Unrivaled: Why T206 Remains the Top Baseball Card Set of All Time
Over the years, collectors have offered differing opinions when it comes to the determining the best baseball card set of all time. With thousands of issues, after all, there are plenty choose from.
The 1933 Goudey set, full of its stars, squareness, and history of being the most recognizable gum issue is there. So is the 1951 Bowman set with its rookie cards of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays – the two most popular players for an entire generation of collectors. A year later came the landmark 1952 Topps set. All fine sets with credible claims as top five issues.
But if we’re serious about this thing, folks, there’s only one set that can stake a true claim to being the best issue in the best hobby around – and that’s the T206 white border set.
If you’re a newb to the pre-war era, here’s a rundown on the set. The tl;dr version is that it was a 524-card issue printed from 1909-11 with cards being placed inside of cigarette and tobacco products.
There are lots of reasons why the set is the greatest release of all time. Here are ten of them.
1. It has the Most Iconic Card
Even more than 100 years after its creation, the set includes the most iconic card of all time. Keep in mind, we’re not merely talking baseball cards. We’re talking the most recognizable card across the hobby in any sport – the Honus Wagner T206 card.
Michael Jordan rookie? Wayne Gretzky or Babe Ruth rookies? Joe Montana rookie? Sure, collectors know what those are. But the Honus Wagner T206 card is known even to non-collectors. That’s because it’s been in the news. A lot.
The card is generally a seven-figure card and even in poor condition, still over $500,000. Recently, one sold for more than three million dollars, the most ever paid for a card. Nearly as impressive as the large sums of money paid for it is the backstory about it being pulled from production as it is believed to have been printed without Wagner’s permission.
Forget baseball cards. Because of its value and history, it’s probably among the most famous collectibles of all time.
Simply put, the Wagner is legendary. There aren’t many pieces of cardboard that are more expensive than luxury houses, but the Wagner is. The card remains significantly more expensive than other elusive cards such as rookie issues of Babe Ruth or Joe Jackson. Its popularity and cost continues to grow, too. It wasn’t too long ago that the card was under $1 million and it’s likely that at some point, even the worst examples will start commanding that.
Most important card, anywhere. Ever.
2. The Artwork
Ask any collector of T206 cards why they enjoy the set and one universal thing that’s almost always mentioned is the fantastic artwork.
While other sets of the time produced some questionable pictures, no expense was likely spared in the production of this release. A select few of the pictures (looking at you, Spike Shannon) are absolute dogs but in a set with more than 500 cards, there’s zero chance that every single one would be a slam dunk.
From the lifelike picture of the Christy Mathewson dark cap card to the six unique horizontals to the detail-specific portraits, card after card is just so well done. Every picture you look at is seemingly better than the last. Tremendous detail was paid to not only the player’s faces, but often to the equipment, uniforms, and equipment. In person or even on a computer screen, the colors just seem to pop off the cards. And when you put a collage together of them, it’s just an incredible sight.
In addition the quality of the artwork, another thing that shouldn’t be lost is that there are some really unique poses in the set.
More than a few interesting pictures are found here. One is New York Highlanders (Yankees) Hal Chase, who is shown with a picture of The Loving Cup, a special trophy presented to him by teammates. Then you get manager Hughie Jennings in his iconic pose as a third base coach performing his routine antics. There’s John Titus, the only player in the set bearing a mustache. There are all sorts of unique poses and pictures here.
None of that even mentions the variety of poses here. You get everything from portraits, to action shots, to players merely with equipment, to players completely relaxing. You get horizontal shots and vertical shots. You get front-facing pictures and pictures from the side at different angles. The set runs the gamut on the types of pictures used and the artwork is unrivaled.
I add a side note here that the quality of the pictures in the T205 set is arguably even more remarkable. But the set also consists solely of portraits, save for the few minor leaguers in it, and the most variety you really get are a few players with their heads slightly to the side. If you add up the variety and combine it with the quality of T206 images, from an overall standpoint, I’d take the artwork of T206 any day of the week.
3. Challenging Size
The T206 set is nicknamed the monster. And with so many cards, it’s easy to see why.
So, 524 cards. By today’s standards, doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, imagine trying to collect that many cards in a time when card collecting wasn’t really on the radar. Or when the cards were only available with cigarettes. Or without the internet and perhaps without even a fully known checklist.
Putting a complete set together in the T206 era would have been a Herculean task unless you smoked like a chimney. With modern advances, it’s become much easier. Today, through sites like eBay, you can find just about any card in the set you need with the click of a mouse.
Still, putting a set together is no easy feat due to finances. A true, 524-card set can’t really be had unless you’re ultra wealthy or managed to put one together decades ago while prices were far more reasonable. There’s not only the seven-figure Wagner, but also a few other high-dollar cards that can get into five figures.
Today, most settle for a 520-card ‘set’ but even that isn’t easy. It’s a quest that many collectors begin but few complete. Even those that do finish it usually take years to do so.
4. The Advertising Backs
The most unique aspect about the T206, perhaps, are the numerous advertising backs. If you’re unfamiliar with the set, in short, the American Tobacco Company created this set for its various tobacco brands. Each brand has its own advertising back on it and the cards was then packaged with those products. Primarily, they were used as stiffeners inside of cigarette packs.
Some brands are harder to find than others. The two most common are Piedmont and Sweet Caporal. Some, such as Sovereign or American Beauty are harder. And some, such as Drum, Uzit, or Lenox can be extremely difficult.
But the backs are part of what make this set so great. I mentioned earlier that there are 524 cards in the set but that is really only a half-truth. In reality, there are 524 different card fronts. Each of those fronts has several different backs for the various brands and there are thousands of different front and back combinations for cards in the set.
How many are there exactly? That’s not easy to answer. Not every card front is found with every back so it’s not a simple matter of multiplying the number of different backs times the number of different fronts. And new front/back combinations are still being discovered today so we can’t even say for certainty how many different cards were printed. At least several thousand, though.
5. Ways to Collect It
T206 is one of those sets that’s not just for setbuilders. In fact, it’s large size often makes collecting an entire set an impossibility for some collectors. That’s perfectly fine, though. One of the great things about the T206 set is the number of ways it can be collected.
I previously discussed this in an article for Sports Collectors Daily, coming up with a dozen ways to collect it. One way is to focus only on the Hall of Famers. Another is to focus on team sets. Unlike some smaller issues in the pre-war era, assembling a team set can involve a good number of cards.
Some collectors focus only on the Southern Leaguers. Or the minor leaguers. You can also focus on back runs with the various advertising backs I just mentioned. With regards to that, you can collect only cards with a certain back or try to collect certain players with every back.
With 524 base cards and thousands of total cards with the numerous advertising backs, the possibilities are somewhat endless.
6. All the Stars
Okay, let’s get to the meat of things. The set is massive but it’s also star-heavy.
You’ve really got most, if not all, of the big names that were available at the time of production. There’s Ty Cobb. There’s Cy Young. Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson are there, too.
Addie Joss, Tris Speaker, Zack Wheat, and Nap Lajoie? Check. Beyond them, you’ve got about 20 additional Hall of Famers featured as well. Even the big name non-Hall of Famers are found, including Eddie Cicotte and Hal Chase, who aren’t in Cooperstown due to their involvement with gambling.
But if you think that’s where it ends, think again.
Part of the reason the set is so difficult to build is because all of the big name guys have more than one card in the set. Cobb has four (his prices are rising, by the way). Young, Mathewson, and Lajoie each have three. Walter Johnson and many others have two. Chase actually has the most with five. Others like Joe Tinker and John McGraw have as many as four. You can rack up quite a large bill just trying to get the big names from the set, let alone the hundreds of commons and minor stars.
The set pre-dated Babe Ruth, so he’s obviously not in it. Of active players, Joe Jackson is the biggest one not featured, which is kind of a shame. But he didn’t become a full-time major leaguer until 1911 in the final year of production, so his absence is kind of understandable.
Collectors trying to piece the set together probably wish that there were fewer stars at times. That certainly would make finishing it much easier. But in terms of looking at the appeal of the set, the massive overload of big name players is one of the reasons why it’s so special.
7. Diverse Selection of Talent
The stars are a big factor of the set’s importance but an underappreciated aspect of it is the diversity of players included.
The highlight of the set are the Hall of Famers and the big names as well as the rest of the major leaguers. But part of the reason for the set’s collectability when it was produced was it covered a lot of markets that didn’t have major league teams.
The set was able to do that through the inclusion of numerous minor league players and Southern League players. As a result, you’ve got a lot of guys that are relative unknowns today but were desirable to certain segments of collectors at the time of production. In hindsight, that was one of the more genius parts of its assembly since it made it a set that would be desired by a lot more people.
Many of the minor leaguers are passed over but there’s a lot of interest in the Southern Leaguers because they’re harder to find than many in the set. One reason for that is because they are only found with a few different backs. As a result, these weren’t printed as much as many of the other cards in the set.
They may not have the same amount of star power as the major leaguers but including them makes the set that much more interesting.
8. Rare Short Prints and Oddities
So we’ve got the greatest card of all time. We’ve got a gaggle of Hall of Famers. We’ve got minor leaguers and obscure Southern League players. We’ve got over 500 cards in an era where sets under 100 were the norm. We’ve got unique backs and incredible artwork. What more could we need?
How about some rarities?
I’ve already mentioned the biggest in the Wagner. But the set has five other cards that are pretty rare.
A card of Sherry Magee has his last name spelled as Magie. It was evidently caught relatively early in the production since not many exist. We’ve also got a card of Hall of Famer Eddie Plank. Plank’s card, like Wagner, was also shortprinted for whatever reason and PSA has graded fewer than 100 of them. Finally, there’s a supremely rare corrected card for Joe Doyle.
Most of Doyle’s cards only state that he played for New York (with an N.Y.) abbreviation but don’t state which league. A corrected card clears this up with the print, “N.Y., Nat’l.” But they either weren’t placed into packs at all or were printed in extremely small quantity because hardly any exist today. It’s the rarest card in the set and with PSA only grading nine to date, is far rarer than the Wagner.
Those three cards make up the Big Four of the set but there are two others that are pretty difficult to find – the St. Louis versions of Ray Demmitt and Bill O’Hara. They were printed only with Polar Bear, explaining their rarity. While they aren’t considered on the same level of the Big Four, as I wrote recently, they are somewhat close to being as rare as the Magie error card and probably should be given more respect.
9. Often Copied
One mark of a truly great set these days is how much it’s duplicated. In the case of the T206 set, many have paid homage to it.
The T206 set is so heralded that even reprint sets of it desirable, selling in the $50-$100 range. Sometimes a little more. Reprints of the big name cards are sought after – especially those of Wagner and Cobb.
In addition, even Topps has recognized the importance of the set creating the Topps206 brand. Topps206 cards have the T206 look but utilize current players and also other retired players to make them relevant to younger collectors today. Additionally, the company produced insert cards using real T206 cards, placing them inside of holders and distributing them in their Topps206 products.
Products such as these have introduced T206 cards to an entirely new generation of collectors. More than a century later, new T206 products are still being produced and I’m not sure people will be talking about today’s cards 100 years from now in the way we talk about T206 cards today.
10. Staying Power
That bit about the cards still having appeal today is my final argument for this set.
Over time, the popularity of most sets comes and goes. The 1989 Upper Deck set was once seen as revolutionary. In a way it was but interest in the set, like most 1980s and 1990s cards is minimal at best.
Vintage Topps and Bowman issues are and will continue to be popular. But few even come close to holding the overall appeal of the T206 set. That can also be said of most pre-war issues. Things like Cracker Jack cards, T205, and Goudey issues are widely collected. But none really match the T206 set if you break everything down.
The one negative about T206 is arguably also its greatest strength – availability. Despite being so old, the set was incredibly overproduced. As stated, you can find several examples of any card in the set, minus the rarities, at any given time on eBay and you can’t say that about most pre-war issues. More than a million cards are likely still in existence today. But the fact that it is within reach of so many collectors is also a reason it remains popular. Collectors don’t have to be super wealthy to enjoy a T206 card. In low-grade condition, you can find one for about $15.
The staying power doesn’t only refer to its interest level over the past century but also its value. Despite an overpopulated market, prices continue to rise for it. There’s only one legitimate argument for a product being so valuable for as plentiful as it is and that’s because of the interest in it. It’s really the perfect example of supply vs. demand.
T206 has been the standard bearer for baseball card sets ever since it was produced and I’m not sure any set has ever knocked it from its perch over the 100+ years it has survived. Fads have surely come and go but the T206 set has been so incredibly stable through it all.
In my mind, it’s the unquestioned king of baseball card sets.