T206 Wagner Swaps Owners for $5 and Tells Us Why

I receive a ton of calls and e-mails, and yes, I answer my phone and all of e-mails. This month’s column is about one of them. If you’re squeamish, grab the Pepto-Bismol before reading.

Reader Doug Smith of Texas called me and told me a story that will have all of you feeling bad for him and perhaps yourselves. I asked that he e-mail me the story as well so I could quote him, and he has given his permission for me to share his story.

Smith was born and raised in Durham, N.C. As a kid, his grandfather passed along some old baseball cards he had collected when he was a kid. (At this point, I’m guessing many of you can instantly relate and might know where I’m going, but stay tuned. Granddad thought that since they were old, they weren’t worth anything. However, since he knew that Doug collected cards, he gave them to him. 

This was the summer of 1980, and 16-year-old Doug was a big Durham Bulls baseball fan (the Bulls are a minor league team in the International League, the  AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays and of Bull Durham fame) who went to all the weekend home games during the summer.

“One weekend I decided to take a few of the odd-looking cards to the game to see if anyone there knew anything about them. I went up to a fellow with a table set up who was selling baseball cards – someone  I had seen there before. I handed him the cards and asked him if they were worth anything. He took three or four cards and went through them, stopping on one card. He just stared at a certain card for what seemed forever.”

OK, I know you all know what’s coming next.

The “dealer” offered young Doug a five-spot for the card, which meant a whole lot to Doug at the time. “I thought and grabbed the fiver he put in my face. I needed some weekend spending money. Five dollars was a lot to a poor kid in 1980. It was snack’s galore that night.”

Doug later learned that the cards were (of course) all 1909 T-206 white borders, and the $5 card was the famed Honus Wagner, also known as the Holy Grail of card collecting!

“The guy took my card, packed up and left. I never saw him again (at the games). Still unsure of what I had, I took a couple more to a game a few weeks later. There was a new guy set up. (Doug actually remembers this guy’s name, which I am excluding). I showed him a couple of cards. One, I don’t remember, but the other was a Ty Cobb portrait. (He doesn’t remember which background color it was; red or the much more rare green) Somehow, he managed to talk me into trading them both for (you’re gonna want to sit down for this part, too) a 1970s Amos Otis, a 1950s Max Surkont, Bob Oldis, and a few more 1970s players.” (Translation: He got hosed).

Now it takes some testicular fortitude to admit to a story like this, believe me. We’ve all made some embarrassing trades in our collective cardboard lives, but I sincerely doubt that anyone can top this one.

“I remember the Wagner and Cobb cards like it was yesterday. I hear that hindsight is 20-20, and boy, is that right.At least I got my ‘weekend spending money!’ This tragic memory was stirred up again after I opened my new Tuff Stuff‘s Collectors Monthly and saw an ad showing a huge photo of a T-206 Honus Wagner with the headlines ‘$317,250, a new record for a graded poor condition Honus.’

“If I only knew then about cards what I know now. I was, and still am, heartbroken when I found out a few months later what I lost at the Bulls games those nights. But I was just a 16-year-old school boy looking for some weekend spending money.”

The fact that Doug, now 44, can relate this story without grinding his teeth down to the gums amazes me. At least he managed to save the rest and still has them to this day. He still has a Napoleon Lajoie portrait, a Chick Gandil (Black Sox), Hal Chase with trophy, Mordicai Brown and several other major league, minor league and some elusive Southern League cards.

So, what was really wrong here? One might say that he was made an offer and he took it. That’s true, but as a 16-year-old, Doug was a minor and that makes the buy technically illegal. One might say he was a fool to bring the cards to a public venue and flash them to a stranger that had more knowledge than him. That’s also true, but he was a kid and this was 1980, when cards were barely a blip on the radar screen and no one had ever heard of Upper Deck. Some might say that the dealer was a scumbag, and they’d would be 100 percent correct.

I have always had a policy in my 20 years as a storeowner when it came to buying cards from minors. I simply don’t. A minor may not enter into a legally binding contract, which is exactly what selling to a dealer is. I ask them to bring in a parent and then I only speak to the parent with the minor listening. If they want to talk, fine, but I will not address any monetary offers, etc. to or from a minor – ever. It just ain’t right.

Doug signed off his letter by saying, “Just wanted to let someone know.”

Well Doug, I let everyone know for you.

To read the teenager’s (now an adult) response to questions regarding this transaction in 1980, read below (this comes courtesy of SCD sister publication Tuff Stuff’s Sports Collectors Monthly forum page):

OK, I am the guy who traded the Wagner card in 1980. First of all, there was no card grading going on in 1980. Even if there was, I couldn’t afford it at the time. I was 15 years old. I didn’t turn 16 till September, but it doesn’t matter.

The cards were and still are "real" and not reprints. I still have several more that I kept. I had the Mordicai Brown card PSA graded. The first dealer did not take the Cobb card along with the Wagner card because I did not have the Cobb card with me at the time.

I bought a thick baseball card price guide in 1981 – from SCD I think. That’s how I found out about what I had. I knew the cards were somewhat valuble even in 1980, but had no idea they would skyrocket to today’s level. I was also somewhat gullible. Being a 15-year-old, church-going boy, I just never figured someone would dupe me out of my retirement so early. Oh well, life goes on. God is still good ! BUT…. Fool me once or twice, shame on you. Fool me a third time…. shame on me.

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