Last Updated on November 21, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
In baseball card circles, you sometimes hear about the “Big Three.” The Big Three aren’t necessarily the rarest baseball cards in existence, but they are exceedingly rare and they are part of extremely popular sets. This increases demand, since set collectors can’t have complete sets without these. There just aren’t enough of the Big Three to go around.
In addition, each of the Big Three have a great story behind them, often shrouded in some mystery.
Rarest baseball cards: What it takes to be Big Three
Mystique is everything. Case point is the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. It’s one of the most valuable cards in the hobby, though it’s not rare by Big Three standards. But Mantle is incredibly popular and so is the 1952 Topps set.
The 1909-1911 American Tobacco Company T-206 set and 1933 Goudey sets are as historically important and popular with collectors as the 1952 Topps set. Being part of a landmark set, being exceedingly rare, being a Hall of Famer, and having a great story, or better yet, a mystery around the card really elevates the value.
The Mantle card misses the mark due to rarity. It even has a great story: Topps had a large amount of unsold 1952 inventory for several years. Eventually it dumped the unsold inventory, including a large number of Mantle cards, in the Atlantic Ocean. The Mantle card is scarce by 1952 Topps standards, but you can go on Ebay and find one. You might not find the exact condition you want and you may have to overpay a bit, but if you have money, you can have a Mantle in your hands next week.
When a Big Three card changes hands, it often doesn’t happen on Ebay. It also doesn’t happen every year. If a billionaire like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet decided to acquire one of those Big Three cards, it would take some time, and possibly some effort, to acquire one.
These cards, generally speaking, have been relatively bubble-proof and recession-proof. Most people, of course, have to find other cards for investment options.
T-206 Honus Wagner
The legendary T-206 Honus Wagner is the most valuable baseball card in the hobby. Honus Wagner was a star shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is one of the best players of his era, and perhaps one of the 10 greatest players ever. When a Wagner card sells today, it frequently tops seven figures.
The American Tobacco Company shipped the T-206 “white border” set from 1909 to 1911 in its 16 different brands of cigarettes. T-206 is one of the most popular baseball card sets to collect. Its design is simple, colorful, and attractive, and the 524 cards in the set provide a formidable challenge even for advanced collectors. The scarcity of Wagner and Eddie Plank mean only a few dozen complete T-206 sets can ever exist.
The Wagner card shipped ever so briefly in packages of Sweet Caporal and Piedmont cigarettes. The Piedmont-backed Wagner is much more rare.
How many Honus Wagner cards are left? Between PSA and SGC, they have graded and authenticated a total of 44 examples. I’ve seen estimates as low as 50 and as high as 100, total in existence. Fewer than 200 were ever printed. The reason why is controversial. There are about four theories surrounding this.
Opposition to smoking
Many stories about Wagner portray him as anti-smoking. But he did smoke cigars and chew tobacco, and did allow his name and likeness to appear on a brand of cigar. According to his biographies, he chewed a lot of tobacco. His 1948 Leaf card, issued when he was coaching with the Pittsburgh Pirates, even shows him with a big wad of chewing tobacco. I think someone at Leaf knew the T-206 story and decided to be funny.
Opposition to promoting cigarettes with kids
Another theory is that Wagner simply didn’t want kids buying cigarettes in order to get his card. Baseball cards quickly became popular with kids at the turn of the century, even though they initially came with products for adults. Wagner may have been fine with smoking but still not want kids to start young. Most of Wagner’s biographies lean toward this theory, and that’s the story his granddaughter told. A story printed in the October 24, 1912 edition of The Sporting News–yes, only 2-3 years after the card appeared–stated he didn’t want his card sold with cigarettes, but didn’t elaborate as to why.
Another theory surrounding the Wagner card is the image itself. The same likeness of Wagner appeared on other baseball cards of the time, so it’s possible the artist forced the American Tobacco Company to withdraw the card. The problem with this theory: Carl Hoerner took the photo that became the card image and he never mentioned doing this, while Wagner did say he objected to being on a cigarette card.
A final theory is that Wagner wanted more money than the $10 that American Tobacco Company was willing to pay. Compensation to the players appearing on cards was a problem well into the 1960s, affecting many other star players, including Ted Williams and Maury Wills. But the book Honus Wagner: The Life of Baseball’s “Flying Dutchman” says Wagner paid John Gruber, the Pirates employee tasked to get his permission, $10 because he didn’t want him to lose out. That doesn’t make it sound like Wagner cared about the money.
Modern controversy around the T-206 Wagner
In the mid 1980s, a card dealer named Bill Mastro acquired a Wagner card which he then turned around and sold for over $100,000 in 1987. In 1991, hockey great Wayne Gretzky bought the card for $451,000. Mastro admitted in 2013 he altered the card. There is another example of a Wagner card that, if it received the same treatment, would grade higher. That latter card sold in 2016 for over $3 million. This card is known as the “Jumbo Wagner” because it was originally miscut oversized. If altered, it could grade about three grades higher than it does.
The controversial Gretzky Wagner last changed hands in 2007, when Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick purchased it. He paid $2.8 million. Some people believe the controversy will diminish the Gretzky Wagner’s value. Others believe it has the opposite effect. Mystique is mystique.
The uncut strip
A printer’s proof consisting of an uncut strip of T-206 cards, including Wagner, Mordecai Brown, Frank Bowermann, Cy Young, and Johnny Kling surfaced decades ago. The strip once belonged to Wagner himself. In the mid 1970s, the owners of Wagner’s old house discovered many of his personal effects, including letters and uniforms, in the attic. They found this strip of cards in the pants pocket of one of his uniforms.
Famed New York City-area collector Barry Halper purchased this strip in 1982 for $17,000 and owned it until 1999.
T-206 Eddie Plank
The T-206 Eddie Plank card is nearly as rare as the Wagner. Eddie Plank was a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and a key part of the Athletics’ first dynasty under manager-owner Connie Mack from 1909-1914. He was the first left-handed pitcher inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Plank cards are worth less than Wagner, but still reach six figures when they sell. At one time it was the second most valuable card in the whole hobby, but today there are Ruth and Mantle cards that can exceed it.
About 75-100 examples of the T-206 Eddie Plank card exist. The theories are similar to Wagner. The difference is Wagner actually talked about it some. Plank died in 1926 at the age of 50, several years before Jefferson Burdick started cataloging cards. It’s entirely possible nobody ever asked Plank about that tobacco card.
Be careful with this card. The 1909 Philadelphia Caramel card of Plank closely resembles his T-206 card, with the same image but a green background. Don’t mistake this card for a T-206 and pay a T-206 price for it. Also be aware of Plank’s Monarch Corona card, which resembles a T-206 but was printed in the wrong century, in 2011.
Broken printing plate
The theory I always heard growing up was that the printing plate for the Plank card was either poor quality or broke early in production. But we know the American Tobacco Company produced this card in both 1909 and 1910. That points away from a broken printing plate. The quality problem holds more water, as misprinted Plank cards do exist. The American Tobacco Company may have destroyed most of the low quality cards and stopped using the plate at some point in 1910 rather than replacing it.
Since the cards were printed in sheets, a broken printing plate would have affected multiple cards. A low-quality plate therefore makes more sense. The other cards may have been fine but Plank’s cards turned out inconsistent.
Opposition to smoking
Eddie Plank led a clean life, neither drinking nor smoking. It’s highly likely he didn’t want to promote tobacco. He appeared in other non-tobacco sets from the same time period.
Another theory surrounding the Plank card is the image itself. Like Wagner, the same likeness of Plank appeared on other baseball cards of the time. So it’s possible the artist forced the American Tobacco Company to withdraw the card.
A final theory is that Plank wanted more money than the American Tobacco Company would pay. Plank was one of the players who broke up the A’s dynasty by signing with the upstart Federal League, so this theory holds some water.
1933 Goudey Napoleon Lajoie
In 1933, Goudey issued a 240-card set that it sold with bubble gum. One of the cards was Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, but unlike the T-206 cards, there’s no mystery surrounding why this card is rare. We know this story.
The 1933 Goudey set is a landmark. It has the an attractive design and a large number of Hall of Famers to chase, making it perfect for high-end collectors.
1933 Goudey Lajoie scarcity
To promote sales, Goudey omitted card 106. Young collectors spent their pennies chasing a card that didn’t exist. Printing one card in a set in very limited quantities was a common practice at the time, but omitting a card altogether was something new.
Some kids (or perhaps parents) wrote in to Goudey to complain, as this was borderline fraudulent.
So in 1934, Goudey printed a special card #106 featuring retired Cleveland superstar Nap Lajoie and mailed it to the people who complained. Existing Lajoie cards often have paper clip impressions or staple marks due to being mailed and attached to a letter.
How many 1933 Goudey Lajoie cards exist today
About 120 1933 Goudey Lajoie cards exist today. Being part of another landmark, popular set drives its value. Still, it hasn’t kept pace with its T-206 counterparts. You can pick up a Lajoie for five figures, which generally isn’t possible with Plank or Wagner. In 1983 when I became interested in cards, Lajoie was the third most valuable card in the hobby, and Plank had only recently overtaken it. Other less-rare cards such as the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle eclipsed it in value in recent years. But the 1933 Goudey Lajoie still retains a combination of notoriety, scarcity, and value only the T-206 Wagner and Plank cards can exceed.
The 1933 Goudey Lajoie is still a great card. It just doesn’t have quite as much controversy or mystery behind it as the T-206 cards, and it’s not quite as scarce. There’s a video on Youtube of a collector who strongly implies he owns three of them.
Rarer cards than the Big Three
There are a dozen or perhaps more cards rarer still than the Big Three, but they don’t have quite the mystique, because they appeared in obscure sets. The Big Three came from popular, attractive, historically significant and well-known sets that eluded collectors for decades.
The most noteworthy scarce non-Big Three card is the 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth. Its value exceeds that of Lajoie and Plank and may someday overtake Wagner, by virtue of being Ruth’s rookie card. But it is far more obscure. Only about 10 of these cards exist, and collectors outside of Baltimore didn’t even know about it until the late 1980s. Being from an obscure set that few people know about drags this card’s value down. Even people who aren’t baseball fans know about the T-206 Wagner. They probably can’t remember the T-206 designation. But they know about this tobacco card from around 1910 of a guy named Wagner with a funny first name that’s worth crazy amounts of money. That’s mystique.
With Ruth, it makes sense that he would have cards older than his 1933 Goudey cards, given that he retired in 1935. But not everyone can name one.
There are several other Ruth cards from the 1920s that are more scarce than Wagner, as well as cards of lesser-known players. But all come from obscure sets Without a large following from set collectors, their value stays lower. Notoriety plays a big part in value, so for that reason, only the 1914 Baltimore News Ruth reaches Big Three heights in value.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.