If you listen to the popular narrative or pay even passing attention to “big” hobby news when it breaks, you might be left with the impression that Honus Wagner was a man defined by a single baseball card.
In fact, that very name — “Honus Wagner” — has become synonymous with the hobby’s most iconic and valuable card, much like “Google” now means something along the lines of … “dude, did you even look it up?”.
The truth is, of course, that Wagner was much more than a short-issue tobacco card.
In fact, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ shortstop was one of baseball’s first superstars, collecting more than 3400 hits and batting .328 in a 21-year big league career that actually began with the National League’s old Louisville Colonels 1897.
Along the way, Wagner helped the Bucs to two World Series appearances, including a championship in 1909.
Of course, that’s the same year the famed T206 tobacco series first saw the light of day, and with it, the several handsful of Wagner cards that have since taken on the status of cardboard Holy Grail among collectors.
But it was the man’s status on the field, coupled with its scarcity and big press presence over the years, that has made that Honus card so desirable.
I mean, do you think Bill Abstein have caused such a ruckus if his card had been the rare one, rather than a guy — Wagner — who ended up as one of just five men in the Hall of Fame’s first-ever class, announced in 1936 (inducted in 1939).
Nah. Had to be an all-timer.
Heck, even today, Wagner still stands number one on the all-time list of shortstops if you believe in Sabermetrics devices like WAR and JAWS.
But Honus Wagner didn’t just walk away from the game he loved when he stopped playing after the 1917 season at age 43.
The Flying Dutchman played for and managed a semi-pro team for awhile, but his real retirement gig was right where he always wanted to be — on the field, at Forbes Field, coaching for his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.
In fact, Wagner kept right on coaching with the Bucs through the 1952 season, when he was 78 years old.
Now, during most of his time in the coach’s box and the dugout, there weren’t many baseball cards issued at all — the 1930s and 1940s were generally pretty lean, grim years. And there certainly weren’t many cards of coaches running around out there.
But in 1948, with the dust and gloom of World War II finally starting to lift, the fledgling modern hobby rumbled to life, thanks to modest issues from confectioners Bowman and Leaf.
And there in that Leaf set, on card #70, collectors were greeted by a familiar face, albeit greatly aged and pretty grouchy looking … and with a funny name.
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The card may say “John” Wagner on the front, but there’s no denying that it’s good old Honus Wagner fairly glaring at us as he gets ready to plop a plug of tobacco into his mouth.
Why, he looks the very definition of the much romanticized grizzled old baseball veteran!
But if you’ve read many stories about Wagner and that otherworldly T206 of his, this Leaf card might just wrack your soul with waves of karmic dissonance.
I mean, the whole reason that T206 card is so rare is that Wagner himself put the kibosh on it shortly after it was issued because he didn’t want to be associated with tobacco … right?
Didn’t want to influence kids to pick up the habit … right?
So how, then, could this same man appear on a bubble gum card some 40 years later cavorting with the chaw?
Well, seems that old story may have come with a bit of marketing spin, and dash of wishful thinking, and a heaping spoonful of dubious distinctions.
Because, while it does appear to be true that Wagner had the card pulled from production, his exact reasoning remains cloudy all these decades later.
And, as that 1948 Leaf card argues, the story probably reads a bit differently than we have always been led to believe.
While Honus is probably most famous for that T206 baseball card of his, his long and terrific career generated tons of gorgeous artifacts, like this one on eBay:
That’s a ball signed by Wagner when he was a coach with the 1936 Pirates.
Check out the full listing on eBay right here (affiliate link).