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.
The Celebrity Sell
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.
Graded “Honus Wagners”
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 grade given to a T206 Honus 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.
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.
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.