Mystery has surrounded Honus T206 since 1909
Written by MICHAEL O'KEEFFE and BILL MADDEN (New York Daily News Online - March 25, 2001)
He never looked like a million bucks. He had an awkward appearance and a clumsy walk, but
many still consider Honus Wagner one of baseball's greatest players. Inducted into the
Hall of Fame's first class with Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb
in 1936, the Flying Dutchman was a flawless shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the
turn of the century.
But the most valued part of Wagner's legacy comes in a pocket-sized slice of cardboard
Americana known among collector cognoscenti as the 1909 Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner. In
other words, Honus' baseball card.
It is the most coveted card in the world, selling last year for $1.26 million, the
second-most expensive piece of sports memorabilia in history, behind the $3 million paid
for Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball.
It is called the Mona Lisa of baseball cards, its condition far superior to the other
50 or so known T206 Wagners, making it the object of fierce bidding by wealthy men,
including NHL great Wayne Gretzky, whose name now graces the card in its official
Factor in the mystery angle no one will say where the card was for the first 75
years of its life and you have a genuine tale of intrigue. Through two world wars,
Korea, Vietnam, Iran-contra, from the dead ball era to the fall of communism, from Ruth to
Reggie, the Holy Grail of baseball cards is unaccounted for. Was it hidden away in a desk
drawer, a safe deposit box, the witness protection program?
Add in the rumor mill the card has been dogged by allegations that it has been
altered to increase its value and you have a glimpse into the eccentric, combative,
often cut-throat dealings of the sports memorabilia industry, just a generation ago the
domain of little boys and big geeks.
"The bottom line is the card is the right size, and the card looks
beautiful," says memorabilia king Bill Mastro. "Everything about it gives the
appearance of 'Holy Moses, this is too good to be true.'"
* * *
Wagner was among the players featured by the American Tobacco Co. between 1909 and
1911, when it issued what became known as its T206 set: 523 cards depicting players from
the big leagues and several minor leagues. The gorgeously illustrated cards, stylized
portraits printed in vibrant colors, were inserted in cigarette packs to lure baseball
fans to buy the company's brands.
Wagner supposedly didn't want to encourage kids to smoke and demanded that the tobacco
company stop issuing his card. But Wagner chewed tobacco and many collectors believe the
Flying Dutchman wasn't an anti-smoking pioneer, just a jock holding out for money.
"It doesn't matter," Mastro says. "They still pulled the card."
The Wagners became an instant rarity. By the 1930s, catalogues valued other T206 cards
at 35 cents; Wagner cards were listed at $50.
* * *
Bill Mastro, CEO of Mastro Fine Sports Auctions
* * *
The fact that no one will say where the Gretzky T206 was for all those years would seem
to raise some pretty serious questions about its authenticity. But that would be a silly
assumption: The Wagner survives all scrutiny.
"This card has always been steeped in controversy," Mastro says.
He should know. By 1986, Mastro was known as an aggressive, hard-dealing memorabilia
trader, one of the young hustlers who were transforming a harmless hobby into something
much larger. The growth of his sports memorabilia company, MastroNet Inc., which grossed
$32 million in revenue last year, has skyrocketed alongside the value of the Gretzky T206.
"We were young, hungry maniacs," Mastro says of his youthful business
persona. "You would rather see a mad dog with froth coming out of his mouth come to
the door than see one of us guys come into your shop."
Mastro was working a card convention in Willow Grove, Pa., when he got the word: Bob
Sevchuk, the owner of a Long Island sports memorabilia store, was arranging the sale of a
mint 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card for $25,000.
"You don't have to talk to anybody else," Mastro remembers saying. "I
When the show ended, Mastro and boyhood friend Rob Lifson drove to Sevchuk's card shop
in a dingy Hicksville, L.I., strip mall to inspect the Wagner and offer a deal to regular
customer Alan Ray, the card's owner.
For Mastro and Lifson, who put up half the money for the purchase, it was like finding
the Rosetta Stone. As a kid, Mastro had jammed his room with the baseball cards he picked
up from other neighborhood boys when their interests turned to girls and cars, and as an
emerging force in the hobby he had handled many impressive items. But he had never seen a
card like this one.
The Wagner was as promised, Mastro remembers, a rare find because of its excellent
condition and because it featured an advertisement for Piedmont cigarettes on its back.
About 50 T206 Wagners are known to still exist, but only one other, owned by a Virginia
collector, has a Piedmont back.
Still, Mastro pressured Ray for a better deal, pointing out that the edges of the card
were wavy, and refusing to complete the transaction unless Ray threw in the 50 to 75 other
T206 cards he had brought to the shop. "I had a money situation," says Ray, who
steadfastly refuses to say where he got the Wagner. "I had to sell the card."
* * *
Mastro sold the Gretzky T206 a year later, in 1987, to San Luis Obispo, Calif.,
collector James Copeland for $110,000. "I called from the airport in
California," Mastro says, "and ordered a Mercedes Benz."
But that wouldn't be the end of Mastro's association with this Wagner card. In 1991,
when Copeland decided to sell the card and the rest of his extensive memorabilia
collection, he placed it in an auction conducted by Sotheby's which hired Mastro to
run the sale.
That's where the Wagner got its first big break. Gretzky and former Los Angeles Kings
owner Bruce McNall purchased the card for $451,000.
"For me, it was an investment," Gretzky says. "At the time, all these
memorabilia things were increasing in value.
"Still," Gretzky adds, "my dad told me I was an idiot for paying
$450,000 for a baseball card."
Others, too, wondered how the price could skyrocket so quickly, especially after
broadcaster Keith Olbermann, himself a knowledgeable collector, reported that an expert
hired by McNall had told the former Kings owner that the card had been trimmed, presumably
after it left the factory and to enhance its value.
Mastro says he never trimmed it and doesn't believe anyone else did, either. "I
didn't have to do a thing to that card," Mastro says. "No one ever altered that
card. That card is as good as the day it was made."
By then, McNall was facing other problems. He and Gretzky barely had time to bask in
the glow of the publicity the sale generated when the federal government began
investigating McNall. In March 1997, McNall was sentenced to a 70-month prison sentence
for bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy. He was transferred to a halfway house 15 days
Gretzky bought out his partner and sold the card in 1995 for an estimated $500,000 to
Treat Entertainment, a sports card distributor. Treat and retail giant Wal-Mart, one of
its biggest customers, offered the Wagner as the grand prize in a nationwide raffle
entered by more than a half-million people. Baseball card sales at Wal-Mart stores
skyrocketed, says Treat manager of licensing John Appuhn.
The card, accompanied by no less a chaperone than Brooks Robinson, barnstormed the
country on a promotional tour and appeared on dozens of talk shows. Patricia Gibbs, a
Florida postal worker, won the card after her name was pulled from Wagner's old trunk on
Larry King Live. Gibbs could not afford the tax bill and immediately put the card up for
sale at Christie's.
Mastro was lurking. He bid for the card and was so sure that he would win it back that
he prepared a press release announcing his purchase. But Mastro lost to his old pal
Lifson, who was bidding on behalf of Mike Gidwitz, an affable Chicagoan known for his
extensive collection of original Mad magazine and Wacky Packages art.
"No one ever wants to separate themselves from the crown jewel of the hobby,"
Mastro says of his attempt to get the card back.
Gidwitz sold the card last year on an auction promoted by eBay and conducted by
MastroNet for $1.26 million to Southern California businessman Brian Seigel.
* * *
Alan Ray still smarts from what he calls "the deal of the century"
Mastro and Lifson's purchase of the Wagner and the other T206 cards for $25,000.
When Ray, a Gretzky fan, heard about the 1991 auction, he sent Sotheby's and McNall a
photo of the card taken before he sold it, along with a letter explaining that the card's
edges looked different than when he owned it.
The implication was that the card had been trimmed, a suggestion that has dogged it for
at least a decade. In fact, there are three persistent rumors that follow the Wagner
that it was cut from a strip decades after it was printed; that it was trimmed to
improve its appearance and increase its value; and that it is a reprint.
McNall and Gretzky had the card assessed by PSA Sports, a California firm that grades
baseball cards, and the company awarded the Wagner a PSA 8 rating near-mint to
mint. "We're guaranteeing it's never been altered," says president Steve Rocchi.
"The card has to stand on its own merits at some point in time," Mastro says.
"All the rumors about me sending it to a restoration firm or cutting it off a sheet
are ridiculous. There's nothing wrong with that card."
David Rudd, publisher of The Vintage Collector, a memorabilia newsletter, says cutting
the card from a strip probably would not decrease its value but trimming it would.
"If it was trimmed, that would not be a good thing to do," says Rudd.
"But nobody has ever offered any proof to me." Rudd says the reprint story has
no credibility among serious collectors and dealers.
Most in the industry believe the rumors don't matter, anyway. "That obviously has
not affected its value," says Mike Jasperson, senior vice president of thePit.com, a
White Plains firm that specializes in the sale of high-end sports cards.
* * *
Today, The Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner lies in a vault, out of sight once again, its
mysteries intact, maybe for another 75 years.
Seigel doesn't want to keep the card hidden away; he dreams of touring major league
ballparks with the Wagner, but he's struggling to find sponsors.
"Some day I'll sell it," he says. "I guess when I get tired of it. But
this was not a business move. I am a collector."
Gallery - T206 Honus Wagner
Discussion Forum -- The most expensive baseball card was once oversized and trimmed