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Honus Wagner has been dead for nearly 55 years, but a group of Baltimore-based nuns is hoping that the Hall of Fame shortstop can come up big one more time…on the auction block that is.

The photograph of Honus Wagner that was used to create the now widely sought after T206 baseball card (lower right). Note the incorrect spelling of “Pittsburgh” that was added across Wagner’s chest.

The School Sisters of Notre Dame are the latest in a long line of lucky owners who have found themselves in possession of what has become known as the baseball card collector’s Holy Grail: the T206 Honus Wagner.

The infamous card, which was originally produced by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911, was part of a set of 514 that the giant cigarette manufacturer distributed along with its many brands. Although most of the cards in the set are highly coveted, what sets the Wagner issue apart is its scarcity.

To date, there are only about 60 known examples of the Wagner T206 series. Most, like the one possessed by the Sisters, are not in very good condition, but still fetch six figures at auction. Better preserved versions, however, have regularly sold for over $1 million. In fact, the T206 Wagner purchased by Arizona Diamondbacks’ owner Ken Kendrick sold for $2.8 million, the highest amount ever paid for one baseball card.

As legend has it, Wagner objected to having his photo included in the T206. Some accounts have cited the Flying Dutchman’s objection to having his picture used to promote smoking among children, while others claim a dispute with ATC over compensation (after all, Wagner’s image had been used to promote tobacco products in the past). Either way, Wagner’s card was pulled from the set, making it the strongly sought after treasure that it is today.

Not long ago, a firm of tobacco manufacturers wrote to a local newspaper man and asked him to secure a picture of Hans Wagner to be given away with cigarettes [sic]… The scribe wrote to Wagner and asked him for the picture enclosing the tobacco company’s letter. A few days later he received a communication from Hans, saying that he did not care to have his picture in a package of cigarettes [sic], neither did he wish his friend to lose the chance to cop a little extra coin. “So,” he concluded, “I enclose my check for the amount promised you by the tobacco company in case you got my picture and hope you will excuse me if I refuse.” – Ralph S. Davis, excerpt from “Wagner A Wonder”, The Sporting News, October 24, 1912

Whether or not Wagner actually objected to his image being used to lure young boys to a life of smoking remains unknown, but by the time the set was produced, the relationship between baseball cards and tobacco had already become a cause for concern. In an attempt to curb the increase in underage smoking, several cities went so far as to ban the distribution of sports and actor cards along side tobacco products, but the overwhelming popularity of the giveaways was not abated by the limited legal actions.

I was allowed the first peep…to a sight of the Blessed Land and the gods, which, until then, we had only beheld in the lithographs which were given free with every pack of Duke’s Cameo cigarettes – I think that was the name of our choice vice.” – Benjamin De Casseres, writing about his youth and baseball, New York Times, April 18, 1920

A 1954 advertisement for Red Man tobacco that promotes a free baseball photo with every pack.

Ironically, the tobacco companies were just as eager for an exit from the picture card business. In an attempt to outdo the competition in terms of star power and production quality, manufacturing cardboard inserts quickly became one of the industry’s highest expenses. Eventually, it became hard to determine whether cigarettes were driving the picture card industry, or vice versa.

Finally fed up with their decreasing profit margins, the largest competitors in the tobacco industry consolidated under one umbrella, the aforementioned American Tobacco. One of the chief reasons for combining was to control costs, particularly marketing expenses associated with manufacturing picture cards. According to Dave Jamieson, author of Mint Condition: How Baseball Card Became an American Obsession, “the popularity of baseball cards had helped to spur the formation of one of the most powerful monopolies in American history”.

Beginning in 1907, the government began to take notice of American Tobacco’s dominance of the market place and brought suit under the Sherman Antitrust Act. By1911, the monopoly was forced to dissolve by decree of the Supreme Court. Not ironically, this period coincided with the rebirth of picture cards as a cigarette company marketing ploy, as evidenced by the now famous T206 series. Unintentionally, the federal government’s actions not only opened up the tobacco industry to increased competition, but also re-opened the market for underage smokers by once again making photo inserts relevant.

Cigarettes have always played a role in the national game. In many ways, both baseball and smoking were the defining pastimes of several American generations. Whether it was via picture card inserts, early television commercials or stadium billboard advertisements, cigarette companies strived to promote the idea that enjoying a smoke and watching baseball went hand in hand. In today’s smoke-free stadium environments, that may seem hard to believe, but curious relics of the past, like the Honus Wagner T206, help to serve as a reminder.

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