'The Wagner' Is in a League by Itself : Memorabilia: The 1909 Honus Wagner card has brought more money and more fame than any other.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the sports memorabilia collector, it is the ultimate, the Grail, the Mona Lisa, the best there ever was, the best there ever will be.

It is a piece of layered cardboard, 1 1/2 inches wide by 2 1/2 inches deep, with printing on the back, a picture on the front and no intrinsic value.

"It" is a portrait of Honus Wagner, a premium given away with eight brands of cigarettes in 1909. It is the baseball card of all baseball cards, the one that has brought more money and has garnered the most fame outside the hobby.

Perhaps the finest copy of the 40 or 50 in existence, the one that King owner Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky paid $451,000 on March 22 in a Sotheby's auction, is on display, under armed guard, at the 12th National Sports Collectors Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. The convention's final day is today, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

As bits of cardboard go, this one gets more than its share of attention. One has to wonder why.

"That card has been advertised as the rarest, the most desirable," said Alan Rosen, a New Jersey dealer known as "Mr. Mint" because of the high quality of his wares. "It's been featured in all of our hobby publications and price guides, the Honus Wagner, the Holy Grail, the Sistine Chapel of baseball cards. And that's what's been drummed into people's heads.

"There are much rarer cards in the hobby," Rosen said. "But the Wagner and the '52 Mantle, those are the marquee names."

Wrote Bill Heitman in a 1980 pamphlet on that set of cards: "To the collector and non-collector, the Wagner is the symbol of baseball card collecting."

It has always been that way, ever since the hobby has been organized. There are numerous reasons, from the stature of the player to the scarcity of the card. Not to mention a palatable legend attached to it.

The modern fan might find it hard to believe, but in his day, John Peter Wagner was considered the best player the game had ever seen.

Known as "The Flying Dutchman," Honus Wagner led the National League in batting average eight times while playing for Pittsburgh. He batted .329 in a 21-year career that ended in 1917. He is generally considered the game's greatest shortstop.

But Wagner's position in baseball was measured less in statistics than in how he carried and inspired his team. He was a great clutch hitter, leading the National League in runs batted in four times.

In 1908, he carried Pittsburgh to within one game of the pennant, which was won by the Chicago Cubs in a playoff with the New York Giants. That pennant race and an equally tight one in the American League was key in establishing baseball as America's favorite game.

That's what tobacco baron James Buchanan Duke had in mind when his company began to use that interest to its advantage. Duke was owner of the American Tobacco Co., a trust that included 18 brands of cigarettes. To help promote the product, picture cards were included in each package of cigarettes.

After the 1908 season, American Tobacco produced a set of baseball cards. It ran for three years, with various additions to the set, making for a total of 523 cards. They included Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, and Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance.

One of those cards featured Wagner. But for some reason, it was almost immediately withdrawn from circulation. And therein lies the legend.

The popular version is that Wagner was a non-smoker and didn't wish to be involved in the promotion of the habit. Since it makes a good story, most people are willing to ignore the fact that he appeared in other tobacco sets, as well as in tobacco ads in periodicals and that he chewed tobacco; a card issued in 1948, when he was a Pirates' coach, shows him dipping into a pouch.

Wagner was a tough negotiator. He announced his retirement before the 1908 season, supposedly for health reasons, before accepting a raise to return. It's possible that he simply balked at not being paid for the use of his portrait.

Whatever the reason, the card all but disappeared from memory. When Jefferson Burdick, the Syracuse, N.Y., collector who put together the hobby's first catalogue, was collecting information about the set, he had to be sent a copy of the Wagner card as proof, by a collector named, coincidently, John Wagner.

In Burdick's 1960 American Card Catalogue, the Wagner was valued at $50; no other card was considered worth more than $10. In 1981, a copy sold for $25,000.

The card reportedly broke six figures in 1988. Soon after, Jim Copeland of Copeland Sporting Goods in San Luis Obispo pushed it to $140,000. By this past spring, Copeland was prepared to sell his extensive collection in an auction at Sotheby's of New York.

Given the softness of the market last winter, Mike Berkus wasn't sure what to make of the timing of Copeland's departure from the hobby.

"You see, Jim Copeland was the buyer in our hobby," said Berkus, business manager of the National Convention. "He's the one who drove Wagner up to begin with. I turned it down at $600, nobody was going to fool me. I did, in 1972, 600 bucks, no way.

"So I looked at it as, I don't think this is going to be a normal situation, you're either going to see a devastating event or we're going to see something which is going to create incredible ramifications in the hobby on a positive note. That's what took place."

The winning bid, which was phoned in, was $410,000. With the 10% commission, the bill came to $451,000.

Rosen, who was present at the auction, sensed the electricity created by the newcomers to the hobby who were spending record amounts of money for numerous items.

"It was insanity there," he said. "That was the showcase of showcases, the World Series."

Then word got out about the identity of the purchasers.

"I got a call from the floor at the auction in New York, inside knowledge that said it's Gretzky that bought it," Rosen said. "When I heard that, I suddenly realized at that point, that's it. Having one of the greatest sports figures and owners become associated with the greatest collectible, that's too much."

The World's Most Famous Baseball Card now sits locked in a case at one side of the convention's corporate island, an armed guard at its side. Every night it is packed up and put away for safe keeping.

There is almost always a small crowd around it, taking a peek. Most of them already know what it looks like. But this one, well, this is the Wagner.

"Everybody was in awe of the card," said Jason Goldberg of Superior Galleries, 51% of which is owned by McNall. "People were crowding around, taking pictures, taking home videos."

That any baseball card is worth nearly half a million dollars is open to debate. But if one considers the publicity generated, Honus more than paid his way. Superior, of Beverly Hills, is hoping to carve a niche in the sports memorabilia world as an auction house for high quality merchandise.

Berkus had sold out his corporate booths and was on vacation when he checked in with his office and found out that Superior Galleries had called.

"I tied into it that that's owned by Bruce McNall," he said. "I said, 'Wait a minute, what do they want?' I called them and they said 'We were thinking of bringing in the Wagner.' I said, 'Say no more. It would be our pleasure.' "

The Wagner has company. Also on display is a New York Yankee uniform autographed by Babe Ruth, which is considered one of the two-best such items in existence. Superior plans to sell the uniform at an auction in October. Also on display were uniforms worn by Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Gordie Howe.

The Wagner won't be sold, however. An offer of more than $600,000 has been turned down.

"That particular one, that's the best one in the world," said Rosen, wistfully. He should know. He's sold seven Wagner cards, two of them twice. He had another one for sale this weekend. "I don't know how it can be better. I just don't know how."

What could be better than the best?

Convention notes

Autograph signers today will be Jim Brown, Bart Starr, Steve Carlton and Lou Brock in the morning, Hank Aaron and Brooks Robinson at midday, and Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Aparicio and Bobby Hull in the afternoon. Starr, Robinson and Hull will be giving free autographs. . . . The long lines for promotional giveaways continued Saturday, fueled by prospects of financial gain. One person, standing no more than 15 feet from the distribution booths, was offering $50 for each package of limited edition items produced by the convention's corporate sponsors. Another wore a T-shirt that read "I Buy Promos." One young entrepreneur from Texas said he has spent $1,000 acquiring promos the day before, and sold them for $2,000. "It's easy money," he said. . . . Perhaps the most innovative marketing strategy to debut at the convention was that of the Wild Card company of Hamilton, Ohio. Wild Card will produce a set of college football draft picks, with one of every 100 cards carrying a stripe with a number, ranging from five to 1,000. Collectors who receive such a card will be able to send it back to the company and get that number of cards of the player in return.

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