Ghost Of Honus

If you ever collected baseball cards, there are a few you desire more than most. Certainly at the top of your list is the 1952 Topps #311, Mickey Mantle, rookie card from that particular baseball card company. From that same series, #407, Eddie Mathews’ rookie card is also a desirable piece of cardboard. The 1954 Bowman #66A, Ted Williams, is an important card. But after you get past the modern era, there is one that is called the ‘Holy Grail’ of baseball cards…the T-206 Honus Wagner card. Recently a graded (PSA 5 tobacco card)  marked in excellent condition sold for $2.1 million.

Baseball card collecting has long been called the penny stock market. With the latest Wagner sale, it appears it takes 21 million pennies to own it. Baseball card collecting is alive and well.

What makes the Honus T-206 card so valuable? Legend has it that the printing of the tobacco card was stopped when Honus declared that he didn’t smoke and that he didn’t want the kids who admired ballplayers to think smoking was good for them. Imagine: one of the stars of all baseball at the time stood up to the establishment and declared smoking was not good for you way back in 1909? You’ve gotta love a guy like that. Sweet Caporal cigarettes (‘The Standard for Years’) stopped printing the cards and thus created a shortage of the little gems. Or so the story goes.

The continuation of that story is for another time and another place. Autograph collecting is alive as well. Imagine getting a ball signed by Mantle, Mathews or Williams. Now imagine a ball being signed by Honus. After the story of the T-206 card being sold, Nathan Bernstein of Chicago wrote an interesting tale of his life experience with the great Mr. Wagner. He wrote that in 1938 or 1938, his father took him to Wrigley Field for his first Major League baseball game. It must have been a day filled with anticipation, joy and total wonderment. Imagine walking into Wrigley, the park then only twenty some years old, and seeing the magic of the field in front of you, the field where your heroes walked and played the game you loved so much. There were the Waner brothers for the dreaded Pirates from Pittsburgh. And there was the man…now a coach for the Pirates, Honus Wagner himself.

Bernstein wrote, ” after the game Wagner descended the clubhouse steps in street clothes. My father handed me a pencil and the scorecard and said, ‘that bow-legged man is the great Honus Wagner. Go over to him and ask him for his autograph’.” That’s what fathers did back in the day when they didn’t want to appear childlike and ask for an autograph himself. They sent the kid even though the autograph was the dream of the father’s youth.

When Bernstein got to the big man, “Wagner’s reply to me was a sarcastic “I don’t know how to write kid.” And he walked away.

The Ghost of Honus must have been with Bernstein for a time because his story didn’t stop there. He wrote, “In 1944 a fellow printer of my dad went home to Pittsburgh on vacation. When he returned to Chicago he gave my father a Forbes Field Pirates/Phillies scorecard autographed in pencil by Honus Wagner and Pittsburgh blooper-ball pitcher, Rip Sewell. In 1985, I had the scorecard appraised at $350. I was told that the appraisal would have been higher if Wagner had used a pen instead of a pencil.”

What this appraiser failed to realize was that few people went to the ballpark with a fountain pen in those days. As Bernstein noted “1944 was prior to the introduction of ball point pens.”

The Ghost of Honus. Did he really tell the tobacco company to stop the printing of the cards because he didn’t smoke? Was he really that surly in refusing a kid his autograph? All we know for sure is that someone captured the ghost and for 21 million pennies, has him locked up in a plastic covering showing Wagner, Pittsburg (no ‘h’), in his resplendent heroic youth as the greatest baseball player of his time in magnificent form in his grey flannels.

Play Ball!

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