Literally millions of people worldwide either currently collect or have collected baseball cards sometime during their lives. Most of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties fondly recall the heyday of bubble gum card collecting when the Topps Company reigned supreme. What many people don't realize is that baseball card collecting didn't start out as a fun and leisurely pastime for Little Leaguers, but was originally part of a corporate marketing strategy to sell tobacco products. The genius of that strategy still reverberates today.
The decision to use images of ballplayers to sell tobacco over a century ago made sound business sense then and, as we all know, the early tobacco cards remain very collectible today. How shocked those tobacco mavens would be to know that almost a century after their foray into baseball's rough and tumble game would there evolve the most famous and expensive baseball card of all time - the Honus Wagner T-206 tobacco card from 1909.
National Sports Gallery
is pleased to be able to exhibit certainly the rarest of all the known Wagner cards - Honus Wagner's own Honus Wagner T-206 tobacco card! For this column, let's explore some of the very early tobacco card sets and review in detail the T-206 issue that spawned the famous Wagner card and its "sister set," the gold-bordered T-205 set.
The Birth of the Card Industry
Card collecting was introduced in this country by tobacco companies as long ago as the 1870's. There were several card sets produced during that time period that featured not only baseball players but other sportsmen and women of the time. Between 1887 and 1890, the Goodwin and Company of New York produced the first true series of baseball cards, numbering several hundred which featured sepia toned photographs of baseball players. The series, popularly called The Old Judge cards, were quite popular with a public that was increasingly interested in the game of baseball. Baseball was, after all, entrenched as our national pastime.
It was no coincidence that the popularity of tobacco cards grew as the country was becoming a premier industrial nation. By and large, Americans worked hard, leisure activities flourished, and cigarettes became not only socially accepted but, at least for men, smoking was "the thing to do." By 1910 there existed a full-fledged card collecting frenzy with nearly seventy-five different baseball series issued. Additionally, hundreds of non-sport cards series were issued as tobacco companies executed mass advertising campaigns to capture the burgeoning market.
The T-206 and T-205 Tobacco Card Sets
In 1909 the stage was set for the release by the American Tobacco Company of America's famous T-206 series of baseball major and minor leaguers. The set received its designation from the American Card Catalogue years ago and it is still considered by many as being the most popular card tobacco set of the 20th century. Even today as we review the major auctions we see many cards offered from this antique set even though it was issued nearly a century ago. Although thousands of T-206 cards were originally issued, of the five-hundred twenty-four different cards in the series it is now estimated that only a modest number of cards in nice collectible condition survive today. After all, many people threw out the cards as they fished out of the pack the commodity they really wanted - the cigarette and many cards were "lost" as a result of the massive paper drives during the two world wars. However, after talking to many of the leading vintage card dealers such as Lew Lipset, Kevin Struss and Steve Verkman, even today there are great vintage cards available for what is considered fertile territory for the discerning collector.
Following the success of the T-206 white bordered set, the American Tobacco Company issued another set in 1911, designated T-205 in the American Card Catalogue, that is also still extremely popular. To contrast the two sets of cards, the T-206's are nicknamed the "white bordered" set and their cousins, the T-205's, are called the "gold borders." While the cards are approximately the same size, they are quite different in appearance. The main difference is, as the name suggests, that the T-205 cards have delicate gold leaf borders. The borders are quite attractive but because of their fragile consistency, today's collector should be aware that the corners and edges of the cards are often chipped or cracked. I am personally fond of these cards as they, along with the great T-3 cards, are my personal favorites.
Similar to their white bordered counterparts, the T-205 set advertised on the backs of the cards several different producers of tobacco, all of them being under the American Tobacco Company umbrella. Romantic sounding tobacco company names like Carolina Brights, Hindu, Drum, Sweet Caporal and American Beauty elegantly adorned the backs of the cards. As with the T-206's, some of the advertisements on the backs of the gold bordered set are much rarer and tougher to find than others. There are dozens of variations of tobacco advertisements on the back of both card sets which, as expected, serve to even further entice the hoards of collectors and enhance their collectibility. The chase, after all, is in the hunt and what better way to enjoy the hunt is to search for collectibles with dozens of variations!
Before we delve into the Wagner card and why it is considered the "Mona Lisa" of card collecting, let's examine what tobacco cards are still so collectible in today's market? Both the T-206 white-bordered set and the T-205 gold borders have several advantages over other sports collectibles that has kept collecting interest in them strong. I predict, with the excitement generated by Brian Seigel's purchase of the "Gretzky" Wagner card for over a million dollars, and the public display of our Wagner card proof strip, that interest will continue to grow. We know tobacco cards are quite rare compared to most other 20th century card sets but why are they still so popular?
First and foremost, they are extremely attractive and have much eye appeal. Even though mothers and grandmothers everywhere thought they were worthless junk decades ago, the front of these nifty cards feature colorful and poignant studio or action poses of the various ballplayers.
Second, because the cards were printed on thick string-mulch pressboard paper stock, even though they shared space with cigarettes crammed into a pack, today's marketplace abounds with tobacco cards that are remarkably clean and clear. Simply put, they remain relatively sturdy considering their age.
The cards have remained popular also because they are a convenient compact collectible in that both cards measure about 1 1/2 inches wide and 2 1/2 inches high. They don't take up much space and fit nicely in notebooks, scrapbooks and other similar holders.
The sets have remained popular not only because of their stunning and colorful fronts but because the various different backs are, as mentioned, quite interesting. Because the backs advertised the various cigarettes, collecting examples from the many cigarette brands is challenging yet rewarding whether the collector is a novice or expert.
Finally, the cards enjoy continued popularity because the sets feature some of the greatest ballplayers of the deadball era. Namely, Hall of Famers like Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance (who were the subject of the wildly popular baseball poem of the time featuring the double play prowess of
Tinkers to Evers to Chance), Ty Cobb and, of course, Honus Wagner.
The Wagner Card
The T-206 card set will always generate enormous collecting interest because it contains the famous Honus Wagner card. Thanks to a fortunate find at the Wagner estate some thirty years ago and the generosity of hobby veteran Steve Verkman, our museum is fortunate to be able to showcase the Wagner card that is undoubtedly the rarest of all the Wagner cards in existence. This particular card is one of five separate cards that is part of an uncut proof strip of T-206 cards. Along with Honus, the strip also features, from left to right, Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, Frank Bowerman, the great Cy Young, and Johnny Kling.
Bowerman was a fifteen year journeyman who played for several different teams, Johnny Kling was a staple with the great early Chicago Cubs teams, his teammate "Three Finger" Brown who made the baseball do all sorts of crazy things because of his physical disability and pitched in the World Series the year before and after the T-206 set was produced, and Cy Young who is, well, simply the "father" of all the great pitchers in major league baseball history. But the prize on the proof strip is of course Wagner himself!
How rare is the Wagner card? Some estimate about fifty of the cards exist today. Lew Lipset, who I believe knows about as much about tobacco cards as anyone in the country, speculates that as many as one-hundred of the little gems are around today. How rare is the Verkman Wagner proof strip?
It is certainly one-of-a-kind, as this is the only "proof" strip of T-206 cards actually known to exist. Also, incredibly, this strip was originally found many years ago in the attic of Honus Wagner's old house amongst various personal effects - including correspondence and uniforms. In fact, it was literally found in the pocket of one of Honus' coach's uniforms. So it was undoubtedly Wagner's own Wagner card! As I stare at the card, I wonder whether this was the very card - being a proof or precursor card to the set's production - that Honus gazed at as he decided to request that his image be pulled entirely from the card set? Who knows, but it is precisely that decision by the great slugger that has resulted in his T-206 being amongst the scarcest and most talked about baseball card of all time.
Why is the card so rare and controversial? We know that it was mysteriously and without fanfare pulled from general circulation by the
American Tobacco Company
shortly after its release, but why? Many have speculated that the company was sensitive to Honus Wagner's own objection to the production of the card because, it is commonly believed, he was reluctant to allow his image to be associated with any tobacco-related products. He did not, the legend continues, believe in promoting tobacco consumption that might unduly influence impressionable children. This famous legend is documented in an article from the October 24, 1912 issue of The Sporting News which specifically relates the circumstances of Wagner's refusal.
However, this common perception has been challenged by baseball historians who have posited that Honus had a more commercial reason to complain to the card manufacturer and ultimately force the card's virtual disappearance. Because there have been examples where Wagner actually advertised for tobacco products prior to the production date of the card and a few photographs have been unearthed that show the great ballplayer enjoying a clump of tobacco chaw at the ballpark in full view of his adoring public . . . children included, the more cynical view is that Wagner's public disdain for tobacco consumption was merely a cover for his anger at not receiving compensation for the use of his image to promote cigarettes as a popular product. He was, after all, known to be a sharp business negotiator. Lew Lipset holds that view, and hobby veterans such as Keith Olbermann have actually documented several incidences where Honus allowed his image to advertise tobacco products.
In fact, Mr. Olbermann, who is a student of the history of early tobacco card issues, accurately pointed out to me that a decade or so before the manufacture of the T-206 set, Honus Wagner was featured in a cigar trade card donning his Louisville Colonels uniform. Clearly, the card advertised tobacco products. The extremely rare Henry Reccius card was apparently found in rather large cigar boxes adorning the image of . . . you guessed it, Honus Wagner! Does this reflect the view of a man who disdained the use of tobacco? You tell me!
The debate continues. Was Wagner anti-tobacco long before his time or did he simply have a sharp business sense? Keith also related, with suspicion, that the gold-bordered set, manufactured two years after their white-bordered counterpart, contained no images of greats like Larry Lajoie, Eddie Plank . . . and Honus Wagner. "Were they all anti-smoking," Keith asked, "or did they wise up to the fact they weren't getting paid, or paid enough, for the use of their pictures?" Who knows, but the controversy continues and, as expected, has served to only increase the card's allure and charm.
In light of the "Gretzky" card hitting that million-dollar mark (no wonder Honus has that interesting bemused expression on his face!), one must ask what in the world will Wagner's own Wagner proof card go for in today's sensational market? I hate to guess but we all will soon find out because Steve Verkman, through his Clean Sweep Auctions, will offer the card to all takers on October 11, 2000. This year has particular significance to Wagner's playing career for Steve's auction is exactly one hundred years after Pirate newcomer Wagner took a struggling Pittsburg team from a lowly seventh place the year before to a very respectable second place for the 1900 season. And that's not all . . . for good measure, Honus led the league with a .381 batting average, the highest season hitting total he would ever achieve, and even pitched a few innings!