The amazing tale of a $2.8 million baseball card | AspenTimes.com

The amazing tale of a $2.8 million baseball card

No other piece of cardboard, roughly 2 inches wide and 2 long, has influenced an American hobby like the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner.

The Wagner piece is to baseball-card collecting what the Mona Lisa is to art, yet its authenticity gets brushed with plenty of skepticism in “The Card,” written by investigative sports journalists Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson.

The duo examines the validity of this particular Gretzky T206 Wagner ” it sold to an anonymous buyer for $2.35 million in February, and, after the book’s release, fetched $2.8 million in September ” as well as the multibillion-dollar business of sports memorabilia, an industry rife with scandal and scams.

But it’s the Gretzky T206 Wagner (named after the hockey player Wayne, once the co-owner of the card after purchasing it for $451,000 in 1991) that raises the eyebrows of O’Keeffe and Thompson, not to mention the bank accounts of many who associated themselves with the cherished card.

For years skeptics and collectors alike have wondered aloud whether the card, which is in nearly pristine condition, was doctored, making it less authentic. Even so, its price has continued to climb, and with it, the sports-card industry enjoyed a spectacular surge in the 1980s.

The book also pays homage to Wagner, by most accounts a humble ballplayer who was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 alongside greats such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

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There are competing reasons why Wagner ordered the American Tobacco Co. to stop production of the cards; the prevailing theory is Wagner didn’t want to be associated with tobacco.

In any case, the ceased production made the card quite rare. It’s estimated that fewer than 50 of the T206 Wagners are in circulation.

“The Card” also examines how the baseball-card industry grew large enough to play a role in baseball’s infamous labor disputes.

And yes, there’s even an Aspen angle. Mark Friedland, one of the founders of Aspen Pure water and a proprietor of the Stars collectibles shop on Cooper Avenue, was a key player in the March 1991 auction for the card, which Gretzky and L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall ultimately won. Friedland backed out when the bid reached $410,000.

One has to wonder what Wagner would have thought about all the hoopla over a card that was once part of a cigarette pack; “The Card” even reasons that a hobby geared toward kids has lost its true spirit.

Fans of baseball, and particularly those of card collecting, will surely enjoy “The Card.” With all of its conspiracy theories and a sharp look at the economics that drive the card industry, readers of “The Card” will finish the book a lot more enlightened, if not cynical as well.

Rick Carroll’s e-mail address is rcarroll@aspentimes.com.