In a recent visit, the Old Duck teased you with the top ten list of baseball card sets in history while leaving out the number one set. Today, we’ll look at the tobacco card set from over 100 years ago nicknamed “The Monster”. To put some perspective on the timeframe, on opening day of the 1910 season, President William Howard Taft declared that baseball would officially become our “National Pastime”. That is the backdrop for a massive set that essentially began the history of the hobby while also helping to create the heroes of the game.
T206’s were sold as a premium item in tobacco products from 1909 through 1911. Almost all the cards have only a tobacco advertisement on the back promoting the most popular brands of the American Tobacco Company. So, when you turn over a T206, it might say “Piedmont”, “Old Mill”, “Sweet Caporal” or some other name. There are 16 varieties in all and include numerous scarcities, the most famous of which is a Ty Cobb card with “King of the Smoking Tobacco World” on the red back portrait. Even though it wasn’t a scarcity at the time of production, the Honus Wagner card has become the pinnacle of the hobby, as the star objected to the product and it was pulled from the set after only relatively few were made.
The series includes 524 different cards measuring only 1-7/16″ by 2-5/8″ with a white border and the size was dictated by the packages they shared with the company’s products. The collection includes 390 cards of major league players as well as 134 minor leaguers and the speculation is that the minor league players were added late in the run to interest fans living outside the areas of major league cities. While the basic set is 524, there are thousands of variations due to the different tobacco backs, switched poses of the players and updated team affiliation due to trades.
The most amazing fact about the set is that there are 76 different cards featuring Hall of Fame members. In that category are famous names from the past that even casual fans might recognize. How about “Home Run” Baker, Ty Cobb, Tinker-Evers-Chance, Walter Johnson, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Plank, Tris Speaker & Cy Young?
A few years ago, I had the privilege of assisting the owners of a collection with 100 + examples from this iconic set.
A couple living in a Phoenix area retirement community happened to see an episode of the PBS series “Antiques Roadshow” that featured some valuable baseball cards found in the attic of a boarding house in New England and wondered if one of their family artifacts might be of value. Through a succession of local referrals, they contacted me and asked for my expertise and assistance in helping them with the project. While I’m always optimistic about collections, the reality is that most folks significantly overvalue what they own and the Old Duck ends up being the bearer of bad tidings. When I arrived at their home and walked down the hallway, it was obvious that this experience would be different.
On the wall, in a glass-covered frame sized 3 feet x 5 feet, was a display of about 200 baseball cards from the early 1900’s. The owner of the collection (we’ll call him Phil) proceeded to tell the story. His Uncle was a baseball fan and a heavy smoker who passed away in the 1960’s at age 90. He had collected baseball cards that were included in tobacco products around 1910 and, at some point, decided to create a beautiful display to put up in his house. Phil (who was born in 1944) remembered the framed collection and always loved looking at it as a child, so we know it has been encapsulated for over 65 years. Initially it was left to Phil’s Dad and has now been in his possession for the good part of 40 years. He and his wife didn’t really know what to do in terms of appraising it, selling it, insuring it or just keeping it, so we talked about the options.
In today’s marketplace, the key to older sports collectibles is the authenticity and condition. Even though the display looked great, there was no way to tell if all of the cards were authentic and unless they just wanted to leave it on the wall as a memento, the logical approach was to open it up and see what they really had. They decided that reaping some profit from the cards would be their priority, as they wanted to give the money to a needy cause. So, after a lengthy battle with 50+ year-old screws in the back of the wood, we turned over the frame.
If you’ve been thinking along with me on this, your reasonable fear is correct. All of the cards had been glued onto a black felt backing to keep them secure in the frame. Removing a fragile piece of cardboard from vintage glue is a daunting task and really can’t be done without damaging the back of the card. We decided to take some samples off the backing in an attempt to verify the authenticity and keep them intact enough to send off to a 3rd party firm for grading and authentication. A number of factors became clear very quickly…1) many of the cards were real because they had cigarette ads (Piedmont, Sweet Caporal, etc.) on the back of the cards confirming they came from an era starting in 1909…2) no matter how you tried to remove them, the backs were going to be damaged…3) some of the “cards” had blank backs and the texture of paper instead of cardboard meaning they were probably just magazine photos added to enhance the display.
To test the items without spending too much of their money, I sent ten (10) of the cards to the authentication company and then we went through the agonizing process of waiting 3-4 weeks for the results. When the cards came back there was good news and bad news. Eight of the ten cards were designated as “Authentic” without a grade due to the damage on the backs. Two others were not authenticated because they had “evidence of trimming”. That doesn’t mean they weren’t real, it’s just that the original owner had cropped them slightly to improve the aesthetics. While this didn’t turn out to be a major windfall for Phil and his wife, it was a project worth pursuing because these cards looked much better on the front than many similar cards with actual grades. It gave collectors of vintage cards the opportunity to own a 100 year-old collectible at an affordable price and I was very glad to be the conduit for that process.
The first eight had an enormous amount of history and here’s who was included…
> 1909-1911 T206 Nap Lajoie (2B) – Napoleon was one of the best players of this era. He played from 1896 – 1916, was a .338 lifetime hitter with over 3,200 hits and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937.
> 1909 – 1911 T206 Willie Keeler (OF) – Nicknamed “Wee Willie” at 5′ 4″, he played 19 seasons with a lifetime BA of .341.
> 1909 – 1911 T206 Hal Chase (1B) – Played 15 big-league seasons and led the Federal League with 17 HR’s in 1915 and then won the National League batting title in 1916 with a .339 average.
> 1909 – 1911 T206 Jim McGinley (P) – This set included minor league players and the uniform on his card portrait says “Toronto”. He did pitch a few games for the Cardinals in 1904-05 but the bulk of his career was in the Eastern League where he won 22 games for the Maple Leafs in 1909.
> 1909 – 1911 T206 Charley Carr (1B) – Played in the majors until 1906, but was with the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association when these cards were issued.
> 1909 – 1911 T206 Lee Quillen (3B) – The correct spelling of his name is “Quillin” and he only played 53 games for the White Sox in 1906-07. A member of the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in 1909.
> 1909 – 1911 T206 Iron Man McGinnity (P) – “Joe” actually ended his major league playing career in 1908 but won 29 games for the Newark Indians of the Eastern League in 1909. You can understand the nickname when you see his record with the New York Giants. In 1903, he pitched 434 innings and won 31 games…the following season he threw 408 innings and won 35 games. Those were league-leading totals in both years and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1946.
> 1912 T207 Walter Johnson (P) – “The Big Train” joined Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner & Mathewson in the inaugural Hall of Fame Class of 1936. He pitched for the Washington Senators for 21 seasons and won 417 games.
That was a nice start to a century-old collection and eventually we authenticated another 100 cards from the find. Here are some highlights from the famous, and not so famous, baseball players who spent a few moments on my desk before they were sold…
> Jake Beckley, Kansas City Blues Manager – “Eagle Eye” Beckley was a 1B who hit over .300 14 times during his 20-year career in the National League. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1971
> George Davis, White Sox SS – Batted over .300 nine times and led the Pale Hose to a World Series Championship in 1906. He was elected to Cooperstown by the Veteran’s Committee in 1998.
> Miller Huggins, Reds SS – “Mighty Mite” played 13 seasons in the NL but his claim to fame came as the Manager of the New York Yankees from 1918-1929, which included the legendary 1927 team with Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig. Inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1964.
> Christy Mathewson, Giants Pitcher – One of the five charter members of the Hall of Fame inducted in 1936, “Big Six” is one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. He won 373 games over a 17-year career and had 30 or more wins in a season four times.
> Gavvy Cravath, Minneapolis Millers OF – Even though he spent many years in the minors, after joining the Phillies at age 31, he led the NL in Home Runs six times and was one of the great power hitters of the dead-ball era.
> Sherry Magee, Phillies OF – Played 16 seasons in the majors and in 1910, led the NL in batting with a .331 average. He also led the NL in RBI’s on four separate occasions and swiped a total of 441 bases.
> John Anderson, Providence Grays 1B/OF – Born in Norway, “Honest John” had 14 productive seasons in the majors and was in his last year at age 35 when he appeared in the T206 set.
> Bill Bergen, Dodgers Catcher – Considered one of the best defensive Catchers of the time during his 11-year career, he was also one of the worst hitters. In over 3,000 lifetime AB’s, his batting average was .170.
> Bill Clymer, Columbus Senators Manager – “Derby Day Bill” knew early on that he wasn’t destined to be a major league player when he went 0-for-11 in his 1891 debut. He went on to win 2,122 games as one of the best minor league managers of all time.
> Monte Cross, Indianapolis Indians SS – A weak-hitting infielder who played 15 seasons in the majors, he hit the first home run of the 20th century on April 19,1900.
> Mickey Doolan, Phillies SS – “Doc” led the NL in fielding twice and was one of the most eduacated players of the day, with a degree from Villanova where he studied dentistry. Stayed in the game as a manager and coach until 1932, then practiced dentistry until his retirement in 1947.
> Clyde Engle, New York Highlanders Utility – “Hack” didn’t have much of an overall career, but he was a significant part of baseball history. In the 1912 World Series, his lazy fly ball in the 10th inning of the deciding game was dropped by the Giants’ Fred Snodgrass leading to the Red Sox victory.
> Tommy Leach, Pirates OF – Amassed over 2,000 hits in a 19-year career and hit four triples in the first World Series game ever played (1903).
> Carl Lundgren, Cubs Pitcher – Played on two World Series championship teams with the Cubs (1907 & 1908) and had the nickname “The Human Icicle” for his ability to pitch in cold weather.
> Fred Mitchell, Toronto Maple Leafs Pitcher – Only an average player, he went on to coach with the Braves and then managed the Cubs to the NL pennant in 1918.
> Ollie Pickering, Minneapolis Millers OF – Played eight seasons in the majors with six different teams. In 1901, he was the first batter in the new American League while playing for the Cleveland Blues.
> Ossee Schreck, Columbus Senators C – A good catcher, he was Rube Waddell’s battery mate for six years with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. He was born Ossee Freeman Schreckengost.
> Frank Smith, White Sox Pitcher – He was the son of a furniture mover and claimed that he could carry a baby grand piano up four flight of stairs without a break. That led to his nickname…”Piano Mover” Smith.
> Mike Donlin, Giants OF – One of the most notorious characters of the era, “Turkey Mike” was a drinker and playboy known for his lifestyle and baseball ability. He hit over .300 in ten of his 12 seasons but also ended up in prison for public drunkenness in 1902. Donlin took several seasons off to act in vaudeville and appeared in silent movies after his baseball career ended.
That’s just a sprinkling of the players from the amazing collection and it was a privilege to be part of the project. Thanks to baseball-reference.com and the T206 book authored by Tom & Ellen Zappala for supplying some of the source material.