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Walter Johnson PSA 9 T206 portrait card sells for $135,000

Walter Johnson was one of the all-time best pitchers in MLB history, which helps explain a collector paying $135,000 for a PSA 9 T206 Johnson card.

By Larry Canale

You don’t see many T206 tobacco cards in “PSA Mint 9” condition. But when one pops up, collectors pay a premium. And when the player on such a well-preserved card is at the level of Walter Johnson, well, the appeal and price grow exponentially.

So it wasn’t at all shocking when, in early May, a PSA 9-graded T206 portrait card of Johnson fetched $135,000 on eBay. It’s a beautiful specimen of an important piece of sports memorabilia—probably the most desirable issue to feature the man they called “Big Train.” 

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Johnson actually appeared in the acclaimed T206 set in two variations. The more common pose has a blue background and features an illustration of the pitcher looking to his left, with his hands held tight to his chest.

The less-common pose is the one discussed here—a close-up photographic portrait capturing a young and serious-looking Johnson. Legendary photographer Carl Horner is known to have taken the photograph. It was hand-tinted for the card’s production, giving it the look of a painting. The coloring on Johnson’s hair, a bright orange, looks exaggerated. But that’s not a complaint—just an observation.

Overall, this is a striking image and a treasure of a card. It typically sells for around $30,000 if graded at 8. As always, one grade point higher resulted in that far higher price of $135,000. (The hands-at-chest T206 of Johnson, by the way, sells for around $90,000 if in 9 condition and around $20,000 if in 8 condition.)

As for the player himself, Johnson was a master on the mound, using a killer curve and serious smoke to log 417 wins and a 2.17 career ERA. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the first class ever to be inducted at Cooperstown (1936). Johnson went into the then-new Hall with an estimable group: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson.

TOM: FOREVER TERRIFIC

The sad news made its way around in March: Tom Seaver has been diagnosed with advanced dementia. “Tom will continue to work in his beloved vineyard at his California home, but has chosen to completely retire from public life,” according to a press statement released by the Baseball Hall of Fame. “The family is deeply appreciative of those who have supported Tom throughout his career, on and off the field, and who do so now by honoring his request for privacy.”

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On the heels of that news, there was a predictable uptick in Seaver-related listings made available on eBay (at press time, more than 18,000). Among those that sold were items that showed the collecting audience’s penchant for grabbing onto mementos related to a beloved player.

One bidder, for example, spent $12,599 for a PSA 9-graded specimen of Seaver’s 1967 Topps card. The “Rookie Stars” issue pictures Tom Terrific with fellow pitcher Bill Denehy, whose promising career was cut short by a shoulder injury.

The reverse of the card—which printed a month into the 1967 Major League season—notes that Seaver won three out of his first four games for the Mets that season. Two of his wins came against the hard-hitting Chicago Cubs, who featured future Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ron Santo (another Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks, was out of the lineup that day). Among Seaver’s back-to-back wins over the Cubs was a 10-inning 4-hitter, during which he gave up only one unearned run.

Seaver’s early-season success as a rookie in 1967 was no mirage. He would finish the season with a 16-13 record, a sterling 2.76 ERA, and 170 strikeouts in 251 innings, winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

The performance foretold what was to come. Seaver pitched for 20 seasons in the bigs, finishing in 1986 with a 311-205 record and a 2.86 ERA, with 3,640 strikeouts, 231 complete games and 61 shutouts. 

WANDER WHO?

Wander Franco, that’s who. The minor-league star in the Tampa Bay Rays chain has been stirring up excitement for the Bowling Green Hot Rods in the Midwestern League (Single-A ball). Last season, Franco batted .351 for the Princeton Rays in the Appalachian League, swatting 11 homers in 242 at-bats.

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A call-up to the bigs isn’t imminent for Franco this season (expect a 2021 arrival). But that didn’t stop collectors from going all-in on a rare Bowman Chrome signed Red Refractor rookie card of the switch-hitting shortstop. Twenty-nine bids pushed the price of the card—one of only five made—all the way to $22,900.

It might make you feel old to read this, but here goes: Franco was born on March 1, 2001.

THROWBACK YAZ

Here’s an item we haven’t seen on our chart: a 1960 Carl Yastzemski Topps card. The front of the card heralds Yaz as a Sport Magazine Rookie Star. At the time, he was playing second base but he’d switch later to left field.

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The card’s reverse cites Yaz’s eye-popping 1959 stats while playing for Raleigh in the Carolina League: a .377 average with 15 HRs and 100 RBI.

The reverse also includes text from Sport’s editors: “It looks like the Red Sox will be able to cash in this year on the reported $100,000 they gave Carl for signing. He was sought by every club in the majors. Last season [1959], he debuted in pro ball and led the Carolina Lg. in batting while winning the loop’s MVP award.”

Sport was a year off. Yaz would stay in the minors for one more year of seasoning in 1960, batting .338 for AAA Minneapolis in the American Association. In 1961, however, he won a starting job for the Red Sox and played in 148 games, batting .266 with 11 HRs and 80 RBI. Yaz would play through the 1983 season, finishing his Hall of Fame career with a .285 average, 452 homers and 1,844 RBI.