Skip to main content

Wagner, Plank, Magie & Co. captivate a legion of c

Editor Input Needed

There are seven T206 subjects that defy classification into series. These include the so-called "Big Six" rarities: Demmitt (St. Louis); J. Doyle (N.Y. Nat'l); Magie; O'Hara (St. Louis); Plank; Wagner (Pittsburg); and Cobb (Ty Cobb Back). As mentioned, it is arguable whether the last of these extremely difficult cards is properly considered part of the set.


Demmitt (St. Louis): Outfielder Ray Demmitt was traded by the New York Highlanders to the St. Louis Browns on Dec. 16, 1909. Demmitt appears with the Highlanders on a fairly common 350-Only Series card styled Demmitt (N.Y.). However, Factory 6 in Ohio, which was solely responsible for printing T206 cards with the Polar Bear back, changed the artwork and team caption before release and issued Demmitt (St. Louis), showing Demmitt with the Browns. Demmitt (St. Louis) is seemingly not in shorter supply than other 350-Only Series subjects with the Polar Bear back.

However, since Polar Bear backs account for a small fraction of the total 350-Only Series production - about 6 or 7 percent - Demmitt (St. Louis) can be estimated to be about 15X more difficult than a typical 350-Only subject. Perhaps somewhere between 100 and 300 copies exist.

It is uncertain why Factory 6 alone distributed a card reflecting the trade. It is possible that production of cards with the Polar Bear back began relatively late in the 350 Series print run, such that there was ample time to make the team change on Polar Bear-branded cards, but not others.

Demmitt (St. Louis) is extremely difficult to find in high grade. This is at least in part attributable to its distribution in pouches of scrap tobacco rather than cigarette boxes. Due to this distribution vehicle, T206 Polar Bear cards often exhibit significant tobacco staining.

J. Doyle (N.Y. Nat'l): The T206 set offers two variations of New York Highlanders pitcher "Slow" Joe Doyle. The more common version has a team caption that simply reads "N.Y." The nearly impossible version has a team caption that instead reads "N.Y. Nat'l." The latter is so scarce that it was not widely known to exist until the late 1980s. J. Doyle (N.Y. Nat'l) is probably the most difficult of all T206 subjects, if one excludes proofs and printing errors. Perhaps a dozen or so specimens are known.

A widely held theory for the existence of this variation is that the image was mistakenly thought to depict "Laughing" Larry Doyle of the New York Giants. This resulted, so the theory goes, in Factory 25 erroneously issuing a small number of the cards with the "N.Y. Nat'l" team designation. When the error was caught, it was decided to simply remove the "Nat'l" moniker from the caption, rather than to replace it with the "Amer." designation of the American League, in which the Highlanders played.

To date, Doyle (N.Y. Nat'l) has reportedly only surfaced with the Piedmont 350 back.

Magie: Sherry Magee was a mainstay in the Philadelphia Phillies outfield for many years and a terrific power hitter, cracking the National League's top 10 in slugging percentage in 11 different seasons. Despite his prowess at the plate, Factory 25 misspelled his name "Magie" on the portrait version of his card as initially released. The error was soon corrected, as reflected in the far more common Magee (Portrait).

Magie has so far only surfaced with the Piedmont 150 back. The number of known specimens is thought to reside in the neighborhood of 100 to 200.

O'Hara (St. Louis): The story behind O'Hara (St. Louis) mirrors that of Demmitt (St. Louis). Bill O'Hara patrolled the outfield for the New York Giants in 1909 and was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1910 season. Factory 6 in Ohio alone changed the artwork and team caption and issued O'Hara (St. Louis) showing O'Hara with the Cards instead of the Giants.

The card exists only with the Polar Bear back. The number in existence may reside somewhere between 100 and 300.

Plank: The tremendous difficulty of the T206 card of Hall of Fame Philadelphia A's pitcher Eddie Plank offers one of the great unsolved mysteries of T206. Theories suggesting that the printing plate was broken or that Plank, like Honus Wagner, objected to use of his image would not seem to withstand scrutiny. These theories cannot seemingly account for availability of Plank with both "150 Subjects" and "350 Subjects" backs. If the plate had been broken or Plank had objected, it is difficult to explain why the card was produced in low volume over a time period spanning multiple series.

Plank has been confirmed with the Piedmont 150, Sweet Caporal 150 Factory 25, Sweet Caporal 150 Factory 30 and Sweet Caporal 350 Factory 30 backs. It is possible that fewer than 100 examples have survived - perhaps as few as 75.

Wagner (Pittsburg): Wagner (Pittsburg) is probably the most widely recognized trading card ever produced. The reason for the card's rarity is the subject of controversy, but appears to be attributable to either the great shortstop's moral objection to cigarette smoking or insufficient compensation. Whatever the truth, Wagner (Pittsburg) is the signature sports collectible and near the top of almost every sports collector's want list. The very debate about the source of the scarcity has contributed much to the development and expansion of the sports collectibles hobby over the last three decades, providing casual fans and serious collectors alike with a fascinating mythology that is widely known throughout the hobby and well beyond.

Wagner (Pittsburg) has been confirmed with the Piedmont 150 and Sweet Caporal 150 Factory 25 backs. The Sweet Caporal version is more common. It has been reported that between 50 and 75 copies exist in all, with the number of survivors in excellent or better condition somewhere in the single digits. Of the high grade examples, the most heralded by far is the so-called McNall/Gretzky Wagner PSA 8 (NM-MT).

This particular Wagner card has sold in progressive increments of $400,000-plus, $651,000 and $1,265 million. For many years, hobby insiders have insisted in hushed tones that the Wagner was originally cut from a sheet, a bit of hobby lore that has done nothing to diminish the card's exalted status in the wider collecting community.

Outlook for T206
The future of T206 is, in a word, bright. Interest in T206 should remain strong for generations to come, based on at least the following considerations:

Authentication and Grading Services
Like them or not, professional authentication and grading services will increase long-term demand for T206 cards. This seems unavoidable for at least two reasons. First and foremost is that T206 cards slabbed by reputable services are substantially less likely to be fakes relative to ungraded examples. The reduced risk of "being had" by unscrupulous sellers will enlarge the buyer pool and increase the prices paid for T206 specimens over the long haul.

Second, reputable services will largely eliminate problems of grade inflation and deflation. Gone will be the days when a collector will buy a card advertised as "mint" from one dealer only to be told later that the card is merely "excellent" by another (or worse, the same) dealer. While imperfect, the more objective grading system afforded by professional authentication and grading services will reduce risks for prospective T206 buyers and thereby spur demand.

Set registrations promoted by authentication and grading services also add a competitive dimension to collecting that was previously absent. The desire to have "the best" or a "top ten" set on the T206 set registry hosted by any of the major services may drive an ever-increasing number of collectors into an acquisition frenzy, stimulating demand.

T206 is in the "sweet spot" in terms of availabili ty. The cards are not so common as to be in oversupply, yet at the same time are not so difficult that completing a set is next to impossible. Many vintage baseball card sets are victims of their own scarcity. Many collectors tend to avoid large issues if they know they would only be able to locate one or two cards a year due to supply constraints. And those who attempt to tackle such difficult sets often become understandably frustrated and abandon the effort midstream.

There is no severe shortage of T206 specimens. In the Internet/eBay era, T206 collectors who are unconcerned with backs and not highly condition-sensitive can complete the set minus "The Big Six" in a few years or less. Supplies are tight enough to make the set a formidable challenge, yet not so short to cause undue frustration.

T206 subjects generally have tremendous eye appeal. A majority of the poses are timeless, the colors vibrant and the fronts uncluttered. Many collectors prefer the T206 set's uncluttered color lithographs with white borders to the often monochromatic and ornate design formats of several other early baseball offerings.

Nobody has to add a room to house their T206 collection. The cards fit neatly into small holders or plastic sleeves. A T206 collection can be stored on a shelf in a small album or in a small safe. While a T206er's significant other may rail against the time and cost of building a T206 set (with some justification), she has no cause to complain about the space consumed by the collection. For many, that removes a significant obstacle to tackling the set.

Discretionary Income
People at or near the top rung of the economic ladder in the United States have more and more discretionary income with every passing year. With reputable authentication and grading services affording greater legitimacy to sports card collecting, a T206 investor class has already begun to emerge from among these ranks. These individuals view T206 collecting not just as a diversion but as a form of portfolio diversification. They are willing to spend significant resources to acquire examples assigned high grades by respected services such as PSA, SGC and GAI. This trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future and drive demand, especially for investment grade specimens.

Hall of Famers
The T206 set includes more than 70 subjects portraying players now enshrined in Cooperstown. Two just happen to be hobby signatures Wagner (Pittsburg) and Plank. And beyond those legendary offerings, the set includes household names such as Ty Cobb and Cy Young. The enduring popularity of these players makes the set timeless and appealing to a broad cross-section of sports collectors.

The Internet, most notably eBay, has obliterated information barriers and created a bustling global marketplace where all T206 collectors can buy and sell on an almost level playing field. The days when T206 collectors are forced to buy at book and sell to a dealer at a fraction of book are in the past. Collectors therefore do not have to hold the cards for years after purchase just to recoup their original investment. The Internet has eliminated "the middleman" and, along with him, a strong financial disincentive to collect. This makes T206 collecting abundantly and irreversibly more attractive.

What is the real story behind the scarcity of Wagner (Pittsburg)? How about Plank? Why was the spelling of Magie corrected while numerous other spelling errors were allowed to stand? Why were the Demmitt (N.Y.) and O'Hara (N.Y.) images changed only at Factory 6 in Ohio? What is the origin of the Ty Cobb back?

These are legendary T206 mysteries that have been discussed for generations and may never be solved. All this is not to mention the difficulties presented in trying to keep straight which fronts are possible with which backs and tackling the more advanced challenge of discerning which fronts, backs and front/back combinations are more difficult than others. Beyond this are several known proofs and variations that many have heard about but a scant few have seen. As stated earlier, the more that one knows about T206 the more one knows how much one doesn't know about T206. Mystery is pervasive and mastery elusive. And we all love a good mystery.

Frank "Home Run" Baker was never enveloped in a steroids controversy. Nap Lajoie did not hold out. In the Deadball Era, there were no free agents, sports agents or TV contracts. Staying with the same team for an entire career was not uncommon. T206 reminds us of this simpler time when ballplayers were not far removed from the economic class of the fans who watched them, and when baseball was more of a game than a business. The style of the cards and their association with cigarettes only strengthens our sense of nostalgia and, along with it, our desire to collect these little cardboard masterpieces.

The fictional tournament in the movie "Dodgeball" where Vince Vaughn's "Average Joe's" best Ben Stiller's "GloboGym" to win the championship on ESPN 8 "The Ocho" pretty much sums it up. Ours is a country of millions of armchair quarterbacks with an insatiable appetite for sports. Due to an inextricable link with baseball - the most venerated of all American sports - T206 cards will always be prized possessions. The nexus between sports and T206 demand is already evident with the recent rise in popularity of the set in the face of generally declining interest in non-sports collectibles such as stamps and coins.

As the set nears its 100th birthday, many T206 specimens still look fresh and vibrant. The colors do not easily fade and the thick paper stock is resistant to creasing or dinging. Despite the age of the cards, collectors can handle T206 specimens without substantial risk of harming them. This sturdiness is one reason T206 is more collectible than lower quality issues such as, for example, the "strip cards" issued in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

With 524 subjects, some 40 back types and more than 6,900 estimated front/back possibilities, T206 offers unparalleled variety. The approaches to collecting the set are unlimited. There are front collectors, back collectors, series collectors, league collectors, team collectors, Hall of Famer collectors, portrait collectors and position collectors, just to name a few. And the recent advent of professional authentication and grading services means there are now also those who collect T206 specimens graded by specific services or in particular grades. Such manifest collecting possibilities attract more collectors to the set and keep them interested in it longer - often for a lifetime.

Wagner (Pittsburg) has it all: beauty, subject popularity, scarcity and mystery. No wonder it has been called the Mona Lisa and the Holy Grail of sports collecting. It is and will always be the symbol of the hobby. And it is and will always be the single best advertisement for the set of which it is part. The star that is Wagner (Pittsburg) shines bright and seems unlikely to dim any time soon. As long as it does not, T206 will maintain its preeminent place in the sports collecting world.

(Editor's Note: For more about the unique mystique of the T206 Honus Wagner card, turn to the News Brief section on page 10 which chronicles the fate of a T206 with less-than-sterling lineage.)

Difficulty Rankings
Shown in the chart on the preceding page are difficulty rankings for the 50 most difficult T206 subjects and all Hall of Fame subjects compiled based on weighted PSA Population Report totals as of January of 2006. Rather than taking raw population totals as a measure of a subject's difficulty, totals were weighted by grade and price prior to rank assignment. Totals were grade-weighted, since a lower GPA in the PSA Population Report means that a subject is more difficult. Totals were price-weighted to account for the stronger economic incentives to submit higher priced subjects for grading due to, for example, costs associated with PSA submissions and market value increases achievable through such submissions. Price weightings are based on base prices with adjustments made by the author based on recent pricing trends.

The difficulty rank is a numerical ranking that directly follows from weighted population totals, with No. 1 assigned the most difficult subject under this methodology. An overall ranking is provided to represent the subjects' difficult ranking within the set as a whole.

The T206 checklist that is available online at the websites shown on the first page of this article identifies 6,902 potential T206 front/back combinations. It is not definitive; rather, it should be regarded as a working checklist subject to revision.

The author compiled the checklist based on trends witnessed in a survey of more than 20,000 recent T206 eBay transactions. Not every front/back combination listed in the checklist was confirmed. Instead, inferences were drawn based on patterns witnessed in the survey data. For this reason, it is highly likely that the checklist is overinclusive, which is to say that there is a strong probability that at least some of the checklisted front/back combinations do not exist. That said, the checklist provided is less inclusive than previous attempts and considered a meaningful improvement thereover.

The checklist is arranged by series, and alphabetically within series. "Rule breaking" subjects that defy assignment into series are presented last. The numbering scheme for subjects is borrowed from Lew Lipset's landmark The Encyclopedia of Baseball Cards Vol. 3 (1986).

The checklist uses "150-Only Series" to refer to subjects that appear only in the 150 Series; "150/350 Series" to refer to subjects that first appear in the 150 series and also appear in the 350 series; "350-Only Series" to refer to subjects that appear only in the 350 series; "350/460 Series" to refer to subjects that first appear in the 350 series and also appear in the 460 series; and "460-Only Series" to refer to subjects that appear only in the 460 series.
Printing errors have been deliberately omitted from the checklist. The author considers blank-backed T206 specimens to be printing errors and consequently has omitted them as well.

It is the author's view that completing the "super set" of all possible T206 front/back combinations would be the greatest achievement that the sports collecting hobby has ever seen, and hopes this checklist will motivate at least one reader who has greater patience and financial resources than the author to pursue this Holy Grail of sports collecting.

Now get to work!