The Honus Wagner T206 is the sports activities card GOAT, and it at all times can be

MLB

Practically 100,000 individuals flooded onto the ground of the 2021 Nationwide Sports activities Collectors Conference in suburban Chicago, all jostling for house whereas peering into glass circumstances. Some had been there to purchase, shelling out anyplace from a few bucks to tons of of hundreds on playing cards. Others simply wished a glimpse of what they’d solely ever examine — probably the most sought-after and controversial card ever made.

Hidden in plain sight, so small and slight that tons of of individuals filed previous it with out realizing what they had been lacking, sat a tiny, rectangular piece of cardboard so worthwhile, it was guarded by a totally armed, off-duty police officer. That piece of cardboard sold for $6.6 million on Sunday, making it the most costly sports activities card ever offered in a market that has been inundated with million-dollar file breakers over the previous two years.

It was a T206 Honus Wagner, sometimes called the “Holy Grail” or “Mona Lisa” of sports activities playing cards. There are roughly 60 recognized to exist.

Lower than two inches vast and three inches tall, the T206 Wagner is, in essence, the story of your entire sports activities card {industry}. A story of shortage and ego, with a touch of scandal. A coming-of-age saga for a interest that remodeled from a promotion marketed towards children into an funding alternative for the mega-rich.

But, at its core, the Wagner is an affordable, mass-produced piece of paper. “It is simply chilly cardboard,” mentioned Michael O’Keeffe, who co-wrote a ebook on the T206 Wagner. “There isn’t any tangible worth to it aside from what somebody is keen to pay.”

However individuals are keen to pay huge sums. The sports activities card and memorabilia enterprise is larger than ever, and it is inconceivable to unpack how that occurred with out exploring the influence of the Honus Wagner card. So how did this humble sports activities card, as soon as a baby’s plaything, grow to be — and stay — the heartbeat of a multibillion-dollar {industry}?


To start with …

A baby of German immigrants, Wagner began working in a Pennsylvania coal mine when he was 12. In 1897, at age 23, he debuted for the Pittsburg Pirates — 14 years earlier than the letter H was even added to town’s identify — and rapidly emerged as a star worthy of his personal nickname: “The Flying Dutchman.”

Wagner gained eight batting titles in 21 seasons, tied with Tony Gwynn for the Nationwide League all-time file. Wagner hit .300 or higher in 15 straight seasons, may throw a baseball greater than 400 ft, and led the league in slugging share, on-base share, stolen bases and RBIs a number of years. He’s ranked eighth on the all-time hits listing with 3,420.

When it got here time for the primary Corridor of Fame vote in 1936, Wagner tied with Babe Ruth for 215 votes, second solely to Ty Cobb’s 222. Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson rounded out Cooperstown’s inaugural class.

“We’d ask individuals, ‘Are you aware who Honus Wagner was?'” mentioned Brian Dwyer, president of Robert Edward Auctions, which auctioned off the record-breaking card on Sunday. “They’d say, ‘No.’ By and huge, he is being remembered for his baseball card.”

When Wagner’s card was launched in 1909, tobacco corporations had been inserting stiff paper into cigarette and tobacco bins for practically 50 years as a approach to defend the nicotine merchandise. That 12 months, the American Tobacco Firm launched its “white border” baseball playing cards inside 16 completely different manufacturers, together with Candy Caporal, American Magnificence and Carolina Brights.

An entire white border set comprises 524 completely different illustrations, some with the identical participant in several poses. To this point, there are greater than 4,200 Ty Cobb playing cards from the collection which were graded. However there are just a few dozen Wagners recognized to exist.

The thriller of why there are so few Wagners as in comparison with different gamers is the best debate throughout the sports activities card group — one thing collectors like to chew over.

One principle suggests the Wagner printing plate broke throughout manufacturing. One other suggests a copyright dispute between the artist and the tobacco firm.

The preferred and romantic principle, although, has been put ahead by Wagner’s household and the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork in New York Metropolis (which has a T206 Wagner in its assortment). They are saying that Wagner did not wish to promote kids smoking tobacco and requested the corporate to tug his card from manufacturing.

Different historians stay skeptical of that principle. “Wagner apparently had no reservations about his picture being reproduced on cigar bands, which appear to belie the argument that he objected to shilling tobacco merchandise,” creator Dave Jamieson wrote within the ebook “Mint Situation: How Baseball Playing cards Turned an American Obsession.”

A extra cynical principle suggests Wagner wished extra money in return for utilizing his identify, picture and likeness. In response to this principle, Wagner was combating for his NIL rights greater than 100 years earlier than NCAA athletes went to the Supreme Courtroom of their push to be compensated.

Wagner was certainly a savvy businessman. In 1905, he agreed to place his identify on a Louisville Slugger line of bats, making him the primary skilled athlete to signal an endorsement deal. He would go on to endorse a lot of gadgets, together with chewing gum, Coca-Cola and gunpowder, in response to Roger Abrams in his ebook “The Cash Pitch: Baseball Free Company and Wage Arbitration.”

However O’Keeffe, who co-wrote “The Card: Collectors, Con Males, and the True Story of Historical past’s Most Desired Baseball Card,” wonders whether or not it was a mixture of each, with Wagner utilizing the kids-smoking excuse to protect what was, in actuality, a advertising play.

“He is an all-American story, a baby of immigrants who did very well for himself,” O’Keeffe mentioned. “However cigarettes on the time had been thought-about low class, what employees used as a result of you did not have time to smoke a pipe or a cigar. Regardless that everybody smoked or chewed, the man who owned the Pirates and the supervisor of the Pirates — each of whom had been massive influences on Wagner — disdained cigarettes.”

Regardless of the fact, the American Tobacco Firm stopped producing Wagner’s card.

By 1939, pioneering card collector Jefferson Burdick was systematically cataloguing some 30,000 playing cards he collected in his lifetime. In his seminal work, “The US Card Collectors Catalog,” it was Burdick who gave the “white border” playing cards a brand new designation: T206, for the 206th launch of tobacco playing cards.

Burdick decided that the T206 Honus Wagner was price $50, the cardboard’s first recognized valuation. That interprets to about $980 in 2021 {dollars}.

The T206 Wagner was formally probably the most worthwhile card on the earth.


Mickey Mantle modifications every part

There isn’t any participant extra adored by postwar collectors than Mickey Mantle.

“Mickey Mantle was type of one of many first to make good cash as a secondary profession within the memorabilia world,” Jamieson mentioned. “He was recognized to signal a number of autographs, actually crank them out.”

There are greater than 30 several types of Mantle playing cards to gather. Lengthy earlier than the present card increase, in the course of the Nice Recession in 2008, a 1951 Bowman Mantle rookie card offered for $600,000, on the time the second-highest sum ever paid for a sports activities card. That card was graded a “10” by Skilled Sports activities Authenticator (PSA).

When playing cards go up for public sale, most have been graded by no less than one among three corporations: PSA, Beckett Grading Providers (BGS) or Sportscard Warranty Company (SGC). All three depend on a 1-10 grading system, with 10 most frequently representing gem mint situation. Some corporations provide grades for autographs added to the cardboard, in addition to “subgrading,” which supplies extra numerical grades for edges, corners, centering and floor.

However on the subject of Mantle, the Mick’s rookie card is not probably the most coveted card.

As a substitute, postwar collectors yearn for the 1952 Topps, with its turquoise background and comic-book-yellow bat resting gently on Mantle’s shoulder as he seems off into the gap.

On the NSCC in July, there have been two 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle playing cards sitting subsequent to one another in a case. At first look, they appear an identical.

However a more in-depth look reveals that one card is off-center, its turquoise background pushed to the left. In consequence, PSA graded that card a 4.

The opposite is well-centered, however there are microscopic wrinkles on the turquoise close to Mantle’s hand and alongside his jawline. Yellow ink bleeds out beneath his facsimile signature. A speck of paper has flaked off from Mantle’s cap. Whereas the centering subject on the opposite card is extra apparent, these tiny defects resulted in a decrease grade of three by PSA.

Grading is “the lifeblood” of the cardboard {industry}, in response to Rick Probstein, CEO of Probstein123, a consigner and one among eBay’s largest sellers of sports activities playing cards and memorabilia. “The distinction between a 9 and a ten might be one million {dollars},” he defined.

Just like the T206 Wagner, the mythology of the cardboard can also be key. Within the Fifties, sellers returned unsold playing cards to producers to make room for the next 12 months’s set. Legend has it that the lion’s share of unsold 1952 Topps had been unceremoniously dumped by barge both into the Hudson River or Gowanus Bay close to the Topps workplace in Manhattan.

Jamieson informed ESPN in 2020 that the 1952 Mickey Mantle and the T206 Wagner owe their hallowed standing to an alluring mixture of lore and shortage. They’re “particular playing cards that basically had some mystique and thriller to them.” There are solely six reported 1952 Mickey Mantle playing cards with a PSA 9 grade in existence. And clothes entrepreneur Rob Gough wished one among them. “I had about each {industry} professional, vendor, public sale home trying to find the PSA 9,” Gough informed ESPN earlier this 12 months.

When the cardboard got here up on the market in January, Gough snagged it for $5.2 million, stealing the title of most costly sports activities card ever offered.

Quickly, after all.


The increase (and bust) of the Nineteen Nineties

It was the start of the millennium and card amassing had turned professional.

“I keep in mind going into shops within the ’80s and the ’90s and being disgusted that they had been now placing baseball playing cards behind glass circumstances and somebody needed to open them,” O’Keeffe mentioned. “I used to be like, ‘That is bulls—.'”

O’Keeffe was a sports activities investigations reporter for the New York Each day Information. He had been despatched to a information convention at Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant and Sports activities Bar on Central Park West. A card that had grow to be often known as the “Gretzky T206 Wagner” was about to be auctioned off.

As he gazed on the legendary card, O’Keeffe was surprised. The cardboard was spectacular. “My brothers and I, once we bought baseball playing cards, they’d be trashed inside 10 minutes,” he remembers considering. “How does that card keep in such fine condition?”

That query launched O’Keeffe and a crew of reporters on what would grow to be a decade-long journey, leading to dozens of articles, his ebook — and one industry-changing legal conviction.

“Ultimately, we bought what we predict was the reply,” he mentioned. “It was doctored.”

A sports activities memorabilia collector named Invoice Mastro had dominated the sports activities card enterprise within the Nineteen Eighties, when he purchased a Wagner and practically two dozen different T206 playing cards for $25,000. Two years later, he offered simply the Wagner to a card collector for $110,000. “That is the fantastic thing about Invoice Mastro,” O’Keeffe mentioned. “He hyped the s— out of these items.”

Bruce McNall, the proprietor of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, had by now heard of the cardboard and satisfied his star participant, Wayne Gretzky, to assist him buy it in 1991. The $451,000 sale was brokered partly by Mastro.

The “Gretzky T206 Wagner,” as it might henceforth be referred to as, was the very first card to be graded by PSA, receiving an “8 Close to Mint-Mint” designation. To place that into context, in response to PSA’s present inhabitants report, there are not any different T206 Wagners which have obtained a grade above a 5. All however three have obtained a grade of three or decrease.

However then McNall went to jail after admitting to defrauding six banks out of $236 million {dollars}. “Gretzky bought caught with the cardboard and wound up promoting it,” O’Keeffe recounted. Walmart purchased it and raffled it away in a 1995 promotional marketing campaign. However the publish workplace worker who gained the cardboard could not afford to maintain it due to the taxes that got here with proudly owning a Wagner.

The cardboard would proceed to be offered and resold by outstanding public sale homes resembling Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Robert Edward Auctions — in addition to non-public collectors, together with MLB pitcher Tom Candiotti — till it was dubbed the “most costly card on the earth” after Ken Kendrick, principal proprietor and managing basic companion of the Arizona Diamondbacks, bought it for $2.8 million in 2007.

That very same 12 months, O’Keeffe and his co-author, Terri Thompson, printed their ebook and accused Mastro of “cleansing” the cardboard by trimming its corners.

Card cleansing “is one thing that developed over time,” O’Keeffe defined. “I talked to collectors who mentioned, ‘I at all times flattened playing cards’ by placing them in a vise or placing books or bricks on them. Or they’d reduce the sides off so they don’t seem to be soiled or floppy. In order that they keep sharp. It was OK within the ’70s. No person considered it. A Wagner card again then is perhaps price a pair thousand {dollars}, that is the excessive finish. Widespread playing cards had been a nickel or a dime. So, individuals did this on a regular basis.”

Playing cards had been, in any case, what children had utilized in bike spokes.

However a brand new set of requirements arrived in 1991 with the introduction of card grading. Utilizing distilled water was OK. Eradicating stale gum by rubbing a nylon stocking on it was allowed.

Trimming, nonetheless, is strictly forbidden. An “altered” card might not obtain a numerical grade.

Following a multiyear authorities investigation, together with grand jury subpoenas issued to a few of the most well-known card sellers within the nation, Mastro pleaded responsible in 2013 to a wide range of federal costs, together with mail fraud and “shill bidding,” an unlawful observe that makes use of associates to bid on public sale gadgets to extend costs.

In the course of the investigation, Mastro lastly admitted to what had solely been whispered about for years: Sure, he had trimmed the Wagner with a paper cutter lengthy earlier than it was offered to Gretzky.

“The long-running and systematic nature of the scheme undermines confidence within the public sale home and sports activities memorabilia industries, and calls into query the true worth of merchandise,” Assistant U.S. Lawyer Steven J. Dollear mentioned on the time.

Card cleansing continues to canine the interest, with the Washington Publish in 2019 quoting sources who claimed the FBI was investigating a brand new batch of problematic playing cards, after novice sleuths on a discussion board hosted by Blowout Playing cards started evaluating earlier than and after photos of suspect playing cards.

“Quite a lot of us thought these playing cards had been by no means meant to be in a case eternally, analyzed by guys in a darkish room, beneath black lights in some bunker,” Jamieson mentioned. “However there’s undoubtedly a necessity for it. There’s shade on this {industry}. Quite a lot of doctoring fed into the will for third-party grading.”

Kendrick, who nonetheless owns the Gretzky T206 Honus card, declined ESPN’s request for an interview, however he informed the New York Instances in 2019 that “it was upsetting” to study the cardboard had been trimmed.

He informed the newspaper that he had heard the rumors earlier than he purchased the cardboard, “However I wished to have the cardboard, and I nonetheless need the cardboard.”

“The PSA 8 Wagner is the one merchandise on this interest that I consider the damaging turns into a constructive,” Dwyer mentioned.

As a result of Kendrick additionally informed the Instances he had obtained a suggestion to purchase his card for 4 occasions what he’d paid. However he did not promote what was nonetheless, in 2019, the record-breaking card.

As a substitute, Mike Trout and a brand new period of playing cards had been about to chop out the youngsters and catapult the interest right into a multibillion-dollar enterprise.


The fashionable period

Regardless of the increase of the Nineteen Eighties, card buying and selling had a considerable bust within the early Nineteen Nineties. Most consultants agree the bubble burst as a consequence of two elements: the 1994 MLB strike and rampant overproduction.

“Overproduction killed every part. It took us a great 10 years or extra to recuperate,” mentioned Brian Grey, CEO of Leaf Buying and selling Playing cards. “As you moved into the 2000s, the manufacturing stage in playing cards was massively decrease.”

As a substitute of ready many years for playing cards to grow to be scarce as a consequence of time and circumstance (like Mother throwing away your treasured childhood assortment), corporations resembling Topps, Higher Deck, Donruss, Leaf and present {industry} chief Panini now launch units with sought-after, serial-numbered playing cards which can be restricted to simply 50, 25, 10 or generally 5 playing cards. Essentially the most sought-after trendy playing cards are numbered “1/1,” referred to as one-of-ones.

A few of these restricted inserts include a bit of a recreation ticket, a game-used piece of cleat or a bit of hardwood flooring. Some use holograms and reflective surfaces (typically referred to as “refractors”). Essentially the most collectable are usually rookie playing cards that embrace a famous person athlete’s authenticated autograph (dubbed “autos”) or a bit of the athlete’s jersey (referred to as a “patch”). If you happen to’ve bought the holy trinity — an autographed rookie card with a bit of jersey — you have bought a Rookie Patch Autograph, affectionately termed an “RPA.”

Generally a participant will signal a sticker that can later be added to the cardboard. There are also “reduce autos,” extra frequent with classic gamers, with a signature reduce from a verify or doc and implanted into the cardboard. Essentially the most fascinating autographs are “on-card,” that means the participant signed the cardboard’s precise floor.

There’s additionally a hierarchy in patches: a monotone piece of jersey (referred to as a “serviette”) is price lower than a piece that encompasses a piece of a participant’s quantity, identify or crew emblem. “NFL Shields” and NBA “Logomans,” one-of-ones, are practically invaluable.

These playing cards are tucked into packs that include a lot less-desirable “base” playing cards, many who find yourself not being price a lot. Producers broadly promote the fascinating playing cards, referred to as “chase” or “hits,” however do not reveal which pack, field or case comprises the coveted card.

A number of {industry} consultants informed ESPN that what’s additionally driving the trendy market is the entry of worldwide buyers, small funding teams and even household foundations trying to park their outdated cash in a brand new monetary instrument.

“They do not suppose it is a short-term factor,” Ken Goldin of Goldin Auctions informed ESPN in September 2020. “They’d moderately know that they’ve the most effective LeBron [James], the most effective Kobe Bryant, Mike Trout assortment, than take a look at a bunch of paintings of painters who died 400 years in the past, that they have to maintain locked in a secure. People like which can be taking a look at this as an asset class, a part of their allocation.”

For 13 years, a T206 Wagner was the most costly card ever offered: Kendrick’s Gretzky T206, from 2007 to 2016, then a PSA 5 Wagner that offered for $3.12 million by means of Goldin Auctions in 2016. However then, in August 2020, a Mike Trout 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Superfractor offered at public sale for $3.9 million. In different phrases, it’s Trout’s rookie card with a shiny, prismatic floor and an on-card autograph, and it’s numbered 1/1.

In July, a 2017 Panini Nationwide Treasures Patrick Mahomes 1/1 NFL Defend on-card rookie auto offered for $4.3 million, making it the most costly NFL card ever offered. To translate: The complete NFL protect from his uniform is embedded within the card, it options his on-card autograph and it’s numbered 1/1.

Just a few months earlier, in April, Higher Deck’s 2003-04 Beautiful Assortment RPA parallel LeBron James card offered for $5.2 million, tying the 1952 Mickey Mantle file for many ever spent on a card. By now, you possibly can hopefully make sense of what it contained: James’ rookie card with a patch and on-card autograph, numbered to 23 with a BGS 9 grade and an ideal 10 signature grade.

The demand for these trendy playing cards has reached such a frenzy that at this 12 months’s Nationwide, a vendor had an unopened 2017 Panini Nationwide Treasures Soccer case — containing 32 playing cards — from the identical assortment that produced the Mahomes file breaker on the market.

The case, on common, presents 12 autographs and 12 memorabilia playing cards, however there is not any assure the Mahomes RPA can be within the field. Circumstances retailed for $2,000 in 2017; on the Nationwide, the worth tag was $145,000 — sufficient to purchase an honest home in Kansas Metropolis when the Chiefs drafted Mahomes.

And with a lot cash at stake, the “interest” has grow to be inclined to issues which have lengthy plagued sports activities tickets and athletic footwear, with experiences of pc bots shopping for up bins on-line. In Might, ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren reported how Target limited sports card sales to 3 gadgets per buyer after which paused gross sales outright “out of warning for its staff and prospects.”

All of it, in a manner, began with the Wagner card. Whether or not he meant to or not, Wagner is the pioneer of a multibillion-dollar {industry} that has perfected demand by means of shortage.

And card consultants like Jamieson by no means doubted that, despite the modern-day card delirium of late, Wagner would as soon as once more reign supreme. “One thing Michael Gidwitz, who offered the primary million-dollar Wagner, mentioned that made an impression on me was how, in superb artwork, in case you ask a bunch of contemporary artwork curators, ‘What is the best work of contemporary artwork?’ all of them have completely different opinions,” he mentioned. “There’s not a lot dialogue on the subject of baseball playing cards: It is the T206 Wagner.”


The T206 strikes again

When Fred McKie was 9 years outdated, baseball playing cards weren’t simply cardboard and ink. They had been social foreign money.

“I moved into a brand new neighborhood and all the youngsters had been doing it,” mentioned McKie, now retired in New Jersey. “I might journey my bike to the movie show, [watch] “Zorro,” and commerce playing cards within the again with different children from the neighborhood.”

When he was in faculty, he and a younger man a number of years youthful bonded over amassing. “I wasn’t actually an enormous collector of prewar playing cards, however he was into the older stuff, and it grew to become a contest,” McKie mentioned.

In 1972, his buddy purchased a T206 Wagner for $1,500. “So if he had one, I needed to have one,” McKie mentioned.

That buddy? Invoice Mastro.

McKie would not wish to discuss Mastro and his conviction, however he’ll let you know all concerning the Wagner he purchased for $1,100 at public sale in 1973 to compete along with his buddy: “It was simply a part of my assortment, in my condominium in an album.”

Three years later, a widely known collector named Barry Halper provided McKie $2,500 — a fortune to McKie, who wished to open a shoe retailer. “It was actually good cash,” he mentioned. “It allowed me to begin a enterprise, which warped into extra companies, which allowed me to retire at 55.”

McKie has watched his Wagner from afar every time it has been offered and resold. Not like his buddy’s card, his T206 Wagner has by no means been accused of card cleansing. It was graded a PSA 3 and, in 2012, fetched $1.2 million. “Each time it goes for increasingly more,” McKie sighed.

However McKie would not lose sleep over the Wagner. Would not remorse what may’ve been. He would’ve been baseball-card wealthy and cash poor, he causes. He would not perceive trendy playing cards. He resents the professionalization of the pastime.

Final night time, nonetheless, did elicit a pang of remorse.

That record-breaking Wagner, the one which’s now price $6.6 million, the brand new king of playing cards? That was McKie’s.

“I owned it at one time, so you possibly can puff your chest out, being a part of its historical past,” McKie mentioned. “I could not anyplace close to afford it these days.”

He then laughed: “I’ve much more playing cards at present which can be rarer than the Wagner.”

And with the way in which card amassing goes as of late, perhaps a kind of playing cards will subsequent take the title of “most costly card ever offered.” Or maybe it’s going to be a card that includes an athlete who hasn’t even gone professional but. And do not ever underestimate the 1952 Topps Mantle.

However you possibly can wager, whichever card does take the title, a T206 Wagner can be ready to steal it again.

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