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Lajoie Can’t Compete with Wagner — In Baseball Cards

Lajoie Can’t Compete with Wagner — In Baseball Cards

| On 17, Sep 2013

Pity poor Napoleon Lajoie.

Although a brilliant player in his day, his exploits have fallen into obscurity in the century that’s passed since his playing career ended – surpassed not just by those who have come since, but even by some of his contemporaries, like Ty Cobb and fellow infielder Honus Wagner.

Wagner has a statue in his honor outside PNC Park (he was alive to see its dedication in front of Forbes Field in 1955, and the statue moved with the Pirates first to Three Rivers and then to its current home on the North Shore), and a football field named for him in his hometown of Carnegie, outside of Pittsburgh (the same town has a baseball field named for another native … Mike Ditka).

But his main claim to fame to the casual fan is that he’s on the most expensive baseball card ever made, the T206 card. An example sold for $2.8 million in 2007. It’s the subject of a book, “The Card,” and an ESPN 30 for 30 short film. It’s news every time a Wagner T206 comes up for auction. There’s currently one for bid through online auction, with an appraised value of $850,000.

Lajoie’s on a card that’s believed to be almost as rare, the 1933 Goudey card. But it although it’s worth a heavy price, it’s not as valuable, garnering a “mere” $100,000 in some sales. That’s not just the market price. The Lajoie card doesn’t have history on its side or a mystique to it.

The T206 set was one of the biggest pre-World War I card issues, with 523 cards. Because they were used to sell cigarettes, there are a number of variations on the back, which featured advertisements for cigarette companies. The story goes that Wagner, the shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, didn’t want his face associated with tobacco products, particularly since he counted children as some of his biggest fans. The card was pulled from circulation, with less than 200 being produced. Of those, anywhere from 60 to 100 are believed to exist today. It’s not the rarest T206 card, but its story and its subject (Wagner was regarded as the best shortstop of his day, and a case can still be made he was the best ever).

A generation later, the baseball card market was really starting to take off. Goudey was using baseball cards to sell bubblegum, starting in the 1920s with Indian chiefs before moving on to athletes. In the depths of the Great Depression, Goudey’s packs sold for a penny. There were 240 cards listed in the set, but #106 never seemed to turn up. In fact, uncut sheets show a second printing of a Babe Ruth card (# 144) where 106 should be.

A retired Goudey executive offered the theory that the cards of the old-timers weren’t given out as much because they weren’t in as high demand for children in the 1930s. But what is more likely is that the card just wasn’t printed, and people were encouraged to spend their money on a quixotic quest.

Eventually, so many people wrote in looking for the card, that a small number – estimated around 600 – of Goudey  #106 cards were printed, with Napoleon Lajoie. Most of them were sent through the mail to irate collectors – paper-clipped to a letter. As the Great Depression gave way to World War II, many of the cards – and many others – ended up going to wartime paper drives. And as the company limped toward bankruptcy in 1962, back stock of cards were thrown in the furnace to keep the building warm. It’s estimated that only around 100 Lajoie cards exist.

When the 1933 Goudey set came out, Jefferson Burdick, a manual laborer in Syracuse who grew up collecting those T206 cards, was cataloging them. Burdick, known as the father of baseball card collecting, named the T206 set (the T stands for Tobacco, 206 means there were 205 issues before it) and assigned the Wagner card a value of $50 in the 1930s, when a Ford V8 could be bought new for less than $500. Effectively, the Wagner card – and its legend – had a 25-year head start on the Lajoie card.

And the Wagner card’s legend only grew, burnished by famous owners along the way. The record $2.8 million price was paid by Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick. It was the first card that sold for more than $1 million, and its owners included former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky.

Meanwhile, the price for the Lajoie card continued to go up as well – as did the price for most pre-World War II cards, because of their scarcity. But barring a crash, it probably won’t ever catch up with the Wagner card.

Lajoie and Wagner were both known as great players – and dignified sportsmen as well. But in memorabilia circles, the Flying Dutchman retains the edge.

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