‘The Monster’

mcgraw.jpgI first saw T206 cards in Steve Clark’s The Complete Book of Baseball Cards, given to me when I was around 8. For a kid who thought that baseball cards only came in wax packs and food boxes, opening this book was a transformative moment. While Clark’s book did not play favorites among eras, I was immediately attracted to the small, white-bordered cards showing epic figures such as Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Walter Johnson, Willie Keeler, Tris Speaker and Cy Young, whom I had read about but never seen. My favorite subject in the book was Lajoie (With Bat), showing the legendary Cleveland second sacker wielding his trusted lumber in front of a picket fence that might have once passed for an outfield wall. I was hooked before I owned a single card.

I leaped at the chance to acquire my first T206 specimens a few years later from one of the hundreds of neighborhood baseball card shops opening across America. Commons were $3 apiece, regardless of condition. As I worked my way through numerous plastic sheets, I spied Alperman, Gilbert, Rhodes and Schreck, all about “excellent.” It didn’t matter that I had never heard of these players. These little cardboard gems from a bygone era instantly became the pride of my collection.

A quarter century, a wife, two kids and an Information Revolution later, I bought my first Lajoie (With Bat) on eBay. Thumbing through plastic sheets at the local card store had been supplanted long ago by trolling through auction listings on the Internet. A PSA 5 of the great Nap with the difficult Piedmont Factory 42 back caught my attention on this occasion. The financial damage was a lot more than $12 this time, but it was a small price to pay for the realization of a childhood dream.

There are countless stories like mine. T206 collecting has been for thousands of baseball fans a lifelong passion bordering on obsession – and always a joy. I attribute this to the set’s intoxicating blend of our beloved National Pastime with nostalgic sentiments, attractive artwork, investment potential and the thrill of the hunt.

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marquarda.jpg In 2005, the PSA Set Registry stated the following about T206:
“Really, what is left to say about this great issue that hasn’t already been said? Without a doubt, this is the most studied dissected and discussed set in the history of the hobby.”

The T206 has been the subject of intensive study by hobby giants such as Bill Heitman and Lew Lipset, but as this series of articles will illustrate, there is still much to be said. In the course of this series, you will find a checklist that is a substantial improvement over previous efforts and numerous new theories on the set that have resulted from my recent study of more than 20,000 T206 front/back combinations.

Errors in the new checklist and flaws in some of the theories proposed herein are inevitable and I encourage their reporting. The fact is that the more one knows about T206, the more one knows how much that isn’t known about T206. Mystery is pervasive and mastery elusive. Indeed, the steep learning curve that the T206 set presents is among its greatest strengths and a source of its staggering and enduring popularity.

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T206 cards were distributed by the American Tobacco Co. (ATC) as a premium with tobacco products between 1909-11. Conventional checklists list 524 different baseball subjects as appearing on the front of T206 cards when team variations are considered separately. Some of these subjects can be found with as many as 27 back types (This count does not include blank-backed T206 cards, which can be regarded as a printing error type rather than a distinct back type).

When one totals all theoretically possible front/back combinations, the result is roughly 6,900 distinct cards. This vast number led noted collector Bill Heitman to characterize the set as “The Monster” – an apt description that has stuck now for more than a quarter century.

T206 got its name from the father of card collecting, Jefferson Burdick. The name was a natural consequence of the alphanumeric cataloging scheme that Burdick created and used in his seminal American Card Catalog, the first edition of which was published in 1939. “T” was the letter Burdick chose to identify 20th-century tobacco issues, while “206” was assigned to the set by virtue of Burdick’s sequential numbering of issues.

The astounding number of collecting possibilities that T206 has to offer is one of its greatest attractions. There are thousands of dedicated T206 collectors who follow almost as many collecting approaches. While a conventional way to collect the set is to secure as many as possible of the 524 subjects, many collectors focus on acquiring as many as possible of the 40 back types. Others attempt to assemble large collections of particular backs, leagues, teams or poses. The number of ways to collect the set is almost limitless.

Interest in T206 cards has always been strong. This seems attributable to, among other factors, an enduring fascination with early baseball, the attractiveness of the cards, the diversity offered by the set and, of course, the lore surrounding the Mona Lisa of sports cards: the Honus Wagner (Pittsburg) card.

However, there is little doubt that demand for T206 cards has grown in recent years. Probably the single greatest driver of demand over the past few years has been the Internet. Websites, most notably eBay, have eliminated traditional information barriers and, for the first time, given T206 collectors access to a global market where they can transact in their favored cardboard wares. T206 collectors can now review hundreds of T206 auction listings on any given week and bid on the cards that interest them. Before the advent of the Internet, many T206 buyers and sellers simply had no practical way to find one another.

A second major contributor to rising T206 demand has been the popularization of authentication and grading services, informally dubbed “slabbing” services due to their mounting of cards in tamper-resistant plastic holders. Reputable services, most notably Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), Sportscard Guaranty Corp. (SGC) and Global Authentication Inc. (GAI), have provided a measure of protection against forgeries and fakes that has made collecting more attractive for novice collectors and has brought them into the market in droves. These services have also spawned a T206 “investor class,” a new breed of T206 collectors/investors who seek out slabbed specimens that have received high marks and pay prices unthinkable for ungraded examples.

The History of T206

Getting Permission:The fabled history of T206 dates back almost a century. By January 1909, ATC had begun to seek permissions of ballplayers for inclusion in the T206 set. It contracted with local sportswriters to serve as intermediaries in this process. This is evidenced by a Jan. 29, 1909, letter that resurfaced in the 1990s authored by New York sportswriter Bozeman Bulger to New York Highlanders shortstop Neal Ball requesting Ball’s consent to be included in the set. In the letter, Bulger stated that he was “getting up a scheme with the American Lithograph Co. to get out a series of nicely colored pictures … which will be put in cigarette boxes,” and needed Ball’s authorization to use his likeness “under a new law they have here.” Ball apparently gave his OK, as he appears in the first series of T206 released later that year.

An article in the Oct. 12, 1912, issue of The Sporting News recounts a similar story of a Pittsburgh sportswriter who contacted the legendary Pirates shortstop Hans Wagner and sought his permission to be included in the set. However, this newsman was rebuffed by “The Flying Dutchman,” who, so the article states, “did not care to have his picture in a package of cigarettes.” While there is circumstantial evidence that a lack of compensation rather than a moral objection to cigarette smoking colored Wagner’s decision, the anti-smoking legend surrounding the card collecting hobby’s signature pasteboard, Wagner (Pittsburg), was born.

Bulger’s mention in his letter to Ball of needing Ball’s permission “under a new law they have here” is curious. At first blush, the reference might seem to have been to the Copyright Act of 1909, a major overhaul of federal copyright law that became effective on July 1, 1909, after years of well-publicized debate. However, that law was not likely the object of his remark. The Copyright Act of 1909 did not compel ATC to secure the consent of the ballplayers since the players held no copyright in the images used on the cards.

More likely, Bulger’s reference was to the New York Privacy Act of 1903, a statutory scheme enacted by the New York legislature in response to a 1902 court decision. The plaintiff in the lawsuit that spawned the court decision was a little girl who was not a celebrity and who sued the defendants for using her picture to promote the sale of flour without her permission. The New York Court of Appeals held that the little girl had no right at common law to prevent use of her image but observed that the legislature could create a statutory “right to privacy” to prevent such use. The New York Privacy Act of 1903 was enacted in response to the court’s invitation. 

However, since the right to privacy is essentially a right to be left alone, it is possible that using a famous baseball player’s likeness on a cigarette card would not have been deemed sufficiently invasive to violate it. In short, if ATC had taken an aggressive legal position, it might have continued printing Wagner (Pittsburg) with impunity, in which case the famed card might be as common today as any other Hall of Famer in the first series.
It is true that authorization to use a baseball player’s likeness is required today to avoid trespassing on his so-called “right of publicity.” However, the right of publicity was not recognized in the United States until a 1953 legal ruling that, ironically, resolved a dispute between Topps and Bowman as to whether contracts signed by certain players granted either of the companies exclusive rights to make cards of those players.

(Editor’s note: Haelan Laboratories Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum Inc.: Before the right of publicity was recognized at mid-century, the legal doctrine most likely to have been invoked by a baseball player to prevent unauthorized use of his likeness would have been the common law “right of privacing.” However, the right to privacy is essentially a right to be left alone, and it is quite possible that using a famous baseball player’s likeness on a cigarette card would not have been deemed sufficiently invasive to violate it.)

ATC probably also obtained permission from the photographers of the images that were converted into lithographs for the cards, as it was they who held copyrights. Foremost among these was Carl Horner, who from his Boston studios took many of the portrait photos that appear in the set. Horner was possibly the most prominent baseball photographer in the early 20th century. His work is featured in several card issues from the period, and was used liberally in T206.

The T206 Archives Series resumes in the May 26 Tobacco Card special issue of Sports Collectors Digest, with the next installment featuring more of the history of the famed set, including detailed information about the production process.

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