By Doug Koztoski
The year was 1911 and the World Series opponents and their managers were the same as in 1905: The New York Giants, led by the stocky and fiery John McGraw, versus the Philadelphia Athletics, with the fungo bat-thin gentleman at the helm, Connie Mack.
Paced by three Christy Mathewson shutouts in 1905, the Giants took the Series crown. By 1911, “Big Six,” as they called the right-hander, was still a star hurler but the defending World Series champion A’s now sported the “$100,000 Infield.” Mack said he was so confident in his talented infield that he would not sell them for the then-princely sum of $100,000.
That year, Frank Baker, the A’s third sacker, earned one of the most famous big league nicknames, “Home Run,” as he blasted two clutch Fall Classic roundtrippers – one coming against Mathewson. Philadelphia won the Series rematch. By the way, Baker led the American League in homers that season with 11.
Baker won another particular match-up of sorts that year against “Big Six” when both players showed up in the innovative T201 Mecca Cigarettes Double Folders set.
In that venue, where each card features color lithographs of two players that, because of the hinged design, share a pair of legs, Baker appeared with another “Infield” member, second baseman Eddie Collins, Meanwhile, Mathewson, or “Matthewson” as it is misspelled on the T201 card front, had to “carry” a common, Giants’ shortstop Albert Bridwell.
Granted, the Mathewson card is in much higher demand than the Collins/Baker combo on the average day, but, hey, Baker took his dingers where he could.
Approaching the big 1-0-0
In the summer of 2007, I owned just a couple of raw T201 commons when I decided to
get a graded sample from the issue, something affordable that depicted a pair from my hometown of Washington, D.C., members of the Nationals or Senators, depending on one’s preference.
Price ruled out the Walter Johnson/Charles Street D.C. duo for me at the time, so my only other choice in the 50-piece set was the Norman Elberfeld/George McBride card. I know, Norman and George who? About $43 later, I had a PSA 3 to go along with my other raw T201s. That purchase planted a strong seed in my collection, something I discovered much later.
Shortly after obtaining the Elberfeld/McBride pasteboard, I found myself checking out more graded T201s on eBay, other online venues and at shows. A few months later, I looked to get one star card from the set, and in November 2007, I found a PSA 6 Collins/Baker for around $250.
By early 2008, I decided to pick up T201s in at least PSA 4 when the price was right and when I needed the card. By the end of ’08, I had 14 from the set and I started to strongly consider trying to complete the issue before the end of 2011, the collection’s 100-year anniversary.
In 2009, my quest for a solid mid-grade T201 set was in the fast lane as I picked up 20 cards throughout that year, including the Mathewson and the Sam Crawford/Ty Cobb in late summer.
Entering 2010, I needed 16 cards to complete the issue, and I was starting to feel I had a real shot at owning a full tobacco-era baseball set that, relatively speaking, did not cost a huge amount in mid-grade, sported several stars of the day and possessed strong eye-appeal.
One thing I was now paying much closer attention to, however, was that the centering in the stats area on the card backs could vary considerably, even with a decent grade.
In May 2010, the last of the big names on my T201 want-list, Walter Johnson, popped up on eBay in a PSA 5.5. I tightened my belt in other hobby areas to buy the Johnson ($503) in an issue that, thankfully, did not contain any ultra-rare cards. Honus Wagner, Cy Young and rookie Shoeless Joe Jackson did not appear in the set.
Down the stretch
By early 2011, I was down to needing my “Big Six” of Mecca Double Folder cardboard.
For the past year or so I had tried to obtain the T201s I needed in at least PSA 5 or PSA 6, so getting the last six in that condition added to the challenge. The PSA 7s were often too pricey for me, even for the commons (often $300-$500 each), much less anything in higher grades. PSA 4s were a possibility, but my Set Registry ranking (about No. 12, as I recall) on the issue came into play more and I had to balance my desire to complete the set at a reasonable price – and possibly try to boost my ranking at the same time.
That August I picked up the Chief Bender and one card that rarely seems to surface in mid-to-higher grades on eBay or at shows: Hal Chase/Edward Sweeney.
Chase was a slick-fielding first baseman for the New York Highlanders/Yankees at the time, but baseball-related gambling and bribery issues eventually chased him from the big leagues.
In November, a PSA 5 Ed Walsh/Frederick Payne came my way, but I figured the remaining three were out of reach before the end of the year, as I did not see them much in above-average grades.
But in mid-December, one dealer listed several T201s, including the three I needed: Ed Cicotte (PSA 5) of Black Sox scandal fame; the Downs/Odwell (PSA 6), one of the set’s few minor league cards; and Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, also a PSA 6.
Although I bid on several of the T201s that night, as some would have been upgrades, I only “won” the three I needed. I paid $425, a touch over the Sports Market Report price, for the Speaker, to capture my last holdout from the Mecca card madness.
The trio soon arrived at my house. My 4-1/2 year quest now done, the complete collection “debuted” at No. 6 on PSA’s Current Finest list.
My one standout card condition-wise was a PSA 7 Elberfeld/McBride, the same combo I started my T201 graded cards with, but the initial score was in PSA 3. With a single PSA 7, I asked myself, “Should I now bump up my set to that level?” I answered, “Who do you think you are, a member of the famed “$100,000 Infield?”
Also doing double duty
Hobbyist Tommy Morabito has pursued the T201 issue for nearly five years and has a strong interest in early 20th century card sets in
“I love the prewar era and have enjoyed reading about the players and some of their stories,” he said. Morabito liked the T206 and Cracker Jack sets from the start, but he found them too large and too expensive.
“The T201 set was great for me, with limited resources, because although there were 100 players, there are only 50 cards, nearly 20 percent of them Hall of Famers,” he said. The entire Mecca Double Folder list that features a pair of Cooperstown enshrinees includes: Collins/Baker, Crawford/Cobb, Roger Bresnahan/Miller Huggins and John Evers/Frank Chance.
Ranked 25th on the T201 PSA Set Registry, Morabito said the Walter Johnson was one of two favorites from the collection, but the other might surprise some hobbyists.
“I always find the Hughie Jennings cards in every set really appealing because the artists always capture his excitement and love for the game, however, that is not the case in this set,” he noted. “His (T201) picture depicts him wearing a glove and he appears to be fielding a ground ball, which I find very interesting as it is more a vision of him from his younger playing days.”
While Morabito scooped up a Jennings T201 a while ago, the Johnson card and a handful of others still appear on his want-list.
“I think this was a very innovative set for its day,” he added. “The concept of having to fold the card to see the other player is not something you’d expect from a set made in 1911.”
For over a century, the T201s have had a leg up in the hobby for many collectors.
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. He invites comments and questions related to this article via firstname.lastname@example.org.