Collecting The “Monster” – The Infamous T206 White Borders Set

t206-honusEven non-baseball card collectors are familiar with the historic T206 Honus Wagner card, the hobby’s most valuable baseball card.

While Honus Wagner was one of the best players in baseball, it’s the rarity of his T206 card which makes it such a prized collectible.

Despite the popularity of the Wagner card, the remainder of the T206 set as a whole has always been a target of for many vintage card collectors.

Filled with both major and minor leaguers (along with 75 Hall of Fame subjects), the 524 card set is also commonly referred to as the “White Borders” set.

Add on the fact that the cards were produced with thirty-six different backs advertising the various brands from the American Tobacco Company and it’s no surprise that many label the T206 set as “The Monster”.

In this piece, we discuss the history of the set and provide collectors with a background in collecting the T206 set.  Along the way we get some help from the terrific Scot Reader, author of the amazing ‘Inside T206’ book and the founder of the T206 Insider website.

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T206 Background of the American Tobacco Company

As we discussed in ‘The History of Baseball Cards’, the T206 set was produced from 1909 to 1911 by the American Tobacco Company.  Cards were included in packs of sixteen different cigarette brands owned by American Tobacco.  Each back had a different advertisement for one of the tobacco companies, leading to multiple variations for each player in the set.  While the regular checklist consists of 524 T206 cards, there are over 5000 front and back variations, leading to why some have called the T206 the monster of baseball card sets.

The Honus Wagner card is easily the most valuable – with the latest sales fetching in the millions of dollars.  The value of the card is driven by the scarcity of the issue, as only less than 60 are known to exist.  Other than Wagner, the Eddie Plank card is the second most valuable card in the set.  The rarity of the Plank card is unknown to this date, but some speculate that a printing plate was destroyed due to poor quality, leading to a very limited number of cards produced.  PSA has graded only 72 Plank T206 cards, and there are less than a 100 believed to exist.

eddie-plank-t206

T206 Back Versions and Value Multipliers

As previously noted, the T206 cards were distributed with sixteen different brands of cigarettes, leading to sixteen different advertising backs.  The scarcity of different card backs has led to collectors bidding up some of those hard to find issues.  The complexity of how the cards were issued and the different series for the cards is examined in great detail by Scot Reader in his ‘Inside T206’ resource guide.

I’m not going to cover the different series of cards, but just know that there are different variations for some of the advertising brands.  These variations include different colors, series runs, factory locations, etc.  Also note that not each card in the set has a back for each brand.  As an example, one of the rarest cards in the set, Ray Demmitt (with St Louis team) was only produced with a Polar Bear back.

demmitt-t206

 

T206 Advertising Backs

 

american-beauty-back
broadleaf-t206
carolina-brights-t206
cycle-t206-back
drum-t206-back
el-principe-t206-back
hindu-t206-back
lenox-t206-back
old-mill-t206-back
piedmont-t206
polar-bear-t206-back
soverign-t206-back
sweet-corporal-t206-back
tolstoi-t206-back
ty-cobb-t206-back
uzit-t206

T206 Back Multipliers

Scott Reader has provided some fantastic research on scarcity of various T206 backs in both his ‘Inside T206’ book and on his website here.

We provide a summary of the back scarcity (based on Reader’s work below): 

 

Common T206 Backs (1x Multiplier)
Piedmont – all aside from 460/42 which is listed under ‘Scarce’ backs
Sweet Corporal 

Slightly Harder To Find T206 Backs
Polar Bear – 1.3x Multiplier
Old Mill – 1.3x Multiplier
Sovereign – 1.3x – 2.0x Multiplier (note that Sovereign 150 have highest multiple according to Reader)

Scarce T206 Backs
American Beauty – 4.5x – 5x Multiplier (460 series has the higher multiple)
Cycle 3x-6x Multiplier (460 series has the higher multiple)
El Principe De Gales – 2.5x Multiplier
Hindu (brown print) – 6x Multiplier
Piedmont 460/42 – 8x Multiplier (**note this is 460 series and will say 350-460 series at top of back with “Factory No. 42” at bottom of card)
Tolstoi – 2.5x Multiplier 

Rare T206 Backs
Carolina Brights – 25x Multiplier
Broad Leaf (350 series)- 30x Multiplier
Lenox (black print) – 35x Multiplier
Hindu (red print) – 40x Multiplier
Uzit – 45x Multiplier

Super Rare T206 Backs
Broad Leaf (460 series) – 175x Multiplier
Lenox (brown print) – 150x Multiplier
Drum – 150x Multiplier

A Conversation With Scot Reader


The T206 set certainly has wide appeal and has held a lot of collector interest for so long.  What do you think makes it such a popular set?  Is it the Wagner that has created that trickle down effect?


I can’t say I subscribe to the Wagner trickle-down theory. The T206 Honus Wagner is the Mona Lisa of baseball cards, but it isn’t on the radar of many T206 collectors.  Most collectors arrive at T206 through a natural progression. They start out collecting modern cards and, after a while, want a bigger challenge. T206 fits the bill perfectly.


There are 524 different subjects and over three dozen different backs creating 5,000-plus front/back combinations. There are 75 Hall of Fame subjects, including multiple poses of legends like Cobb, Johnson, Lajoie, Mathewson and Young.  Rarities, variations, proofs and print anomalies add further wrinkles.


The artwork is classic. Most subjects are in the “sweet spot” in terms of availability—not too common, not too scarce. And since prices range from below $10 to above $3 million, T206 collecting can be compatible with both modest and massive card budgets. All of this draws a broad class of collectors to the set.


What got you interested in the set?  Any personal anecdotes you can share?


I first saw T206 cards in Steve Clark’s The Complete Book of Baseball Cards when I was around eight years old. After some serious lobbying, my mom bought this book for me at the local mall. Clark’s book provided a history of baseball cards through the mid-1970s and had lots of great pictures. Having only seen Topps, Hostess and Kellogg’s cards to that point, I was awestruck by the small, white bordered cards of Hall of Famers like Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Willie Keeler and Tris Speaker. 


A few years later a baseball card shop opened up in my neighborhood and, as luck would have it, had a binder full of these cards which I knew by then were called “T206s.” I bought my first commons—Alperman, Gilbert, Rhodes and Schreck—for $3 each. They immediately became the pride of my collection.


I know there are lots of methods that folks go about collecting the set.  Since the Wagner and some others are nearly unattainable, is it the entire set minus the biggies, the best way to do it?


There are virtually limitless ways to collect T206 and I don’t think any single “best” way. But you’re right that acquiring all 524 subjects (much less all 5,000+ front/back combinations in the master set) is out of reach for most collectors due to budget and supply constraints. 


So one common pursuit is the “520 set” which excludes the four most significant subject rarities—Honus Wagner, Eddie Plank, the Sherry Magee error (name misspelled “MAGIE”) and the Joe Doyle error (team misidentified as “N.Y. NAT’L”).


Others try for the “518 set” which further excludes the scarce Ray Demmitt and Bill O’Hara Saint Louis team variation subjects.  It’s also fairly popular to chase a Hall of Fame set (usually minus Wagner and Plank), a team set, or a “back run” (i.e. obtaining a copy of a particular subject with every possible back).


I was surprised to find out how plentiful a lot of the cards are, based on reading your book.  From a pure supply standpoint, do you think the set might potentially be 'overrated' or 'overvalued'?


I don’t think so. In set collecting, there is such a thing as the supply “sweet spot.” Collectors tend to give-up on sets that are too scarce because they become frustrated with the lack of available product to purchase. Collectors likewise avoid sets that are too common since there’s no collecting challenge. T206 is in the “sweet spot” of supply. The number of surviving copies of a typical T206 subject is somewhere in the mid single digit thousands, which yields a steady but not massive supply of product that keeps set collectors interested. This Goldilocks supply condition has been a key driver of T206 demand, and therefore prices, in the Internet era.


Any tips on how collectors should go about purchasing the cards?  ebay? forums? etc?  graded vs raw?

eBay is a steady stream of T206 cards and can’t be ignored by a set builder. However, eBay prices often carry a premium reflecting eBay seller fees and PayPal fees. Beyond eBay, the Net54 vintage baseball card forum has an active T206 buy-sell-trade section where selection is not quite as robust but prices are generally lower. Some collectors also list cards for sale on my website, T206 Insider.


T206 cards also appear frequently in scheduled auctions run by Internet auction houses too numerous to name. These auctions sometimes feature high grade and rare T206 cards that are not generally seen on eBay or collector forums; however, the winning bidder typically has to pay a substantial “buyer’s premium” (on the order of 10-20%) as well as high shipping costs.


There was a time when buying raw T206 cards made sense. A sophisticated collector could often purchase raw T206 cards in excellent or better condition at a large discount relative to professionally graded cards in comparable condition. But as the T206 market has matured and more cards have become professionally graded, the risk that nice looking raw T206 cards are trimmed or altered has increased considerably. For that reason, I stick to PSA or SGC graded cards. That said, raw cards are fine for collectors who are educated enough to spot fakes and aren’t concerned about alteration or trimming.


What do you see as the long term investment potential for the T206 cards?  I hear some make the argument that as baby-boomers and others exit the scene, millennial's will likely have no interest in these cards and could decrease in value.  Valid argument?


I think it’s correct that the sub-30 crowd has less interest in baseball cards in general.  But T206 isn’t just baseball cards.  Elements of T206 remain part of the zeitgeist after more than a century.  The Wagner card is iconic and seems likely to remain so. 


The same is true for the Red Cobb, albeit to a lesser degree. Moreover, the game of baseball remains very popular, which will continue to stoke conversation about past legends like Eddie Collins, Walter Johnson, Nap Lajoie and Christy Mathewson who appear in T206. (What better advertisement is there for a T206 Cy Young than handing out his award every year to the best pitcher from each league?)


Moreover, people at the top of the income ladder seem to have more and more discretionary income to spend on collectibles like T206 with each passing year. So there are cross-currents—and only time will tell how their interaction directionally influences T206 prices.

T206 Investment Potential

While the T206 set has always been a popular set for vintage collectors, it has also at the same time been an excellent investment. As Scot Reader notes, the set meets that sort of ‘sweet spot’ for supply and demand.  Despite the somewhat plentiful supply, the collector demand has continued to drive up prices of the cards over time.

cobb-red-background

A T206 Red Background Cobb

Below I provide the returns for commons and three popular HOF cards (Cobb Red Background, Lajoie Portrait and Cobb w/Bat on Shoulder).  Whereas common cards (with common backs) have mostly remained stagnant, the value for popular hall of fame cards and cards with rare backs continue to climb.

t206-investment-returns

And while the S&P 500 index has returned 87% (with dividends reinvested) over the past five years, Ty Cobb cards from the set have actually exceeded this performance. And lower tier stars such as Nap Lajoie have done just fine, with a PSA 4 Lajoie card increasing by 50% over the past five years.  Not quite the same as had you invested in the equity markets, but nonetheless a solid return.

Are T206 Cards a Good Investment?

As Scot Reader notes above, the ease of collecting old vintage cards has never been easier.  With a few clicks on your computer, you can have a Ty Cobb tobacco card at your doorstep within a few days.   I think there is some concern that bears further debate about the declining popularity of baseball and the massive boom we’ve seen in card collecting witnessed in recent years.

There could be that sort of baby-boomer/gen-x phenomenon in place, in essence how much of the card boom is being driven by kid collectors from the 80’s growing up and having the funds to now buy cards they could never afford as a kid.  Unfortunately those collectors grew up in an era when baseball was the most popular sport in America, a title that can now be likely handed over to the NFL.  And with the popularity of soccer and e-gaming, maybe the kids of today will never ever care about collecting vintage cards?

As a collector myself, it’s something i spend a lot of time thinking about.  What happens when all the boomer and gen x’ers die off?  Who will be there to pick up the slack?  I think the common cards from the T206 set will probably remain stagnant (like they have in recent years).  It takes a certain person to try and build a 500+ card set of tobacco cards, and from what I’ve found, most of them do tend to be of older age.  Now, the household names, namely Cobb, Young, Wagner (of course) should probably see continued growth in value.  Even non-collectors find appeal in owning what they deem to be a recognized name from the baseball past; kind of like a non-art collector would find appeal in a Van Gogh, Picasso or Warhol.

What Are The Risks to Investing In T206 cards?

Like any collectible asset, the future pricing for T206 cards will be based on supply and demand, pure and simple.  We already (for the most part) know the supply, but the variable component to that pricing equation is the demand.  For many years, the demand for T206 has been high.  But any sort of fallout in demand would obviously lead to a decline in price for the cards. 

What would lead to decreased demand?  I always say a recession, and while that’s probably true, the last fallout during 2008-2009 wasn’t too detrimental to vintage cards.  I think it’s because most collectors would only consider selling prized vintage cards as a LAST RESORT.  It’s not until the bank comes calling with the eviction notice do they pawn off the T206 Cobb and pay the mortgage.  A shift in collecting behavior could potentially do it, but not sure that someone drawn into the appeal of T206 just plain abandons them for something else more desirable. 

An unsustainable increase in price could potentially lead to lower demand- again, let’s not forget, as Scot Reader notes, for each subject in the set (absent the Wagner and other rare issues), there are THOUSANDS of copies available of each player.  A drop in demand could potentially result from more astute collectors opting for rarer, more attainable cards.  Maybe something like strip cards?!?!?

Whatever the future may bring, the T206 set is one of fantastic beauty and rich history.  It’s not until you get your hands on that first T206 card, is when you start to truly understand the appeal of the cards.  But be careful, it can get very, very addicting! 

I hope this resource guide will help you on your way to collecting the ‘Monster’.  Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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