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Possibly the Rarest Honus Wagner Baseball Card in Existence Sold

Wagner Photo via SPC Auctions

The Holy Grail of sports cards is universally considered to be the T206 Honus Wagner from the 1909-1911 American Tobacco Company set. Its value comes from the combination of a few things, the year, the player on it, the condition, and finally, the scarcity behind the card. There were only 200 ever made because Honus Wagner didn’t want to support tobacco use for his fans.

At last appraisal, it’s a treasure valued that sold for $3.1 million one year ago.

With that in mind, what if I told you that a Honus Wagner card rarer than the 1910 tobacco card existed? It’s the only one of its kind. Unbelievably, in an SCP auction that closed November 4, it sold for (only) $7,533.60 with just 14 bids. At that price, you have to wonder if you should have tapped into your retirement saving to throw an offer in!

This card’s backstory is arguably even more interesting than the famous T206 Wagner.

In 1917 the ‘Silk Sox’ card was issued in the middle of the 43-year-old Wagner’s last season. It features a shot of Wagner in uniform and a sweater while warming up. He’s manning first base where he played in his final years after switching from shortstop.

On August 26, 1917 the Pirates’ great took the field with his Pittsburgh team for an exhibition game. They squared off against the Doherty Silk Sox, a semi-pro team in Paterson, NJ that played in the Industrial League. By that time in his career, partly because baseball offered players no pension, Wagner was completely broke. He gave up his education long before having dropped out of school at age 12 to help his father and brothers in the coal mines before picking up baseball. Unfortunately, Wagner never went onto develop any particularly marketable skills off of the diamond. All he knew was the game.

The “Honus Wagner Day” Paterson held that day served as a means of helping to raise money for the Flying Dutchman.

The ungraded Silk Sox card first popped up in a Christie’s Auction in 1992. The pre-sale estimate back then was $300-$400 and it sold for $500. Its size  is a bit unusual at four by seven inches. To call this card rare is an understatement; it may very well be the only one in existence.

In the same way Wagner did after 21 seasons in the league, by the picture, the card appears old and worn.

“It presents quite well in spite of minor soiling, some line abrasions, and light creasing,” SCP notes in the card’s description. “The blank back has some dark areas from dust shadowing.” 

The Silk Sox’s own ball park, the Doherty Oval, was located behind the Doherty Silk Company mill. Before Wagner Day, “Harry Doherty, millionaire silk manufacturer and sportsman, showed him through the plant,” the local newspaper reported. “Doherty presented Mrs. Wagner with the material for a beautiful silk dress.”

In addition to helping Wagner, the mill badly needed the injection of good publicity. Four years earlier, in 1913, the Doherty family’s efforts to automate their buildings set of a bloody strike. Millworkers feared significant job losses and protested awful working conditions. About 24,000 workers walked off of the factory floor, some as young as 12-years-old.

Two men were shot to death and almost 2,000 strikers were jailed. The seven-month work stoppage ended in management’s favor.

Wagner Day was by all accounts a success. “The Pirates, after seeing the mighty Hans receive a silver seventy-two pieces from local fans, beat the Silk Sox, 9 to 8,” the newspaper reported.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit Wagner hard and the Pirate legend again fell on difficult times. In 1933 the team hired their beloved veteran as a coach and good-will ambassador.

After all of this, you’re probably wondering why, although much rarer, the Silk Sox card’s value is so much less than it’s million dollar counterpart. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily determine value. There are literally thousands of vintage sports cards that are fewer in number than the iconic T206 Wagner. So why is the 1910 Wagner revered as the king of all baseball cards when the Silk City card may be the only one in existence?

It’s the one characteristic that, in any collectible, may mean more than any other … its mystique.

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