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'The Wagner' Is in a League by Itself : Memorabilia: The 1909 Honus Wagner card has brought more money and more fame than any other.

July 07, 1991|VAN NIGHTINGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — To the sports memorabilia collector, it is the ultimate, the Grail, the Mona Lisa, the best there ever was, the best there ever will be.

It is a piece of layered cardboard, 1 1/2 inches wide by 2 1/2 inches deep, with printing on the back, a picture on the front and no intrinsic value.

"It" is a portrait of Honus Wagner, a premium given away with eight brands of cigarettes in 1909. It is the baseball card of all baseball cards, the one that has brought more money and has garnered the most fame outside the hobby.

Perhaps the finest copy of the 40 or 50 in existence, the one that King owner Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky paid $451,000 on March 22 in a Sotheby's auction, is on display, under armed guard, at the 12th National Sports Collectors Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. The convention's final day is today, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

As bits of cardboard go, this one gets more than its share of attention. One has to wonder why.

"That card has been advertised as the rarest, the most desirable," said Alan Rosen, a New Jersey dealer known as "Mr. Mint" because of the high quality of his wares. "It's been featured in all of our hobby publications and price guides, the Honus Wagner, the Holy Grail, the Sistine Chapel of baseball cards. And that's what's been drummed into people's heads.

"There are much rarer cards in the hobby," Rosen said. "But the Wagner and the '52 Mantle, those are the marquee names."

Wrote Bill Heitman in a 1980 pamphlet on that set of cards: "To the collector and non-collector, the Wagner is the symbol of baseball card collecting."

It has always been that way, ever since the hobby has been organized. There are numerous reasons, from the stature of the player to the scarcity of the card. Not to mention a palatable legend attached to it.

The modern fan might find it hard to believe, but in his day, John Peter Wagner was considered the best player the game had ever seen.

Known as "The Flying Dutchman," Honus Wagner led the National League in batting average eight times while playing for Pittsburgh. He batted .329 in a 21-year career that ended in 1917. He is generally considered the game's greatest shortstop.

But Wagner's position in baseball was measured less in statistics than in how he carried and inspired his team. He was a great clutch hitter, leading the National League in runs batted in four times.

In 1908, he carried Pittsburgh to within one game of the pennant, which was won by the Chicago Cubs in a playoff with the New York Giants. That pennant race and an equally tight one in the American League was key in establishing baseball as America's favorite game.

That's what tobacco baron James Buchanan Duke had in mind when his company began to use that interest to its advantage. Duke was owner of the American Tobacco Co., a trust that included 18 brands of cigarettes. To help promote the product, picture cards were included in each package of cigarettes.

After the 1908 season, American Tobacco produced a set of baseball cards. It ran for three years, with various additions to the set, making for a total of 523 cards. They included Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, and Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance.

One of those cards featured Wagner. But for some reason, it was almost immediately withdrawn from circulation. And therein lies the legend.

The popular version is that Wagner was a non-smoker and didn't wish to be involved in the promotion of the habit. Since it makes a good story, most people are willing to ignore the fact that he appeared in other tobacco sets, as well as in tobacco ads in periodicals and that he chewed tobacco; a card issued in 1948, when he was a Pirates' coach, shows him dipping into a pouch.

Wagner was a tough negotiator. He announced his retirement before the 1908 season, supposedly for health reasons, before accepting a raise to return. It's possible that he simply balked at not being paid for the use of his portrait.

Whatever the reason, the card all but disappeared from memory. When Jefferson Burdick, the Syracuse, N.Y., collector who put together the hobby's first catalogue, was collecting information about the set, he had to be sent a copy of the Wagner card as proof, by a collector named, coincidently, John Wagner.

In Burdick's 1960 American Card Catalogue, the Wagner was valued at $50; no other card was considered worth more than $10. In 1981, a copy sold for $25,000.

The card reportedly broke six figures in 1988. Soon after, Jim Copeland of Copeland Sporting Goods in San Luis Obispo pushed it to $140,000. By this past spring, Copeland was prepared to sell his extensive collection in an auction at Sotheby's of New York.

Given the softness of the market last winter, Mike Berkus wasn't sure what to make of the timing of Copeland's departure from the hobby.

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