By Greg Bates
Those visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) this past summer were treated to a bit of baseball history – an entire graded set of the 1909-11 T206 White Border tobacco baseball cards.
The cards were prominently displayed in their own room, which was located near a separate room that housed a self-portrait painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1887. To get to the room visitors had to walk down a main corridor at the DIA, where the magnificent Detroit Industry Murals on the walls and ceiling greeted them.
The T206 display featured 525 cards in alphabetical order strewed across two humongous display cases. In separate cases were the rare and magnificent to the eye Honus Wagner – the card commonly referred to aptly as the “Mona Lisa” housed in an art house – and error Joe Doyle cards.
Standing back and admiring the collection was truly a sports collector’s dream.
Among those soaking up the view was E. Powell Miller. That’s saying something because it’s a collection he was used to cherishing every time he entered his work office.
“It’s like a dream come true,” said Miller about seeing the set on display. “I think it’s great for the hobby, great for baseball, great for the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s a win-win.”
Miller, who is a Detroit native and managing and founding partner of Miller Law Firm in Rochester, Michigan, loaned the DIA his T206 masterpiece for three years. It was on display from the end of March until Sept. 16 of this year as the main attraction of the Play Ball: Baseball at the DIA exhibition.
This marked the first time the DIA has ever housed a baseball-themed presentation. To clear space for the exhibition, the DIA had to take down two Claude Monet paintings. That’s impressive in itself.
DIA co-Chief Curator Nancy Barr loved having Miller’s T206 set on display.
“It’s funny how a lot of people know the Honus Wagner card – art collectors and non-art collectors know that card,” Barr said. “That card has major pop culture mythology.”
Miller met DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons a few years ago and expressed how baseball cards – especially unique, pre-war cards – are a form of art and would fit right in at a museum. Salort-Pons was sold on the notion.
“It’s Salvador thinking more broadly about our audience and what will appeal to our audience in the Tri-County area,” Barr said.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City houses the Jefferson Burdick Collection, a permanent fixture of baseball cards in the country’s most renowned art museum. But Miller believes his collection is more impressive.
“Just like how I want the Tigers to beat the Yankees in baseball, I want the Detroit Institute of Arts to beat The Met in New York and museums,” Miller said. “It’s a competitive thing. Kind of a pro-Detroit pride, competitive thing.”
The Play Ball exhibition created quite a bit of positive buzz around the museum. The rare cards attracted a different mix of folks. The fact the museum is less than two miles from Comerica Park, the home of the Tigers, was convenient for sports fans.
“I think we’re finding people on the way down to the ballgame are stopping in and checking out the show,” Barr said. “We had a rain day on opening day and we got a lot of people who had taken the day off and thought they’d come down and see the exhibition.”
Some people who have checked out the exhibition have filled out comment cards. There have been rave reviews. Barr noted some folks wished the Play Ball exhibition was bigger. Along with the T206 set, there was a separate adjoining room that featured Detroit Tigers artifacts, including an Al Kaline autographed baseball and a 1958 Topps Kaline PSA 9 card. The collection centered on the 50-year anniversary of the Tigers beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1968 World Series.
Also on display alongside the T206 collection section of the Play Ball exhibition was a safe that was owned by Wagner. Miller picked it up six years ago at an SCP auction. The safe is so authentic that it still has the same combination Wagner used when he owned it.
In mid-July, Barr said 6,000 to 8,000 people were entering the Play Ball exhibition on a weekly basis.
“They like it that it’s not high cultured, which I was a little worried people would be upset it’s not art,” Barr said. “But they see it as baseball card collecting is a cultural practice. I think people are getting a little more interested in the wide scope of things and not just the Van Gogh self-portrait – although they love that.”
T206 set takes form
Miller collected baseball cards when he was little, but like similar stories from young boys, his cards were tossed out when he went to college. In the mid-1980s, Miller started to dabble in the hobby.
But 15 years ago, Miller really got serious; he became enamored with the T206 cards.
“It’s the monster, the golden age of baseball,” said Miller, who estimates his T206 set is worth $5M. “So many great players like Cobb and Mathewson and Speaker. I think they’re beautiful. That they’re collectible, but almost impossible to get all of them. I think mine’s probably the only objectively verified complete set, because I have them all PSA with one, the Doyle, SGC.”
Miller’s stunning T206 set didn’t happen overnight. It has taken many years of dedication and hard work.
Miller started his collection by buying a partial set of PSA 4s. Then it was his quest to upgrade every card to 6s.
“I still have quite a few 6s, but I have a lot of 7s, 8s and 9s,” Miller said. “And still trying to do that.”
The average grade for his T206 collection is 6.84.
Miller said he picks up a new T206 every five to six weeks. He combs eBay and hits the online auction circuit.
“It’s a constant effort,” Miller said. “It’s a labor of love just to make it a little better.”
Like many collectors might imagine, Miller didn’t close out his original set by acquiring the most sought-after card in all of the collecting world: the Wagner. No, Miller closed that deal relatively early on in the process in 2010.
Miller snagged a PSA 1 Wagner for $282,000 in an REA auction. The card has now jumped up in value to about $600,000.
“I think it’s a nice one,” Miller said. “It’s a PSA 1, but I think it’s a nice one.”
Miller’s Wagner is known as the Connecticut Wagner to the collecting community. It gets its name because Connecticut was the state in which it was consigned.
PSA has graded just 34 Wagner cards to date.
Miller picked up the ultra-rare VG/EX SGC 50 Doyle error card at an REA auction for $312,000 in 2015. There are just a handful of examples of the card that say “NY Nat’l” on the front with Doyle’s hands over his head.
“Both the Wagner and the Doyle I was surprised to get,” Miller said. “I put in a bid right before the auction closed and wake up the next morning and had won. I was surprised there were not late-night bidders on those.”
Miller tracked down the third rarest card of the set, the Eddie Plank. He first bought a PSA 5 and later traded up for a PSA 6.
The four Cobb’s in the T206 set are extremely high grades with three PSA 7s and one PSA 6.
It’s certainly not the most valuable card in his collection, but Miller said the most impressive part of his T206 set is his Frank Chance Red Portrait in a PSA 9.
“Because it’s a 1/1 of a Hall of Famer,” Miller said. “Knowing you’ve got the highest quality card of a Hall of Famer that’s a beautiful card and no one else has, I think that’s pretty cool.”
Miller noted that a number of the common players in the set also have the highest PSA grades around.
Miller’s T206 collection was No. 3 in the world on the PSA Set Registry. However, the person who was ranked No. 2 recently put his cards up for auction.
“I’d like to get to No. 1, like everybody else,” Miller said. “I’d like to have the best collection in the world, if I can.”
Miller started and continues his T206 collection not for the monetary aspect.
“If they go up in value that’s great but that’s not why I did it,” Miller said. “I did it for the challenge. I wish I could have been a baseball player, but I didn’t have that ability. So, I had to get a world-class collection.”
When Miller had his T206 in his work office, he would proudly show it off to colleagues, clients and whomever was interested in checking it out.
“One of my traditions is, a kid comes and looks at my collection when it was in the office, I’d give him or her a raw T206 card to just promote the hobby and baseball,” Miller said. “The more young people who are into it, it’s great.”
Miller’s collection doesn’t stop at the T206s. Not even close. He could have an exhibition in a major museum just of his sports memorabilia.
“I concentrate on the T206 set, but other than that, it’s very eclectic – whatever catches my eye,” Miller said.
Miller owns a PSA 8 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle and a ’52 Topps Mantle autographed card. He bought his PSA 8 at an REA auction for $300,000 in May. Miller believes he got a great deal.
Since Miller is a big Tigers fan, he has a massive Ty Cobb collection. It includes game-used bats, a signed baseball, a 1909 Tigers season ticket pass signed by Cobb, and the actual last ball used in the 1909 World Series between the Tigers and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Babe Ruth is also a favorite of Miller’s athletes to collect. He has signed items and a game-used bat. Miller has a unique postcard Ruth signed and sent a few months before he passed away.
Miller has game-worn Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky jerseys and a game-used pair of Nike Air Jordan shoes from his rookie season.
Miller also collects 1912 Plow’s Candy Baseball cards. It’s a rare set where only one has been competed in the world, according to the PSA Set Registry.
Some impressive non-sports items owned by Miller include: an original letter from George Washington from 1776, the first Batman comic, and Apollo Creed’s shoes from the original “Rocky” movie.
Miller will purchase cards and memorabilia at any time, but sometimes reserves his bigger items for special events.
“If I win a case, sometimes I’ll go buy one of them,” Miller said. “That’s how I’ve gotten the premiere cards; they’re like trophies from winning cases.”
With his T206 collection displayed in the DIA for almost six months, Miller from time to time ventured to the museum with friends, colleagues and clients to check out the masterpiece.
Just like those baseball card fans who stand in awe of the collection, Miller loves to stand back and soak in the masterpiece under the bright lights.
“It’s a great feeling of accomplishment,” Miller said. “It gives me chills down my spine. Get a little tingly inside because I know it took a long, long time. And I’m just delighted to share it with Detroit. I love Detroit and I love baseball.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.