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Baseball legend is still setting records

Card of Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner sells again, this time for an unprecedented $2.35 million.

February 28, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Call it the first home run of 2007.

Brian Seigel knocked one out of the park Tuesday by selling the world's most famous baseball card for a record $2.35 million -- nearly doubling the price he paid for it six years ago.

The sale of the 1909 Honus Wagner card to an unnamed Orange County businessman was revealed in a ceremony at Dodger Stadium. Its buyer, however, remained a mystery.

Seigel didn't even have to make a pitch to sell the mint-condition slice of baseball history.

"The guy just called me out of the blue and offered to buy it," said Seigel, who heads an asset management company and lives in Las Vegas. "I wasn't planning on selling it."

He described the buyer as a businessman who lived six miles from him when Seigel lived in Tustin.

He speculated that the buyer requested anonymity because he doesn't want his business clients to know that he spent more than $2 million for a 98-year-old piece of cardboard that measures 1 1/8 inches by 2 5/8 inches.

The card -- once owned by Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall, the former Kings owner, and later by Wal-Mart -- is encased in Lucite and mounted in a leather-covered book-like box. It depicts the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop sitting stiffly in front of a bright orange background.

The card was displayed for reporters at the Stadium Club. As an armed guard watched from a few steps away, executives of a sports memorabilia auction company who acquired a small share of the card from the new owner told of hopes to display it at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

"It's long been recognized as the most iconic and highly coveted object in the field of sports memorabilia," said Dan Imler, managing director of SPC Auctions Inc. of Mission Viejo. The card has changed hands four times in the last 10 years, doubling in value on three of those occasions, he said.

It is one of about 50 known Honus Wagner cards and is in the most pristine condition of any of them, Imler said.

SPC President David Kohler, who described it as "the Mona Lisa of baseball cards," said it has a colorful history -- including its brief ownership by Wal-Mart.

The huge retailer acquired it to give away in a promotional drawing in the mid-1990s as part of a marketing campaign for a line of baseball cards it was selling. The winner, a Florida postal worker, could not afford to pay the taxes on it, however, and ended up selling it at auction in the mid-1990s for $640,000, Kohler said.

It was acquired by collector Michael Gidwitz, described by Seigel as a Chicago businessman. Seigel acquired it at auction in mid-2000, paying $1,265,000, he said.

Seigel mostly kept it in a vault at a Santa Ana sports memorabilia grading company, Professional Sports Authenticator. But it was frequently shown in public, such as at a 2003 cancer fund-raiser at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, and at collector shows.

A 1983 graduate of Cal State Fullerton, Seigel twice took the card to baseball games there.

"It was Little League day and kids and others filed through to look at it for all nine innings," said Seigel, 46. "They were blown away. I took it to a number of elementary schools, along with Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle cards. I did a slide show about baseball card collecting.

"Its previous owner never displayed it. It was just kept locked up. I wanted it to be seen and appreciated. I wanted to get fun from the card."

The auction company's Imler said the high value of the Honus Wagner card comes from its limited production between 1909 and 1911. The cards were inserted in packs of cigarettes -- in this case the long-defunct American Tobacco Co.'s Piedmont brand.

But Wagner objected to his picture being used to promote tobacco and ordered it removed from Piedmont and a companion cigarette brand, Sweet Caporal, Imler said.

"Honus Wagner was pretty vehemently opposed to smoking. That's well-known," said Mark Roesler, who heads Indianapolis-based CMG Worldwide, which represents the Wagner estate and Wagner's granddaughter, who lives in Florida.

There is no dispute that the Wagner card is authentic, said baseball card expert Mike Berkus, a sports radio show host and director of the National Sports Collectors Convention. But the anti-tobacco claim could be questionable. Some experts have suggested that Wagner simply felt cigarettes were too feminine and did not want to be associated with them.

A 1940s Leaf Candy Co. baseball card pictured Wagner with a hunk of chewing tobacco in his mouth that was so huge "that his head was round," said Berkus, of Villa Park. "He was still alive at the time. And he didn't object to that card."

Berkus speculated that as few as 25 or 30 Honus Wagner cards still exist. Even the most tattered is probably worth as much as $150,000, he said.

Wagner, a baseball Hall of Fame member who had a lifetime batting average of .327, is generally considered one of baseball's greatest players. He died in 1955 at 81.

Pressed as to the identity of the new main owner of the card, the auction company's Kohler jokingly pointed to the armed guard, off-duty Los Angeles Police detective Lt. Michael Florio.

"Actually, he's the anonymous buyer," Kohler said.

Florio cracked a giant smile. But he didn't take his eyes off the $2.35-million prize.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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