Recently, a Honus Wagner card was auctioned for the low price of $1.2 million because it was only a Grade 2 on a scale of 10. After updating Wagner’s Wikipedia page, it got me wondering about the real story behind his refusal to allow his image on the cards produced and sold in packs of cigarettes.
Honus Wagner was born in 1871 in Carnegie, Pennsylvania (then Mansfield), an area in western Pennsylvania with the surrounding hills full of open strip coal mines. His father was a coal miner, and Honus also worked for several years in the mines when he was young.
He began to play baseball for Luke’s team in that town, in 1891. In 1894, his brother Al was playing for the Dennison, Ohio team, and convinced his manager to put Honus on the team too. He also played ball and managed at several other small local league teams.
In 1897 he moved to the independent Louisville team and was picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900, where he would spend most of his career. He played until 1917, including an appearance in the 1903 and 1909 World Series.
He was a quiet, unassuming man who tried to stay out of the spotlight. In fact, Wagner is considered the greatest baseball player ever of the Dead Ball Era of baseball.
In January 1909, the American Tobacco Company owned by J. D. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, approached the major leagues to photograph each player in order to make a set of 524 baseball players. In a factory, these photographs were colorized and used to make lithographic sheets that would print the small baseball cards for inclusion in tobacco packs.
The reverse of the cards advertised the Old Mill, Piedmont, and Sweet Caporal brands. They were advertised as “baseball pictures” as in a May 25, 1910 advertisement for Old Mill Cigarettes.
According to a contemporary article in The Sporting News, Wagner objected to the use of his image in the tobacco card set, threatening to sue the company if they used it. It wasn’t that he objected to the use of tobacco because he used to chew tobacco himself, but he objected to anyone using his money unless he got royalties from it.
He did get royalties for advertising soda, dynamite, and other products. The ATC produced only 57 of his cards with Piedmont or Sweet Caporal backs before they ceased using him in the set. Only a handful of those cards survive to the present day.
When the ATC began what is now called the T206 set, more conservative members of the community began to protest the use of the baseball cards to promote tobacco sales. An article written in August of 1909 said:
“There is a craze among the small boys of this town which doubtless extends to many other towns, to secure the pictures of baseball stars which the American Tobacco Company includes in the packages of cigarettes its offers for sale. From a business standpoint, this was a happy thought on the part of the cigarette makers, whose sales have largely increased through the device, but it has meant resultant demoralization of a great number of small boys who, in their eagerness to secure the baseball pictures, have become cigarette smokers. There is a law on the statute books of this State against the sale of cigarettes to minors under 10 years of age, and it would be well for the officer of the law to keep an eye open for violators of the law. “
A similar article appeared in an issue of the Golf Leaf newspaper in September of the same year:
“With references to the baseball pictures in cigarette packages, the charlotte Observer says this “trading upon the small boy’s passion for baseball as well as for collecting to make a cigarette fiend of him, is diabolical – nothing less.” It is diabolical and if the enormity of the offense was appreciated as it should be it would arouse a spirit of indignation in North Carolina that would stop this traffic in the bodies and souls of boys”
The T206 cards are also described in a murder article. In December of 1909 or January 1910, a 16-year old boy named Richard Mcintyre was arrested in the murder of Barney Hall, of about the same age. It said “The boys were gambling with baseball pictures out of cigarette packages, tossing them for heads and tails, and got into a dispute. McIntyre hit Hall in the head with a ginger ale bottle, knocking him unconscious and he died about a week later.”
Finally, a rather humorous article was written about young girls trying to attract young men at the time, declared that all the boys wanted to do was to collect baseball cards and drink shots of liquor. It read:
“She will have to roam on where men have a few ideas above collecting baseball pictures from fancy cigarette boxes and whose greatest boast is the amount of “straights” they can consume and still reach their own door without the aid of a passer-by or policeman.”
Honus Wagner Tells Early Experiences; Was Coal Miner Before Playing Baseball. El Paso Herald, December 12, 1914.
Fort Mill (SC) Times, August 12, 1909
Montpellier (VT) Examiner, October 11, 1912
Pensacola (FL) News Journal, May 25, 1910
Sporting News, October 12, 1914
Gold Leaf (Henderson NC), September 2, 1909
Wilson (NC) Times, August 23, 1910
A Brief History of the Honus Wagner Baseball Card, Smithsonian Magazine, 2007 (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-honus-wagner-baseball-card-153567429/)
Images from the U. S. Library of Congress