A baseball card sold for $3.75 million in May 2021. A similar card sold for $6.6 million in August 2021. But most people don’t know what makes it so valuable. Here’s the wild story of Honus Wagner and the American Tobacco Company.
First, Honus was a stud:
- 21 years in the MLB (1897-1917)
- 8x batting champion
- Hall of Famer
- MLB All-Century Team
But that’s only part of what makes his card worth $3.75 million.
In the early 1900s, tobacco companies used baseball cards to market cigarettes to kids. Honus, the biggest star of his day, was an obvious choice for cover athlete.
The American Tobacco Company (ATC) paid a sportswriter $10 to secure Wagner’s permission. Instead, he came back with this letter:
“Dear John, I don’t want my picture in cigarettes, but I don’t want you to lose the $10. So I’m enclosing my check for that sum.”
The ATC complied for a while… but then used Wagner’s card in the now famous T206 collection - without his permission.
370,000,000 total cards were printed as part of the T206 set. But Wagner immediately demanded the ATC stop production of his.
Only 60-200 of the famous Honus Wagner card were printed - that’s a tiny .00005% of the collection. Now, the question becomes: why didn’t Honus want his card printed?
Two theories have emerged:
- He wanted more money in exchange for using his name and image.
- He had no interest using his name and image to market cigarettes to kids.
Here, people disagree. At the time, most players got nothing at all for their photo rights. Wagner, known for his negotiating tact, knew his value. He would’ve expected far more than $0.
Legend has it Honus opposed the use of tobacco. But, in 1916, he said this: “I’ve noticed where a player starts to quit hitting, it shortens his career a good deal quicker than tobacco.” Plus, he already let his favorite cigar brands use his image.
My take? The ‘for the kids’ theory has added to Wagner’s legend, but the answer has more to do with money. Either way, Wagner’s T206 card was massively “short printed.”
Recently, the T206 Honus Wagner has skyrocketed in value:
- 1933: sold for $50
- 1985: sold for $25,000
- 2011: sold for $188,000
- 2021: sold for $3.75 million at Goldin Auctions
The card has been owned by Wayne Gretzky and Charlie Sheen.
Card condition is graded on a 1-10 scale. A PSA 1 is a Poor rating, while a PSA 10 is a Gem. The crazy part? The $3.75 million Honus Wagner was a PSA 2 (Good).
Here’s my favorite Honus story: In a game at the end of his career, he whiffed on a curveball from a rookie pitcher. A teammate says, “Watch this.” The rookie throws the same pitch. Honus hits a triple off the outfield wall at the age of 38.