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$1 million for a baseball card? A Honus Wagner T206 is back on the market

Mar 26, 2012, 2:21 PM EDT

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honuswagnercard AP

Was the notorious Honus Wagner T206 baseball card the first example of a “chase” card — in other words, a card that was purposely taken off the market prematurely in order to drive up the value? That would seem to be a pretty advanced marketing tactic for 1909, but one noted commentator and collector says it just may be the case.

One of the notorious Honus Wagner T206′s is currently on the market — which is news, since there are said to be only around 60 of them in existence. This one, owned by Sunset Hills sports collectibles dealer Bill Goodwin, is being sold in an online auction and has a minimum price of $300,000 — although Goodwin says it could for as much as $1 million, according to several sources. Not bad for a small piece of cardboard.

It’s the card that was released in cigarette packs sold by the American Tobacco Co., from 1909 to 1911, and can now be worth anywhere from $100,000 for one in poor condition, to a record $2.8 million for the notorious “Gretzky Wagner”, purchased by Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick in 2010. It got its name because it was once owned by Wayne Gretzky. Only about 200 of the T206 Wagners were ever distributed, with the prevailing belief among collectors that Wagner didn’t want kids exposed to tobacco, and thus threatened to sue the company unless they stopped production.

But noted commentator and baseball card guru Keith Olbermann has a different take on it.

“I actually think there’s a chance this was the first “chase” card,” Olbermann told Off the Bench. (‘Chase card’ meaning a card made deliberately scarce to drive sales). “The timeline doesn’t add up. Consent letters went out in February, the card was in the first series in March, it was reported not to have turned up in packs as of July, and the ad showing the card that supposedly tipped Wagner off was in August. The timeline is wrong.”

So did Wagner and the American Tobacco Co., possibly in cahoots, create the first limited edition baseball card? That’s an interesting prospect. Neither party could have known it would one day be this valuable, however. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Whatever the reason, Big Tobacco blinked and stopped issuing Wagner cards. Historians estimate that 60 cards still exist, and many are in poor shape. Only 22 have earned a grading from Sportscard Guarantee Corp. (SGC) or Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA), the major grading firms in the industry.

Goodwin’s card was graded at “VG-3″ by SGC.

“There are only five graded higher,” he said. “So this is one of the top examples in existence.”

By the way, Goodwin’s stories about Vietnam — where he served in the infantry in 1967 — are more interesting than those about sports collectibles. He did, after all, win two Purple Hearts.

The second time, Goodwin was on a personnel carrier when the squad was attacked. An explosion rocked the carrier and knocked the mounted M-50 machine gun into Goodwin’s face, “twice, right in the mouth,” he said.

“I’m almost embarrassed to get a medal for that,” he said, then laughed as he recounted his treatment at a nearby field hospital.

“My teeth and part of my gum had to be stitched back in. While the medic is doing it, without any anesthesia, we come under a mortar attack. So I’m under the cot with a needle and thread still dangling from my mouth and mortar rounds are coming in.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m starting to have a bad feeling about this.’”