The Honus Wagner T206 is the sports card GOAT, and it always will be

Nearly 100,000 people flooded onto the floor of the 2021 National Sports Collectors Convention in suburban Chicago, all jostling for space while peering into glass cases. Some were there to buy, shelling out anywhere from a couple of bucks to hundreds of thousands on cards. Others just wanted a glimpse of what they had only ever read about -- the most sought-after and controversial card ever made.

Hidden in plain sight, so small and slight that hundreds of people filed past it without realizing what they were missing, sat a tiny, rectangular piece of cardboard so valuable, it was guarded by a fully armed, off-duty police officer. That piece of cardboard sold for $6.6 million on Sunday, making it the most expensive sports card ever sold in a market that has been inundated with million-dollar record breakers over the past two years.

It was a T206 Honus Wagner, often referred to as the Holy Grail or Mona Lisa of sports cards. There are roughly 60 known to exist.

Less than 2 inches wide and 3 inches tall, the T206 Wagner is, in essence, the story of the entire sports card industry. A tale of scarcity and ego, with a hint of scandal. A coming-of-age saga for a hobby that transformed from a promotion marketed toward kids into an investment opportunity for the mega-rich.

Yet, at its core, the Wagner is a cheap, mass-produced piece of paper. "It's just cold cardboard," said Michael O'Keeffe, who co-wrote a book on the T206 Wagner. "There's no tangible value to it other than what someone is willing to pay."

But people are willing to pay enormous sums. The sports card and memorabilia business is bigger than ever, and it's impossible to unpack how that happened without exploring the impact of the Honus Wagner card. So how did this humble sports card, once a child's plaything, become -- and remain -- the heartbeat of a multibillion-dollar industry?

In the beginning ...

A child of German immigrants, Wagner started working in a Pennsylvania coal mine when he was 12. In 1897, at age 23, he debuted for the Pittsburg Pirates -- 14 years before the letter H was even added to the city's name -- and quickly emerged as a star worthy of his own nickname: "The Flying Dutchman."

Wagner won eight batting titles in 21 seasons, tied with Tony Gwynn for the National League record. Wagner hit .300 or better in 15 straight seasons, could throw a baseball more than 400 feet, and led the league in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, stolen bases and RBIs multiple years. He is ranked eighth on the all-time hits list with 3,420.

When it came time for the first Hall of Fame vote in 1936, Wagner tied with Babe Ruth for 215 votes, second only to Ty Cobb's 222. Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson rounded out Cooperstown's inaugural class.

"We would ask people, 'Do you know who Honus Wagner was?'" said Brian Dwyer, president of Robert Edward Auctions, which auctioned off the record-breaking card on Sunday. "They'd say, 'No.' By and large, he's being remembered for his baseball card."

When Wagner's card was introduced in 1909, tobacco companies had been inserting stiff paper into cigarette and tobacco boxes for nearly 50 years as a way to protect the nicotine products. That year, the American Tobacco Company released its "white border" baseball cards inside 16 different brands, including Sweet Caporal, American Beauty and Carolina Brights.

A complete white border set contains 524 different illustrations, some with the same player in different poses. To date, there are more than 4,200 Ty Cobb cards from the series that have been graded. But there are only a few dozen Wagners known to exist.

The mystery of why there are so few Wagners as compared to other players is the greatest debate within the sports card community -- something collectors love to chew over.

One theory suggests the Wagner printing plate broke during production. Another suggests a copyright dispute between the artist and the tobacco company.

The most popular and romantic theory, though, has been put forward by Wagner's family and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (which has a T206 Wagner in its collection). They say that Wagner didn't want to promote smoking tobacco to children and asked the company to pull his card from production.

Other historians remain skeptical of that theory. "Wagner apparently had no reservations about his image being reproduced on cigar bands, which seem to belie the argument that he objected to shilling tobacco products," author Dave Jamieson wrote in the book "Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession."

A more cynical theory suggests Wagner wanted more money in return for using his name, image and likeness. According to this theory, Wagner was fighting for his NIL rights more than 100 years before NCAA athletes went to the Supreme Court in their push to be compensated.

Wagner was indeed a savvy businessman. In 1905, he agreed to put his name on a Louisville Slugger line of bats, making him the first professional athlete to sign an endorsement deal. He would go on to endorse a number of items, including chewing gum, Coca-Cola and gunpowder, according to Roger Abrams in his book "The Money Pitch: Baseball Free Agency and Salary Arbitration."

But O'Keeffe, who co-wrote "The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History's Most Desired Baseball Card," wonders whether it was a combination of both, with Wagner using the kids-smoking excuse to shield what was, in reality, a marketing play.

"He's an all-American story, a child of immigrants who did really well for himself," O'Keeffe said. "But cigarettes at the time were considered low class, what workers used because you didn't have time to smoke a pipe or a cigar. Even though everyone smoked or chewed, the guy who owned the Pirates and the manager of the Pirates -- both of whom were big influences on Wagner -- disdained cigarettes."

Whatever the truth, the American Tobacco Company stopped producing Wagner's card.

By 1939, pioneering card collector Jefferson Burdick was systematically cataloguing some 30,000 cards he collected in his lifetime. In his seminal work, "The United States Card Collectors Catalog," it was Burdick who gave the "white border" cards a new designation: T206, for the 206th release of tobacco cards.

Burdick determined that the T206 Honus Wagner was worth $50, the card's first known valuation. That translates to about $980 in 2021 dollars.

The T206 Wagner was officially the most valuable card in the world.

Mickey Mantle changes everything

There is no player more adored by postwar collectors than Mickey Mantle.

"Mickey Mantle was kind of one of the first to make good money as a secondary career in the memorabilia world," Jamieson said. "He was known to sign a lot of autographs, really crank them out."

There are more than 30 different types of Mantle cards to collect. Long before the current card boom, during the Great Recession in 2008, a 1951 Bowman Mantle rookie card sold for $600,000, at the time the second-highest sum ever paid for a sports card. That card was graded a "10" by Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA).

When cards go up for auction, most have been graded by at least one of three companies: PSA, Beckett Grading Services (BGS) or Sportscard Guaranty Corporation (SGC). All three rely on a 1-10 grading system, with 10 most often representing gem mint condition. Some companies offer grades for autographs added to the card, as well as "subgrading," which gives additional numerical grades for edges, corners, centering and surface.

But when it comes to Mantle, the Mick's rookie card isn't the most coveted card.

Instead, postwar collectors yearn for the 1952 Topps, with its turquoise background and comic-book-yellow bat resting gently on Mantle's shoulder as he looks off into the distance.

At the NSCC in July, there were two 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards sitting next to each other in a case. At first glance, they seem identical.

But a closer look reveals that one card is off-center, its turquoise background pushed to the left. As a result, PSA graded that card a 4.

The other is well-centered, but there are microscopic wrinkles on the turquoise near Mantle's hand and along his jawline. Yellow ink bleeds out below his facsimile signature. A speck of paper has flaked off from Mantle's cap. While the centering issue on the other card is more obvious, these tiny defects resulted in a lower grade of 3 by PSA.

Grading is "the lifeblood" of the card industry, according to Rick Probstein, CEO of Probstein123, a consigner and one of eBay's largest sellers of sports cards and memorabilia. "The difference between a 9 and a 10 could be a million dollars," he explained.

Similar to the T206 Wagner, the mythology of the card is also key. In the 1950s, dealers returned unsold cards to manufacturers to make room for the following year's set. Legend has it that the lion's share of unsold 1952 Topps were unceremoniously dumped by barge either into the Hudson River or Gowanus Bay near the Topps office in Manhattan.

Jamieson told ESPN in 2020 that the 1952 Mickey Mantle and the T206 Wagner owe their hallowed status to an alluring combination of lore and scarcity. They are "special cards that really had some mystique and mystery to them." There are only six reported 1952 Mickey Mantle cards with a PSA 9 grade in existence. And clothing entrepreneur Rob Gough wanted one of them. "I had about every industry expert, dealer, auction house hunting for the PSA 9," Gough told ESPN earlier this year.

When the card came up for sale in January, Gough snagged it for $5.2 million, stealing the title of most expensive sports card ever sold.

Temporarily, of course.

The boom (and bust) of the 1990s

It was the beginning of the millennium and card collecting had turned pro.

"I remember going into stores in the '80s and the '90s and being disgusted that they were now putting baseball cards behind glass cases and someone had to open them," O'Keeffe said. "I was like, 'This is bulls---.'"

O'Keeffe was a sports investigations reporter for the New York Daily News. He had been sent to a news conference at Mickey Mantle's Restaurant and Sports Bar on Central Park West. A card that had become known as the "Gretzky T206 Wagner" was about to be auctioned off.

As he gazed at the legendary card, O'Keeffe was stunned. The card was spectacular. "My brothers and I, when we got baseball cards, they would be trashed within 10 minutes," he remembers thinking. "How does that card stay in such good shape?"

That question launched O'Keeffe and a team of reporters on what would become a decade-long journey, resulting in dozens of articles, his book -- and one industry-changing criminal conviction.

"Eventually, we got what we think was the answer," he said. "It was doctored."

A sports memorabilia collector named Bill Mastro had dominated the sports card business in the 1980s, when he bought a Wagner and nearly two dozen other T206 cards for $25,000. Two years later, he sold just the Wagner to a card collector for $110,000. "That's the beauty of Bill Mastro," O'Keeffe said. "He hyped the s--- out of this stuff."

Bruce McNall, the owner of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, had by now heard of the card and convinced his star player, Wayne Gretzky, to help him purchase it in 1991. The $451,000 sale was brokered in part by Mastro.

The "Gretzky T206 Wagner," as it would henceforth be called, was the very first card to be graded by PSA, receiving an "8 Near Mint-Mint" designation. To put that into context, according to PSA's current population report, there are no other T206 Wagners that have received a grade above a 5. All but three have received a grade of 3 or lower.

But then McNall went to prison after admitting to defrauding six banks out of $236 million dollars. "Gretzky got stuck with the card and wound up selling it," O'Keeffe recounted. Walmart bought it and raffled it away in a 1995 promotional campaign. But the post office employee who won the card couldn't afford to keep it because of the taxes that came with owning a Wagner.

The card would continue to be sold and resold by prominent auction houses such as Christie's, Sotheby's and Robert Edward Auctions -- as well as private collectors, including MLB pitcher Tom Candiotti -- until it was dubbed the "most expensive card in the world" after Ken Kendrick, principal owner and managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, purchased it for $2.8 million in 2007.

That same year, O'Keeffe and his co-author, Teri Thompson, published their book and accused Mastro of "cleaning" the card by trimming its corners.

Card cleaning "is something that evolved over the years," O'Keeffe explained. "I talked to collectors who said, 'I always flattened cards' by putting them in a vise or putting books or bricks on them. Or they would cut the edges off so they're not dirty or floppy. So they stay sharp. It was OK in the '70s. Nobody thought about it. A Wagner card back then might be worth a couple thousand dollars, that's the high end. Common cards were a nickel or a dime. So, people did this all the time."

Cards were, after all, what kids had used in bike spokes.

But a new set of standards arrived in 1991 with the introduction of card grading. Using distilled water was OK. Removing stale gum by rubbing a nylon stocking on it was allowed.

Trimming, however, is strictly forbidden. An "altered" card may not receive a numerical grade.

Following a multiyear government investigation, including grand jury subpoenas issued to some of the most well-known card dealers in the nation, Mastro pleaded guilty in 2013 to a variety of federal charges, including mail fraud and "shill bidding," an illegal practice that uses associates to bid on auction items to increase prices.

During the investigation, Mastro finally admitted to what had only been whispered about for years: Yes, he had trimmed the Wagner with a paper cutter long before it was sold to Gretzky.

"The long-running and systematic nature of the scheme undermines confidence in the auction house and sports memorabilia industries, and calls into question the true value of merchandise," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven J. Dollear said at the time.

Card cleaning continues to dog the hobby, with The Washington Post in 2019 quoting sources who claimed the FBI was investigating a new batch of problematic cards, after amateur sleuths on a forum hosted by Blowout Cards began comparing before and after pictures of suspect cards.

"A lot of us thought these cards were never meant to be in a case forever, analyzed by guys in a dark room, under black lights in some bunker," Jamieson said. "But there's definitely a need for it. There's shade in this industry. A lot of doctoring fed into the desire for third-party grading."

Kendrick, who still owns the Gretzky T206 Honus card, declined ESPN's request for an interview, but he told the New York Times in 2019 that "it was upsetting" to learn the card had been trimmed.

He told the newspaper that he had heard the rumors before he bought the card, "But I wanted to have the card, and I still want the card."

"The PSA 8 Wagner is the one item in this hobby that I believe the negative becomes a positive," Dwyer said.

Because Kendrick also told the Times he had received an offer to buy his card for four times what he'd paid. But he didn't sell what was still, in 2019, the record-breaking card.

Instead, Mike Trout and a new era of cards were about to cut out the kids and catapult the hobby into a multibillion-dollar business.

The modern era

Despite the boom of the 1980s, card trading had a substantial bust in the early 1990s. Most experts agree the bubble burst due to two factors: the 1994 MLB strike and rampant overproduction.

"Overproduction killed everything. It took us a good 10 years or more to recover," said Brian Gray, CEO of Leaf Trading Cards. "As you moved into the 2000s, the production level in cards was massively lower."

Instead of waiting decades for cards to become scarce due to time and circumstance (like Mom throwing away your precious childhood collection), companies such as Topps, Upper Deck, Donruss, Leaf and current industry leader Panini now release sets with sought-after, serial-numbered cards that are limited to just 50, 25, 10 or sometimes five cards. The most sought-after modern cards are numbered "1/1," called one-of-ones.

Some of these limited inserts contain a piece of a game ticket, a game-used piece of cleat or a piece of hardwood floor. Some use holograms and reflective surfaces (often called "refractors"). The most collectable tend to be rookie cards that include a superstar athlete's authenticated autograph (dubbed "autos") or a piece of the athlete's jersey (called a "patch"). If you've got the holy trinity -- an autographed rookie card with a piece of jersey -- you've got a Rookie Patch Autograph, affectionately termed an "RPA."

Sometimes a player will sign a sticker that will later be added to the card. There also are "cut autos," more common with vintage players, with a signature cut from a check or document and implanted into the card. The most desirable autographs are "on-card," meaning the player signed the card's actual surface.

There's also a hierarchy in patches: a monotone piece of jersey (called a "napkin") is worth less than a chunk that features a piece of a player's number, name or team logo. "NFL Shields" and NBA "Logomans," one-of-ones, are nearly invaluable.

These cards are tucked into packs that come with much less-desirable "base" cards, many that end up not being worth much. Manufacturers widely promote the desirable cards, called "chase" or "hits," but don't reveal which pack, box or case contains the coveted card.

Multiple industry experts told ESPN that what's also driving the modern market is the entry of international investors, small investment groups and even family foundations looking to park their old money in a new financial instrument.

"They don't think this is a short-term thing," Ken Goldin of Goldin Auctions told ESPN in September 2020. "They'd rather know that they have the best LeBron [James], the best Kobe Bryant, Mike Trout collection, than look at a bunch of artwork of painters who died 400 years ago, that they've got to keep locked in a safe. Individuals like that are looking at this as an asset class, part of their allocation."

For 13 years, a T206 Wagner was the most expensive card ever sold: Kendrick's Gretzky T206, from 2007 to 2016, then a PSA 5 Wagner that sold for $3.12 million through Goldin Auctions in 2016. But then, in August 2020, a Mike Trout 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Superfractor sold at auction for $3.9 million. In other words, it is Trout's rookie card with a shiny, prismatic surface and an on-card autograph, and it is numbered 1/1.

In July, a 2017 Panini National Treasures Patrick Mahomes 1/1 NFL Shield on-card rookie auto sold for $4.3 million, making it the most expensive NFL card ever sold. To translate: The full NFL shield from his uniform is embedded in the card, it features his on-card autograph and it is numbered 1/1.

A few months earlier, in April, Upper Deck's 2003-04 Exquisite Collection RPA parallel LeBron James card sold for $5.2 million, tying the 1952 Mickey Mantle record for most ever spent on a card. By now, you can hopefully make sense of what it contained: James' rookie card with a patch and on-card autograph, numbered to 23 with a BGS 9 grade and a perfect 10 signature grade.

The demand for these modern cards has reached such a frenzy that at this year's National, a dealer had an unopened 2017 Panini National Treasures Football case -- containing 32 cards -- from the same collection that produced the Mahomes record breaker for sale.

The case, on average, offers 12 autographs and 12 memorabilia cards, but there's no guarantee the Mahomes RPA would be in the box. Cases retailed for $2,000 in 2017; at the National, the price tag was $145,000 -- enough to buy a decent house in Kansas City when the Chiefs drafted Mahomes.

And with so much money at stake, the "hobby" has become susceptible to problems that have long plagued sports tickets and athletic shoes, with reports of computer bots buying up boxes online. In May, ESPN's Tom VanHaaren reported how Target limited sports card sales to three items per customer and then paused sales outright "out of caution for its employees and customers."

It all, in a way, started with the Wagner card. Whether he intended to or not, Wagner is the pioneer of a multibillion-dollar industry that has perfected demand through scarcity.

And card experts like Jamieson never doubted that, in spite of the modern-day card delirium of late, Wagner would once again reign supreme. "Something Michael Gidwitz, who sold the first million-dollar Wagner, said that made an impression on me was how, in fine art, if you ask a bunch of modern art curators, 'What's the greatest work of modern art?' they all have different opinions," he said. "There's not much discussion when it comes to baseball cards: It's the T206 Wagner."

The T206 strikes back

When Fred McKie was 9 years old, baseball cards weren't just cardboard and ink. They were social currency.

"I moved into a new neighborhood and all the kids were doing it," said McKie, now retired in New Jersey. "I'd ride my bike to the movie theater, [watch] 'Zorro,' and trade cards in the back with other kids from the neighborhood."

When he was in college, he and a young man a few years younger bonded over collecting. "I wasn't really a big collector of prewar cards, but he was into the older stuff, and it became a competition," McKie said.

In 1972, his buddy bought a T206 Wagner for $1,500. "So if he had one, I had to have one," McKie said.

That friend? Bill Mastro.

McKie doesn't want to talk about Mastro and his conviction, but he will tell you all about the Wagner he bought for $1,100 at auction in 1973 to compete with his friend: "It was just part of my collection, in my apartment in an album."

Three years later, a well-known collector named Barry Halper offered McKie $2,500 -- a fortune to McKie, who wanted to open a shoe store. "It was really good money," he said. "It allowed me to start a business, which warped into more businesses, which allowed me to retire at 55."

McKie has watched his Wagner from afar each time it has been sold and resold. Unlike his buddy's card, his T206 Wagner has never been accused of card cleaning. It was graded a PSA 3 and, in 2012, fetched $1.2 million. "Every time it goes for more and more," McKie sighed.

But McKie doesn't lose sleep over the Wagner. Doesn't regret what could've been. He would've been baseball card rich and money poor, he reasons. He doesn't understand modern cards. He resents the professionalization of the pastime.

Last night, however, did elicit a pang of regret.

That record-breaking Wagner, the one that's now worth $6.6 million, the new king of cards? That was McKie's.

"I owned it at one time, so you can puff your chest out, being part of its history," McKie said. "I couldn't anywhere near afford it nowadays."

He then laughed: "I have a lot more cards today that are rarer than the Wagner."

And with the way card collecting is going these days, maybe one of those cards will next take the title of "most expensive card ever sold." Or perhaps it'll be a card featuring an athlete who hasn't even gone pro yet. And don't ever underestimate the 1952 Topps Mantle.

But you can bet, whichever card does take the title, a T206 Wagner will be waiting to steal it back.