By Bert Lehman
A T206 Honus Wagner card that has had only four owners and its provenance can be traced back to 1909 will soon have a new owner.
The card has been dubbed “The Original Wagner,” and has been owned by J. Ross Greene since he purchased it in an auction in 1996.
In addition to the Wagner card, the auction also included a T206 Eddie Plank card and a T206 “Magie” error card.
Greene said he remembers calling his wife to inform her about the auction.
“We were building a house at that time and our daughter was about to get married. We didn’t have a lot of money to throw around,” Greene said. “I told her what the prices were and she asked, ‘Which one do you want?’ I said, ‘the Wagner.’ She said, ‘Do it.’”
And why did Greene settle on the Wagner card?
“I realized that was the iconic card in this business, so if you ever had the chance to get one you might want to do so,” Greene said. “This one came up and it looked like it might sell for, or I was at least hoping it would sell for something I could afford.”
The auction was a telephone auction hosted by Pat Quinn.
Having placed an earlier bid, Greene was an eligible bidder for the closing moments of the auction. Around midnight, Greene called Quinn’s office, and was informed the other bidder for the card was in Quinn’s office.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m about to get played here,’” Greene recalled. “I made a bid. He made another one. I came back at $48,500. … The other guy evidently shook his head no, and he said I got it.”
When Greene purchased the card it wasn’t graded. He got it graded in 1999.
“I had some other cards graded and felt it was foolish to have that card and not have it graded and encapsulated,” Greene said.
Other than getting the card graded, Greene put the card away for almost two decades. He said only a couple people knew he had the card in his possession.
“I had no conversation about it with anybody for a long time,” Greene said.
In January 2014 Greene learned the history of the Wagner card, a history he was unaware of when he purchased the card in 1996. He found out he was only the fourth owner of the card, and the ownership of the card could be traced back to 1909.
The three owners of the card before Greene included: Willie Ratner, Wirt Gammon, and Bill Haber.
“It went from being a baseball card to being what I felt like was a slice of Americana,” Greene said. “I thought it (importance as a piece of history) was significantly more. It was not just a Wagner. I was not just a baseball card. It was the only one that anybody knew how to trace all the way back to 1909. That makes it significantly more important.”
With a card of that historical significance, you may be asking yourself why Greene has decided to sell the card, as well as the rest of his sports cards collection.
Greene, 76, said none of his children developed “the sickness of collecting baseball cards.”
“I felt like the best thing for me to do from an estate planning standpoint and not burden my family with trying to do something with this card collection when I pass away, it would be best for me to do some estate planning and part with it,” he said.
He said the story of him being one of the owners of “The Original Wagner” card is a legacy he will leave his family, the story of how he did it and why he did it.
“What I will end up with is a very nice catalog that has pictures of everything that I have collected over time and it will have my story in it,” Greene said. “I will be able to give that to my grandkids.”
Greene’s collecting story began around 1951 when he was 10 years old.
“The first time I ever saw a baseball card was at a grocery store about a block away from my home,” he said. “I was a baseball fanatic as a kid and played quite a lot, but that’s the first time I had ever seen a card, and that was a 1951 Bowman. I thought it was beautiful.”
He said he was a serious collector until 1956, but his collecting habits waned in 1957 and 1958.
“I was a post-teenager at that time and had other things I was more interested in,” Greene said.
Greene kind of got back into collecting in the 1970s when he helped a friend. His friend had a box of baseball cards that he wanted to sell because he needed $500 to go to school to study to be a minister. Greene’s friend told him the box of cards was probably worth around $300.
“I gave him the $500 and I put them away and didn’t look at them for awhile,” Greene said.
In the early 1990s his interest in the box of cards he purchases around 20 years earlier was renewed when his daughter came home from college and told him she needed to find a job to make money.
“I saw things heating up again so I had her check out to see what they (cards) were worth,” Greene said. “They were worth probably 20 times what my payment to him, the $500, was.”
This renewed Greene’s interest in collecting, and he embarked on a journey of amassing more than 250,000 cards, in his estimation.
“I began to look again and had a little bit of money at that time and developed an interest in a period of over a couple of years,” Greene said. “I put together some sets. I started out with one or two sets – ’51 Bowman, ’52 Bowman, ’52 Topps – and it just progressed. Over time I ended up putting together almost every set from 1950 to 1979.”
He said it was challenging assembling the sets. In addition to searching ads in Sports Collectors Digest, Greene said he let it be known at area card shops that he’d be interested in purchasing large collections that the cards shops couldn’t purchase.
“I ended up buying a number of pretty large collections from people who needed cash money right now and didn’t want to try to sell it on a piecemeal basis,” Greene said.
These purchases gave Greene a lot of extra cards. That is how he was able to assemble three full sets of 1952 Bowman Large Football. Two of those sets are graded.
“I was a set builder,” Greene said. “I wasn’t one that was trying to cash in one day and make a ton of money. It was just something I loved.”
Greene’s collection will be sold in SCP Auctions’ 2017 Spring Premier Auction, which opened for bidding May 24. The auction concludes June 10. For more information visit www.scpauctions.com.
“This has been an incredibly fun journey for me, collecting back when, and when I started collecting the second time,” Greene said. “And this part of it, selling it, has been equally as fun because I feel that SCP has treated me pretty well. It’s been a fun experience and I’m looking forward to see what happens.”
Bert Lehman is the editor of Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Bert.Lehman@fwmedia.com.