was 365-310.
2. Deacon Phillippe beat the great Cy Young in a 7-3 victory against the Boston Americans, the forerunner of the Boston Red Sox. Both pitchers threw complete games; Phillippe struck out 10. He went 3-2 in the Series that Boston won five games to three. Phillippe went 189-109 in his career, mostly with the Pirates.
3. Fred Clarke skipped the Pirates to a 102-36 mark in 1902 and 110-42 record in 1909. The 1902 Pirates won the National League by 27.5 games, while the 1909 team took the World Series. Clarke served as Pirates manager from 1900-15, while also playing outfield in most seasons. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945.
4. Wilbur Cooper, a native of Bearsville, West Va., won a franchise-record 202 games for the Pirates from 1912-24. He also still owns the team records for complete games (263), innings pitched (3,203), strikeouts (1,191) and games pitched (469). Cooper was the first N.L. left-hander to win at least 200 games. He finished 216-178 in his career, which also included stints with the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers.
5. Paul “Big Poison” Waner finished in the top five in MVP voting five times. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1952. His brother, Lloyd, or “Little Poison” hit .318 in his career, mostly with the Pirates and was selected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1967.
6. The great shortstop Honus Wagner had 2,967 as a Pirate, second to Clemente on the team’s all-time list. The Hall of Famer had 3,420 hits in his career; 453 came with the Louisville Colonels.
7. Ralph Kiner led the N.L. in homers seven times, but still only hit a relatively modest 369 home runs in a career that was cut short by a back injury. Later, as an announcer for the New York Mets, Kiner was famous for his malapropisms. He also once said “Kevin McReynolds stops at third, and he scores.”
8. Roberto Clemente. The Dodgers signed the 19-year-old Clemente on Feb. 19, 1954. Because he was a bonus player, the Dodgers were required to keep him on the major league roster or risk losing him. The Dodgers did the latter, and the Pirates burned them in the 1954 Rude 5 Draft. Pittsburgh had the first pick in the draft and chose Clemente.
9. Harvey Haddix. He went one inning and gave up one hit in relief. Haddix, who retired with a 136-113 won-loss record, is also famous for throwing 12 percent innings in a game May 26, 1959, against the Milwaukee Braves. Haddix and the Pirates lost the game in the 13th.
10. Willie Stargell cleared Dodger Stadium with a home run Aug. 5, 1969, against Alan Foster. He did it again May 8, 1973, against Andy Messersmith. Only two other players—Mark McGwire and Mike Piazza—have ever hit fair balls out of Dodger Stadium. Piazza was the only one to do it as a Dodger.