How did the Honus Wagner T206 tobacco card become the Holy Grail of card collecting?
Why have collectors paid $2.8 million for a PSA 8 “near mint-mint” versions and $2.1 million (in a public sale) for a PSA 5 “excellent” for Wagner cards?
It looks as if Jefferson Burdick, the father of card cataloging and price guides, probably is as a good a place as any to start. Burdick, an avid collector, developed a system for identifying and cataloging cards. His first guide published in 1939 was called “The United States Card Collecting Catalog.” When he revised it after World War II, the name changed to the “American Card Catalog.”
While most of the cards in the first catalog listed for pennies, Burdick gave the T206 Wagner a value of $50.
That apparently started it all. Da Babe looked just about everywhere but could find no documentation as to why Burdick thought the Wagner card was so valuable.
“I can only speculate that it was because he thought it was rare. I haven’t seen any written explanation,” said Lyman Hardman, editor of www.oldcardboard.com.
The Wagner card is the stuff of legend and myth. Once the historical record is skewed, it is often hard to get it back on track. Remember, for decades we were told the Hall of Fame was located in Cooperstown, N.Y., because Abner Doubleday invented baseball there in the 19th century. The Hall of Fame defended that story for decades even as evidence mounted showing that it was far from the truth. In the case of the Wagner card, the accepted story for a long time was that old Honus was opposed to the use of tobacco. Then there was the claim that Wagner had the card pulled over a dispute about compensation for its use. Scot Reader, in his online book on the history of the T-206 set, details some of the stories.
“An article in the Oct. 12, 1912, issue of The Sporting News recounts a similar story of a Pittsburgh sportswriter who contacted the legendary Pirates shortstop Hans Wagner and sought his permission to be included in the set. However, this newsman was rebuffed by the Flying Dutchman who, so the article states, ‘did not care to have his picture in a package of cigarettes.’
“While some have argued that a lack of compensation rather than a moral objection to cigarette smoking colored Wagner’s decision to withhold his consent, the anticigarette view expressed by Wagner in the Sporting News article finds corroboration in an Oct. 22, 1914, article in the San Jose Mercury News, where Wagner’s Pirates teammate and roommate Erv Kantlehner noted:
“Wagner’s only bad habit is his love of chewing tobacco, but he detests cigarettes, and does not smoke in any form.”
Whatever the reason, the cards were pulled, and the rest is history. Today, experts agree that there are probably around 50 or so known Wagners floating around.
You can bet everyone is keeping an eye out for an undiscovered T206 Wagner as folks browse through garage sale items and scavenge abandoned storage sheds.
BABE NOTE: In last week’s column on the Wagner T206 card, the website for Robert Edwards Auctions was misidentified. The correct website is www.robertedward auctions.com/.