Rare Wagner card to benefit Notre Dame sisters

Auction ends today with international order receiving proceeds

November 03, 2010|By Kevin Cowherd, The Baltimore Sun

In her line of work, Sister Virginia Muller does a lot of praying.

She prays for the homeless, the sick, the spiritually downtrodden. And Thursday, she'll throw in a special prayer for a certain T206 Honus Wagner baseball card.

That's because the School Sisters of Notre Dame, an international order with administrative offices in Baltimore, are auctioning off the rare Wagner card and bidding ends Thursday night. By the time the online auction ends, the card is expected to sell for $220,000 -- which was the highest bid as of Wednesday night -- or more.

That windfall will be used to help support the order's 3,500 nuns in Africa and Latin America, as well as educational ministries in the United States.

"I'm excited," Muller, a spokeswoman for the School Sisters, said this week. "I believe our benefactor is smiling down from heaven upon us."

The T206 Wagner card is one of the rarest on the sports memorabilia market. Collectors say that between 50 and 70 of the cards are known to exist.

In 2007, a T206 Wagner card once owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky was sold to a private investor -- later revealed as Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick -- for $2.8 million. That was believed to be the highest price ever paid for a baseball card.

But that card was considered to be in near-mint condition, whereas the card owned by the School Sisters is in poor condition, said Chris Ivey, director of sports auctions at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, which is overseeing the bidding.

"It's been altered," Ivy said, noting that the left and right borders of the card have been cut off. There is also a sizable crease in one of the corners, and the card has been laminated.

But "it would still be a desirable to any collector," he said, adding that the T206 Wagner "is considered 'The Monster' by any card collector."

The story of how the School Sisters came to possess the card sounds like the tale of an answered prayer, even though few of the sisters had ever heard of Wagner, the Hall of Fame shortstop who played most of his career, from 1897 to 1917, with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The card, which was printed in 1909, was owned by the brother of a nun. She died in 1999.

When the brother died earlier this year -- Muller declined to identify him, except to say he grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- he left all his possessions to the order.

This included the Wagner card, which was found in a safe-deposit box along with a typewritten note that read: "Although damaged, the value of this baseball card should increase exponentially throughout the 21st century!"

When the School Sisters were told of its potential value, they were incredulous.

"Heavenly days!" Muller said when asked for her initial reaction. "I just couldn't imagine it. I was so surprised. I had never heard of Honus Wagner."

The card, which can be seen at the Heritage Auction Galleries website (www.ha.com), shows a pensive-looking Wagner in a drab gray jersey with a bright green collar. "Pittsburg" -- that's how the city spelled its name at the turn of the 20th century -- is emblazoned across his jersey.

Wagner won eight batting titles, tied for the most in National League history with Tony Gwynn, while playing mostly for his hometown Pirates. He led the league in slugging six times and in stolen bases five times. He was one of five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame's inaugural class and received the second-highest vote total, behind Ty Cobb and tied with Babe Ruth. Many baseball historians consider him the finest shortstop to ever play the game.

According to Ivy, there are two theories as to why Wagner ultimately asked the American Tobacco Co., manufacturers of the card, to stop using his image, making the existing cards so valuable to collectors.

"One theory is that Wagner knew baseball cards were appealing to children and he didn't want his likeness to be involved with a tobacco company if children were collecting the cards," he said. "The other theory -- and the most likely one -- is that the tobacco company wasn't offering Wagner enough money to use his likeness, so he requested that they pull his card."

Whatever the reason, the School Sisters of Notre Dame stand to benefit greatly from that long-ago decision.

They'll find out exactly how much they'll benefit Thursday night.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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