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Sunday SPORTS FINAL EDITION

WAGNER'S WILD CARD: Mystery has surrounded Honus T206 since 1909

BY MICHAEL O'KEEFFE AND BILL MADDEN - NEW YORK DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITERS
March 25, 2001

He never looked like a million bucks.  He had an awkward appearance and a clumsy walk, but many still consider Honus Wagner one of baseball's greatest players.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame's first class with Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb in 1936, the Flying Dutchman was a flawless shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the turn of the century.

But the most valued part of Wagner's legacy comes in a pocket-sized slice of cardboard Americana known among collector cognoscenti as the 1909 Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner.  In other words, Honus' baseball card.

It is the most coveted card in the world, selling last year for $1.26 million, the second-most expensive piece of sports memorabilia in history, behind the $3 million paid for Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball.

It is called the Mona Lisa of baseball cards, its condition far superior to the other 50 or so known T206 Wagners, making it the object of fierce bidding by wealthy men, including NHL great Wayne Gretzky, whose name now graces the card in its official description.

Factor in the mystery angle - no one will say where the card was for the first 75 years of its life - and you have a genuine tale of intrigue.  Through two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iran-contra, from the dead ball era to the fall of communism, from Ruth to Reggie, the Holy Grail of baseball cards is unaccounted for.  Was it hidden away in a desk drawer, a safe deposit box, the witness-protection program?

Add in the rumor mill - the card has been dogged by allegations that it has been altered to increase its value - and you have a glimpse into the eccentric, combative, often cut-throat dealings of the sports memorabilia industry, just a generation ago the domain of little boys and big geeks.

"The bottom line is the card is the right size, and the card looks beautiful," says memorabilia king Bill Mastro.  "Everything about it gives the appearance of 'Holy Moses, this is too good to be true.'"

Wagner was among the players featured by the American Tobacco Co.  between 1909 and 1911, when it issued what became known as its T206 set: 523 cards depicting players from the big leagues and several minor leagues.  The gorgeously illustrated cards, stylized portraits printed in vibrant colors, were inserted in cigarette packs to lure baseball fans to buy the company's brands.

Wagner supposedly didn't want to encourage kids to smoke and demanded that the tobacco company stop issuing his card.  But Wagner chewed tobacco and many collectors believe the Flying Dutchman wasn't an anti-smoking pioneer, just a jock holding out for money.

"It doesn't matter," Mastro says.  "They still pulled the card."

The Wagners became an instant rarity.  By the 1930s, catalogues valued other T206 cards at 35 cents; Wagner cards were listed at $50.

The fact that no one will say where the Gretzky T206 was for all those years would seem to raise some pretty serious questions about its authenticity.  But that would be a silly assumption: The Wagner survives all scrutiny.

"This card has always been steeped in controversy," Mastro says.

He should know.  By 1986, Mastro was known as an aggressive, hard-dealing memorabilia trader, one of the young hustlers who were transforming a harmless hobby into something much larger.  The growth of his sports memorabilia company, MastroNet Inc., which grossed $32 million in revenue last year, has skyrocketed alongside the value of the Gretzky T206.

"We were young, hungry maniacs," Mastro says of his youthful business persona.  "You would rather see a mad dog with froth coming out of his mouth come to the door than see one of us guys come into your shop."

Mastro was working a card convention in Willow Grove, Pa., when he got the word: Bob Sevchuk, the owner of a Long Island sports memorabilia store, was arranging the sale of a mint 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card for $25,000.

"You don't have to talk to anybody else," Mastro remembers saying.  "I own it."

When the show ended, Mastro and boyhood friend Rob Lifson drove to Sevchuk's card shop in a dingy Hicksville, L.I., strip mall to inspect the Wagner and offer a deal to regular customer Alan Ray, the card's owner.

For Mastro and Lifson, who put up half the money for the purchase, it was like finding the Rosetta Stone.  As a kid, Mastro had jammed his room with the baseball cards he picked up from other neighborhood boys when their interests turned to girls and cars, and as an emerging force in the hobby, he had handled many impressive items.  But he had never seen a card like this one.

The Wagner was as promised, Mastro remembers, a rare find because of its excellent condition and because it featured an advertisement for Piedmont cigarettes on its back.  About 50 T206 Wagners are known to still exist, but only one other, owned by a Virginia collector, has a Piedmont back.

Still, Mastro pressured Ray for a better deal, pointing out that the edges of the card were wavy, and refused to complete the transaction unless Ray threw in the 50 to 75 other T206 cards he had brought to the shop.

"I had a money situation," says Ray, who steadfastly refuses to say where he got the Wagner.  "I had to sell the card."

Mastro sold the Gretzky T206 a year later, in 1987, to San Luis Obispo, Calif., collector James Copeland for $110,000.  "I called from the airport in California," Mastro says, "and ordered a Mercedes Benz."

But that wouldn't be the end of Mastro's association with this Wagner card.  In 1991, when Copeland decided to sell the card and the rest of his extensive memorabilia collection, he placed it in an auction conducted by Sotheby's - which hired Mastro to run the sale.

That's where the Wagner got its first big break.  Gretzky and former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall purchased the card for $451,000.

"For me, it was an investment," Gretzky says.  "At the time, all these memorabilia things were increasing in value.

"Still," Gretzky adds, "my dad told me I was an idiot for paying $450,000 for a baseball card."

Others, too, wondered how the price could skyrocket so quickly, especially after broadcaster Keith Olbermann, himself a knowledgeable collector, reported that an expert hired by McNall had told the former Kings owner that the card had been trimmed, presumably after it left the factory and to enhance its value.

Mastro says he never trimmed it and doesn't believe anyone else did, either.  "I didn't have to do a thing to that card," Mastro says.  "No one ever altered that card.  That card is as good as the day it was made."

By then, McNall was facing other problems.  He and Gretzky barely had time to bask in the glow of the publicity the sale generated when the federal government began investigating McNall.  In March 1997, McNall was sentenced to a 70-month prison sentence for bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy.  He was transferred to a halfway house 15 days ago.

Gretzky bought out his partner and sold the card in 1995 for an estimated $500,000 to Treat Entertainment, a sports card distributor.  Treat and retail giant Wal-Mart, one of its biggest customers, offered the Wagner as the grand prize in a nationwide raffle entered by more than a half-million people.  Baseball card sales at Wal-Mart stores skyrocketed, says Treat manager of licensing John Appuhn.

The card, accompanied by no less a chaperone than Brooks Robinson, barnstormed the country on a promotional tour and appeared on dozens of talk shows.  Patricia Gibbs, a Florida postal worker, won the card after her name was pulled from Wagner's old trunk on Larry King Live.  Gibbs could not afford the tax bill and immediately put the card up for sale at Christie's.

Mastro was lurking.  He bid for the card and was so sure that he would win it back that he prepared a press release announcing his purchase.  But Mastro lost to his old pal Lifson, who was bidding on behalf of Mike Gidwitz, an affable Chicagoan known for his extensive collection of original Mad magazine and Wacky Packages art.

"No one ever wants to separate themselves from the crown jewel of the hobby," Mastro says of his attempt to get the card back.

Gidwitz sold the card last year on an auction promoted by eBay and conducted by MastroNet for $1.26 million to Southern California businessman Brian Seigel.

Alan Ray still smarts from what he calls "the deal of the century" - Mastro and Lifson's purchase of the Wagner and the other T206 cards for $25,000.

When Ray, a Gretzky fan, heard about the 1991 auction, he sent Sotheby's and McNall a photo of the card taken before he sold it, along with a letter explaining that the card's edges looked different than when he owned it.

The implication was that the card had been trimmed, a suggestion that has dogged it for at least a decade.  In fact, there are three persistent rumors that follow the Wagner - that it was cut from a strip decades after it was printed; that it was trimmed to improve its appearance and increase its value; and that it is a reprint.

McNall and Gretzky had the card assessed by PSA Sports, a California firm that grades baseball cards, and the company awarded the Wagner a PSA 8 rating - near-mint to mint.  "We're guaranteeing it's never been altered," says president Steve Rocchi.

"The card has to stand on its own merits at some point in time," Mastro says.  "All the rumors about me sending it to a restoration firm or cutting it off a sheet are ridiculous.  There's nothing wrong with that card."

David Rudd, publisher of The Vintage Collector, a memorabilia newsletter, says cutting the card from a strip probably would not decrease its value but trimming it would.

"If it was trimmed, that would not be a good thing to do," says Rudd.  "But nobody has ever offered any proof to me."

Rudd says the reprint story has no credibility among serious collectors and dealers.

Most in the industry believe the rumors don't matter, anyway.  "That obviously has not affected its value," says Mike Jasperson, senior vice president of thePit.com, a White Plains firm that specializes in the sale of high-end sports cards. 

Today, The Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner lies in a vault, out of sight once again, its mysteries intact, maybe for another 75 years.

Seigel doesn't want to keep the card hidden away; he dreams of touring major league ballparks with the Wagner, but he's struggling to find sponsors.

"Some day I'll sell it," he says.  "I guess when I get tired of it.  But this was not a business move.  I am a collector."

GRAPHIC: Honus Wagner had 3,430 hits in his career, but nowadays numbers most associated with him are the millions being spent on his card.Bill Mastro (l.) started buying frenzy for Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner card (above) when he purchased it in '86 for $25,000 and sold it a year later for $110,000.A cigar label bears Honus Wagner's endorsement despite reports he pulled his T206 card because he didn't want to encourage kids to smoke.

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