The Mona Lisa of Baseball: Why the Honus Wagner Card Is Worth Millions
The T206 Honus Wagner is the most famous and most expensive trading card in the world. But what makes this piece of paper worth more than Jared Leto’s Hollywood Hills home?
Published Apr 5, 2022•Updated Apr 5, 2022
The T206 Honus Wagner is considered by many to be the Holy Grail of all trading cards. But why exactly does the Wagner card repeatedly set sales records at auction?
Maybe you think it’s a simple matter of the card being rare, or featuring a Hall of Famer. But there are scarcer cards out there featuring players just as acclaimed as Honus Wagner.
These cards first appeared in cigarette packets that cost a nickel and a dime, but today, they're selling for upwards of $6 million.
No, no. These simple answers don’t explain why even defective, discolored and ripped versions of the card can fetch half a million dollars and up. The full story is juicier than that. It’s a tale of corporate monopolies, athlete compensation, tobacco marketing to children, card counterfeiting, non-baseball sporting figures and a helluva lot more.
Read on for the legend of The Flying Dutchman’s famous card.
History of baseball cards and the T206 set
History of baseball cards and the T206 set
The origins of baseball are unclear, with experts saying that it evolved from older bat-and-ball games like rounders and stoolball. But as baseball grew both as a popular pastime and professional sport in the US during the 1860s, companies began to bundle trading cards with their products as a promotional tactic.
These cards typically featured images of actresses, athletes or other popular figures on the front with advertising captions on the back. In 1868, a New York sporting goods store called Peck and Snyder began to produce sports cards featuring baseball teams. The 1869 Peck & Snyder Cincinnati Red Stockings is considered by many to be the first true baseball card.
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The rise & fall of a tobacco empire
Soon enough tobacco manufacturers also started including baseball trading cards inside their cigarette packs, not only as an advertising technique but because these cards protected the cigarettes by stiffening the packaging.
After decades of fierce competition in the tobacco space, J.B. Duke founded The American Tobacco Company (ATC) through mergers and acquisitions of over 200 rival manufacturers, including Allen and Ginter, Goodwin & Company and Lucky Strike Company.
By the early 1900s, ATC was a billion-dollar company that controlled 80% of the tobacco market. And with this monopoly over the tobacco industry, ATC decided to remove baseball cards from their cigarette packs because they no longer needed to promote their products.
But you know what they say: The higher they rise, the harder they fall. In 1907, the United States Supreme Court indicted the American Tobacco Company in violation of The Sherman Antitrust Act. Four years later, ATC was ordered to dissolve.
Making the 1909-1911 T206 White Border
All of a sudden, ATC had to compete with other tobacco companies again. So naturally, they went back to inserting baseball cards into cigarette packs. And the first trading card they issued with their tobacco products was the 1909 T206 White Border set.
The set features multiple cards for the same player in different poses, uniforms, and with different teams, as well as reverse side advertisements for ATC’s 16 tobacco brands, including Piedmont, Sweet Caporal, Old Mill and Sovereign.
Here are some key stats for the T206 White Border set:
- Cards per set: 524
- Card size: 1-7/16 by 2-5/8 inches (3.7 cm × 6.7 cm)
- Value: 8-figures
- Hall of Famers: 76
- Major league players: 300+
- Minor league players: 100+
Often referred to as The Monster for its size, selection of stars, variations, rarity and the beauty of its color lithographs, The 1909-1911 T206 White Border set is the most valuable collection in the history of trading cards. Several cards in the T206 set are among the most expensive trading cards ever sold, including the Eddie Plank at $102K and the Joe Doyle N.Y. Natl. at $414K.
But the most famous, expensive and mouth-watering card in the set is…
You guessed it: the Honus Wagner.
Why is the Honus Wagner card so valuable?
Why is the Honus Wagner card so valuable?
It’s 2022, and avid collectors would hand over their life savings just to own a little piece of cardboard. Sounds ridiculous, I know. But is it, really? These cards first appeared in cigarette packets that cost a nickel and a dime, but today, they're selling for upwards of $6 million.
And these days, you don’t even have to own one of these iconic cards outright. You can simply buy fractional shares in sports cards with apps like Dibbs and still profit off their price appreciation.
So call me crazy, but I think these card collectors might just be onto something. In either case, here’s why the T206 Honus Wagner is the Mona Lisa of baseball cards.
For one, this card features one of the greatest baseball players of all time and an original Hall of Fame inductee. The Flying Dutchman was a triple threat: one of the fastest players in the league, a defensive beast, a standout batsman. Toward the end of his career, Wagner even managed the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Honus Wagner’s career statistics and highlights speak for themselves:
- Batting average: 0.329
- Hits: 3,430
- Home runs: 101
- Runs batted in: 1,732
- Stolen bases: 722
- World Series champion: 1x
- NL batting champion: 8x
- NL RBI leader: 5x
- NL stolen base leader: 5x
Another thing that the T206 Honus Wagner has going for it is that it’s a vintage pre-war baseball card, which makes it all the more difficult to find. Only a few hundred were ever produced and even fewer have survived to the present day.
There are a few theories surrounding the card’s limited run. The most widely accepted story, which is backed up by a 1912 issue of The Sporting News, is that Wagner prohibited the American Tobacco Company from using his image.
Nobody really knows what his motivations were, though. Some say he wanted more financial compensation for his image rights, while others think he rejected the deal because he didn’t want kids to buy cigarette packs for his baseball cards.
Whatever the case may be, most of the surviving Wagners have Sweet Caporal backs, while the most famous one (the Gretzky Wagner) has a Piedmont back.
Fun fact: As valuable as the Wagner is, it’s not even the rarest card in the T206 set. That honor belongs to the one-of-a-kind 1909-11 T206 Ty Cobb with Ty Cobb Tobacco Back (which sold for $894,250 in 2020).
Trading cards 101: Cards are graded on a scale of 1 to 10, where higher graded cards are more valuable than lower graded cards. So it stands to reason that you shouldn’t pay much for a card that’s ripped, discolored or worn out, right?
Well, Honus Wagner is one of the few cards that defy traditional grading standards. Not one, but multiple low-grade Wagners have managed to sell for anywhere from hundreds of thousands to over a million dollars. That just goes to show that T206 Honus Wagner cards are worth big bucks in any condition.
Provenance refers to a card’s history of ownership. Sometimes, collectors are willing to pay more for a card that had a famous owner. Case in point: the Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner, the most famous version of the card that used to be owned by ice hockey legend Wayne Gretsky and former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall.
A few notable moments in the T206 Honus Wagner’s sales history include:
- First listing: In 1993, the card was first listed in The American Card Catalog for $50 (about $1,000 today).
- The Jumbo Wagner’s highest sale: The Jumbo Wagner, a slightly larger version of the famous card, sold for $3.12 million in October 2016.
- World record sale: On August 16, 2021, a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card sold for $6.6 million.
As of today, there are less than 60 authenticated Wagner cards in the world. Some of them reside in museums, like The New York Public Library and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, while others are in private collections.
A few trims away from a $25,000 payday
In the late 90s, Alan Ray, an early owner of the Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner, accused major card dealer Bill Mastro of doctoring the card (i.e. trimming corners and edges). Many collectors initially dismissed Ray’s claims. But over a decade later, Mastro was sentenced to prison for doctoring the Honus Wagner card in order to sell it for $25,000.
Why do you think trimming a card would increase its value?