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Wagner Card Hits Fiscal Home Run

December 14, 1989|RONALD L. SOBLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In case you haven't decided where to invest your next $100,000 or so--gold, the money market, stocks--you'll probably want to know that a baseball card recently sold for a record $115,000.

That's right. A single piece of cardboard displaying a picture of baseball superstar Honus Wagner.

The card, a simple head-and-shoulders shot of the late, great Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop, was auctioned to a Chicago collector who requested anonymity.

"It's not the Mona Lisa, it's just a piece of cardboard," said Joshua Evans, owner of the Pennsylvania sports memorabilia auction house that made the telephone sale (Lelands Art and Collectables, 4540 Hamilton Blvd., Allentown, Pa. 18103, telephone (215) 395-4662).

The $115,000 price tag for the Wagner card--which is 1 1/2-by-2 5/8 inches--"is a record for any sports memorabilia item," Evans said.

So what made the sale possible?

Evans, in a telephone interview, attributed the six-figure sale to an accelerating "love of baseball cards" among the nation's collectors and investors.

"The growth of (baseball) card collecting saved the (Wagner) cards" from extinction years ago, the 28-year-old Evans said. "The fact that there are about 50 (Wagner) cards still in existence is a testament to the zealousness of collectors."

Evans declined to identify the successful bidder, except to say that he is "in the financial services industry" in Chicago. There were two other bidders, he added, one from New York, the other from Los Angeles; both stopped bidding at the $110,000 level.

The Wagner card shows a somewhat pensive pose of "The Flying Dutchman," as he was called because of his speed, in a gray uniform against an orange background. The card was part of a promotional package issued between 1909 and 1911 by the Sweet Corporal Cigarette Co.

The card's catalogue designation is T206, which refers to a system developed in the 1940s by card-collecting guru Jefferson Burdick. The "T" designates all cards produced in the 20th Century that were tobacco premiums. The "206" is a number in a baseball card set.

The famous Wagner card has spawned two stories on how it got to be so valuable. Whichever is apocryphal, the bottom line is that Wagner--a Baseball Hall of Fame right-handed batter who played from 1900 through 1917--stopped production of the cards, thus limiting supply.

The first story is that Wagner was far ahead of the times, strongly objecting to the use of tobacco and, hence, the use of his picture as a premium to help sell tobacco products. Part of this is true. He did eschew tobacco.

But whether Wagner became enraged and declared that the promotion would ruin his reputation for clean living is a matter of conjecture. Clearly, baseball-card dealer Evans doesn't believe it.

What really upset the muscular shortstop, Evans says, was that the tobacco company never gave Wagner a dime for the promotion.

"He didn't feel it was right that people could make money off him and that he wouldn't be paid for it," he said.

To prove his point, Evans says there was a Honus Wagner cigar produced at the time he was playing for the Pirates. "He must have endorsed it," Evans believes.

But the puritanical image of Wagner that survives has added to the mythology of his baseball card, Evans says.

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