Jeff Passan, Ken Kendrick and Baseball Cards

In my forum that I’ve been fortunately given, I’d like to expand upon the profile that Jeff Passan gave of the baseball card community, most particularly the all too famous T206 Honus Wagner card. In his article, he made two mistakes that non-baseball collecting commentators make commonly. I’ll address both of them here.

You’ve probably heard of the card before, ones selling at auction in excess of one million dollars. You might think that it’s the rarest card in the hobby. This can’t be further from the truth. The Wagner card is fairly plentiful, as far as century old baseball cardboard is concerned, numbering well over fifty known to exist.

Rare in vintage baseball collecting is usually reserved for those with a total extent of fewer than ten. Passan does rightfully acknowledge that there are many cards rarer than the Wagner.

Passan makes a mistake, though, in telling of how the Wagner originally became scarce. The idealized story that gets thrown around is that Wagner didn’t want children buying and smoking cigarette packs, where this particular card would be distributed in, and so didn’t allow the American Tobacco Company (ATC) to use his likeness.

While nice, this story is most likely apocryphal. The more likely story is that Wagner wanted to be paid for use of his image (players at the time weren’t usually paid for their images placed on baseball cards). When the ATC denied his request for monetary compensation he had his card withdrawn. Not before some copies had already been distributed, however.

The T in T206 that you see when referring to the Wagner card is an identifier standing for tobacco. T-cards were originally circulated in packs of tobacco or cigarettes. There are other identifiers; D-cards were distributed by bakeries, M-cards by magazines and so on. Wagner has other T, but we have no evidence of him ever requesting them not to use his image. This T216 for example was distributed in Kotton cigarettes.

Companies, such as Kotton, were much smaller than the ATC and it would not have been advantageous for Wagner to have requested compensation from them, as it likely would have been denied. If Wagner was so virtuous in his request, why did he allow these other cards to remain?

The second issue I have with the article is in Passan’s description of the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card. He uses an analogy saying the Mantle card is “the Guernica to Wagner’s Starry Night.” I’ll link to Picasso’s Guernica here in case you haven’t heard of it in your modern art history course. I’m not quite sure what Passan means with this analogy. Is he saying the Guernica is less valuable, less notable than Starry Night? Is the Guernica the second best painting in the modern art sphere to Starry Night being the first?

Either way, there are a multitude of cards that are both more valuable and scarcer. The 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth card is, in my opinion, the best card (yes better than Wagner) in the hobby and holds both of those achievements over the Mantle card. I can only assume that Passan was using the analogy to suit Ken Kendrick, the Arizona Diamondbacks owner who is the feature of his profile. And to be honest, Kendrick’s baseball collecting appears to lack breadth as well as possessing a shallow knowledge of the hobby.

Kendrick seems to own about thirty high-end cards, most of which are post-World War 2; the hobby uses this as a dividing line between the two eras. He has no method to his collecting except just wanting the highest graded card he can own. He appears to have no interest in owning lesser known players from sets, such as T206, and I have never seen him make mention of them.

We should remember though that there are different types of collectors out there and Kendrick is just one among many. What’s important though is the attention it brings to the hobby. Kendrick is one of the most illustrious and famous collectors out there and any positive attention that the hobby can garner is a good thing.

What we should all learn from this though is that baseball cards are both interesting and have a rich heritage. Visiting the exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum if you so happen to be enjoying some late spring training action.

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