Honus Wagner had a pretty standard 1800s childhood; get up, put on your knickers, go to school, drop out of school at age 12 to work in a western Pennsylvania coal mine, etc. His plan to escape the underground came in the form of a career cutting hair, despite an attraction to the relatively newfangled game of baseball. Fortunately, his older brother, “Butts,” convinced him to throw away his dreams of being the world’s greatest barber and play for his local team.
It worked out pretty well. Honus made a habit of breaking only the coolest records in baseball. He retired with the most steals of home. He threw a baseball over 403 feet. Just before the turn of the century, he became the first player to steal each stealable base in succession. During the 1909 World Series, a frequently contested story has him slapping Ty Cobb in the mouth.
The man simply failed to fade away. In 1910, his average plummeted–plummeted–to a stingy .320. This was the lowest it had been in 12 years. Five years later, he became the oldest player to hit a grand slam, and the year after that, he was the oldest to hit an inside the park home run.
Honus (“The Flying Dutchman”), whether he was aware of it or not, was never going to have to worry about being forgotten. As one of the original members of the Hall of Fame, he exists on that pedestal we put legendary players from a 100 years ago; where their stories and stats are so ridiculous it seems impossible they could have even existed.
Between 1909 and 1911, when Honus was in the throes of his “decline,” American Tobacco was designing and selling player’s cards and giving them out with the purchase of a pack of cigarettes. But before children of the early 20th century could say, “That’s awesome!” Honus Wagner stepped in the way.
Not wanting his image to be attached to kids smoking, he demanded his card be withdrawn from the campaign. Or, the more likely reason, he didn’t feel like he was getting paid enough. Honus came from an age where adults wouldn’t think twice about dragging a preteen out of the schoolhouse, shoving a pickax in his trembling hands, and kicking him down a mine shaft for 12 hours a day; cigarette smoking couldn’t have seemed like too much of a hazard.
Whatever his reason, the Honus Wagner T206 baseball card became the rarest in all of history, and of course, that meant it was also the most riot-incitingly valuable piece of thin cardboard with numbers on it the industry had (and has) ever seen.
Which, in a weird twist, brings us to 2010 and the School Sisters of Notre Dame and their missions of aid across the planet.
“…we respond to varying needs of church and world through a diversity of ministries,” reads the front page of the SSND website. Spanning 35 countries, their service touches countless lives. It would be nice to live in a world where doing good and helping others offered some sort of exemption from the financial hit-and-runs of our modern economic era.
But we don’t. Not even close, really. Like a lot of organizations, SSND could use sizeable donations in an impactful way.
So when the brother of a member of their order offered them a baseball card worth a decent chunk of change, a couple of collectors developed an involuntary twitch. There was Honus Wagner, with the blank stare and creepy pale skin that seem to be common in athletes’ portraits from the era.
The card seemed to reflect Honus himself; not in perfect condition, but through time, its value was only going to get higher. The question was, how much was it worth today?
The sisters decided an auction was the best way to find out. And when they netted $220,000 to spread throughout their global ministries, it probably seemed a little worth it.
100 years ago, some manufacturer spit out 200 advertisements for American Tobacco’s Sweet Caporal cigarettes with Honus Wagner’s face on them. The company’s monopoly on the industry, eventually fractured by Teddy Roosevelt, made them a formidable industry powerhouse, unafraid to either offer cigarettes to children or entice them even further into doing so with a baseball card.
The backlash for such actions today would have PTA meetings boiling over with enraged parents. But if it weren’t for the despicable acts of a century ago, a mission of Catholic sisters giving aid all over the world would be without a few hundred thousand dollars worth of funding.
Kind of makes you hope Joe Mauer’s got his picture on a crack pipe somewhere.