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Only a few dozen T206 Wagners are known to still exist, having been released in limited numbers just after the turn of the twentieth century. Most, with their creases and stains, look like they've been around for nearly one hundred years. But one—The Card—appears to have defied the travails of time. Its sharp corners and still-crisp portrait make it the single-most famous—and most desired—baseball card on the planet, valued today at more than two million dollars. It has transformed a simple hobby into a ...
Only a few dozen T206 Wagners are known to still exist, having been released in limited numbers just after the turn of the twentieth century. Most, with their creases and stains, look like they've been around for nearly one hundred years. But one—The Card—appears to have defied the travails of time. Its sharp corners and still-crisp portrait make it the single-most famous—and most desired—baseball card on the planet, valued today at more than two million dollars. It has transformed a simple hobby into a billion-dollar industry that is at times as lawless as the Wild West. Everything about The Card, which has made men wealthy as well as poisoned lifelong relationships, is fraught with controversy—from its uncertain origins to the nagging possibility that it might not be exactly as it seems.
In this intriguing, eye-opening, and groundbreaking look at a uniquely American obsession, award-winning investigative reporters Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson follow The Card's trail from a Florida flea market to the hands of the world's most prominent collectors. The Card sheds a fascinating new light on a world of counterfeiters, con men, and the people who profit from what used to be a pastime for kids.
The tension was as thick as the steel-gray clouds that hung over the Long Island Expressway as the beat-up old green Honda sped along on a Sunday evening in 1985, past the car washes and the billboards hard by the highway and into Hicksville, a New York City suburb built on the edges of what were once the potato fields that stretched into the far reaches of Long Island.
Bill Mastro and Rob Lifson weren't talking much as they drove into town from the Willow Grove card convention near Philadelphia to the doors of the collectibles shop in a dingy strip mall. The shop was closed to the public that day: Only Mastro and Lifson would be allowed in for a look at the treasure inside, and Lifson himself would barely get a glimpse, relegated to the front of the store while Mastro made the deal in the back.
What they found in the store that day would profoundly change both men's lives, even as it transformed the sleepy hobby of baseball-card collecting into a billion-dollar industry and turned an obsessive vintage-card collector into its most powerful player. It would ruin a friendship that had endured for years, and it would cast dark shadows over the hobby they both loved.
What they found in the store that day was The Card.
Jay Zimmerman was at the same convention in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, in 1985 when he got the call from his pal Bob Sevchuk, the owner of a sports-collectibles store in Hicksville. Sevchuk could barely contain his excitement as he told Zimmerman about a regular customer who had come into the shop with abounty of baseball cards. The man's name was Alan Ray, and Ray was eager to sell his wares, which included an outstanding T206 Honus Wagner card. Ray also had another rare and valuable card—a T206 Eddie Plank—as well as fifty to seventy-five other high-grade cards from the T206 series. This was like having a stranger walk into the local frame shop with a van Gogh, and Sevchuk knew that it was an opportunity for a big payday.
"Bob was selling it on consignment because he didn't want to lay out the money himself," Zimmerman said. "He asked me to approach people he knew who were into old cards."
Zimmerman's first stop at the show was Bill Mastro, then a thirty-three-year-old vintage-card connoisseur who had walked away from a career as a respiratory therapist just a few years earlier because he thought he could make more money selling cards and sports memorabilia. Mastro had been a fixture in the hobby since he was a teenager in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and he knew as much about old cards as anybody. Zimmerman told Mastro that Ray wanted $25,000 for a T206 Wagner card, an outrageous sum in those days even for the "Flying Dutchman." Mastro didn't flinch.
"You don't have to talk to anybody else," Mastro said. "I own it."
Mastro rounded up his old friend Lifson and told him he had a potential deal. They raced to Sevchuk's Long Island store with Lifson behind the wheel. "I got to go because I had the money," Lifson said. "I had no idea where we were going."
Mastro and Lifson had been friends for decades, bonding over their common zeal for trading cards and baseball memorabilia as boys. At twenty-five, the shaggy-haired Lifson was eight years younger than Mastro, a prodigy in the card-collecting hobby, a whiz kid who had begun dealing when he was ten years old. He and Mastro were buying, selling, and trading high-end cards before they could even shave, and their early partnership would help make both men formidable figures in the world of sports collectibles, eventual owners of two of the most prestigious sports auction houses in the world, Robert Edward Auctions and Mastro Auctions.
When he was barely in junior high, Lifson would track down Mastro at his college dorm in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Lifson was obsessed with baseball cards and with having a business built on them, and Mastro was just one of the many collectors he would routinely call on a daily basis.
"The monthly phone bill at our house was a big thing," Lifson said. "I'd call Bill all over the place. Someone would pick up the phone, and I'd say, 'Where can I reach him?' Bill has told a story for years about when I called and he's at a bar playing pool. The bartender says, 'Is there a Bill Mastro here?' "Of course, it was Lifson. "No one told me I couldn't deal with adults," Lifson said.
When they arrived at Sevchuk's store that day, long before the wheels would come off their relationship, they found Sevchuk bursting with excitement. He whisked Mastro to the back of the store while Lifson waited up front examining the cards and collectibles in the display cases. "Bill instructed me to stay in front," Lifson said, "and Bill was like my customer, so I did that."
When Mastro returned with Sevchuk, the three of them discussed where the card had come from and how they might get others in similar condition from the same source. He showed Lifson the card briefly, then tucked it into a briefcase, locked the case, and they drove off.
Mastro had seen millions of cards by then, but he'd never seen a card like this Wagner. It was as if the heavens had parted and a divine hand delivered the Holy Grail of trading cards to a strip mall in Hicksville, New York. "Everything about it gives the appearance of, 'Holy Moses, this is too good to be true,' " Mastro would say years later.
It was a rare find, truly a one-of-a-kind piece, the sort of discovery most collectors only dream about. Mastro said it looked great for a seventy-five-year-old piece of cardboard, with no creases, tears, or blemishes. Even better, the back featured an advertisement for Piedmont cigarettes. Although dozens of T206 Wagners are still in circulation, almost all feature ads for Sweet Caporals, another brand of cigarettes. Only a handful of T206 Wagners have Piedmont backs.The Card
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