The Card wasn’t real!

Somehow I missed this a couple of weeks ago, but the former owner of the most valuable baseball card ever, a 1909 tobacco card picturing Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner, admitted to altering it sometime before he sold it. This card, sometimes called The Card, was owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky for a time in the 1990s, so The Card is sometimes also called the Gretzky Wagner.

The story of the T206–T206 being the designation that the founder of baseball card collecting, Jefferson Burdick, assigned to that particular set–Wagner is shrouded in mystery anyway, and the Gretzky Wagner, even more so. The Gretzky Wagner was even the subject of a book published in 2008, appropriately titled The Card.

Wagner objected to the use of his image on the card. Legend has it he didn’t want to promote smoking, but in 1909, anti-smoking campaigns weren’t exactly common, and Wagner chewed tobacco. In fact, 40 years later when he was a coach, he appeared on a 1949 Leaf card, which depicted him grabbing a chaw out of a tobacco bag. More likely, he wanted to be paid for appearing on the card. Fewer than 200 of the cards were issued, and 57 are believed to still exist. There are rarer cards out there, but none have the Wagner backstory, few involve players of Wagner’s stature, and none are part of a set that’s anywhere near as popular or well known as the T206 set.

Most of the surviving cards are rather beat-up. In 1909, after all, these weren’t prized collectibles. They were trinkets.

I don’t know about kids today, but every boy I knew in the 1980s knew that the T206 Wagner was the most valuable baseball card. And in 1983, they were worth $20,000. Most of us could quote that too. Some of those boys chewed tobacco, too, so when my dad tried to tell me Wagner was chewing gum on that 1949 card, I knew better. Why I had grade-school classmates who chewed tobacco is another story.

Then, in 1985, along came The Card. It was in better condition than all the others. Nobody knew exactly where it had been hiding out for 76 years. Alan Ray, the collector who sold it, said he got it from a relative. The buyer, Bill Mastro, paid Ray $25,000 for the card, but only if Ray would throw in a few more T206 cards from his collection, saying the card was off center and poorly cut. Ray said he felt bullied, but complied, due to money issues. Mastro turned around and sold the card–excuse me, The Card–in 1987 for $110,000, and never said anything then about it being off center and miscut. When he sold it in 1987, his tune had changed: It was the finest card he had ever seen. Ray later said Mastro altered The Card after purchasing it.

Mastro financed the purchase by selling a T206 Wagner in lesser condition to his financial backer for $25,000, telling him that he could easily sell it for $30,000 and turn a quick profit. Indeed, the legendary collector Barry Halper paid $30,000 for Mastro’s castoff Wagner a few weeks later.

The Card changes hands every few years now, and has been doing so since 1991. It’s encased in plastic now, likely never to come out, and was graded sloppily before being encased, which only added to the mystery. Some people question whether it’s real at all. I can’t speak to that, but when there are 57 examples and one is a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10, and only two of the others rate better than a 5, it sounds a little too good to be true.

Altering a baseball card is a big no-no–it’s normally the kiss of death when it comes to value. Now it’s not just speculation–the guy who took a pair of scissors to the edges admitted it. Some are speculating The Card will be the exception. Perhaps so. Provenance is worth something too, and this particular card has a lot of it.