Twenty Years Ago and the Chase for Wagner

McNall-Gretzky T206 Wagner card

McNall-Gretzky T206 Wagner card

Anyone who collected baseball cards back in the mid-90’s should remember Wallmart’s big sports card promotion that included the possibility of winning the McNall/Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner card.

The promotion, called the “Greatest Trading Card Giveaway of All Time,” included the Wagner card as well as other important cards in the hobby. Up for grabs were cards of Gordie Howe (’51-52 Parkhurst #66), Joe Namath (’65 Topps #122), Knute Rockne (’33 Sport King #35), (Mickey Mantle (’53 Topps #82) and George Mikan (’48 Bowman #69) and many others.

Sponsored by Upper Deck, Leaf, Fleer, Skybox and Topps, the idea sprung from the brain of Harold Anderson of Treat Entertainment who purchased the Wagner card for $500,000.00 from Gretzky in 1995. Anderson approached Wallmart and the five major card companies and the promotion was born. All collectors had to do to enter the contest was to request an official entry card, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to “World’s Most Valuable Card Entry Card Request,” P.O. Box 11838, St. Paul, MN 55111 by January 1, 1996 or enter a Wallmart store and buy the specially marked 2-for-$1 trading card packs and fill out the contest card and send it away.

"Greatest Trading Card Giveaway of All Time" Ad Poster

“Greatest Trading Card Giveaway of All Time” Ad Poster

The promotion lasted five months from Oct. of 1995 to Feb. of 1996. Each month there would be a draw in each of the four sports, October was Hockey, November was Basketball, December was Baseball and January was Football. On Wagner’s birthday, February 24th, the draw for his card took place.

Patricia Gibbs was the final winner of the Wagner card which she put up for auction almost immediately after winning (she couldn’t afford the taxes on the card). Christie’s auctioned the card off to Michael Gidwitz for $641,500.00.

There was mixed feelings in the hobby at the time about this promotion. Many card shop owners thought it would draw business away from their shops and get collectors accustomed to buying their cards at big department stores like Wallmart. Others took a different view thinking that the promotion would bring thousands of more people into the hobby as the contest would introduce them to a fun pastime. Either way you had difficulty ignoring the phenomenon. Personally, I liked the idea that for once there was a chance a normal Joe, rather than a star hockey player or owner, or other well-to-do collector would have a chance to own some of the great cards in the hobby. It is a bit frustrating when a hobby meant for kids transforms into a hobby that reserves the best cards to the exclusivity of those collectors with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend.

 

1937 O-Pee-Chee Baseball

1937 O-Pee-Chee Baseball

1937 O-Pee-Chee Baseball

When one thinks of sets they wish they had the money to collect, and I don’t mean more recent sets that involve a few hundred dollars, but the vintage sets that always are out of reach for many budget-minded collectors, it usually involves sets such as the 1952 Topps set (the most wanted post WWII set), the 1948 Bowman set (the first mainstream post WWII set), The Goudey sets from the 30s, and also the 1909-11 T-206 tobacco cards. These sets, as well as some others, are very popular for collectors, but most hobbyists can only afford a card or two not the whole set. Even trying to avoid a big cash outlay for the whole set by collecting individual cards one or a few at a time still presents an insurmountable challenge to most collectors once the commons have been put to bed and the star cards and Hall of Fame players are all that remain.

1937 O-Pee-Chee Baseball Wax Pack Wrapper

1937 O-Pee-Chee Baseball Wax Pack Wrapper

One set that always seems to fly under the radar, and it is a set I have always put on my wish list, is the 1937 O-Pee-Chee Baseball set. It is a small set, only 40 cards, and it only features American League players of the era, but it has the distinction of being Canada’s first true set of baseball cards. They came one to a pack with a stick of bubble gum for a penny. They are quite rare these days and because of it command sometimes thousands of dollars for each card (especially graded in high condition).

The 1937 O-Pee-Chee baseball set was the company’s first cardboard cards. The company did issue a 58-card set back in 1934 (ACC # V94 Canadian Butterfinger) but the cards were made of paper stock and measured 6-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches. After the ’37 set O-Pee-Chee would not print another until their association with Topps in 1965. As I said the set consists of 40 cards numbered A-101 to A-140. It is cataloged in the ACC as V300.

There has been speculation through the years as to why the cards were given the designation of Series A (you can see this on the back bottom of the cards) but no one knows for sure. Most guess that O-Pee-Chee was planning a second series of cards featuring players from the National League (all players from this set are from the American League) and would designate it Series B (as they did with consecutive Hockey sets from the time period). As to why the numbering starts at #101 instead of #1 is also a mystery.

The cards each measure 2 3/8″ x 2 7/8″ and are die-cut. They contain B&W images of the players in the foreground with a baseball field in the background. A ribbon-shaped image in white with black outline at the bottom give the name of the player, his team, and his position. The back of the cards are plain with the player’s name at the top, the card number at the bottom, and a bilingual biography (English above, French below, separated by a short line).

The set contains 15 Hall of Famers including, Earl Averill, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, Luke Appling, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Joe Cronin, Rick Ferrell, Red Ruffing, Lefty Grove, Rogers Hornsby, the second year card of Joe DiMaggio, and the rookie card of Bob Feller.

The 1937 O-Pee-Chee set was the first baseball set from a major manufacturer printed in Canada and it is the main reason it holds merit for Canadian collectors such as myself. It is very unlikely that I will ever own this set of cards but it will always stand alongside the American sets mentioned earlier in my baseball sets wish list.

The 1939 O-Pee-Chee Complete Set

Using Hank Greenberg as an Example of the Problem with eBay

I buy a lot of product off eBay, It is hands down the easiest way to buy baseball cards. But you must watch what you are doing or you will be paying way too much for your cards. The easiest way for this to happen, as most of you probably already know, is to not include the shipping cost in the price you will pay for an item. That ’92 Donruss Factory set looks like a steal at $2.00 but when you see $75.00 shipping, are you really getting a bargain?

Another way is to not do your research. You impulse buy and regret it later when you see the card you purchased for $50.00 posted in the same grade a week later for $25.00. Every card or cards you look at should always include a look at previously sold listing for that card/cards. Also it is good to look elsewhere (the grading sites such as PSA/SMR) for the latest pricing on cards sold in the grade you’re buying at. Even a look through a Beckett magazine can give you an idea of a ballpark figure for the card.

But don’t let this discourage you from buying a card that looks, for all intents and purposes, overpriced, if you really want the card. In this case the research will have given you the info you needed and if you buy anyways, you won’t feel bad afterwards because you knew what you were doing.

Here is an example of what I mean:

1934 Goudey #62 Hank Greenberg SGC 30

1934 Goudey #62 Hank Greenberg SGC 30

This is a Hank Greenberg Rookie Card from the famous 1934 Goudey set. How much would you pay for this card? Its ranked GOOD by SGC (a 30) and is equivalent to a 2 rating from PSA. The card shows up on eBay frequently in different grades and without grading, but this is the first time in a long long time that a SGC 30/PSA 2 has been on eBay. Those that are looking for a lower priced Greenberg rookie would definitely be interested in this card.

So how much would you pay? Without any research, my first guess would be $150.00. That would be what I would be willing to pay for it. That’s my ceiling. A $100.00 price tag would move the range more within my comfort zone (over $100.00 for a card is a bit much for my budget). The listing for this card on eBay was a Buy It Now price of $259.00.

My guess, before research pegs this as overpriced. This is a dealer who is testing the waters with a high price just in case he can find some bites at that price. If no one buys, he may after a few months lower his price. But let’s see what the research tells us.

Looking in the latest Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards the listing shows a price of $275.00 for a VG grade of the card. Meaning a G grade would be around $100.00 to $125.00 as I guessed. Looking at PSA/SMR pricing a graded VG has been sold for an avg. of $150.00 and an PSA 2 grade $100.00. Looking at past sales of the card on ebay:

1934 Goudey #62 Hank Greenberg SGC 20

1934 Goudey #62 Hank Greenberg SGC 20

This SGC 20/PSA 1.5 F sold for $117.50 on eBay recently

1934 Goudey #62 Hank Greenberg PSA 3

1934 Goudey #62 Hank Greenberg PSA 3

This PSA 3 VG sold for $281.03 recently as well.

So logic dictates that if a Fair card sells for $117.50 and a VG card sells for $281.03, then a SGC 30/PSA 2 should be in the $150.00 range, not $259.00. The seller is trying to get a high price for this card. Although when it comes down to it a person can sell a card for whatever he wishes, and these sellers who consistently price their cards high can do so, calling it “testing the market” rather than “suckering an idiot or novice collector,” it doesn’t mean we need to buy their cards. There is no needed behavior to drive prices for cards upward as sellers will do this on their own, but there is a behavior that’s needed to get sellers to be reasonable with their pricing, that is, refuse to buy their cards at the prices they’re asking for them.

If I didn’t do my research, my gut saved me in this situation. It doesn’t always do that. I learned to be disciplined before buying cards because it has saved me hundreds of dollars. Even if you are rich enough to forgo a budget, do you really want to one of those guys who sellers look on as a great “mark”? Wasting money is stupid in all economic groups. So, I will pass on this card even though it is one of the cards I have been looking for to add to my Hall of Fame collection that I have been adding to lately. Let’s hope others do the same.