It was in the November 6, 1930, edition of the Newark Evening News that the legend was born. Writer Fred J. Bendel published an article about the baseball card collection of fellow News scribe Willie Ratner, a nationally renowned boxing writer who started working at the newspaper as a copy boy in 1912. Ratner was about 15 years old when the famous T206 tobacco card issue was commercially distributed in cigarette packs.
Illustrated in the newspaper that day in 1930 were an assortment of Ratner’s private stash of T205 and T206 baseball cards and in the top row, appearing for the first time in the press, was the card featuring the portrait of the great Honus Wagner. The byline of the article read: “Cards That ‘Were Hard To Get’ And Old Honus Was The Hardest.”
It appears to be the first time the Wagner card (and its scarcity) was recognized anywhere in a public forum and three decades before Jefferson Burdick noted its rarity in a later edition of the American Card Catalog in 1960 when he assigned a value of $50 to the slice of cardboard. In the December 2000 issue of VCBC, collector Keith Olbermann noted how hobby pioneer Burdick and his friend Sgt. John Wagner had “confirmed the existence of the Honus Wagner card in the mid-1930s.” In addition, writer George Vrechek, who has researched Burdick extensively and has published several important pieces on the hobby’s early days, was able to identify Burdick’s first reference of the Wagner in his Card Collectors Bulletin of 1941. Publishing a T206 checklist created by Howard Myers, Burdick remarked, “The scarcest cards are Plank and Wagner. Amounts of 50 cents and $1.00 are being offered for these.”
The Wagner card was actually first mentioned decades earlier in the Charlotte-Observer in August of 1909, just as the cards were showing up in packs of Piedmont Cigarettes in the South. The article claimed that the cards were “more sought after than gold” by young boys who purchased packs of cigarettes for the pictures of “baseball men” and then “peddled the smokeables to passers on the streets.” The report noted that the cards of Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner were especially desired but that “only a few pictures of Cobb had been found” until a shipment arrived at the Wilson Drug Store and 13 more Cobb’s surfaced. No mention was made of a Wagner card being discovered.
Similar to the kids down South, Willie Ratner was collecting the same tobacco cards up North in New Haven, Connecticut, until he moved to Newark in 1912 with his baseball card collection in tow. It’s likely Ratner had snagged his Wagner right out of a pack of Sweet Caporal Cigarettes a few years earlier. No doubt Ratner was caught up in the same collecting hysteria that was described in Charlotte in 1909 when it was reported in detail how kids started flipping T206 cards competitively. By the looks of Ratner’s Wagner with its creases and rounded corners its possible he was a fan of the pastime which had kids challenging each other to acquire more cards. “While the picture is flying in the air, one of the boys calls the side it will fall on, face up or down, ” the Observer reported. The writer added, “If in his guess he is correct, the picture goes to him, otherwise he has lost one of his own pictures.” In some cases a winning kid could walk away “exultant with the entire collection of his friends in his hands.”
By all accounts Ratner treasured the baseball cards he had amassed in the card-flipping battles of his youth and he maintained the collection well into adulthood when he shared them with his readers in Newark in 1930. His colleague Fred J. Bendel wrote, “These pictures are but a few of the collection which Willie Ratner, News boxing writer, began collecting years ago.”
In addition to covering boxing matches in his “Punching the Bag” column, Ratner not only collected the pictures of baseball players on cards, he also commiserated with real-life sports legends and stars of the silver screen like Jack Dempsey and the child actor Jackie Coogan, who he met on a cruise to Paris in 1924. Ratner even rubbed elbows with underworld crime figures and in 1929 was notably assaulted by racketeers for his “sarcastic reporting” of several “fast ones” pulled on boxing fans in Newark, which was known as a “sucker town” on the fight circuit. Luckily for Ratner, the gangsters didn’t take his Honus Wagner as a hostage.
Ratner held onto his collection through the Great Depression and also through his tenure with the newspaper which spanned from 1912 to 1972. During this long stretch of time Ratner repeatedly turned down offers for his Honus Wagner from aspiring hobbyists like Wirt Gammon from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Gammon was a fellow newspaper writer who also published and wrote for the early hobby newsletter The Ballcard Collector and after making several offers to Ratner for the hard-to-get card decided to take a chance and send him a blank check in the mail. To his surprise, Ratner fulfilled his request for the card. According to The Complete Book of Baseball Cards, “Ratner wrote in only the original sum offered by the Tennessean—a mere pittance compared to later offers. Ratner had not been holding back, he told the buyer– he had simply wanted to keep the card. In effect he gave the card away.”
Wirt Gammon had wanted a Wagner ever since he was a little kid. In his “Gammon’s Corner” column in 1970 he fondly recalled how he collected T206 cards soon after they were released in cigarette packs sold by the American Tobacco Company. Gammon wrote, “When T205 and T206 began around 1910, I was five years old and I can remember back when I was about seven that these cards began to appear everywhere. Many smokers collected them. If not, their children collected the bright colored pictures, often begging parents to buy a pack.” Gammon recalled how he only had one relative who was a smoker and that, much to his dismay, his uncle smoked a brand that didn’t include baseball cards. Gammon also recalled that many smokers simply discarded the cards after opening their pack and he wrote, “It was nothing to walk along the street and see a baseball cigarette card on the sidewalk or the edge of the road or edge of a yard.” So that’s how he collected them. He added, “The best I could hope for was to find a card or two along the sidewalk, where some smoke-stained-fingered guy had discarded it as he opened his pack.” Gammon, however, never found a Wagner in the gutter and had to wait several decades until Willie Ratner was willing to part with his prized possession.
Gammon had been searching for years for his own Wagner via want ads he placed in The Sporting News and other publications with no luck until he finally acquired his “Holy Grail” from Ratner. Little did Gammon realize that like his fellow scribe he was merely a temporary caretaker of the T206 treasure and he ended up parting with the rarity when a young Brooklynite named Bill Haber offered him $500 for the card on June 1, 1970. Haber was working as the baseball director for the Topps Chewing Gum Company and was responsible for the player bios and facts found on the backs of baseball card issues. He was also one of the sixteen founding members of the Society For American Baseball Research in 1971 and according to the current SABR website he was, “considered one of the greatest biographical researchers” in baseball research history.
But Haber’s other passion was baseball cards and he was a dedicated collector who by 1970 had assembled near-complete sets of the T205, T206 and T207 issues. According to Haber it took him 19 months to assemble the sets and in his “Haber Hi-Lites” column in The Ballcard Collector, he said his “greatest stroke of luck occurred when (he) found a non-collector who had a (Eddie) Plank, and (he) bought it from him for $6.” That left Haber with only the Honus Wagner on his wish list and he then proceeded to “make a cash offer to all (he) knew had the card.” Haber recalled, “The going price when I was looking was $250. I decided it was worth $500 to me.” Wirt Gammon accepted Haber’s cash offer and after the collector “borrowed $350 from (his) wife” Gammon shipped the Wagner card up north to Brooklyn where it remained in Haber’s collection for several decades until the mid-1990’s.
When Haber was profiled in the “Collector of the Month” feature in The Trader Speaks in February of 1971, he was pictured holding his Wagner which was still affixed to a scrap book page with other T206 cards arranged alphabetically. Based upon that image it is possible that Ratner or Gammon had maintained their original collection in a scrapbook and that a full page, including the Wagner, was passed along to Haber. By the time Haber acquired the card in 1970 it was still affixed to that page which had been removed from a larger volume. Gammon had told Haber the card was “creased and stained” but the card’s condition was an afterthought.
Haber only knew of “6 or 8″ collectors who had one at that time. In June of 1973, Haber told Dan Dischley in The Trader Speaks that his Wagner was scheduled to be featured on a TV show “dealing strictly with collecting” and hosted by Joe Garagiola before his “Monday-Game-of-the-week” telecast. (Its unclear if that show ever aired.) Haber’s Wagner was also reproduced by Woody Gelman’s company, the Nostalgia Press, in 1975 to create one of the earliest Wagner reprint cards. The card has always been easily identifiable on account of its unique creases and imperfections.
Haber did business with most all of the prominent collectors in the 1970s and 80s including other Wagner owners like Bill Mastro and Mike Aronstein. In fact, it was a 17 year-old Mastro who attended with Haber what was considered one of the earliest card “conventions” held in Aronstein’s basement in Upstate New York in 1970. Traveling from all over the country, collectors like Mastro and Haber joined Dennis Graye, Dan Dischley, Tom Collier, Bill Zekus, Bob Jasperson, Irv Lerner, Bill Himmelman, Fred McKie and other notables in a makeshift “convention hall” located in Aronstein’s downstairs den. Haber brought along his Honus Wagner card to show off and after impressing the group tried to “get the trading wheels going.” As the room filled up, Mastro, Jasperson and Graye were described as the only attendees “under voting age” and, according to the Ballcard Collector, Haber traded Tom Collier for some 1949 Bowman PCL cards and Mastro was able to trade with Graye for a T206 Sherry Magie error card. There’s no doubt that when Mastro saw Haber’s own Wagner he wanted one for himself.
By the time he turned 19, Mastro had acquired not just one, but two Wagners. In 1972 he purchased one for a record price of $1,500 and got lucky with another as “part of an unsorted collection.” Mastro told Collectibles Illustrated, “I found the Wagner card in it and it turned out to be a freebee.” In 1981 Mastro also told Bill Madden of The Sporting News that one of his Wagners came from a priest who “found it in his attic” and that he had to sell another Wagner to finance the purchase of a car, “in a hurry.”
In contrast, Bill Haber is said to have been offered a second Wagner card for $1,000 which was in much better condition than Willie Ratner’s former card. But Haber, never obsessed with the condition of his cards, declined. In 2012, this story was recounted in response to a tribute to Haber written by Keith Olbermann and published on the Topps Archive blog. Collector Marc Seligman commented that Haber wasn’t keen on upgrading his Wagner because he “said he didn’t need doubles.” Seligman added, ”Some might have found that foolish but he wasn’t in it for the greed. He was in it for the history.” Haber’s old friend and Chicago dealer Pat Quinn echoed that sentiment more recently when he told us, “Bill never cared about the condition of his cards, they could have been chipped or even had a corner missing as long as he could complete a series or set.”
Bill Mastro, on the other hand, went on to become the country’s preeminent card dealer with an uncanny knack for tracking down multiple Wagner cards in high-grade condition and turning hefty profits. By 1981 Mastro said he had already seen twenty Wagner cards in person during his collecting career and by 1985 he’d purchased two more Wagner cards for $25,000 each. One of those cards was the now infamous Gretzky-McNall Wagner which Mastro recently admitted he’d altered and trimmed before he sold it to Jim Copeland for $110,000 in 1987. While Mastro was keeping tabs on all of the Wagners in the hobby and contributing to their skyrocketing value, Bill Haber was content to sit on his own Wagner and his completed set of T206 with no intention of selling.
Unfortunately, Bill Haber passed away unexpectedly in 1995 after a fatal asthma attack and his widow ended up calling Pat Quinn of the Sports Collectors Store in LaGrange, Illinois, to sell his Honus Wagner card and the remainder of his collection. Quinn offered Willie Ratner’s old Wagner for sale in a telephone auction published in Sports Collectors Digest in March of 1996 and the time-worn card Haber had once paid Wirt Gammon $500 for ended up selling for close to $50,000. That’s an appreciation of close to one hundred times the purchase price in just twenty six years. In the SCD lot description Quinn wrote that the offering was, “A seldom seen opportunity for you to join the most exclusive club in sports collecting–”The Wagner Club”–it has few members and many aspirants.”
Quinn isn’t sure who ended up joining the ever so exclusive “Wagner Club” after his auction in 1996. ”I can’t remember who bought that Wagner in the SCD sale, it was such a long time ago and it was one of my last auctions,” said Quinn. It’s also unknown whether Willie Ratner’s Wagner has changed hands again since the time of Quinn’s auction or whether its been graded by either PSA or SGC. SGC President, Dave Forman recalled seeing the card in 1996 and told us, “I remember the auction but have no idea where it is now.” One things for sure, however.
Whoever the current owner is, he possesses the “Original Wagner” and an important piece of baseball and hobby history. It represents the true essence of collecting more than a near-mint condition Wagner ever could. There are other Wagners more valuable and pleasing to the eye, but this Wagner transcends its own imperfections. It’s the original.
(Editors Note: This is the first installment in a Hauls of Shame series that will document the history of all the 64+ T206 Honus Wagner cards known to exist. If you know of any others with notable provenance drop us a line at:Tips@HaulsofShame.com )