Fun With Honus: An Essay by Scott Parsons



Value and worth are not dictated by objects themselves—instead, these attributes of cultural artefacts are determined by those who handle them. The monolithic furnaces of valuation crank out worth in the obvious forms everyday: paintings, sculptures, clothing, cars. But sometimes, value can be found outside these channels, formed in tiny fires whose embers are tended by unlikely individuals. Value of this kind comes in rare forms, and in this case, it’s a small piece of lithographed cardboard no bigger than a soft pack of Virginia Slims: a baseball card.

In 1909, the American Tobacco Company (ATC) launched a marketing campaign that was an egregious attempt to get children to buy cigarettes. A set of 524 full­colour, lithographed baseball cards portraying the likenesses of top baseball players was distributed among 16 different brands of cigarettes, including American Beauty, Carolina Brights and Sweet Caporal. This series, referred to as the T206 series, is arguably the rarest set of baseball cards in existence. This is largely due to the fact that something as flimsy and as valueless as a cigarette box doesn’t exactly provide the best conditions for preserving a small piece of paper. Most of these cards have been destroyed, but the few that remain serve as lasting icons of a strange advertising experiment which drained teenage and adult wallets alike. While the moral problematics of such a campaign seem obvious in retrospect, there was only one player who showed any sort of discomfort with having his image utilized to sell cigarettes to adolescents. Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner allegedly refused to be involved in this marketing ploy; subsequently, only 50­100 copies of his card were ever distributed, a decision that would shape the monetary value of a specific industry for the next century. Although the valuation of the card started humbly—$50 dollars in The American Card Catalog in 1933 (the highest valuation in history at the time)—a series of baffling events involving an X­Acto knife, a magician, Larry King, the X­Men, Wal­Mart and Wayne Gretzky led to the card’s transformation into a symbol of the awkward and inflated relationship between money and speculative culture.

Although all of the Honus Wagner T206’s are extremely rare, there is a single copy of the card that frames the rampant intangibility of memorabilic value. The first real exchange of this specific Honus T206 occurred in 1985 when Alan Ray, a modest collector of baseball cards from Hicksville, New York sought the services of a sports memorabilia company to arrange the sale of the Honus Wagner T206. Bill Mastro, who is surely the anti­hero of our story, immediately purchased the card for $25,000 dollars as a representative of his ‘friend’ Rob Lifson. After acquiring the card in the sale from Ray on behalf of Lifson, Mastro wasted no time in negotiating a trade for the card from Lifson. I’m picturing this negotiation taking place in the front seat of Lifson’s car, a late model, low­end used Lexus in the parking lot of a strip mall (named after a type of tree or a geographic feature of the area) underneath the glow of a ‘Cold Beer Here’ hanging next to a phonebooth with the receiver ripped out. This is where a fortune changes hands. Mastro convinced Lifson to turn the card over to him for other cards from the T206 series. Mastro insisted that the cards would double or triple Lifson’s money if he sold the entire lot. Although Lifson did profit, he later revealed that he was under duress during the proceedings, as he needed money at the time. In 1987, only two years after acquiring the card from Lifson, Mastro dealt the card to an owner of a Sporting Goods chain named Jim Copeland for $110,000 dollars, over 4 times what Lifson had originally paid.

In 1991, Copeland made the decision to sell his entire card collection, including the Honus T206 in question. Through Bill Mastro’s company, Mastro Auctions, a massive memorabilia lot was arranged at Sotheby’s auction house in a sale entitled “Copeland Collection of Important Baseball Cards and Sports Memorabilia.” This sale saw the first convergence between the more well­known spaces of valuable objects and the previously lowly sports card market. Where the repertoire of baseball cards was once stale bubble gum, it was now to include white gloves and magnifying glasses. Included in Copeland’s lot was the Honus T206, which drew the most attention, as the auction catalogue listed its projected price at $114,000. Three bidders ultimately squared off for the card including one anonymous phone bidder, who remained anonymous for the duration of the auction. The final price fetched by the Honus T206 was $451,000, selling to the mysterious phone bidder. As it turns out, it had been Wayne Gretzky and the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, Bruce McNall. This sale boosted interest in both the card and the collectability of baseball cards in general, and following the sale the card would forever be referred to as “The Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner.” The increasingly high profile of the Gretzky Honus T206 sparked an outcry in the collectible community as the card’s condition had never been officially rated by the Professional Sports Authenticator group, the main authority regarding matters of condition in the memorabilia world. Authenticator and PSA company president David Hall personally authenticated the card and graded it as PSA 8 NM­MT, which, in Baseball card language, translates to ‘fantastic.’ It was the highest rating ever given to a Wagner T206, making it the rarest, and therefore most valuable of all known copies. The rating was announced amid controversy that Mastro had altered the card just after its initial purchase in order to improve the card’s condition, a fact that would render the Gretzky T206 almost worthless if it were true. Despite these allegations, Hall still gave the card an excellent audit and the card collecting industry, which Hall was heavily invested in, enjoyed a flourish of newfound interest.

The growing ‘object celebrity’ of the card was not lost in the backrooms of convention centres and behind the dusty glass cases of hobby shops. Sale of the card was reported in many mass media channels and gained visibility in the public eye. The zenith of its newfound celebrity was via the magician David Copperfield who incorporated the card in a ‘trick’ from his 1993 movie Fires of Passion. In what has to be one of the most awkwardly scripted segments ever caught on camera, Gretzky and McNall ‘reluctantly’ hand over the T206 to Copperfield who then instructs Gretzky to sign the card with a Sharpie. Copperfield then rips the card into 4 pieces, much to the chagrin and astonishment of its hesitant owners. Miraculously, Copperfield returns the card to its original state and removes Gretzky’s signature using what could only be deemed ‘real magic.’ Gretzky and McNall breathe a $451,000 sigh of relief and the crowd erupts with adulation.

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After possibly coming to his senses over buying a baseball card worth roughly ten times the average college graduate salary for 1991, Gretzky decided to sell the T206 to the obvious next­in­line buyer: Wal­Mart. This sale leads us to the following unlikely chapter of this story: in partnership with Treat Entertainment, Wal­Mart purchased the card for the modest sum of $500,000 as the grand prize in a nationwide sweepstakes aimed at re­enlivening the trading card market. Enclosed in trading card packs, including Marvel X­Men cards, was a small entry form that promised a chance of winning the world’s most valuable card. Though most of these entry forms probably became filters for joints, many were eventually submitted. The winner of the sweepstakes was announced in February 1996, on the Larry King Live talk­show—the preferred late night talk show of card collectors everywhere. Patricia Gibbs, a postal worker from Hollywood, Florida was the ‘lucky’ winner. The card was escorted by two armed guards and presented to Gibbs at a Wal­Mart located in the thriving metropolitan hub of Miramar, Florida. Despite Gibbs’ big win it came to light that she was unable to pay the absurd taxes that came along with her fairy­tale winnings. Thus, the card was once more thrust on to the market.

Again, the Sotheby’s auction house stepped in to sell the now infamous card. The auction fetched $641,000 and became the possession of Michael Gidwitz, one of the buyers outbid by Gretzky over the phone at the first Sotheby’s auction. 5 years after Gidwitz’ purchase another major company stepped in to ride on the coat tales of the Gretzky T206 Wagner. eBay, looking to expand their reach in the sports memorabilia market, heavily advertised the auction of the card and set up a 10­day auction through a subsidiary company affiliated with none other than Bill Mastro. All participants were vetted prior to the auction through the insistence that every bidder pay a $100,000 dollar deposit to gain access to the auction. The elite buyers club assembled by eBay resulted in the sale of the card to Brian Siegel, for just over $1.2 million dollars. This sale launched the card into the more stratospheric realms of made­up money, quickly selling again for $2.35 million in 2007 and $2.8 million just 6 months later to an anonymous buyer who turned out to be Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. Out of everyone to own the Gretzky T206 Wagner, Kendrick seems to be the most logical fit (if there is such a thing). Despite the card winding up in the private collection of a baseball team owner, its controversy did not end with Kendrick’s purchase. Once again, Bill Mastro’s name popped up in discussions of the card as he was charged with various counts of fraud in an unrelated case. During the proceedings, Mastro admitted to trimming the edges of the card after the 1985 purchase to greatly increase the cards perceived condition. Which sort of means that there are some shards of cardboard somewhere that are worth $28,000 each!

This strange twist of events that serves as a fittingly bizarre ending to the entire escapade begs the question: Where did all this value come from? There is surely not a layer of diamond or gold between the lithographed cardboard faces, nor can you go to the bank and promptly exchange the card for some crisp new bills, or a couple of gold bricks. The value of the Gretzky T206 seems to lie in the moments that it sat on the hallowed auction block of Sotheby’s amidst hushed murmurs and gavel smashes, or in its encounter with David Copperfield’s manicured fingers, or in the knowledge it was once a feature of Wayne Gretzky’s mantle, perched next to his nine MVP trophies. Or maybe it materialised in Lifson’s front seat, or in that Miramar Wal­Mart, or in Ken Kendrick’s heavily insured glass case. No matter how it happened, the Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner is a testament to the absurdity of funny money everywhere.

If there is comfort to be found in this story, it resides in the fact that there is something material at the end of this paper trail at all. As value balloons wildly for intangible products, it is a small victory that $2.8 million can have a direct corollary to something as material as a piece of cardboard. Gazing upon the humble art of the T206, it is hard to not feel a slight twinge of nostalgia; not for the golden age baseball players, or a kinder, gentler time, but instead, for a time when money exchanged hands for something. Something to be touched, rolled over, dropped, propped­up or held. In a way, Mastro can be seen as a crusader for the materiality of value, desperately trying to emancipate objects from their growing obscurity. As we have seen in the case of the Gretzky T206, succeeding in doing so is no longer a straightforward endeavour. It is instead a feat that requires some ‘magic.’