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.


The Elusive PSA 10 1951 Bowman Mantle Rookie Card

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA 10

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA 10

How times have changed over the past 20-plus years in the hobby. If you asked me back in the late ’80s what would be the most influential trend in card collecting that would affect pricing I would have probably said that Beckett Magazines created and would continue to create a central pricing structure that would attract lots of speculators, investors and collectors. This increased participation would skyrocket demands on product which in turn would increase pricing. I wasn’t half wrong, Beckett did create a marketplace that attracted huge amounts of new people into the hobby, but the card companies also reacted by producing huge amounts of cards to match or exceed the demand. Over time this suppressed pricing on all newer cards and the trend in pricing upward stayed only in the vintage area of the hobby.

The overall biggest influence on the pricing for cards wasn’t actually Beckett Magazine. The largest trend that pushed pricing upwards was the introduction of third party grading services.

The best example for this trend can be seen in one of my all-time favourite cards. A card that, once graded, quickly moved out of my budget and into the realm of the rich.

The card I’m speaking of you probably have guessed from the title of this post is the 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle RC. It has the distinction of being one of the very few seminal vintage cards that has a PSA 10 population of only one. It, over the last 22-23 years (since it has been graded), has remained unique. Other important vintage cards either have no PSA 10 examples or more than one which makes this card highly desirable to high end vintage collectors.

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA Pop. Report

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA Pop. Report

The card first came to the public’s attention in an article written by Michael Payne for Beckett Baseball Card Monthly back in 1994 (the November issue). Two University of Miami students (Dan Forman and Jerry Schwartz), who came across the card (the article didn’t give any specifics), sent it in to be graded by PSA.

The card came back a 10. They informed a Mantle collector who they had sold cards to before, by the name of Rick Skurnik, that the card would be put up for auction. Skurnik, with some financial help from his wife Gail, won the auction with a bid of $30,000.00.

Nov. 1994 Beckett Article

Nov. 1994 Beckett Article

The card periodically came up in dealings, Skurnik didn’t keep the card for too long. It was sold for just under 100k in 1998, then 325k a few years later. In 2008, Memory Lane Inc. set up a private sale of the card for 600k. The 600k sale was the last anyone has heard of the card.

The card, if sold today, would fetch around a million according to most experts in the hobby and I wouldn’t disagree.

To summarize, the card, once graded, went from 30k to 100k to 325k to 600k all within 14 years. If we consider it a million dollar card in 2016 that would be a 33 fold increase in 22 years. That is the essence of the hobby today, the search for high end copies of important cards to then be sent off to be graded and resold at a huge profit.

The Mantle card is not a unique example, it is a regular occurrence. Cards that were priced in the hundreds of dollars back in the ’80s and early ’90s are now sold in the tens, if not the hundreds, of thousands of dollars because they have had the distinction of being graded very high by one of the 3rd party grading companies. The difference between a NM or higher non graded card, to its graded counterpart can run in the range of 10 to 100 times higher in price. That is if you can even find ungraded copies of important cards in superior condition. Most high end cards with some significance have been graded creating a two-tiered system of collecting, those that are graded and high end, and those that are ungraded and are less than NM. In some cases grading has even moved into the lower conditioned cards depending on the card’s significance. Eventually there will be no more vintage cards to grade and the companies will be competing to grade the new and more recent cards only. We will see if another trend comes to the forefront at that time.