Honus Wagner…even those with only a cursory knowledge of sports memorabilia recognize the name based on a card that is considered by many the Holy Grail of sports collectables. The problem I have with this analogy is that unlike the Holy Grail, there are actually multiple offerings of Wagner’s T 206. These slabs of cardboard, with no real direct connection to the man are valued in some cases at well over $2,000,000.
The Wagner card value has been driven by condition and scarcity. By way of illustration, Rob Lifson of Robert Edward’s Auction noted in his blog of 23 September 2008 that “According to the PSA population report, for example, twenty of the twenty-six T206 Wagners ever graded by PSA are graded a PSA 1 or a PSA 2 (ten examples at each grade), with just six examples graded higher (3 Vg, 1 Vg-Ex, 1 Ex MC, 1 Ex, and the Gretzky-McNall PSA 8).”
There are likely other examples out there either not graded by PSA or surrounded in their own form of controversy. There is also always the possibility that examples exist that have yet to surface. I will not dispute the rarity or significance of the Wagner T 206, but they remain inferior both in terms of rarity and historical significance when compared to the subject of this article.
Let’s change gears and turn our attention to game used bats. What is it that makes collectors at times almost ache to own a bat of a player? It is the thought and certainty that the player in question used the bat at some point in his career? The more prominent the player or event, the stronger the desire and the greater value of the bat. Getting back to Holy Grail, an artifact that is said to have tangible roots to the beginning of something historic… I am sure the Nuns of my youth at St. Margaret’s of Cortona would consider my comparison as bordering or heresy, but I will go there none the less.
Honus Wagner…in 1905, became the first player to sign an endorsement contract with the then rather fledgling bat manufacturer, J. F. Hillerich & Sons. Today we think nothing of a company manufacturing products specifically for a player’s individual use as it relates to both benefit for the player and the company. 1905 was a far different time than today. Early arrangements like the one between Wagner and J.F. Hillerich & Sons often only involved a few dollars or the provision that usable product would be provided in exchange for the endorsement. This was the beginning of an American industry all its own. If you look to simplify this even further, J.F. Hillerich & Sons agreed to make bats for Wagner’s use and the ability to market his name with their product. Here is where the story approaches Grail status…It all started with this one bat.
By 1905 Wagner had already won batting championships in three of the first five seasons of the 20th Century. He would go one to win four more before the decade was through. If baseball had become the National Pastime by then, Wagner was the story teller….a story he told at the plate. Like any other skilled tradesmen of his time, Wagner would have provided some preference or input on what he sought in the tools of his trade. If J.F. Hillerich and Sons were to begin making bats for “The Flying Dutchman,” what did they base these bats off of? If you are thinking a bat previously used by Wagner and one he found well to his liking, then go to the head of the class for this article is about not just that sort of bat, but the very bat indeed. A bat that gave rise to both an industry and in essence, the birth of the game used bat collecting hobby.
This bat has some distinctive markings that come in the form of side writing. Side writing is evidence of a process utilized by Hillerich & Bradsby in order to mark/identify a bat sent to them. This bat is marked in very visible grease pencil “John Wagner” (block letter). A 7.5 ” x .75″ area was stripped away for the application of the side writing. This is where the name was applied. The stripped area, style of lettering, implement used for the writing, and the placement of the writing is all very consistent with known examples of side written bats. Also present on this bat are vintage 2″ spaced hash marks. This was done by the lathe hand to create caliper measurements. These measurements were then used to create future Honus Wagner Louisville Slugger bats. The final vintage identifier linking this bat directly to Honus was the addition of the word “Wagner” in script style of pencil writing as the 2″ caliper measurements
Getting back to the Wagner T206 by means of comparison….
How many examples are there and owners who can lie claim one?
Honus Wagner J.F. Hillerich original template bat: 1
Honus Wagner T206: Dozens
What is the direct and personal connection to Honus Wagner?
Honus Wagner J.F. Hillerich original template bat. Certain and definitive.
Honus Wagner T206. Not sure any exists across the sample of dozens.
Which is older?
Honus Wagner J.F. Hillerich original template bat. Had to have been produced before 1905.
Honus Wagner T206. Produced with the other cards between 1909-1911
By any measure this bat leaves the T206 card, regardless of condition, lacking in terms of scarcity, significance, and overall historical value…a value that transcends sports memorabilia and crosses over into significance as part of our National fabric. Many of the readers of this piece grew up playing Little League or Babe Ruth ball with aluminum bats. They are also not likely to have experienced the joy of “bat day” at the stadium. For those my age and older, what we wanted and longed to have and use was a bat bearing the name of our favorite player. Regardless of the length or weight of the ash stadium offering, if it bore our idol’s name we would somehow be given mystical powers by the Baseball God’s to emulate him at the plate. In more contemporary terms, why did everyone, whether they played basketball or not, in the mid to late 1980s want a pair of Air Jordan’s…? Because they “wanted to be like Mike.” Where did all this begin…it began with this bat.
MEARS Auction’s is both proud and honored to announce we have been selected to offer this bat to the collecting public on behalf of the current owner in our April Auction. The asking price? Less than half of highest selling Wagner card. If there are three places this bat should reside, they are the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, or the private archive of only the most serious collector/investor. We look forward with great anticipation to answering any questions you might have about this truly historic offering.
As always, collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.
MEARS Auth, LLC
For questions and comments on this article, please feel free to contact me at DaveGrob1@aol.com