Sunday, May 23, 2004

How to put a price on a dream?


1909 Honus Wagner card might be worth $1 million - unless it's not

The Cincinnati Enquirer

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This is no ordinary baseball card. It's too regal for a shoebox, too elegant for an attic. It's too old to do much but sit and rest, encased in Lucite and the dreams of others. Sticking this baseball card in your bicycle spokes would be like using the Hope diamond to carve a turkey.

There he is, Honus Wagner, the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame shortstop, the object of so much affection, greed, treachery and lust, his cheeks red, his face pink, his gaze cartoonish, nestled in a 3-by-6-inch block of plastic, Phillips-head screws snugging each corner. Between the Lucite blocks, Honus sleeps, eyes wide open, in a thin, clear plastic sleeve. On his back is an ad for Piedmont cigarettes. A strip of aluminum foil running the length and breadth of the Lucite protects him from light. Except when his owners roust him to show him off.

Honus is yellowed and a little stained, something the owners say helps prove his authenticity. His edges aren't quite complete; the "register" is off. Honus was born on a four-color, lithograph offset printing press, with a rosary dot matrix, on paper stock in fashion at the time. Honus looks a little worse for wear. You might, too, if you were created, supposedly, in 1909.

John Cobb and Ray Edwards, his owners, Cincinnati guys, think Honus looks like a million bucks.

Only one problem:

Nobody else does.

Experts in the card-collecting industry say this Honus is a fake.

Or, to use the polite, card-collecting industry term, a "reprint." John and Ray have walked a million miles the last two years, working to prove their man in Lucite is the real deal. Theirs is an odyssey almost as storied as the card itself. John Cobb has owned the card for 20 years, and in the last two has had it tested more than a lab rat.

Cobb has defended it more than Darrow defended evolution and at least as much as Cobb's own honor, which he feels is very much at stake here.

Twenty years with Honus Wagner has taken John Cobb from a local estate sale to a paper expert in Wisconsin and a printing expert in Cincinnati. It has led him on a journey through the virtual halls of eBay and the real ones at card shops.

John Cobb and his cousin, Ray Edwards, own a Honus Wagner baseball card that if verified is worth millions.
(Steven M. Herppich/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
Honus has mined the lodes of this 52-year-old man's emotions.

Cobb has been elated, angry, hopeful, bitter and defiant. He has been frustrated. He is nearing the end of his journey, if not his fight, mostly because he's running out of places to go to validate Honus' worth. Cobb's journey ends where lots of journeys end for those who have hoped and dreamed: in sunny California, bumping the Pacific Ocean, at a place called Pro Sports Authenticator, PSA, the world's foremost judge of baseball cards.

All that's at issue is:

Real or reprint?

All that's at stake is:

A million dollars.

At least.

"If they can disprove the experts," says local collector Steve Wolter, "they can go from something that's worth nothing to something that's worth a million bucks or more."

Who's right? Who's wrong? A knight's quest? Or a fool's errand?

"I was taught never to give up," John Cobb says.

"I wouldn't spend this much time on a fake," Ray Edwards says.

"The whole thing is comical," says Joe Orlando, president of PSA.

Is it? Come along and find out. Enter the Byzantine, multimillion-dollar world of baseball-card collecting, where things aren't always what they seem and the dreams of would-be rich men are dashed with the flick of a 100-power electronic microscope. Join Honus Wagner, a shy, humble, original Hall of Famer, in wondering what all the fuss is about.

When you're done traveling, decide whom you believe.

•••

John Cobb's journey with John Peter Wagner started in 1983 or 1984. Cobb can't recall which. An acquaintance dabbled in estate sales. He had something Cobb might be interested in.

Might be?

John Cobb was interested in everything. As a teenager in Loveland, he worked for spending cash on a trash truck. He was always amazed at the things people threw out. He'd see things on the curb: Furniture. Toys. Jewelry. Books. He saved them. And then he saved some more.

At one point, Cobb says, he had seven "storage bins" full of other people's stuff. By bins, he means those sheds you rent by the month to store your possessions between moves. That's a lot of stuff.

Cobb had a comic-book collection he estimates was worth close to $1 million, though nobody has ever verified that. He sold it eight years ago to pay legal bills.

He still has an 8-by-8-foot shed full of stuff in the backyard of his Covington home. Mostly personal things, Cobb says.

John Cobb has led a life. He played keyboards in an R&B band that featured the locally legendary Bootsy Collins. In 1969, the band opened for Jimi Hendrix at the Pickle Barrel, a club in Clifton. By the early '70s, Cobb was pulling in $800 a week playing music.

He was drafted into the service in 1971. Cobb was headed for Vietnam until his records showed he'd contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever as an 8-year-old. He says the vaccinations needed for service in Southeast Asia would have reacted violently with the medication he'd taken a decade earlier for the spotted fever. He was discharged and went to work in his father's trucking business.

In 1977, a car wreck left him with a crushed left hip. He still limps. In 1998, Cobb retired on partial disability. He spends most of his time now fretting about Honus. He paid $1,800 for the Wagner card 20 years ago, with the promise from the owner that he could get his money back if he couldn't sell it.

Almost immediately, a collector offered Cobb $10,000 for Honus. Which got Cobb to thinking: "Why take that when it could be worth more? If he goes for 10 grand, he'll go for 20. I have to find out more about this card," Cobb recalls. "I just put it away."

It might have ended there, with Honus being a highly valued treasure in Cobb's overflowing chest. But then, about 10 years ago, Cobb was watching TV with his cousin, Ray Edwards. Magician David Copperfield was magically tearing up a baseball card part-owned by hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky. "I've got that card," Cobb said to Edwards. And away they went.

"When I saw (Cobb's) card, chills went up my back," Edwards recalls.

Edwards, a 1986 Withrow grad, owned Rainbow Gold, a store in Walnut Hills. Now, he was operating his store online. He knew how to work the tangled Web. "My father taught me a long time ago, when a big ruckus is made over something little, there's something to it."

Or, as Cobb puts it, "That's when we stepped into the card."

You won't believe what they found.

•••

It is the most famous baseball card in the world: the T-206 Honus Wagner card with a Piedmont tobacco company back. Made in 1909, for insertion into packs of Piedmont cigarettes. It has its own museum, the T-206 Museum, which you can find online at t206museum.com. It has inspired tale upon tale as to its origin, and why Wagner decided to have it pulled from the shelves. Or if it ever reached the shelves at all.

Only two are known to exist, if you believe the experts. Three, if you believe Cobb and Edwards. One, universally known as "the Gretzky Card" because Wayne Gretzky once had part ownership, fetched almost $1.3 million at auction four years ago. The other, in very poor condition, went for $86,730 in November 2001.

The Wagner Piedmont card is "the Holy Grail of baseball cards," said David Kohler, president of Sports Cards Plus, a nationally known card-collecting business in Southern California.

"You could sell half of one for $20,000," said Brian Marren, vice president of Mastronet, a large sports memorabilia auction house. Marren's boss, Bill Mastro, once owned the Gretzky Card. He paid $25,000 for it, in 1986. He sold it later the same year, for $110,000. He's still kicking himself.

"It's the Mona Lisa" of baseball cards, Mastro said. "On its worst day, it would sell for $1 million."

Experts estimate there are between 40 and 50 T-206s out there. Most have a back advertising Sweet Caporal cigarettes. One such card, in poor condition, sold at auction three weeks ago for $109,638. PSA graded that card a 1 on a scale of 10, 10 being mint condition. PSA has judged the Gretzky Card to be an 8.

How valuable is any Wagner T-206? PSA president Joe Orlando said at the same auction, a 1915 Babe Ruth rookie card, graded an 8, sold for the same price as the Wagner Sweet Caporal card graded a 1.

There are baseball cards that are more rare. Marren cites the 1951 Topps cards of Eddie Stanky, Robin Roberts and Jim Konstanty. He says there are "three or four" of each known to exist. All three cards recently fetched a total of $30,000.

So why Honus?

And why would anyone spend $1 million on a baseball card?

"Who knows?" says Bill Mastro. In the most recent Mastronet auction, someone paid $200,000 for an original letter written by George Washington. "There is no rhyme or reason to this."

Honus Wagner would agree. In his 21-year career, The Dutchman won eight batting titles, tied with Tony Gwynn for most ever in the National League. Wagner hit .300 17 years in a row. He hit .329 lifetime. He was a member of the Fabulous Five, the first five players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

And he would have no use for commercializing his name in this fashion.

Sports Cards Plus president David Kohler was asked last August by the Wagner family to sell what remained of his memorabilia. Kohler asked Leslie Blair Wagner, Honus' granddaughter, why Honus ordered his likeness pulled from cigarette packs.

"It wasn't that he didn't use tobacco," Kohler said. Wagner chewed it, in his later years. And it wasn't the money he received, or lack of it. "What he didn't like was that it promoted smoking to kids, that kids would have to buy cigarettes to get the cards," Kohler says.

Wagner was a square shooter. He even looked square, standing 5 feet 11, weighing 200 pounds, as solid as the hours he spent working in a Pennsylvania coal mine with his father and brothers could make him.

His long arms and bowed legs caused pitcher Lefty Gomez to remark, "He could tie his shoes standing up."

Wagner played his whole career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, from 1897-1917. He never negotiated a contract. He just took what the owner felt he was worth. Wagner was easygoing and amiable, the perfect foil to his biggest rival, the ornery Ty Cobb.

It isn't hard to imagine his objection to the cigarette cards, nor the card collector's fascination with them. John Cobb and Ray Edwards are hooked. They've spent the last two years chasing their obsession.

•••

Cobb and Edwards arrive in the Loveland office of their lawyer, James Arnold, toting a blue plastic storage tub the size of a laundry basket. Inside are seven notebooks containing every correspondence they've had with PSA, printing experts and paper know-it-alls, and the online auction house eBay.

Arnold is acting as a go-between for Cobb and Edwards in their dealings with eBay and PSA. Arnold said he will receive a percentage of the profits if and when the card is sold.

Edwards has spent hour upon Internet hour researching the history of his baseball card. It's all there, right down to a scientific explanation for something called titanium dioxide, used since 1921 to whiten paper. The notebooks are the totems of Edwards' joy and frustration in trying to show the experts that he has the most valuable baseball card in the world. "One of one," Edwards says.

"Lots of sleepless nights and emotional stress," Edwards said.

One night in particular. In February 2003, Edwards and Cobb drove to Appleton, Wis., to the offices of Integrated Paper Services Inc. There, they paid $303.50 to Walter Rantanen, Integrated's group leader in something called fiber science.

For six hours, Rantanen analyzed the paper stock on which Honus resided. He judged it to be pre-1916. It was free of titanium dioxide, a whitening pigment not used until 1921. Edwards and Cobb say that's crucial for dating their card.

Next, they turned to Arnie Schwed, a consultant to the printing industry. Schwed confirmed, without being paid, that the printing was of 1909 vintage.

A year earlier, Edwards and Cobb had put the card on eBay. They posted it for auction seven times between July 2002 and July 2003. EBay ended five of the auctions; in the other two, the reserve - or minimum - price wasn't met. That price was between $300,000 and $500,000.

Edwards and Cobb said eBay booted Honus and demanded authentication.

"Theirs was a clear violation of our authenticity policy," eBay spokesman Hani Durzy said. "We'd like nothing more than to see another T-206 on the site. It's good publicity."

The Web auction house recognizes seven card authenticators, one of which is PSA.

So they went to Rantanen and Schwed. This is where the story goes Byzantine.

• • • 

In the closed-shop world of card collecting - and, by extension, eBay - nobody cares about paper experts or printing savants. They don't care about anyone's judgment except the guys whose lives are spent judging baseball cards.

As local collector Steve Wolter put it: "All these outsiders can say anything they want. If the people in the hobby don't accept it, it's worthless." Which brings us back to Pro Sports Authenticator.

PSA has graded and/or authenticated 7 million sports cards since it opened in 1991. It charges $100 for an evaluation. Grading tells you the shape the card is in; authenticating tells you if it's real. PSA is acknowledged as the industry leader.

Edwards' dealings with PSA could fill a few books. The essence of it is this: PSA's policy doesn't allow owners to be present when their cards are being judged. No exceptions. Edwards and Cobb will not let their Honus out of their sight. No way.

"Would you let something out of your sight that might be the only one in the world?" Edwards asks.

Happens all the time, PSA president Joe Orlando says. "We've graded 23 Wagner cards. Our security measures are at the top of their game. We aren't going to sacrifice that for one customer."

Edwards and Cobb allege PSA has a financial interest in the Gretzky Card, which could be devalued if their card is deemed genuine.

They're nuts, Orlando says. "I said to Mr. Edwards: 'We don't buy or sell anything. We have relationships with every major auction house in the country. We are a publicly traded company. If that's good enough for everyone else, why isn't it good enough for you?' "

"One scratch and the card is worth a lot less," Edwards says.

PSA doesn't allow owners to be present for security reasons and for possible conflicts of interest. If a grader knew an owner, he might be tempted to give the guy's card a higher or lower grade. In the case of a Wagner card, going from a PSA-7 to a PSA-8 could add $100,000 to its worth. Plus, PSA doesn't have time to argue with proud owners who feel their cards were marked too low.

Sounds reasonable.

"This card is one of a kind. They ought to make an exception," counters Edwards.

Sounds reasonable.

They won't.

"If you think you have a million-dollar card, don't you think it'd be worth a plane flight out here?" Orlando asks. "It'd take 20 minutes" to grade and authenticate the card. It arrives in a cardboard box, coded, with no names. Experts look at it through high-powered microscopes, authenticate it (or not), grade it, put it back in the box and push it down the line.

"If they don't want to submit the card, that's their choice," Orlando says. "But they're going to have a hard time selling it."

"We won't leave it," Edwards says.

So there you have it. Edwards and Cobb are fighting city hall and getting creamed. Without PSA's blessing - or a thumbs-up from another recognized card-authenticating service - eBay won't allow it to be auctioned. Edwards and Cobb want to tour the card, but they won't unless they can insure it. They can't insure it without knowing what it's worth.

They have a million-dollar property that to the rest of the world is swamp land.

Bill Mastro says the card is almost certainly a reprint. The P in "PITTSBURG" should be slightly larger than the other letters, he says. It's the same size as the rest. "That's the only discrepancy," Edwards counters. "That's what makes it unique. One of one."

Is it unique and real? Or is it simply unique?

Back in Jim Arnold's office, John Cobb and Ray Edwards slide the foil over Honus' cherubic face. Hopes and dreams die when flown in the face of a tightly knit community of people with the power to say what's real and what's not. John Cobb might as well own the back of a Wheaties box. For now.

The Dutchman sleeps again, eyes wide open. Laughing, perhaps, at all the commotion. It's enough to drive a man to smoke.

"Something's worth what someone's willing to pay for it," John Cobb says, sighing.

Ain't that the truth?




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