FBI: “The” Honus Wagner Was Trimmed

In 1991, I got a call from my friend Matt Federgreen, the proprietor of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop and my co-host for a little segment I did on each of my half-hour-long Sunday night sportscasts on KCBS-Channel 2 in L.A.

Matt had been approached by Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and at that time the rising figure in hockey ownership and L.A. sports moguldom. McNall had made his millions buying and selling (and as the jury later agreed, often selling and re-selling and re-re-selling) antique coins, and he was fascinated by the upcoming auction of the Jim Copeland sports memorabilia. Big-money auctions were nothing new to the baseball card world, but this one was being handled by Sotheby’s, meaning the hobby was being mainstreamed into investment-grade collectibles.

“The” Wagner, inside its “authenticity” plastic case that guarantees it hasn’t been altered or improved, except for the fact that it was altered AND improved. The photo is by Linda Cataffo.

The centerpiece of the Sotheby’s Auction was an unbelievably pristine copy of the 1909 American Tobacco Company card of Honus Wagner, hardly the scarcest, but handily the most famous, card in the landmark series we collectors call by its catalogue number “T-206.” McNall and a then-unidentified partner (who proved to be his star player, Wayne Gretzky) wanted the card and they wanted Federgreen’s expertise. The card looked brand new. It bore no earmarks of being a clever counterfeit. But it also bore no signs of nearly 92 years of aging. Unless somebody was standing at the printing press when the card was finished drying, and stuffed it between the pages of a book, and kept the book in a climate-controlled room from the opening days of the Presidential administration of William Howard Taft, and had only taken it out after the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, something seemed wrong.

Something was very wrong. I couldn’t go with Matt to the inspection of the Wagner that McNall had arranged for him. But Matt took a bunch of pictures, and the next time he came in to the studios he brought them.

Matt has a sly smile that usually gives him away. “Whaddya think?”

I took one look at the photos and said “It’s been trimmed.”

Matt laughed. “That’s what I told Bruce. He said thanks very much, he said he thought so too, he said he’d probably buy it any way, and he walked me to the door, and he paid me a very generous fee, and I left.”

I asked him to show me the photos again. They had rung too loud a bell. “I’ve seen this card before.”

Matt’s eyes lit up. By the following Sunday I had found in my rabbit’s warren of card-related stuff, photos of a Wagner that had been offered for sale in the early ’80s by a fellow who owned a baseball card store on Long Island outside New York City. I had no doubt and neither did Matt. Between his photos and mine we were looking at before-and-after shots of the same card.

Before and after somebody with the guts of a burglar and the skills of a circumcision specialist had trimmed the thing.

In its previous state the Wagner was an anomaly. It had very large white borders, and the card was thus perhaps 10% bigger than the average T-206. It looked like it had been hand-cut from a sheet of cards, and not done by a machine. Some of the corners were stubbed and worn from age. But the “face” of the card, the player’s image, the bright yellow background, the lettering, were shiny and virtually perfect. It had been handled, and handled an appropriate amount, since 1909. But whoever had done the handling had been very, very careful not to touch the face.

And then somebody bought it and actually cut away all the damage on the sides and sold it to Jim Copeland who had turned it over to Sotheby’s which would shortly sell it to Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky for $451,000. When McNall was exposed as a crook who would sell the same priceless coin to several different collectors (throwing in secure storage of it for a small additional fee – so that it was always around for him to show it and re-sell it to another collector even though he didn’t own it any more) Gretzky got full possession of the treasure and sold it off to Walmart as a publicity thing, basically at a break-even figure. The price has gone up and up and up, and “the” Wagner was finally sold to Conservative political figure and Arizona Diamondbacks’ owner Ken Kendrick, who five years ago paid $2,800,000 for it.

It’s not a fake. But it’s also not an original.

And for years, collectors and experts have murmured about the process by which a really nice Wagner had been altered, and the alterations hidden from the public (even receiving the stamp of approval by the presumptive “final word” of a card authenticating company which got enormous publicity – and undeserved credibility – for encasing the card in the first of its plastic “slabs”), and the card became the image of the sports memorabilia hobby.

But who was behind this? And, Heavens, who cut the card?

Now we have the answer, courtesy the FBI…

According to the indictment, in advertising portraying Mastro Auctions as the premier seller of valuable items, including the world’s most expensive baseball trading card, a Honus Wagner T-206 card, Mastro allegedly failed to disclose that he had altered the Wagner T-206 card by cutting the sides in a manner that, if disclosed, would have significantly reduced the value of the card.

The “Mastro” in question is Bill Mastro, who I have known since we were both teenagers. At age 19, he had bought a Wagner for $1,500 and thus completed his T-206 set. Those of us whose own massive collections might have been worth a total of $1,500 were aghast. My friend and mentor Mike Aronstein told me that some of Mastro’s relatives had actually gathered together to consider what we would now call an “intervention” or forcing him to seek psychological help. It was believed that no Wagner had previously sold for more than around $250. At the left is how this startling development was contemporaneously covered by a monthly publication I used to write for called The Trader Speaks.

Mastro was already buying and selling cards that were not intended for his own collection. By the ’80s he had gone from card dealer to the founder of one of the first sports memorabilia auction houses, Mastro Auctions, and would regularly work the phones to try to drum up publicity for his auctions.

It eventually became a $50,000,000 business. And now it’s gotten Mastro and some of his colleagues indicted. And not just for the deception regarding the Wagner.

More from the Department of Justice’s press release:

CHICAGO — Online and live auctions of sports memorabilia and other collectibles conducted during the 2000s by the former Mastro Auctions, which was based in  suburban Chicago, routinely defrauded customers, according to a federal indictment unsealed today. William Mastro, who owned the former business that once billed itself as the “world’s leading sports and Americana auction house,” together with Doug Allen and Mark Theotikos, both former executives of Mastro Auctions, were indicted on fraud charges for allegedly rigging auctions through a series of deceptive practices, including so-called “shill-bidding,” designed to inflate prices paid by bidders and to protect the interests of consignors and sellers at the expense of unwitting bidders.

In short, if you bought from Mastro, you stood an excellent chance of bidding against people who were there only to drive up the price.

For that part of the story, I refer you to the whole press release at the Sports Collectors Digest website. The New York Daily News has even more detail on the extraordinary tale of “the” Wagner, which after two decades of whispering, we can now shout: has been deceptively altered.

Just for fun, I should note here that the entire story of what originally made the Wagner card scarce in the first place also doesn’t add up. The timeline is so messy that it has the card being withdrawn at Wagner’s behest (supposedly because he didn’t want to be involved in selling cigarettes to kids) after he saw an advertisement for it in a national sports magazine. But the ad didn’t appear until July, 1909 and the card was supposed to have been withdrawn in March, 1909. But I’ll save that tale of what might’ve been the first card made deliberately scarce, for another time.

Also, this isn’t the scarcest card of all time, nor even in this set (there are at least 75 of them; there may not be as many examples of the T-206 card of an A’s pitcher named Eddie Plank, and there are only three or four copies of a rare T-206 variation of a Yankees’ pitcher Joe Doyle, and there are unique examples of eight minor league T-206 ‘proof’ cards featuring players who never got into the issued set, and based on recent developments there may yet be a 525th card to add to the checklist). More on that some other time.

Lastly, if you’re ever actually talking about Honus Wagner – the immortal shortstop or the card or now the FBI Fraud Case – the name doesn’t rhyme with “bonus.” Honus was short for the Germanic version of John, Johannes. So he answered to “Honnis,” not “Ho-nus.”

39 Comments

Excellent article. I’ve considered doing business with Mastro’s in the past (their former location is less than two miles from me) and always left feeling slimy, as if I needed a shower, when our non-business was concluded. Thanks as always, KO.

A little OT, did the Negro League players have baseball cards?

Your knowledge of everything baseball never ceases to amaze me. This time you just looked at a card and knew something was not quite right? But then thinking about it, I figured you’ve been staring at these cards most of your life, you should know what you’re looking at. This was a fascinating piece about which I know little to nothing about. It’s a shame that some would take a pure hobby and damage it all for the sake of money. This blog is also helpful to those just starting to collect cards. Buyer beware may be the theme to remember. Thanks ever so much.

Smashing piece! I love puzzles and a good mystery, and this article fulfills both. And you threw in a cliffhanger for good measure. Can’t wait till you tie up the loose ends regarding the deliberate scarcity of the Wagner card. Sounds like another fine mystery.

It was hard when Wayne Gretzky left California to play hockey in the godforsaken Midwest. But I think we finally forgave him, and he remains an officer and a gentleman, at least in my book.

Keith, if by some miracle of the universe our paths ever cross, BELIEVE me, I will remember, if it kills me, to refer to Mr. Wagner as Honnis, not Ho-nus. ;)

Great piece as usual, Keith! Keep ‘em coming!

Just to answer the question above about Negro League baseball cards, check out cubanbaseballcards.com. There are cards, but they aren’t American!

What people won’t do for money! Super story…or should I say truth? I got all my baseball cards and Beatle cards in the pursuit of bubble gum. I still can’t watch a game without Double Bubble. I love when they show those great big canisters of it in the dugouts on TV. Why not lay off History? Most of us here are true fans of KO. All things are connected, so since we are in America at this moment, let folks have a say. Trim some mean, Jaws, and you might just become a collectible yourself! Happy Olympics everyone!

You’ll see it spelled “Hans” in old books and photo captions from time to time, as well (which I always took as a clue to how “Honus” should be pronounced.)

I’ve known the orthodox account (that he objected to endorsing tobacco) since ’77 or so. I’ve known that there are those who dismiss that almost as long, but this is the first time that I’ve been made aware of the sports magazine ad timeline aspect of this.

I look forward to you elaborating on the scarcity theory.

I have just been re-reading Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, which Red Barber called the greatest baseball book ever written, and who would argue with Red? The praise all of them have when they refer to Honus Wagner is a reminder of his greatness.

I must say that I’m surprised that KO has been silent on the trade for Ichiro.

I knew most of the baseball card people mentioned here, sold most of our extensive collection through Mastro about 10 years ago. A long line of high profile crooks infiltrated what we called THE HOBBY. Great story, Keith, as always.
Frank Barning
Baseball Hobby News editor, 1979-93

Keith what are you doing besides baseball these days? I even followed you to current. I miss your commentary and hope you return in some form to political commentary.

Make that “at least 76″ of the Wagner T-206. About 30 years ago, maybe more, my friend Doug inherited a very large batch of T-206s from his grandfather. However, (an expensive however) grandpa found them so beautiful that, probably 50 or 60 years ago, he had them framed, organized by team. So Honus is there in the frame with other Pirates, the not as rare but still valuable Ty Cobb is in the Tigers frame, and so on. I haven’t seen the whole group for years and years, and don’t remember if it included Eddie Plank or Joe Doyle. When McNall and Gretzky spent their big money, I urged Doug to at least put his Honus on the market, but he refused. For one thing, it’s glued down. For another, it does have a crease. And finally, he’s fond of all the cards.

Where are you KO…why do you hide behind cowardice?

Where have you gone Keith Olberman? No posts here since July and no news elsewhere. You are missed!

Keith are you a self-loathing closet case because Walter Schneller touched you inappropriately or was it Arthur Naething. Just curious.

Interesting. You write very well Mr. Olbermann. I’m still not sure what just happened on Twitter. I wasn’t meaning to be a dick. I’m actually a fan. Thanks for the spelling tip on “blogging”, Goob ;)

Please call Marvin Miller. Thank you.

Keith! Thanks for providing the correct pronunciation of “Honus”, and the explanation for it. It makes perfect sense. I myself had been mispronouncing his first name for many years until now.

Great piece, great writing & very informative! Thanks for responding to my question regarding The Honus Wagner card!
Muchas gracias,
Jose
@charrito23 (Twitter)

Look, I don’t agree with his politics at all but we share an affection for baseball history. There are plenty of people in this category that I can have a great conversation with who I differ with in other areas. I know that Keith can get “a bit full of himself” but so can guys and women to his right that I may happen to agree with on certain issues. One has to admit, he knows baseball history and I bet we all learned something from reading the piece.

Amen, Ed and History!

Great job Keith. Hate your politics, love your baseball thoughts

DUDE..Bin LADEN wanted this guy preaching for him MSNBC…how much more proof you want of KO’s distorted view of reality. He’s brain damaged and so are you…drone

Seriously, WTH is going on with Mr Olbermann?
1. The A’s win the division in absolutely spectacular fashion.
2. Miguel Cabrera wins the TRIPLE CROWN, no less!
3. Actually, too many things to mention.
Meanwhile, on Baseball Nerd, crickets chirp from the podium.

LOL He is moving from DOING to BEING. He is happy. Yaay! Everyone misses him, even the meanies and disenfranchised. Let him be. Sleep. Count. Game. :)

I love the story of the guy who got one day at bat and his own baseball card after recovery from injury. And the World Series is coming up! BUT…we just love the guy. Even if he stopped tweeting and joined a cloistered monastery, nothing would change our hearts. Hugs, history! xo

The centerpiece of the Sotheby’s Auction was an unbelievably pristine copy of the 1909 American Tobacco Company card of Honus Wagner, hardly the scarcest, but handily the most famous, card in the landmark series we collectors call by its catalogue number “T-206.” McNall and a then-unidentified partner (who proved to be his star player, Wayne Gretzky) wanted the card and they wanted Federgreen’s expertise. The card looked brand new. It bore no earmarks of being a clever counterfeit. But it also bore no signs of nearly 92 years of aging. Unless somebody was standing at the printing press when the card was finished drying, and stuffed it between the pages of a book, and kept the book in a climate-controlled room from the opening days of the Presidential administration of William Howard Taft, and had only taken it out after the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, something seemed wrong.

Nice post. I was checking constantly this blog and
I am impressed! Extremely helpful information specifically the last part :) I care for such info a lot. I was seeking this
particular information for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.

Spot on with this write-up, I truly believe that this site needs a lot more
attention. I’ll probably be back again to read through more, thanks for the info!

I just could not leave your site before suggesting that
I extremely enjoyed the standard info an individual provide in your visitors?
Is gonna be again steadily in order to investigate cross-check new posts

Hi! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any issues with hackers?

My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing several weeks of hard work
due to no backup. Do you have any solutions to stop hackers?

It’s amazing designed for me to have a site, which is good designed for my experience.

thanks admin

Hahaha you must be joking.Something like that is nothing but just nonsense.

You should change the knee pads you must have on (referenced by a poster on another thread here). Your current ones must be about worn out.

This is a baseball blog and I’m sure you are driving some base ball fans away. And if you have nothing new to say, you shouldn’t post. You haven’t make an original comment on this blog since Olbermann got his sorry, narcissistic a$$ fired from Current.

(And as for taking his “time coming back”, someone please tell me who in the world would be stupid enough to hire him. He is known all over the industry to be a jerk who is impossible to deal with.)

For a minute there, I thought I was this generation’s Murrow. I do feel like you love me faults and all…and I will probably continue to be myself, as everyone else is already taken! heehee Hugs. ;))

No kidding, very funny.

I am so with you, History! The Honus Wagner was not the only thing that was trimmed! KO looks great and appears to have trimmed himself down, along with that heavy schedule! I love it! Someone told me he is sleeping late, going to games and counting his money. He even trimmed his posts here at the Baseball Nerd. This is all good as the paradigm shifts from DOING to BEING on the planet! He is right in step with it. I don’t know why anyone would want to be mean to such a great guy…or to anyone for that matter! Hugs to ya! :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,943 other followers

%d bloggers like this: