NEW YORK – Casual collectors of baseball cards will instantly recognize makers Topps, Bowman and Fleer, but seasoned veterans will also know the letter-number set known as T206 (aka the “White Border” set and, more descriptively, “The Monster”). T206 cards were a tobacco card set issued for three years, from 1909-1911, by the American Tobacco Co., which inserted them into cigarette packs, loose tobacco packs and tobacco tins, through the firm’s 16 different brands.
Many Hall of Fame stars and other players (even minor leaguers) are represented in the revered and iconic 524-card group – names like Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Home Run Baker, “Wee Willie” Keeler, Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Chief Bender, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Zack Wheat, Tris Speaker, “Iron Man” McGinty, Rube Marquard and, most famous of all, Honus Wagner, whose T206 card sold for a staggering (and record) $3.12 million in October 2016.
The T206 set is considered a landmark in sport card collecting because of its diminutive size, rarity (hundreds of thousands were printed and distributed, but many have been lost to time) and the high quality (for its time) quality of the color lithographs. Stars from baseball’s “Dead Ball Era” are forever enshrined in the set, which has been an ongoing source of fascination since its introduction to the market over 100 years ago. They were, in fact, the first mass-produced cards.
“There are almost a quarter million T206 cards in the population of the hobby’s leading grading service – no other issue from that era even comes close,” said Chris Ivy of Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas. “But it’s clearly much more than that. The T206 is just a masterpiece. The graphics are bold and simple, the roster is virtually endless and inclusive of so many Dead Ball Era icons. The majesty of the T206 issue is so self-evident that it’s actually difficult to verbalize the reasons for its greatness. It just is.” Ivy added, “The T206 market is red-hot, and there is no sign of that changing. It’s a blue-chip stock. Always has been.”
Tens of thousands of the cards still survive today. However, not all are in great condition. As of June 2017, PSA had graded more than 170,000 T206 cards; of those, only 13 were given a perfect grade of 10. Like with many collectibles, condition is key, and the T206 cards in better condition are worth considerably more than their shabbier counterparts. The high value of the cards has led to a good bit of counterfeiting over the years, so the caveat emptor rule applies.
PSA once said that T206 cards are “without a doubt, the most studied, dissected and discussed set in the history of the hobby.” The cards were printed at the American Lithographic Co. in New York City, using a six-color process, before being inserted into packs of tobacco products. Even though that market was exclusively adult, the cards proved to be hugely popular with children from the era, who collected and traded the unique color pictures of the ballplayers.
It was the legendary card collector Jefferson Burdick who coined the term “T206” in the first edition of his American Card Catalog, published in 1939. The cards were nicknamed the “White Border set” from the distinctive white borders surrounding the lithographs on each card, which measured 1 7/16 inches by 2 5/8 inches (considered by collectors the standard tobacco card size). A more thinly cut card was made for American Beauty cigarettes due to the small package size.
There were multiple cards for the same player in different poses, different uniforms or even with different teams after being traded, since the set was issued over a three-year period. Ty Cobb was featured in four different poses (a red portrait, a green portrait, with a bat on his shoulder and a bat off his shoulder). The best known and most valuable card, of course, is the Honus Wagner, partly because of his place among baseball’s immortals and partly because of the card’s rarity.
Remarkably, it’s estimated that only 50-200 of the Wagner cards were ever distributed to the public, and only a precious few survive today. There are several theories as to why the card is so rare. One is that the printing plate used to create Wagner’s card broke early on in the production process. Another is that there was a copyright dispute between the American Tobacco Co. and the artist who created the Wagner lithograph. But a third theory is most commonly accepted.
It states that Wagner himself simply objected to the card, possibly because he was a nonsmoker who didn’t want to encourage kids to start smoking (although it’s a fact that Wagner was a user of chewing tobacco and allowed his image to appear on cigar boxes and other tobacco-related products prior to 1909. Some think he objected to the card because he wanted more financial compensation for the use of his image. Whatever the reason, it’s the Holy Grail of cards today.
A high-quality example of the Wagner T206 card sold on eBay in 2000 for $1.27 million. The same card sold in 2007 for $2.35 million. Later that year, it changed hands for $2.8 million. In April 2013, a T206 “jumbo” Wagner (so-named because it measured a little bit larger than most other known examples) went for $2.1 million. The same card (the current record-holder, graded PSA 5) made $3.12 million in 2016 thru Goldin Auctions. The price included buyer’s premium.
The card that sold in 2007 for $2.8 million was previously owned by hockey star Wayne Gretzky and was purchased by Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. At the time of the sale, the card was rumored to have been trimmed. This was later confirmed, in 2013, when Bill Mastro, the former head of Mastro Auctions, who was deeply involved in the card’s sale history, admitted to the trimming as part of a plea deal stemming from mail fraud charges.
“In my opinion the popularity of the T206 cards is based on the wide array of top-notch Hall of Fame players in the set,” said Troy Thibodeau of Saco River Auction Co. in Biddeford, Maine. “Many of the other sets put out around the turn of the century were not inclusive. The cards themselves are considered fine art in the hobby, due to their vibrant colors.”
Thibodeau continued, “The T206 cards carry great mystique, as some of the most expensive baseball cards ever sold came from the set, like the Wagner card and several Ty Cobb backs. It’s also so large, with so many variations, that any collector can spend a lifetime working on it. I know people who only collect them by the tobacco ads on the back, or rare factory designations. It’s a wonderful set.”
As for market demand, Thibodeau observed, “In recent times I have noticed that prices have leveled off slightly. It seems that there is a huge interest in collecting 1950s cards and most of the recent action has been on high-end 1950s stars and rookies. Like anything, the hobby goes through ebbs and flows based on what people are hooked on currently, but I have no doubt that tobacco cards, especially the T206 cards, will always be near the top of the hobby.”