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Brady Hill Plants His Flag atop the T206 Ty Cobb Mountain

PSACard.com (Jan 22, 2021)

One thing that makes the trading card hobby so interesting is the flexibility in which cards can be collected. Let's take the T206 set for example. A hobbyist might attempt to build a complete set of the tiny cardboard gems, which itself is no small feat. For those that cannot see themselves tackling such a large set and prefer to focus on something a bit smaller, there are countless T206-themed subsets one might find enticing. In fact, an entire section of the PSA Set Registry is dedicated to such subsets. Included in the listings are sets designed by league, team, player, back, image type and more.

Even discounting the "Big Four" Honus Wagner, Eddie Plank, the Sherry Magie error card and the Joe Doyle Nat'l variation card, a 520-card T206 base set provides plenty of challenges to most collectors. But with the manner in which the cards were printed and distributed, and the variety of advertisers on the backs, more esoteric subsets are not only possible, they are much appreciated. In fact, these mini collections provide considerable challenges to one's hobby knowledge, while testing dedication to the task and depth of pocketbook!

Brady Hill is a collector who loves a challenge. He has built a beautiful 1914 Cracker Jack set, a sharp 1933 Goudey set and is halfway finished with a high-grade 1952 Topps set. He describes his interest in baseball cards as the confluence of a passion for the game, an appreciation of history and the love of a great challenge. As such, it should come as no surprise that Hill is enamored with the T206 set.

"Taking into account front and back combinations, I have around 4,000 unique T206 cards," he said recently. "T206s are a huge collecting focus for me. If I have a Carolina Bright common in a PSA [GOOD] 2, I'm not going to necessarily upgrade it to a PSA [VG-EX] 4, but I'm also not going to sell it at any price because I don't have another one and there might only be four in existence."

The accumulation of 4,000 different 110-year-old cards is a stunning accomplishment in its own right, and one that might be better covered in a book than an article. We must narrow our sights a bit, so we will focus instead on a small fraction of the cards in Hill's T206 collection. In actuality, these 56 cards only account for four spots on a standard T206 checklist. But his appreciation of their slight differences simultaneously illustrates the diversity inherent in this set and the fascination Brady Hill has with it.

Ty Cobb issues might be the most desirable of the standard T206 cards. A legend in his own time and for more than a century after, Cobb has four basic card fronts in the T206 set. They are known in hobby circles as Red Portrait, Green Portrait, Bat on Shoulder and Bat off Shoulder. A glance at the PSA Population Report (which is subject to change as new cards are submitted for grading and older cards are reholdered) reveals that the Green Portrait is the rarest of the quartet and is followed in order by the Bat on Shoulder, Bat off Shoulder and Red Portrait. The Red Portrait can be found in a variety of hues from deep crimson to nearly orange, but all in fact are the same card.

Though they might come with a considerable price tag, four standard Cobb cards would not present a terrible challenge to hobbyists at Hill's level. However, when the myriad back varieties come into play, the number of cards increases significantly. The rarity of particular front/back combinations is not something for the faint of heart.

"Of all the players featured on T206 cards, Ty Cobb might be the one who has the most front/back combinations," said Hill. "If not, he is certainly close."

Back Varieties

The T206 set was issued primarily as a means of advertising cigarettes. Released one card per pack in 16 different brands of cigarettes and loose tobacco products, the trading cards feature a ballplayer image on the front and a cigarette advertisement on the back. The lone exception is the Polar Bear brand, which instead was a pipe tobacco. Of the 16 brands, many could be found with multiple back designs or designations. Therefore, T206 backs are differentiated either by the number of cards known to have been distributed by a particular brand, such as red Sovereign 350; the card back's color, such as Lenox Brown; or characteristics such as Sweet Caporal 350-460 factory 42 scroll. The result is that roughly 40 different backs can be found within the T206 set. Not every card front can be found with all 40 backs, but there was enough crossover to keep even the most detail-oriented collectors busy more than a century after the cards' release.

"Every back brand of T206 cards had a different subset of players," Hill said."The theories behind why that is the case could take hours to discuss. For example, Uzit has one option in Ty Cobb, and that is the Off Shoulder. There are no Uzit Red Portrait, Green Portrait or On Shoulder cards. Old Mill is another interesting one because all four Ty Cobb cards can be found with Old Mill backs. However, the Green Portrait and the On Shoulder are incredibly rare. So, each different back has its own story and set of intricacies. It's really a fascinating subject, and as much as I have studied and collected these cards, there are many more collectors who are far more knowledgeable than myself."

As mentioned previously, Ty Cobb has four different card fronts in the T206 set which can each be found with a variety of backs. The result is that Ty Cobb cards can be found with 56 different front/back combinations. After roughly a decade, Brady Hill has now assembled them all and he is the first collector on the PSA Set Registry to accomplish the feat.

The Brady Hill Collection

"I first thought of working on a Ty Cobb front/back collection nine or 10 years ago but didn't immediately act on it," he said. "At one point I had probably 70 Ty Cobbs. I wasn’t collecting them with a real purpose, just buying and selling at that point. But I couldn't get enough of them. Then one day I woke up and remembered my earlier thought about collecting Cobb front/back combinations. I took a look at what I already had and then made the decision to try and complete the collection. For the next few years, I just kept acquiring new ones that I would find and start adding them to the group. Pretty soon other collectors and dealers learned of my project and would come to me when they found something new."

Hill's thought to collect all the Cobb combinations was not unique and others had attempted the challenge before he did. Though no one had reached completion, a listing on the PSA Set Registry already existed when Hill began to tackle the project.

"When I first decided that I was going to pursue this collection, I took a look on the PSA Set Registry and saw all of the cards needed to complete the set," he added. “There are rumors that there are a couple of other possibilities, though I don't believe that any examples have yet been discovered. At this point the collection is complete at 56 cards, and to my knowledge, I am the first person to complete the set."

The Rarities

Generally speaking, T206 Ty Cobb cards are not particularly rare. A quick look at the PSA Population Report shows that PSA has graded more than 5,100 examples to date. However, a deeper study of the individual front/back combinations is more revealing and illustrates the difficulty in assembling a complete Cobb collection.

The Red Portrait Ty Cobb with Ty Cobb back is an iconic card in the hobby. It made headlines a few years back when a group of seven was uncovered by a family cleaning out their late grandfather's home. The cards were sent to PSA for grading. The collection was dubbed "The Lucky 7 Find" and the cards sold quite well at auction. With just 19 examples on the Pop Report, this is a difficult card for even the most dedicated collectors to obtain.

"The Ty Cobb/Ty Cobb back is iconic. It is a red portrait and there are a number of collectors in the hobby who only acquire red portrait Cobb cards," said Hill, who owns a PSA GOOD+ 2.5 example. "The portraits in general are more popular than the on-and-off shoulder cards."

However, there are many different Ty Cobb combinations that according to the PSA Population Report are rarer than the Cobb back. In fact, 16 different varieties have a population consisting of 10-or-fewer examples. Leading this group is the Bat Off Shoulder with Lenox Brown back. PSA has only graded a single example of this card. It is a PSA 2 that is one of the crown jewels in Brady Hill's collection.

"Lenox Brown cards are incredibly rare. I'm not sure that there are 100 total of all known players in the PSA Pop Report, and the Cobb in my collection is the only known example of that card," he said.

Odd as it may seem, Hill's estimation of the Lenox Browns is actually ridiculously high. To date PSA has graded more than a quarter-million T206 cards. Only 23 of those cards have had Lenox Brown backs. There are conflicting theories in the hobby as to whether Lenox backs were intentionally printed in brown, or perhaps they are just black examples that for some reason did not print as darkly as others. Whatever the reason, the cards are extremely rare.

To the educated T206 collector, these variances in color and design are extremely important and can assist in telling how and where a particular card was printed. Yet to the uninformed hobbyist, they appear no different than hundreds of other examples. A case in point is the final card Hill needed for his collection, an Off Shoulder Sweet Caporal 350/25 back. The card is rarer than the Cobb back with only a dozen listed in the Pop Report. However, Hill did not have to spend a fortune to obtain his copy and close the book on this historic collection.

"The last card that I needed to complete my collection was a $2,500 eBay purchase," he recalled, the joy still evident in his voice. "That is one of the least expensive cards in the collection and yet it is the one that eluded me the longest. I had a buddy that texted me, 'Oh my gosh, I found it! A Sweet Caporal Off Shoulder 350/25!!' That doesn't mean much to most people, but I got that text and was like, 'Oh yeah, baby!!'"

Next on the Horizon

Now that Brady Hill has summitted Mt. Cobb and enjoyed the view at the top, one must ask, "what comes next?" Perhaps another player set? A completely new set altogether? Or stick with Cobb and attempt to upgrade individual cards?

Hill reflected for a moment before replying. "The master T206 set is something that will likely never end for me. I don't need a lot more, but the ones I need very rarely come up for sale. I will continue to pick them up as I can and add them to my collection. T206s are like little pieces of artwork. The colors are just amazing, and to think that they were printed more than 100 years ago and still look like they do is somewhat mind-boggling. They're just awesome."

Awesome indeed. And with the variety provided by this single set, it is easy to understand why it might be all that some collectors need.

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