Let’s play Jeopardy. The answer: This Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop is the subject of the most valuable baseball card ever made, and one of the rarest. The question, of course, is: Who is Honus Wagner?
But there was more to Wagner than just that baseball card, though that baseball card is a story that captivated generations.
John Peter Wagner generally played under the name Honus Wagner. I’ve heard his name pronounced both with a long “o” and a short “o.” Wagner played the first three seasons of his career with the Louisville Colonels of the National League. After the 1899 season, the Louisville owner, Barney Dreyfuss, acquired controlling interest in the Pirates. He took 14 players, including Wagner, with him to Pittsburgh. The National League dissolved the Louisville team in contraction. Wagner played the rest of his career for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Honus Wagner the player
Wagner played 20 seasons in the National League, collecting 3,428 hits and a career batting average of .328. By modern statistical analysis, he was the greatest shortstop to ever play the game, and it’s not close. Alex Rodriguez retired 14 WAR shy of Wagner. According to WAR, he’s the seventh greatest player ever, ahead of Stan Musial and behind Tris Speaker.
Playing in the deadball era, Honus Wagner didn’t hit for much power by modern standards. But he hit for high average, had good speed on the bases, and played good defense. Early in his career he played all over the field. But by 1904, he settled in at shortstop.
There is an apocryphal story that in the 1909 World Series, Ty Cobb reached first base and bragged to Wagner that he was going to steal second and spike him in the process. Wagner placed a rough tag on his face, knocking Cobb out. Cobb denied the story in his autobiography, and there was no play in the 1909 World Series where Wagner tagged out Cobb in a caught stealing.
Wagner retired in 1917, at the age of 43. In 1936, he was one of the first five players inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving the same number of votes as Babe Ruth.
In retirement, Wagner returned to the Pirates as a coach for 39 years, including serving as hitting instructor from 1933 to 1952. On April 30, 1955, about seven months before he died, the Pirates honored Wagner with a statue in front of Forbes Field. Although frail, Wagner was able to attend the ceremony. The Pirates retired his number 33 in 1956, the year after he died.
There may be a handful of people still alive who saw Honus Wagner play near the end of his career, but that number is dwindling fast. Wagner retired 100 years ago, and not many people live past 100. Today people remember him for a crazy-valuable tobacco card.
In 1909, the American Tobacco Company issued a set of (initially) 150 baseball cards, including Wagner. The cards measured 1 7/16 by 2 5/8 inches and were printed on thick, stiff cardboard. They served the dual purpose of helping to stiffen the cigarette package, and provide extra incentive to buy that brand of cigarettes.
Wagner chewed tobacco and smoked cigars, but did not want his picture given away with cigarettes. That story appeared in The Sporting News as early as 1912. A few of the cards made it into circulation. But Wagner forced ATC to remove the card from the market. Exactly why Wagner, a heavy tobacco user, objected to cigarettes is unclear. Most people believe he didn’t want kids buying cigarettes to get his baseball card. In 1909, baseball cards also came with other products, and Wagner was in all of those sets.
Pioneering card collector Jefferson Burdick designated this American Tobacco Company set T-206. An estimated 60-80 T-206 Wagner cards survive today. The worst-condition example, where nearly half the card is missing, sells for tens of thousands of dollars when it changes hands. No truly mint condition examples of the Wagner exist. But the best examples of the T-206 Wagner sell for millions of dollars when they change hands.The T-206 Wagner is the biggest of the hobby’s Big Three cards.
Another Wagner card
In 1948, when Wagner was nearing the end of his second career as the Pirates’ hitting coach, Leaf included him in its baseball card set. Someone at Leaf must have know the story of the T-206 card and had a sense of humor, because they used a photo of Wagner with a package of chewing tobacco, about to put a large chaw in his mouth.
The 1948 Leaf Wagner is massively popular as a conversation piece, but unlike the T-206 Wagner, people of somewhat ordinary means can afford one if they want one. The last one I saw in person had an asking price of $200. If you’re willing to settle for a beat-up one, you can get one for well under $100.
Honus Wagner the promoter
Besides appearing on baseball cards and his own brand of cigars, Honus Wagner lent his name to Louisville Slugger. Wagner became the first player-branded bat. Later in life, Wagner also operated his own sporting goods company. A store bearing his name survived in Pittsburgh until 2011. Wagner was a pioneer at product endorsement.
Wagner wasn’t just about the money. When the American League formed, the Chicago White Sox offered Wagner $20,000 a year to defect, about double what the Pirates paid him. But he stayed with the Pirates.
Honus Wagner’s death
Honus Wagner died December 6, 1955 at the age of 81. While alive he said he heard tobacco isn’t good for you, but he figured it hadn’t shortened his life or career by much. He may have been right.
About two decades later, the then-owner of what had been Wagner’s house at 605 Beechwood Avenue made a discovery. In the attic, he found many of Wagner’s personal effects, including letters and a number of uniforms. In the pocket of one of the uniforms, he found a folded-up strip of baseball cards. It was a printer’s proof sheet from the American Tobacco Company. In the middle of the sheet was the ultra-rare T-206 Wagner that he had forced them to remove from the market.