The baseball crazy youngsters who pestered smokers and caused a major uproar in 1909 upon the release of the American Tobacco Company’s trading cards knew it.
Honus Wagner was a huge star but finding his picture was a pain in the Heinie.
Little did they know their desires had been trumped by the Pittsburgh Pirates star’s insistence on being left out of what would become known as the T206 set. Now one of the most important original T206 Wagners is going on the auction block. It’s part of a valuable group of items consigned to SCP Auctions by J. Ross Greene, a long-time collector from Georgia.
Fewer than 75 Wagner cards are believed to exist but what makes this one special is its chain of ownership. The card can almost certainly be traced back to the time when it was new. It’s also the first to have been featured in a newspaper story proclaiming its scarcity, an article that was published in 1930, just 21 years after those precious few made it into packs of cigarettes. Now graded PSA 1 (poor-fair), it could sell for $500,000 or more.
In November of 1930, Newark Evening News writer Fred J. Bendel wrote about his colleague, Willie Ratner, a boxing writer who became a collector in his youth, acquiring cards from the T205 and T206 sets, including Wagner. The newspaper feature on Ratner carries an illustration of some of the baseball greats Ratner’s collection including the Wagner with text indicating “Old Honus was the hardest” to get.
Eventually, Ratner sold the card to a fellow sports writer, Wirt Gammon, also a noted collector. In 1970, Bill Haber, a Topps employee bought the card from Gammon. Haber died unexpectedly in 1995 and the card was sold at auction through Pat Quinn’s Sports Collectors Store, a Chicago area shop, in March of 1996. The buyer remained a mystery—until now.
The Owner and the Auction
Greene, 76, is a financial consultant and author who purchased the card for nearly $48,500. It has remained in his collection since that time. The card will have its fifth owner when SCP’s catalog auction takes place next month.
“I originally started collecting cards in 1951 and did so through 1955,” Greene recalled to Sports Collectors Daily. “Then I went on to other pursuits. I started back up again when I bought a box of cards in 1970 from a friend who needed some money. The box he had was a mish-mash of baseball cards from ’51 Bowman up to ‘59 Topps and the preponderance of cards was from the late ‘50s. He wanted $500 because he was going back to school to become a preacher. I said, ‘Okay,’ and I gave him the $500. He didn’t know what they were worth and neither did I. Then I put them in my closet and didn’t touch them for years. When card collecting started coming back into the fray in 1990-91, I discovered that $500 had turned into about $10,000.
“One day I was looking through an SCD [Sports Collectors Digest] and saw this ad that had the Wagner card going up for sale. It was a phone auction. I said to myself, ‘This might be my only shot at getting a Wagner.’ All I knew was that the guy who had it [Bill Haber] passed away and now his wife was selling the card.
“I figured it might go for a price that I could afford. I really wanted to own a Wagner but I wasn’t going to put the kind of money into it that [Bruce] McNall and [Wayne] Gretzky had put into getting theirs [$451,000]. Here I was building a house, my daughter’s getting married, and my wife’s out hunting for furniture for the new house. I told my wife [Lynne] that I can either get a [Sherry] Magie, [Eddie] Plank or [Honus] Wagner card. She said, ‘Which one do you really want?’ And I said, ‘the Wagner.’ She said, ‘Go ahead.’
“So I called in and was told by Pat Quinn that the bidding was already at $37,500. He told me that the guy who placed the bid was sitting next to him. I bid $48,500 and the other guy dropped out. The next thing I know is he said, ‘You got it!’ He Fed Ex’ed me the card and I put it a sock drawer. It was March of 1996. It stayed in that drawer for 20 years. The only time it came out was when I hand-carried it to PSA and walked it through with Joe Orlando. That was in 1999. As far as I could tell, not that many people knew about it.”
The Decision to Sell
Greene says he’s enjoyed owning the Wagner card but after discussing matters of estate planning, the time seemed right to let someone else take possession.
“I was prompted first by the desire to protect my family from the often difficult process of selling inherited assets,” he said. “I have eight grandchildren and I couldn’t exactly cut the card up into eight pieces. It was also my belief that returning this card – which has been the focal point of the card collecting hobby for over a century – to its rightful place, in the public discourse, was of utmost importance. That’s why I enlisted SCP Auctions to handle the transfer of ownership.”
J. Ross Greene Collection
Greene also turned over several other items that will generate significant interest, including collections of cards from the early-to-mid-1950s he pieced together as an adult. His 1952 Bowman Large football set is ranked seventh on PSA’s Set Registry and he also consigned full sets of 1951 Bowman baseball and 1953 Topps as well as a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.
“That’s because my initial collecting years were 1951 to 1955 and then again when the ’65 Topps reprint set came out in the early ‘70s,” he recalled. “Around that time I went back to my home to get my original cards and I knew I had two shoeboxes full of ‘em. I didn’t use rubber bands, I didn’t put them in bicycle spokes and I never flipped them. When I got home I asked my mom where my cards were and she said, ‘Daddy threw them out.’ It was easily 10 or 12 years’ worth.”
That parental error earned a reprieve with his decision to make a bid on the T206 Wagner 21 years ago. Its value grew—then exploded. A ten fold increase in value would have been hard to predict, though.
“It’s probably a bit of a surprise but when you have prices go up based on scarcity, provenance and the history of such an iconic thing, nothing surprises me in terms of value anymore. It all comes down to how much somebody wants to spend on a Wagner. And there will never be another Wagner like this one.”
There is a tale behind many of the Wagner cards that have been sold and countless stories written about them. However, there will always be something special about the one that was first showcased to the public at large, even if the provenance wasn’t entirely known at the time Greene purchased it.
“It’s very important. When I learned of the history of the card, it really made it more iconic in my mind. And I viewed myself as a steward or a caretaker at that point,” he stated.
“I am honored to have been the fourth caretaker and protector of this iconic piece of Americana and the National Pastime. Willie Ratner, Wirt Gammon and Bill Haber were truly keepers of the flame of sports card collecting as each passed the Wagner baton, respectively. I am thrilled to be considered as part of the foursome and again pass it along. I hope the fortunate buyer cherishes their position as the latest steward of the Ratner/Gammon/Haber/Greene 1909-11 T206, otherwise known as ‘The Original Wagner’.”