Call it the “Holy Grail,” its scarcity inspiring a lifelong quest. Call it “Mona Lisa,” its benign beauty and incomparable worth setting it apart.
Or just call it “The Card.”
Say those two words with quotation marks in your voice and virtually every memorabilia collector and fan will know you speak of the 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card.
On Tuesday, Sunset Hills sports collectibles dealer bill Goodwin will begin a month-long auction to sell one of the best examples of “The Card.” he has set the minimum bid at $300,000 and estimates the price may reach — or exceed — $1 million.
The card’s owner is a Houston businessman who declined to be identified. he acquired the card in the mid-1980s.
“This is probably going to be the highlight of Goodwin & co.,” said Goodwin. “You dream of doing this, selling a Wagner in this condition.”
The Wagner card is only about 2.5 inches by 1.5 inches. Like all of its brethren in a set known as T206, it was released in cigarette packs sold by the American Tobacco co., from 1909 to 1911.
The cards feature 524 player fronts but with different backs representing the many companies the tobacco trust operated, so more than 6,000 distinct cards can be collected. Some of the brand names are Piedmont, Sweet Caporal, Cycle and Drum.
The mania over the cards when they were released spurred officials in several states to toughen cigarette laws because children were pestering adults to buy cigarettes for them, said Scot A. Reader in his essay “Inside T206: A Collector’s Guide to the Classic Baseball Card Set.”
The Wagner card stands apart from the set because it was pulled from circulation after about 200 cards were issued. There are two stories as to the reason.
The standard spin is that Wagner did not want to encourage children to buy cigarettes or smoke, so he threatened to sue if any more of his cards were released, Goodwin said.
But Reader said some collectors, including noted TV commentator Keith Olbermann, argue that Wagner was more irked about not getting paid for the use of his likeness.
“They have found Wagner’s image on cigar boxes, and he was photographed with a big chaw of tobacco in his mouth,” Goodwin said.
Whatever the reason, big Tobacco blinked and stopped issuing Wagner cards. Historians estimate that 60 cards still exist, and many are in poor shape. only 22 have earned a grading from Sportscard Guarantee Corp. (SGC) or Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA), the major grading firms in the industry.
Goodwin’s card was graded at “VG-3″ by SGC.
“There are only five graded higher,” he said. “So this is one of the top examples in existence.”
Though it was already famous with collectors, “The Card” got a massive boost in 1991, when hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and then-Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall paid $451,000 for the highest-graded Wagner card in existence, an “8.”
The “Gretzky Wagner” has changed hands several times and last sold in 2011 for $2.8 million to Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The growing publicity and piles of money surrounding each sale inspired a book. In 2007, new York Daily News reporters Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson wrote “The Card: Collectors, con Men and the True story of Baseball’s most Desired Card.”
The book looks at tobacco cards and Wagner examples in general but focuses on a flap surrounding the Gretzky Wagner.
Some experts believe that card was cut from a proof sheet and then later trimmed to make the corners sharp. Both the trimming and the proof-sheet origin — meaning it was not available in cigarette packs — would normally reduce the price significantly.
“The fact that it was trimmed seemed to be the worst-kept secret in the industry, but no one was talking about it,” O’Keeffe said, adding that his fascination grew as he did his research.
“Sure, I collected cards as a kid. but this Wagner card opened up a whole new world to me, this huge industry that no one was covering.
“The fact that McNall was actually going bankrupt when he bought this card added this layer to it, making it really a symbol of excess,” O’Keeffe said. “And Gretzky gave it glamour.”
Lest one think Goodwin is optimistic in his price range, experts and recent sales back his estimate.
O’Keeffe said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wagner card go for $1 million. “Even ones in bad shape go for $100,000,” he said.
Frank Cerisi is a baseball historian, former curator of the National Sports Gallery and the head of FC Associates, a consulting firm specializing in museum sports displays.
He broke down the card’s worth: “I would think it would bring at least $750,000 — and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it go north of $1 million.
“A reputable dealer such as mr. Goodwin has a big contact list, and this will have worldwide interest,” Cerisi said. “And along with dealers and collectors, I wouldn’t be surprised if a museum or two didn’t get in on it.”
According to several websites that track T206 cards, one Wagner “3″ sold in 2008 for $791,000 and another sold the next year for $925,000.
John Tamny, a Washington economic adviser who regularly writes for Forbes, said collectible markets are mercurial, but old baseball cards are immune to slumps.
“It’s all about rarity,” Tamny said. “They don’t make them anymore, and people didn’t save cards back then. So even the most common old card will be worth more than the most expensive Albert Pujols card.”
Goodwin, 64, has an easygoing way, a 42-year marriage, two daughters and three grandchildren. and he doesn’t like talking about himself.
A 1965 graduate of Mehlville High School, Goodwin was in Vietnam by 1967, a radio operator with the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta, he said.
On his office floor, almost behind a desk, sits a framed collection of military medals. it took several promptings to get an explanation.
“That wasn’t my idea. my one daughter did that, and I’m real bad about hanging things up,” he said. “Most of the medals, they gave them to anyone who was over there.”
Not the Purple Hearts.
“The first one, we got ambushed in the jungle. A mine went off, and I got some shrapnel in my shoulder,” he said. “No big deal. the two guys in front of me took the brunt of it.”
The second time, Goodwin was on a personnel carrier when the squad was attacked. an explosion rocked the carrier and knocked the mounted M-50 machine gun into Goodwin’s face, “twice, right in the mouth,” he said.
“I’m almost embarrassed to get a medal for that,” he said, then laughed as he recounted his treatment at a nearby field hospital.
“My teeth and part of my gum had to be stitched back in. While the medic is doing it, without any anesthesia, we come under a mortar attack. So I’m under the cot with a needle and thread still dangling from my mouth and mortar rounds are coming in.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m starting to have a bad feeling about this.’”
Out of the service, Goodwin started selling cars and by the early 1980s was sales manager at Craig American Motors in Maplewood. he had been involved, in an ever-increasing degree, in sports card collecting. So when he lost a bid to secure his own auto dealership, he took a leap.
“I thought it was a chance to do something I enjoyed and also make a living at it,” he said.
In a short time, Goodwin was one of the main dealers in the St. Louis area, sponsoring and organizing card shows at VFW halls and church basements, which were held almost every weekend in the 1980s and 1990s.
“But it’s all done by computer now; eBay showed everyone the way,” Goodwin said.
While the Wagner card grabs all the glory, Goodwin’s lot contains other gems — namely an Eddie Plank card of remarkable color quality graded at “EX+ 5.5″ and a Sherry Magee “error” card.
Plank is a Hall of Famer who won 326 games, mostly with the Athletics, from 1901 through 1917.
“I think the Plank card is a real sleeper,” Goodwin said. “Not only is it in incredible shape, it’s only one of three Planks with a Piedmont back, and the highest-graded of the three.
“I think it could get close to $500,000,” he said.
Plank has a St. Louis connection. he jumped to the renegade Federal League in 1915 to play for the St. Louis Terriers, then finished his career with the Browns.
The Magee card value comes from his name being incorrectly spelled “Magie,” making it worth more than later, corrected versions. Goodwin said bids of $50,000 would not surprise him.
Two other cards that could go for solid amounts also have St. Louis connections: Cardinal bill O’Hara and Brown Ray Demmitt. Both players were traded after the season began and few cards list them as being St. Louis players.
Bidding opens at 9 a.m. Tuesday and goes to 9 p.m. April 19. Goodwin has notified the 5,000-plus people on his contact sheet, and he expects bids the first day.
“But about one-third of the action occurs on the last day,” he said.
Unlike eBay, a bidder cannot be timed out. though closing time is 9 p.m., the auction will continue until no higher bid has been submitted for 15 minutes.
Also, there can be no surprise bidders. Potential buyers must have submitted at least one bid before 9 p.m. April 19 on each item they would like to buy.
Goodwin said anyone can visit the site — goodwinandco.com — and watch the action. “It’s cheap entertainment,” he said.
“It’s just when you start bidding that it gets expensive.”