Close-up artist’s rendition of baseball great, Christy Mathewson, for John Hancock Insurance Co. ad, 1958.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the John Hancock Life Insurance Co. of Boston, Massachusetts ran a series of low-keyed advertisements that touted historic figures from the nation’s past, including some sports figures and other notables. These ads, which typically ran in large-size weekly magazines of that era, such as Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post, primarily laid out a short story about some significant person, place, or historic event of national interest. The company ran scores of such ads, sometimes venerating notable Americans – scientists, inventors, political leaders, historic events, and even the family doctor.
John Hancock, to be sure, was basking in a kind of positive association for telling the much-loved tales, and some of the ads ran with a shorter, adjacent-page column from a John Hancock official making a soft-sell pitch for life insurance. Still, the featured full-page ads were classy pieces of advertising; often done with a handsome original color illustration using known and unknown artists, some venerating history, individualism, character, etc., and most offering educational benefit as well. They appeared only once or a few times at most in the magazines of the day. Consequently, today, original copies of these ads are regarded as collector’s items, often showing up at auction houses or on E-bay. One of the John Hancock ads from the late 1950s features the famous baseball player Christy Mathewson, shown above. The image is a close-up from its full-page layout, which is shown below. In the narrative copy for this ad, also included below, John Hancock offers a commentary on Mathewson’s career and personality. Mathewson was one of the all-time great baseball pitchers who played most of his storied career with the New York Giants (also called the Nationals) between1900–1916. He was also one of the first five players to be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. More about Mathewson follows shortly, but first the John Hancock ad as it ran in 1958.
“He had more on the ball than a ‘fade away’…” Life magazine, September 22, 1958
In the 1940s and 1950s, John Hancock Life Insurance ads used history and famous people from sports, business, politics & the arts to help burnish its reputation.
The John Hancock ad on Mathewson features an artist’s rendition of the famous pitcher standing on the pitching mound in his distinctive hands-over-the-head wind-up preparing to deliver a pitch. Beneath that scene, and to introduce its story, the Hancock ad uses the tagline: “He had more on the ball than a ‘fade-away’….” The “fade-away” refers to a term used to describe a rare pitch known today as a screwball, or a reverse curve; a pitch that “breaks” or curves into right-handed batters, and away from left-handed hitters. Here’s the rest of John Hancock’s copy on Mathewson:
“Part of the story is in the record books. Oddly enough, it began in the football book. Walter Camp made an exception and put an 11th man known as “kicker” on his 1900 All-American [football team]. The name of the man filling the position was…Christopher Mathewson!
“He’s all over the baseball book, of course. A couple of no-hitters. The only man ever to pitch three shut outs in one World Series. An average of 17 big league victories a year for 12 straight years! … If you were a youngster in those years and dreamed of being a big league pitcher, you always imagined in your dream that you looked like Matty. For he was the image of all the story-book heroes rolled into one. You’d lean back on the haymow and close your eyes and see yourself on the mound… tall, trim, good looking, confident. Then, while the crowd hushed, you’d wind up and send one ‘swish’ right over the heart of the plate for strike three. Just like Matty.
Life magazine cover, Sept 22, 1958, featuring George & Gracie Allen.
“No one could control, as Matty could, the direction a baseball would go. They say he could stand 20 paces from a barn door and hit a knot in the door 9 times out of 10. In three games in one World Series he walked only a single batter. One season he pitched 391 innings and gave up just 42 base on balls.
“But Christy Mathewson also learned to control himself. And that was probably a bigger contribution to baseball than the figures he left in the record books. His clean life, his ideals, his religious scruples (he never played a game on Sunday) had tremendous influence on all baseball, and all America. He proved to millions of youngsters of his day that you didn’t have to be a rowdy to be a big league hero.”
“Christy died in middle age, his lungs damaged by poison gas in France during World War I. A few years later organized baseball built a memorial for him. The last word on the bronze plaque has a splendid message for every sports-minded boy in America. It reads… Christopher Mathewson: Athlete, Soldier, Gentlemen.”
- John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co.
John Hancock's "pitch"...
Then, on the facing magazine page, in a slender column directly opposite the full-page ad, comes a sales pitch from John Hancock’s president, Byron K. Elliott. It features a smaller Mathewson-on-the-mound picture along with the header, “The Cornerstone Character…” That column reads as follows:
“One quality seems to be common to most of the men who have been featured in our series about great Americans. In their lives, you can see CHARACTER. Most of these men who accomplished great deeds were also men of decency and honesty, and of perseverance.
“We have always believed that character is all-important in the life insurance business. Counseling a family on its life insurance needs is a serious affair. . . We go to great lengths to make sure that John Hancock agents have skill and knowledge. We are them with the finest, most modern policies. Above all, in their selection, we seek character.
“When a man buys life insurance for his family, this too is a mark of character. . . of how seriously he considers his family’s well being…how willingly he looks beyond today, to provide for tomorrow.” – Byron K. Elliott, President.
Photograph of a young Christy Mathewson, circa early 1900s, in his New York uniform.
The John Hancock Insurance Company, certainly, was in the business of selling its policies in 1958, riding on the good name and reputation of Christy Mathewson and others like him. Still, the company did well in choosing to highlight Mathewson’s career in one of its ads, for he was truly one of the all-time great pitchers in professional baseball. During a 17-year career, Mathewson won 373 games and lost 188 for an outstanding .665 winning percentage. His career ERA – earned run average – of 2.13 and 79 career shutouts are among the best all-time for pitchers. And his 373 wins is still No. 1 in the National League, tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Using his famous fade-away pitch, “Matty” won at least 22 games twelve straight years beginning in 1903 – winning 30 games or more four times. A participant in four World Series, Mathewson set an especially distinctive World Series mark in 1905 when he threw three shutouts in six days against the Philadelphia Athletics. He also set the modern National League record for most games won in a single season; 37 in 1908 – quite extraordinary, then and now.
1901 Bucknell University baseball team with Christy Mathewson in the back row, second from right.
Christy Mathewson, however, was not typical of the “rough-and-tumble” baseball era in which he played – a time when many players were known more for carousing and fighting than playing. For one thing, Mathewson was a college man; and a college man who had a range of interests beyond baseball. In fact, while attending Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University – in addition to playing football and baseball – he sang in the glee club and belonged to a literary society. A forestry major in his studies, Mathewson was also class president and a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Football, however, was Mathewson’s main sport in college, putting in three years as the team’s first-string fullback, punter, and drop kicker. And those were years when Bucknell played top football powers such as Penn State, Army, and Navy. Sports writer Walter Camp, the originator of the All-America team referenced in the John Hancock ad, called Mathewson “the best all-around football player I ever saw.” In fact, in 1902 after he had turned a pro baseball player with the New York Giants, he briefly played football as a “punting fullback” for the Pittsburgh Stars of the new national Football League. However, for whatever reason, he did not last the season there, either because the baseball New York Giants objected, or a better fullback took his place.
Christy Mathewson & spare mitt...
Mathewson had begun playing minor league baseball in the summer following his freshman year at Bucknell, and would continuing doing so in subsequent summers. He played first in the New England League and then Virginia-North Carolina League in 1900, where he posted a 20–2 record, drawing the attention of big league teams.
In his first years in the major leagues, he bounced around for a time between the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds, but finally settled in the with the Giants where he would remain until 1916. With the Giants, he played under manager John McGraw, one of baseball’s feistiest competitors, but a manager who also took a special liking to Mathewson. Through the years, though quite different, the two men became friends and would help change the game of baseball. Mathewson, for his part, would become a role model to young boys, a charge he took quite seriously, as noted in one statement he made:
“First of all, no one can live up to everything that’s been written or said about me. And, I keep to myself. I’m a private man. Yet, because I pitch for the New York Giants, I realize that I’m able to reach more young men than the President of the United States. That’s not due to the fact that I’m more popular than Mr. Taft – I don’t believe – but, it’s a fact boys would rather read about yesterday afternoon’s event at the Polo Grounds. Because of that, I feel very strongly that it is my duty to show those youth the good, clean, honest values that I was taught by my Mother when I was a youngster. That, really, is all I can do.”
Christy Mathewson, further along in his baseball career, in his New York Giants uniform.
Mathewson was a tall and handsome young man, with blond hair and blue-eyes. Many believe he provided the basis for a fictional character in a popular reading series of that day – an heroic character named Frank Merriwell who excelled at football, baseball, basketball, crew, and track at Yale University while solving mysteries and righting wrongs. Merriwell’s tenure, in fact, tracked quite closely with the early years of Christy Mathewson’s career. The popular Merriwell series – many featured in Tip Top Weekly, a popular weekly reader for youth – began in April 1896 and continued through 1912.
Mathewson was also a devout Christian, never pitching on a Sunday, and was sometimes called “The Christian Gentleman.” Others lauded Mathewson’s “model citizen” status and off-the-field contributions. Grantland Rice, the famous sportswriter whose work appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and elsewhere, noted: “Christy Mathewson brought something to baseball no one else had ever given the game. He handed the game a certain touch of class, an indefinable lift in culture, brains and personality.” Mathewson’s various character qualities, his college education, his good looks, and his moral stance on no Sunday pitching, gave him a much-admired standing in American public opinion.
Christy Mathewson at work.
But it was on the pitcher’s mound that Mathewson’s baseball reputation would rise. In his first full season for the Giants, 1901, he won 20 games. On July 15th that year, he threw a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals. Mathewson finished that year with a 20-17 record and a 2.41 earned run average (ERA). The Giants, however, finished in seventh place. At around this time, New York fans began calling him “The Big Six.” Mathewson believed the nickname came because of his height (6′, 1″, then on the tall side). But a sportswriter named Sam Crane once compared him to New York City’s Big Six Fire Co., described as “the fastest to put out the fire.” In any case, Mathewson’s “big six” nickname, as well as “Matty,” were used in later advertising, book promotions, and other product marketing endeavors.
In 1903, 1904, and 1905 Christy Mathewson won 30 or more games each year. In 1903, he had 267 strikeouts, a National League record that stood until Sandy Koufax broke it with 269 strikeouts in 1961. But 1905 was an especially impressive year for Mathewson, as he won the National League Triple Crown for pitchers that year – i.e., wins (31-9), strikeouts (206) and ERA (1.28). He also threw his second no-hitter that year. But in the World Series that fall against the Philadelphia Athletics, the 25 year-old pitching ace was even more impressive. He was the starting pitcher for the Giants in Game 1 and pitched a four-hit shutout for the victory. Three days later, with the series tied at 1–1, he pitched another four-hit shutout. Then, two days after than, in Game 5, he threw a six-hit shutout to clinch the series for the Giants. In a span of six days, Mathewson had pitched three complete games without allowing a run.
Baseball’s Christy Mathewson in his notable over-the-head windup.
As a national sports star in the nation’s most notable city, New York, Mathewson was a very popular figure. He received numerous offers to advertise and endorse products, ranging from tobacco, safety razors, bubble gum, and clothing to athletic equipment, Coca-Cola, and various other products. In later years, 1922-23, he also had an indoor baseball board game called “Big Six Baseball,” sold with his nickname and pitching image on the box lid. His name, image and endorsement also appeared in several Tuxedo tobacco ads – sometimes with other players in group endorsements. Tuxedo tobacco was used for pipe smoking or rolling one’s own cigarettes. Mathewson was a cigarette smoker himself, and said at that time he saw no harm in it. But he apparently drew the line at putting his name on a pool hall/saloon after his mother suggested he might not want to have his name “associated with a place like that.”
In 1906 Mathewson came down with diphtheria and nearly died. Still, he finished the baseball season that year with a 22-12 record. His best year was still to come. In 1908, he recorded his record-setting 37 wins in a single season, also claiming the Triple Crown that year. His ERA that year was an incredible 1.43. The Giants, however, finished behind the Chicago Cubs.
Christy Mathewson, circa 1916-17, with the Cincinnati Reds.
In the next six years, 1909-1914, Mathewson won 20 or more games each year; 25 or more in four of those years. His pitching during that six-year span helped the Giants win four more National League pennants. Famed Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack, who had felt the sting of Mathewson’s pitching prowess more than a few times, would later say of him: “Mathewson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He had knowledge, judgement, perfect control, and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch – when he wasn’t pitching against you.” Christy Mathewson compiled a lifetime win-loss record of 373-188, with an ERA of just 2.13. His last few playing appearances in 1916 were with the Cincinnati Redlegs, where he became manager in 1917 and 1918. Then, in August 1918 during World War I, Mathewson became the only manager in professional baseball history to volunteer for military service. He was 38. He served in the Chemical Services Division of the U. S. Army along with another baseball great, Ty Cobb. Mathewson served overseas as a Captain for that year. However, he was gassed in a training accident in France, exposed to mustard gas, with his lungs taking a terrible hit. He later developed tuberculosis.
In 1919-1920, he returned to baseball, serving as a coach for the New York Giants. At about this time, he also began spending time in upstate New York at clean-air “cure cottages” in Saranac Lake fighting his lung disease. In 1923, Mathewson served as part-time president of the Boston Braves. Two years later, in October 1925, he died at Saranac Lake. He was 45 years old. Christy Mathewson is buried at Lewisburg Cemetery in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Frank Deford’s book explores how Christy Mathewson and John McGraw influenced modern baseball.
Although Christy Mathewson played in what is sometimes known as the dead ball era – before home run hitting and offense generally became prominent in a more lively ball era – his pitching, combined with the managing of John McGraw at the New York Giants, helped produce what some have called the modern baseball era, and along with it, some of the game’s first stars and heroes. Mathewson was certainly among a handful of “star” players in those years; stars who were helping improve the popular appeal of baseball. This was occurring just as an American middle class was taking form. Baseball was becoming more of a bigger business by then — especially championship baseball. Between 1904 and 1913, Mathewson and McGraw took the Giants to five National League pennants, boosting attendance and revenue for the Giants’ franchise, suggesting new business possibilities for all of baseball. In those years, Mathewson and McGraw — as well as other “stars” then engaged in pennant races and World Series play – became famous Americans. McGraw would outdistance Mathewson in the game, completing a 31-year career as manager in 1933, taking his teams to 10 National League pennants and three World Series. But Christy Mathewson was McGraw’s shining star in the first part of that era. Between them — along with other stars of that era – they helped elevate baseball to its national pastime stature, and they also helped to make baseball more a part of popular culture, drawing more general interest in the game and its players. At least one book of recent vintage, The Old Ball Game by Frank Deford, displayed above, explores some of that history, and there are no doubt others as well.
The October 1949 issue of “Sport” magazine did a cover story on Christy Mathewson.
After his passing, Christy Mathewson would earn a range of professional kudos for his play. In 1936, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame – one of the famous “First Five’” inductees, along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner. Mathewson was the only one of the five who didn’t live to see his induction. But other recognition also came. In 1943, during WW II, a 422-foot Liberty Ship, built in Richmond, California, was named in his honor, the S.S. Christy Mathewson. And periodically, the sports press would do retrospective pieces on Mathewson’s career, such as an October 1949 piece in Sport magazine by Jack Sher entitled, “Christy Mathewson — The Immortal ‘Big Six’.” In 1957, the Christy Mathewson Little League was formed in District 17 of his home state and home town of Factoryville, Pennsylvania. Baseball historians, meanwhile, have marked him among the sport’s greatest players. In 1999, he was ranked No. 7 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, the highest-ranking National League pitcher on that list. ESPN selected his pitching performance in the 1905 World Series as the greatest playoff performance of all time. Today, in the left-field corner of the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park in San Francisco, a replica of his baseball jersey – which in his day, bore no numeral – is formally retired with the designation “NY.”
A somewhat weathered and worn cover to Christy Mathewson’s 1912 book, “Pitching in a Pinch,” G.P.Putnam & Sons edition.
Christy Mathewson also became something of a writer during his career – or at least had his name attached to several baseball books that appeared and sold quite well in the 1910s. In the winter of 1911 and 1912, Mathewson, wrote a series of baseball stories with the help of newspaper man named John Wheeler. That series was called “Baseball from the Inside.” In 1912, while still an active pitcher, Mathewson compiled the stories with Wheeler for publication as a book, Pitching in a Pinch. Mathewson had described pivotal points in a baseball games as “being in the pinch,” with the outcomes of games often decided on what pitchers especially would do in those moments, thus his book title, Pitching In A Pinch. The Mathewson book, at 304 pages, was first published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London. Grosset & Dunlap also did a 1912 dust jacket for the book – believed to be the one displayed at left. One reviewer in the New York Times noted when the book first came out: “Mr. Mathewson uses his pen with cleverness and tells a story remarkably well.” Pitching in a Pinch, in fact, is still in publication today, “rediscovered” in 1977 when it was published in hardcover and paperback editions by Stein and Day. It survives today as a baseball memoir from a professional player providing an inside perspective on the game in those years. Original editions of this book can sometimes do quite well among sports memorabilia collectors. According to Robert Edward Auctions of Watchung, NJ, a copy of a 1912 Putnam edition of Pitching in Pinch, with Christy Mathewson’s signature, sold for $26,437.00 in 2007. Certain vintage Christy Mathewson baseball cards have also been known to fetch substantial amounts at auction.
A promotional advertisement for Christy Mathewson’s 1911 book, “Won in the Ninth.”
Mathewson also wrote a series of other baseball books for young readers. Won in the Ninth, for example, is a fictional account of a college ballplayer whose supporting cast were modeled after real-life major leaguers. In this book, Mathewson drew from his college experiences at Bucknell, but he also included some instruction to his young readers on the finer points of playing the game.
Won in the Ninth was praised by the critics when it first appeared in 1911, and Mathewson intended the book to be the first of a series. Several others followed, including, First Base Faulkner, Second Base Sloan and Pitcher Pollock. However, these books appear to have been a collaboration between Mathewson and sports- writer W.W. Aulick, and were more the products of publishers capitalizing on Mathewson’s popularity than they were the writer’s works of art. The publishers, however, appear to have launched some considerable promotional efforts around these books, one example of which is displayed at right.
John Hancock, Inc.
The John Hancock Insurance Company, the sponsor of the 1958 Christy Mathewson ad which began this piece, is itself something of a historic entity. The company’s origins date to the 1860s in Boston, Massachusetts. The Hancock name derives from the famous American patriot and first signer of the Declaration of Independence, noted for his large “John Hancock” signature on that document – a term since used generically to describe anyone’s signature. The Boston-based John Hancock operated as its own company for many years, moving through a series of changes.
The John Hancock company logo as seen in 2010.
By 1976, the John Hancock company was one of the largest corporations in America, occupying the gleaming-glass, 62-story John Hancock Tower in Boston designed by I.M. Pei. By the late 1970s, the company was collecting more than $2 billion a year from its policyholders. In 1978, they were the nation’s fifth largest life insurance company. By 1990 they had slipped to ninth place, about to be passed by Northwestern Mutual. In 2004 the John Hancock company was acquired for $10 billion by Canada’s largest insurance company, Manulife Financial. Today, John Hancock continues to sell insurance and other services as a Manulife subsidiary.
John Hancock’s advertising and image-making, meanwhile, has its own history. In the 1860s, an early president of the company installed 1,000 tin signs at railroad depots and grocery stores touting the company’s business. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, John Hancock agents went door-to-door throughout America retailing their policies, collecting premiums and passing out booklets on American history. And during the 1940s-through-1950s period, its advertising “stories”– such as the one presented here on Christy Mathewson – could be found in mainstream magazines of those years.
Hancock’s Ad Series
Hancock's Frederic Remington ad & his art of the Old West; click for story.
By all accounts, the John Hancock 1940s-1950s advertising series that featured historic figures was a big hit in America. In the art and advertising worlds, too, the series had its admirers and supporters, praised by many. Today the series, or parts of it, can sometimes be found in museums and art auction houses. But even in its day, the John Hancock series brought positive reviews. Here’s one commentary by Ben Stahl of the McCann-Erickson New York advertising house that appeared in a 1949 McCann-Erickson advertisement on the importance of art in advertising, offered under the title, “Does It Belong.”
“Next time somebody asks you, “Does fine art have a place in advertising?” — show them the John Hancock Life Insurance campaign. Rarely in the history of advertising has a campaign more consistently held to the fine arts level. Rarely has one achieved more favorable recognition for the advertiser. These messages have been hung in schoolrooms, factories, and offices. Reprint requests have run into hundreds of thousands. Statesmen have commended them; citizens have been stirred by them. They have won awards. And they purchased readership at well below average cost for the insurance field. We see a moral in all this. It proves, we think, that everything which has the power to move people has a place in advertising’s kit of tools. The art of the cartoon belongs; so does the art of the museum; and so does every form of artistic expression in between. The craft of the art director lies in being able to pick, from his broad workbench of persuasion, the right tool for the job every time.”
Stay tuned to this website for more stories on the John Hancock advertising series, the history of magazine publishing, and other stories about publishing and popular culture. For additional story selections in Sports or Advertising, please visit those category pages or go to the Home Page or the Archive for other story choices. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle
Close-up of 1909 trading card show- ing a young Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.
In early September 2007, a rare sports trading card was sold at auction for $2.8 million, then a record price. The 1909 card, depicting the famous Pittsburgh baseball player, Honus Wagner, was sold to an anonymous private collector. It had been sold only six months earlier, in February 2007, for a record $2.35 million. But that’s only part of the story. Escalating amounts of money, along with various luminary and ordinary owners, plus a measure of controversy, have followed this card around for nearly a century. More on that in a moment. First, the player whose image is on this highly-valued piece of baseball history.
Honus Wagner was a legendary baseball player who began his professional career with the Louisville Colonels of the National League in 1897. Wagner hit .344 during his rookie year and quickly became one of the best hitters in the National League. However, in 1899, the NL reduced its membership from twelve to eight teams, and the Colonels were eliminated. Thereafter, and through his remaining career, Wagner played with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In Pittsburgh, he compiled a stellar record through 1917. He played the infield, primarily shortstop. Wagner had grown up in the Pennsylvania coal fields and worked in the mines as a 12 year-old. His mother called him “Hans,” which over the years became “Honus.” Babe Ruth once said there was no one who could replace him at shortstop, noting his big hands, that “drew the balls to him.” Former U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, growing up in Kansas, used to daydream and tell his friend about becoming a baseball player like Honus Wagner.
An inscription on this photo reads: “I hold out for Hans Wagner as the greatest of them all. Wagner was a great ball player at 20. He was still a great ballplayer at 43. In all my career I never saw such a versatile player.” John McGraw, mgr., NY Giants, 1931.
Honus Wagner is generally considered one of the finest all-around players in the history of National League baseball, and for some, the greatest shortstop in baseball history. Others regard him as the second-greatest baseball player of his era, behind Ty Cobb. He hit for an average of .300 or better for 17 consecutive seasons, winning eight National League batting titles. He was also a good runner, dubbed “the flying Dutchman,” and excelled at base stealing. When Honus Wagner retired in 1917 he had more hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, triples and steals than any National League player. In 1936, at the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was among the first class of elite players inducted, along with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson – sometimes called “The Fabulous Five.”
‘Holy Grail’ of Cards
The 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card, therefore, honors a great player. But there’s a lot more to this baseball card story than Wagner’s impressive career achievements. The Wagner card – sometimes called the “Mona Lisa” or “Holy Grail” of baseball trading cards – was originally published and released by the American Tobacco Trust in 1909. Only 50 to 60 other Honus Wagner cards are believed to exist (some estimates run as high as 100, though collector quality is a limiting factor). Yet the Honus Wagner card that sold in September 2007 for $2.8 million, was especially rare and in very good, near mint condition.
Original portrait photo of Honus Wagner in his Pittsburgh uniform taken by Carl Horner in 1905, from which an artist’s version was later made, adding 'Pittsburgh' to his jersey.
The Wagner card is one of 523 baseball player trading cards that were issued by the American Tobacco between 1909 and 1911. American Tobacco was using the cards and the players to promote its various brands of cigarettes, primarily two at the time – Sweet Caporal and Piedmont. On the reverse side of the near mint-condition Wagner card is a Piedmont cigarette ad. The Wagner cards generally became a rarity, in part, because Wagner himself stopped their production, although his exact objection remains unclear. Some say Wagner did so because he wanted a bigger promotional fee from American Tobacco. Others say he didn’t want children buying and smoking cigarettes to get his picture. But Wagner did deny the tobacco company permission to use his image, responding to their recruitment efforts in one circa 1908-09 letter saying, “I don’t want my picture in any cigarettes.” To be clear, Wagner also threatened legal action to stop the company. So American Tobacco stopped production of the card.
According to his granddaughter, Leslie Wagner Blair, Honus Wagner did care about his fans, and especially young fans. Blair, who knew her grandfather as “Buck,” says in one account that “[h]e loved children. He wanted to teach kids good sportsmanship. When it came time for that card to come out, it wasn’t that he wasn’t paid. He didn’t want kids to have to buy tobacco to get his card.” Yet Wagner himself chewed tobacco, and he had also appeared in or lent his name to tobacco advertisements and products, including a cigar baseball trading card in 1899 and a newspaper ad for Murad cigarettes during the 1909 World Series. It’s possible, of course, that early in his career Wagner did endorse and use tobacco products, but later, changed his mind about endorsements.
Another Wagner card showing the backside Piedmont cigarette advertisement.
Whatever the reason for Wagner’s refusal, American Tobacco could not stop the trading cards it had already produced. So today it is believed that 50-to-60 collector-worthy Honus Wagner T206 cards are still in existence. Most of these cards are backed with a Sweet Caporal cigarette ad.
However, only three, it is believed, carry a Piedmont cigarette ad, making them the rarer and most valuable. And one of the best of these three has been dubbed “the Gretsky card” since it was owned in recent years by famous ice hockey star, Wayne Gretsky. This particular card has changed hands four times in the last 10 years (1997-2007), doubling in value on three of those occasions.
Star baseball players in the 1890s and early 1900s — the sports celebrities of their day — were sought after for product endorsements and testimonials. Honus Wagner, either by word or likeness, appeared in advertisements for chewing gum, gunpowder, soft drinks, Gillette razor blades, cigars, and other products. In fact, Wagner is believed to be among the first professional athletes to receive endorsement money for allowing the use of his name on a product. He was also among the first professional players to make commercial ties with a sporting equipment company — in this case, Louisville Slugger baseball bats.
Wagner first played with the Louisville Colonels professional team in Louisville, Kentucky. There he met and befriended Bud Hillerich, who in 1894 had begun producing a trademarked baseball bat containing the engraved name, Louisville Slugger. Many ball players of that day began to use only Hillerich’s bats, who would also engrave their names on the bats so they could determine which bat was theirs. One of those players was Honus Wagner.
When Wagner left Louisville to play for Pittsburgh, he and Hillerich kept in touch and maintained their friendship. In 1905, Wagner signed a contract with Hillerich which allowed him to use Wagner’s signature on baseball bats to be sold in stores. And with that, Wagner became one of the first professional athletes to receive endorsement money by allowing the use of his name on a product for general sale.
Photograph of a 'Honus Wagner' cigar box.
The Card’s Trail
As early as 1933, a Honus Wagner baseball card was listed in The American Card Catalog of a collector named Jefferson Burdick at a price of $50, making it even then the world’s most expensive baseball card. But the special, mint condition card of recent $2.8 million fame, appears to have surfaced in 1985, when a Long Island, New York sports memorabilia dealer named Bill Mastro purchased it along with 50-to-75 other old cards also in the T206 series. Mastro bought the “package deal” from a Hicksville, New York collector – Wagner card included – for $25,000. Mastro then sold his card in 1987 to Jim Copeland, a San Luis Obispo, California sporting-goods chain owner and baseball card collector, for $110,000 — a transaction credited with raising interest in baseball card collecting. Copeland, in turn, decided to sell his entire baseball card collection in 1991 — some 873 pieces, including the rare Honus Wagner card. That sale occurred at the Sotheby’s auction house in New York, where separate action focused on Copeland’s Wagner card. Bidding rose swiftly, jumping from an opening price of $114,000 to $228,000, then $300,000, and finally, $410,000. The full price for the card, with Sotheby’s charge added, was $451,000.
Wagner at left in 1912 photo with Pittsburgh teammates Mike Donlin, manager Fred Clarke and Marty O’Toole.
The winning bidder — who had done so by phone — turned out to be National Hockey League star Wayne Gretzky, who had some financial assistance from partner Bruce McNall, the owner of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. Once again, publicity surrounding the Sotheby’s auction of the Wagner and other old cards, elevated interest in the baseball card collecting and the sports memorabilia business.
Sold To Wal-Mart
Wayne Gretzky, however, was not a baseball card collector. He bought the Honus Wagner card for investment purposes. Three years after he acquired it, Gretzky bought out his partner’s share. He then sold the Honus Wagner card in 1995 to Wal-Mart for a reported $500,000. Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment, an Atlanta, Georgia printing company, used the card as the grand prize in a nationwide contest to promote the sale of new baseball trading cards. They took the highly-prized Wagner card on road tour across the U.S.
Honus Wagner, circa 1910s.
In February 1996, on the 122nd anniversary of Honus Wagner’s birthday, a grand prize drawing was held for the Honus Wagner card. The ceremony and drawing were broadcast on CNN’s Larry King Live Show. Brooks Robinson, former Baltimore Oriole baseball star third baseman and Hall-of-Famer, came on the show to select the winning contestant. A Florida postal worker named Patricia Gibbs was the grand-prize winner. Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment officially awarded the card to Gibbs later at a Wal-Mart store in Florida, reportedly delivered by two armed guards. Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment by this time were reaping the returns of their baseball-card publicity campaign, selling more than 30 million baseball card packs in a matter of months.
Patricia Gibbs, however, could not afford to pay the taxes on the Honus Wagner card she won in the drawing, and decided to sell the card at Christie’s auction house in New York. In September 1996 and the card was sold for $640,500 to an anonymous buyer (later revealed to be Chicago collector, Michael Gidwitz) whose agent said he expected it would soon fetch $1 million or more in later bidding. Sure enough, in the year 2000, Brian Seigel, the CEO of an asset management company, paid a record $1.265 million when he bought the card at auction on e-Bay.
By the year 2000, it was clear that Honus Wagner had real value in the sports memorabilia world. And it turned out that Wagner’s granddaughter, Leslie Wagner Blair, still living in Pittsburgh, had an attic full of her grandfather’s baseball mementos. But Blair, then moving her residence, no longer had room to keep all the treasures, nor heirs to pass them along to. So she decided to sell some of her grandfather’s keepsakes. In June 2003, a number of items from her collection were designated for auction, along with a few other Wagner items added by others. The auction was held in August 2003.
1909 World Series: Honus Wagner at center, Ty Cobb of Detroit at right, and Davy Jones of Detroit with back to camera.
Among the Wagner items auctioned from Blair’s collection was an 11-inch Tiffany sterling chalice, or loving cup, that was presented to Wagner in December 1907 by National League president Harry Pulliam. The cup is engraved with HonusWagner’sname, given him to commemorate the five National League batting titles he had won to that point. He would proceed to win three more batting titles. Legend has it that Wagner was then in an off-season contract dispute and was called to Pulliam’s office in New York to receive the award as a way of placating him. At the auction, the Loving Cup went for more than $93,000.
Also in this auction was a baseball hit by Wagner in the final game of the 1909 World Series — a championship series in which Wagner was matched against rival Ty Cobb and his Detroit ball club. An inscription on the ball reads: “Ball hit by Honus Wagner of Pittsburgh Nationals winning game and championship from Detroit American, Oct/1909. Kindness of Umpire William Klem.”(who apparently gave the ball to Wagner). The 1909 season and that Word Series may well have been the pinnacle of Wagner’s career. He led the Pirates to 110 wins that year, and in the World Series games he outshone rival Ty Cobb and helped Pittsburgh win their first World Series.
The famed 'Wayne Gretsky' Wagner card, graded & framed.
The August 2003 auction also included a large swatch of material from the sleeve of one of Wagner’s 1908-1909 tattered baseball jerseys — a swatch which contained the Pittsburgh Baseball Club logo “PBC”. It sold for $16,000. There was also a Honus Wagner baseball card in the collection – a more worn and tattered card that ranked much lower than the Gretsky card, but which nonetheless sold for more than $92,000.
A number of other Honus Wagner cards have surfaced in recent years, some fraught with controversy over their authenticity and/or quality. The Honus Wagner card highlighted here, however, was graded in the 1990s when Wayne Gretsky owned it. The card was graded by the Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA), a firm which came into existence about that time, and has since become one of the nation’s leading third-party, sports- card grading services. The Wagner card, in fact, was the first baseball card to be PSA-graded, and it received a NM-MT 8 from PSA, which is a “near mint – mint” rating, the highest given to a T206 Wagner so far.
Honus Wagner in the infield.
The PSA grades sports cards based on a 1-to-10 scale and has instituted the PSA Sports Card Grading Standards. PSA has authenticated, graded and encapsulated 28 of the known T206 Wagner cards. Of those, only two have earned grades of 4 (VG-EX) or better, three have earned 3 (VG) status, with the remainder garnering either a 1 or 2 due to substantial wear or significant physical imperfections. Other Honus Wagner cards have been sold in the 2000-2005 period bringing prices in the $75,000 to $460,000 range. None of these cards, however, have received the 8 rating of the “Gretsky card,” with most receiving between a PSA 2 and 4. Dan Imler, managing director of SCP Auctions, one of the auction houses that has handled Wagner cards, among other memorabilia, has stated: “For many collectors, owning any example of a T206 Honus Wagner card is the crowning achievement of baseball card collecting.”
“The Card”: New Heights
By 2007, meanwhile, the “Gretsky”card, was about to reach new heights in value. Brian Seigel of Las Vegas, the CEO of Emerald Capital LLC, an asset management company, decided to sell the Gretsky card. In July 2000, he had paid a then-record $1,265,000 for the card at public auction. During his ownership of the card, Seigel had shared it with the public.
“Previous owners usually kept it locked up,” explained Seigel, “however, I displayed the card as frequently as possible at major sports collectibles shows around the country. When I lived in Orange County California I even took it to several Cal State Fullerton baseball games and to elementary schools to teach children about baseball card collecting.” The card was also displayed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California in March 2003.
Seigel said he enjoyed owning the card for over six years, and added that during that time it was never for sale. “But I received an unsolicited call out of the blue late last year  from a California collector who wanted to buy it. After thinking it over for a while, I decided to sell, and the two of us agreed on a price.” That price, paid in February 2007, was $2.35 million. Six months later, in September 2007, it was sold again, when another California collector paid $2.8 million for the card, now the most valuable baseball card in history.
2007 book by Michael O’Keefe & Teri Thompson, published by Wm. Morrow.
As the value of the Honus Wagner baseball trading card has escalated over the years, so have claims about finds of other cards — some of which have generated considerable controversy and in a few cases, have become quite messy and nasty battles. Two African American card collectors from Cincinnati, Ohio named John Cobb and Ray Edwards tried to sell a Piedmont-backed Honus Wagner card in 2002 on e-Bay, but ran into a battle over authentication which included various expert reviews, police investigations, charges of fakery and racism, coverage by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and attempted sales and shuts downs by e-Bay. That card, and its history to August 2006, however, is still posted on some auction sites.
Photo of 'Hans Wagner' dated October 1st, 1914.
But even the famed “Gretsky” card has generated controversy, with some charging it was cut from a sheet and did not come from an ordinary cigarette pack- age. These charges and other history are covered in a 2007 book and subsequent reporting by New York Daily News writers Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson. Their book is titled, The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired BaseballCard.
The Wagner card saga continues to generate much interest in the world of card collecting and beyond. And to keep things interesting, there is always the possibility of “old card” finds, not only in the T206 American Tobacco collection, but also in a range of other notable “old card” series and their commercial sponsors. In January 2008, a man living in the southeast U.S. discovered 550 old baseball cards in his attic — all from the legendary 1909-1911 T206 series issued by American Tobacco. Among those cards was a Honus Wagner card – a card not in the best of shape and receiving a low grade, but still expected to sell for at least $100,000.
Honus Wagner statue at entrance to Pittsburgh Pirates home stadium, PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA.
The Genuine Article
The baseball player at the center of all this, however, Honus Wagner, is the real deal and the genuine item — a great ball player who leaves behind some still amazing achievements. Not only did he hit for an average of .300 or more for 17 consecutive seasons, but in seven of those seasons he hit for .350 or better, finishing his career with a .329 lifetime average. And although he played in an era when “small ball” was the prevailing method of play — with low-scoring games of 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2 being the norm — Wagner still had nine seasons with 100 RBIs or more, winning five RBI titles and six for slugging. He also led the National League in stolen bases on five occasions.
Some baseball historians rank Wagner as the second-best player of all time, behind only Babe Ruth. He was also a decent person by many accounts, respected by those who knew him. Says historian Bill James: “He was a gentle, kind man, a story teller, supportive of rookies, patient with the fans, cheerful in hard times, careful of the example he set for youth, a hard worker, a man who had no enemies and who never forgot his friends. He was the most beloved man in baseball before Ruth.”
U.S. postage stamp issued in 2003 as part of the 'Legends of Baseball' group.
In 2003, Wagner was among those baseball greats honored with a commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. In July 2003, the USPS issued its “Legends of Baseball” 33-cent commemorative stamps, honoring a collection of players, including Wagner — a group named the previous year to Major League Baseball’s “All-Century Team.” Among those in addition to Wagner were: Dizzy Dean, Lefty Grove, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Josh Gibson, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, Pie Traynor, and Cy Young.
Detailed close-up of Wagner statue at PNC Park. Photo by Jeff Hecker at pbase.com.
One story about Wagner in 1909 has it that he was ready to call it quits that season. Arthritis in his legs had begun, and he felt he was slowing down. But then-manager Fred Clarke and owner Mr. Dreyfuss convinced him that he was still essential to the team’s success. So he continued playing. But after the 1917 season, at the age of 43, he hung up his glove and spikes for good. He managed a few games for the Pirates that year, but then moved on to other things. He later returned to the Pirates in a coaching capacity, serving as a general instructor with the team from 1933 to 1951, and becoming a favorite among the players. Shortly before his death at age 81 — on December 6th, 1955 – a statue in his honor was erected in Schenley Park, not far from Forbes Field. When Forbes Field was razed and the new Three Rivers Stadium was built, the statue came with it, and today, it now stands at the entrance of the new PNC Park that replaced Three Rivers.
See also at this website, “Baseball Stories, 1900s-2000s,” a topics page with links to 12 other baseball-related stories. For additional sports-related stories at this website see the Annals of Sport category page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “$2.8 Million Baseball Card — 1909 Honus Wagner,” PopHistoryDig.com, May 28, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Honus Wagner jumping off the ground to field a ball, undated.
Ralph S. Davis, “Wagner A Wonder: One Player In Game Who Is Not Money Mad,” The Sporting News, October 12, 1912.
Alexandra Peers, “Baseball’s Card of Cards Is Up for Grabs,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1996.
Dan Barry, “Baseball’s Card of Cards Is Auctioned for $640,500,” New York Times, September 22, 1996.
Dennis DeValeria and Jeanne Burke, Honus Wagner: A Biography, New York: Holt, 1996.
Michael O’Keeffe and Bill Madden, “Wagner’s Wild Card: Mystery Has Surrounded Honus T206 Since 1909″, Daily News (New York), March 25, 2001.
Shelly Anderson, “Honus Wagner’s ‘Honey’ to Offer Rare Memorabilia at Auction,”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 13, 2003.
“Honus Wagner Original T206 Pose Carl Horner Photograph sold for $18,560,” Description written by T206museum.com, May, 2005. (Robert Edward Auctions offered a Honus Wagner Original T206 Pose Carl Horner Photograph at auction and it sold for $18,560 on April 30th, 2005).
“PSA Reports Record $2.35 Million Sale of NM-MT T-206 Honus Wagner Card,” PSAcard.com, February 27, 2007.
Bob Pool, “Honus Wagner Card Sells for $2.35 Million,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2007.
Associated Press, “Rare Honus Wagner 1909 Baseball Card Sold for Record $2.8 Million,” September 6, 2007.
Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card, New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
Michael O’Keeffe, blog, “Collector Finds $300k in Baseball Cards in His Attic.” New York Daily News, January 16, 2008.
For an excellent site on Honus Wagner history, photos, and card collecting see Honus Wagner Blog.
“Wagner & Louisville Slugger,” Research Paper, University of Maryland.
Bob Diskin, “Easy-Going Honus Was a Pirates Icon,”ESPN.com
For more detail on vintage baseball card collecting, auctions, valuations, etc. see, for example: www.T206.org and www.T205.org
“The Legend of Honus,” (The Brian Seigel Collection), in Stephen Wong and Susan Einstein, Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections [ a lavishly illustrated book on baseball card collections], HarperCollins, 2005, pp.59-65.