“The Card” hits bookstores, claiming what’s been whispered for years among serious collectors: the PSA 8 Honus Wagner card is the product of modern-day cutting.
The following is excerpted from The Card by Michael O’Keeffe, and Teri Thompson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
EXPRESSWAY TO FORTUNE
The tension was as thick as the steel-gray clouds that hung over the Long Island Expressway as the beat–up old green Honda sped along on a Sunday evening in 1985, past the car washes and the billboards hard by the highway and into Hicksville, a New York City suburb built on the edges of what were once the potato fields that stretched into the far reaches of Long Island.
Bill Mastro and Rob Lifson weren’t talking much as they drove into town from the Willow Grove card convention near Philadelphia to the doors of the collectibles shop in a dingy strip mall. The shop was closed to the public that day: Only Mastro and Lifson would be allowed in for a look at the treasure inside, and Lifson himself would barely get a glimpse, relegated to the front of the store while Mastro made the deal in the back.
What they found in the store that day would profoundly change both men’s lives, even as it transformed the sleepy hobby of baseball card collecting into a billion–dollar industry and turned an obsessive vintage card collector into its most powerful player. It would ruin a friendship that had endured for years, and it would cast dark shadows over the hobby they both loved. What they found in the store that day was The Card.
Jay Zimmerman was at the same convention in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, in 1985 when he got the call from his pal Bob Sevchuk, the owner of a sports collectibles store in Hicksville. Sevchuk could barely contain his excitement as he told Zimmerman about a regular customer who had come into the shop with a bounty of baseball cards. The man’s name was Alan Ray, and Ray was eager to sell his wares, which included an outstanding T206 Honus Wagner card. Ray also had another rare and valuable card—a T206 Eddie Plank—as well as fifty to seventy-five other high grade cards from the T206 series. This was like having a stranger walk into the local frame shop with a van Gogh, and Sevchuk knew that it was an opportunity for a big payday.
“Bob was selling it on consignment because he didn’t want to lay out the money himself,” Zimmerman said. “He asked me to approach people he knew who were into old cards.”
Zimmerman’s first stop at the show was Bill Mastro, then a thirty three byear–old vintage card connoisseur who had walked away from a career as a respiratory therapist just a few years earlier because he thought he could make more money selling cards and sports memorabilia. Mastro had been a fixture in the hobby since he was a teenager in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and he knew as much about old cards as anybody. Zimmerman told Mastro that Ray wanted $25,000 for a T206 Wagner card, an outrageous sum in those days even for the “Flying Dutchman.” Mastro didn’t flinch. “You don’t have to talk to anybody else,” Mastro said. “I own it.”
Mastro rounded up his old friend Lifson and told him he had a potential deal. They raced to Sevchuk’s Long Island store with Lifson behind the wheel. “I got to go because I had the money,” Lifson said. “I had no idea where we were going.”
Mastro and Lifson had been friends for decades, bonding over their common zeal for trading cards and baseball memorabilia as boys. At twenty–five, the shaggy–haired Lifson was eight years younger than Mastro, a prodigy in the card collecting hobby, a whiz kid who had begun dealing when he was ten years old. He and Mastro were buying, selling, and trading high end cards before they could even shave, and their early partnership would help make both men formidable figures in the world of sports collectibles, eventual owners of two of the most prestigious sports auction houses in the world, Robert Edward Auctions and Mastro Auctions.
When he was barely in junior high, Lifson would track down Mastro at his college dorm in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Lifson was obsessed with baseball cards and with having a business built on them, and Mastro was just one of the many collectors he would routinely call on a daily basis.
“The monthly phone bill at our house was a big thing,” Lifson said. “I’d call Bill all over the place. Someone would pick up the phone, and I’d say, ‘Where can I reach him?’ Bill has told a story for years about when I called and he’s at a bar playing pool. The bartender says, ‘Is there a Bill Mastro here?’” Of course, it was Lifson. “No one told me I couldn’t deal with adults,” Lifson said.
When they arrived at Sevchuk’s store that day, long before the wheels would come off their relationship, they found Sevchuk bursting with excitement. He whisked Mastro to the back of the store while Lifson waited up front examining the cards and collectibles in the display cases. “Bill instructed me to stay in front,” Lifson said, “and Bill was like my customer, so I did that.”
When Mastro returned with Sevchuk, the three of them discussed where the card had come from and how they might get others in similar condition from the same source. He showed Lifson the card briefly, then tucked it into a briefcase, locked the case, and they drove off. Mastro had seen millions of cards by then, but he’d never seen a card like this Wagner. It was as if the heavens had parted and a divine hand delivered the Holy Grail of trading cards to a strip mall in Hicksville, New York. “Everything about it gives the appearance of, ‘Holy Moses, this is too good to be true,’ ” Mastro would say years later.
It was a rare find, truly a one–of–a-kind piece, the sort of discovery most collectors only dream about. Mastro said it looked great for a 75 year–old piece of cardboard, with no creases, tears, or blemishes. Even better, the back featured an advertisement for Piedmont cigarettes. Although dozens of T206 Wagners are still in circulation, almost all feature ads for Sweet Caporals, another brand of cigarettes. Only a handful of T206 Wagners have Piedmont backs.
Mastro was eager to buy the card, but he’d been collecting for more than twenty years and he knew how to keep his cool in the heat of a deal. He refused to complete the transaction unless Ray tossed in the fifty to seventy–five other T206 cards he’d brought to the shop in a shoe box, including a rare and valuable T206 Eddie Plank. The cards appeared to have been sliced from a printer’s sheet—“you could almost cut yourself on the edges of some of the cards,” Ray would say in a 2001 interview—the Wagner had wavy edges and a red printer’s line at the top of the card, telling details that would not have escaped Mastro’s keen eye. Mastro finally told Ray that the Wagner card “was not cut right, but I’ll take it off your hands.”
“I had a money situation,” Ray said. “I had to sell the card.”
Sevchuk and Ray have always been secretive about how Ray obtained the T206 Wagner or any of the other cards they sold to Mastro on that Sunday on Long Island in 1985. During a series of interviews in 2001, Ray was strangely evasive whenever the question came up; he said he got the card from a relative and had to obtain permission before he could identify the man. Several weeks later he moved from mysterious to confrontational: Ray said he was considering writing a book about his experiences with Mastro and the card.
“If I give you everything I know about the card, where does that leave me?” he asked. Ray gave up what would become the world’s most famous and valuable baseball card with barely a peep, and he is now the forgotten man in the story of the Gretzky T206 Wagner. Mastro appeared to have only vague memories of the man who sold him the card that would lay the foundation for his memorabilia empire. When he talked about Ray, he seemed to regard him as little more than a hiccup, a minor irritation in his quest for the card.
More than twenty years later, some hobby insiders still believe that Mastro bought the card from Sevchuk Ray’s name rarely emerges in discussions about its history. Mastro has told many people that he bought the card from the family of a printer, and that, too, has become part of the lore surrounding the Gretzky T206 Wagner.
The most famous baseball card of all has earned plenty of attention over the 22 years since it entered the hobby. Not until now has it been the centerpiece of a book released through a major publisher.
Harper Collins is releasing “The Card” this week, the product of several years of investigative work by New York Daily News writers Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson.
The story won’t likely produce much new information for long time vintage card collectors who are already privy to it, but for those unfamiliar with the card’s history and other issues in the sports memorabilia realm, it may be an eye-opener.
It is widely believed the Wagner card was found as part of an uncut sheet at a Florida flea market during the early to mid-1980s. Several hobbyists with knowledge of the origin of the card claim it was cut from that sheet but contained tell-tale characteristics that later disappeared several years later when the card was encapsulated by PSA. It was authenticated and given the unprecendented NM-MT 8 grade that has helped push the card into the multi million dollar stratosphere. Unfortunately, none of those involved in the history of the card willingly admits to trimming it–either from the uncut sheet or later when the card was presented for grading. O’Keeffe and Thompson use several sources for their story but others involved in the issues presented refused to cooperate.
“The Card” traces the path of the Wagner from a small card shop in Hicksville, New York where it was purchased for $25,000 in 1985 by long-time collector Bill Mastro who later sold it to another collector for $110,000. From there, the card followed a path that included ownership by two wealthy businessmen, a Wal-Mart contest winner and a partnership between hockey great Wayne Gretzky and his former LA Kings boss Bruce McNall. It is now in the hands of an unnamed buyer in southern California.
O’Keeffe and Thompson have harsh words for what they term an “unregulated and often cutthroat industry” where restoration techniques, mostly undisclosed, have led to the rise in high grade vintage cards selling for tens of thousands of dollars through auction companies and private sales.
In addition to offering a background on history of baseball cards and the T206 set, the book also delves into the life of Wagner himself as well as the men who have owned the card and some of the larger finds of T206 cards. It also touches on the fight to bring more disclosure to the world of high-priced cards and memorabilia but leaves the reader wishing that juicy topic alone were addressed in a separate book.