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Will the real Honus Wagner please stand up?

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 10:46 a.m. CDT

Editor’s note: Michael Osacky — writer of this opinion piece — started collecting vintage sports cards when his grandfather bought him a shoebox full of cards for his birthday more than 15 years ago. Since then, he has been on the hunt to find undiscovered cards and sports memorabilia collections hiding in dusty attics, garages and barns. He can be reached at (312) 379-9090 or www.baseballintheattic.com. He recently visited Creston and purchased a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.

As the leaves changed from green to burnt amber in Creston this autumn, my drive through town was distinctly different. The memories of the EF2 tornado that swept through town in April 2012 are still fresh in our minds according to a passerby.

When I received a call a few weeks prior to this trip, a gentleman from Creston (who requests to be anonymous) with a raspy voice and excited tone greeted me.

“I have the Honus Wagner tobacco card. It is worth millions of dollars.”

I quickly added, “Please turn the card over and tell me what it says.”

The gentleman says I see the name Piedmont in big letters. When I ask if there is anything else on the card, I hear silence on the phone. “Hello, are you still there?” The gentleman sadly whispers, it is a reprint!

As a vintage baseball card collector and appraiser from Chicago, I frequently get calls from individual collectors and estates to advise on values of their vintage sports collectibles.

The Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card is the most expensive baseball card in the hobby and most widely recognized. An original Honus Wagner card would sell for a minimum of $75,000 (low grade) and recently sold for as high as $2.1 million in high grade.

Mr. Wagner was not a fan of tobacco products in the early 1900s. When Honus found out his image on a baseball card was being inserted into packages of tobacco, he immediately ordered that his portrait not be used any further. Honus didn’t want children to find his image with tobacco. The Honus Wagner reprint is virtually worthless and I figured the conversation with the Creston man was over.

The gentleman then confides in me that he has a special keepsake that has been passed down in the family for several decades.

In 1927, two days after the New York Yankees beat the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the World Series, several major leaguers traveled across the country to showcase their talents in local communities.

These “barnstorming tours” featured players such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig that invaded towns for a day to play baseball with local baseball players. Many schools and other governmental facilities closed for the day when the barnstorming tour came to town.

October 16, 1927 was the day the barnstorming tour invaded Des Moines. This gentleman’s father attended the game in 1927 and had Babe Ruth sign a baseball. This baseball has been kept in a safe for several decades. The signature has faded over the years, but the large signature on the sweet spot is very striking. I purchased this baseball for $3,000 along with some other baseball cards.

Attics and garages are chalk full of items from decades past. As time goes by, we forget what is inside the dusty treasure trove. “Junk” left to us from previous generations might not be junk anymore. As these dilapidated attics and garages fall into disrepair, it is important for baseball history to carry on for future generations. It’s the stories that I preserve.

When I returned home, I called the gentleman in the raspy voice to tell him I found a Honus Wagner in his collection. Taped to the back of an album with tobacco cards, was a T-206 Wagner. He remembered taping it there some decades earlier. He then asked me how much I would offer. I didn’t say anything. He then said, Michael talk to me. Sadly, I was looking at yet another reprint.

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