One Man’s Journey in (Mostly) Slaying the T206 Monster
Nearly four years ago, I built a 520-card T206 set
The card collecting journey is different for everyone. But my path to pre-war cards followed a similar one to others, I imagine.
Like most, I began collecting modern cards (in the junk wax era) before getting out of the hobby in high school and college. I never fully abandoned cards, buying the occasional price guide or pack. But for all intents and purposes, I was out for roughly a decade. I returned after graduation, certainly no wiser and only slightly better off financially.
Once I found a job after graduating, I started thinking about cards again. This time, though, I had an itch for vintage. So I started by collecting the 1948 Bowman set. Then came the 1951 Bowman set. Soon after, I pieced together a near-complete 1933 Goudey set.
And then I bought my first T206.
People are drawn to T206 for a myriad of reasons. Produced from 1909-11, the set is the most popular one in the history of baseball card collecting. For me, the attraction was about the artwork. Seeing pictures of old ballplayers wearing sweaters, choking up on bats in borderline cartoonish manner, and players in early catchers’ gear was wildly appealing to me. I didn’t know much about the cards but was fascinated by the images. I read and learned everything I could about the set.
Sometime in March of 2015, I bought my very first T206. My first T206 was not Cobb. Nor Matty or WaJo. Cy Young? Nope, my first T206 was this entirely underwhelming portrait of Harry Howell, one of the set’s numerous commons.
Howell was a fine player, mind you, lasting in the majors for 13 seasons. But with a career losing record as a pitcher, he is not one of the set’s highlights. That he had two cards is even somewhat strange, considering his career was nearly over when the set was just being produced, appearing in only a few games in 1909 and 1910. That a player like that had two cards tells you just how massive the set really was and there’s a reason they call it ‘The Monster.’ With a Sovereign 350 back, this card cost me roughly $12 including the shipping on eBay — a bargain by today’s standards.
Why Howell? I’d like to say there was some really interesting backstory but it was simply one of the cheaper T206s for sale on eBay at the time.
The goal for me was never to tackle the set because I didn’t think it was possible. But as I learned more about it, like many, I became hooked. My plan to buy a single card was abandoned as I picked up a few more that same night. I particularly wanted some with baseball poses as opposed to a portrait, so I added some of those. Then a few more. Before I knew it, I had roughly 50 of these little gems in a few weeks and began to wonder if a set would be possible.
A complete set? Nah. While some may differ on exactly how many cards should be counted in the set thanks to a few rare errors, there is at least the Honus Wagner — and, well, a six-figure card is not in my current or even my future plans. But could the more conservative 520-card set minus the rarities be doable?
There was only one way to find out.
I sat on the fence for some time wondering if I should try this crazy task. One minute, I was all in and the next, was ready to move on to something more reasonable. My indecision quickly ended in a hurry one night with fate seemingly making the decision for me. I stumbled upon a large lot of about 150-200 commons on eBay and my jaw nearly hit the floor. I’d seen lots like that before but this one was reasonably-priced. After negotiating with the seller a bit, I was in. That moved my total to nearly the halfway point and, well, I wasn’t looking back.
That the cards were arriving on a Friday night when I wouldn’t have to worry about working the next day was a major bonus. I tracked their delivery practically every hour, it seemed, fearing they’d be lost in the infamous Kearny, NJ USPS processing center or some other equally ridiculous scenario like that. But they arrived safe and sound.
They were mostly common players as advertised but the lot did include some small gems, including a few Polar Bear and Sovereign-backed cards. It also had two or three of the six horizontal cards in the set that sell for a premium. And unlike others I had, they were not in terrible shape. The real prizes, however, were two cards not mentioned in the description. As I spent the night sorting the cards and, yes, openly swooning over them, one in particular stood out to me.
I noticed a card of John Titus and knew this was one of the tougher commons. The Titus card had been hoarded by at least one collector, making it tougher to find. It remains one of the most expensive commons in the set and even in low-grade condition, it still usually sells for $50 or so.
I would also discover the lot yielded an even bigger prize a little later. A rare card of Jeff Pfeffer in the set has a print defect. His Chicago team at the bottom, as a result, looks more like ‘Chicaco’ and recently, Beckett even cataloged the variation. My lot, as I would find later, had one of these cards. While mine is in low-grade condition, better ones have sold for as much as $2,700. Mine isn’t worth nearly that much but, safe to say, it was a great find.
Here’s a sampling of the cards from a photograph that I took when I got them.
I continued buying some commons and even grabbed some Hall of Famers. One of the first ones I remember buying was this Old Mill card of Home Run Baker shown here. But as I quickly realized, a lot of high-priced cards still awaited.
Problem is, I needed money. I’d sunk a considerable amount in to getting this far and, to be frank, was tapped out in terms of having card money. But even with about half of the ugly beast slayed, I was going to need more resources. Either that or spend a considerable amount of time in completing my new, demanding project stretched out over many years. And in that moment, I made a tough call to sell my Bowman sets and nearly complete 1933 Goudey set.
I treasured those cards and, with the 1951 Bowman set in particular, had really spent quite a bit of time upgrading it. Save for a Beckett-graded BVG 2 Mantle and lower graded Ted Williams and Willie Mays cards, it was mostly mid-grade. That set remains my favorite post-war set of all time and letting all of those cards go was not an easy decision. But at this point, I was relatively stuck and those cards yielded me a good bit of money to pursue more T206s, which is where my interest really was.
Hall of Famers, Here I Come
With my newfound money, I was off to see what I could find in terms of more Hall of Famers and stars. And find them I did. I struck deals for them, left and right, getting as many as I could while also adding in many commons still missing.
Some people that collect the Monster will have memories of more important cards. But one of the Hall of Famers that took me a while to get was this red background card of Frank Chance. It’s one of those sneaky rare cards that doesn’t get talked about too much but is definitely tougher than his yellow background portrait (PSA has graded about half as many as they have of his yellow ones).
Another card I distinctly remember getting was this Tris Speaker. I located this one but realized it was ending during a pretty important meeting I was attending. I casually pulled out my phone at the appropriate time, brought up the eBay app, placed a bid, and sat silently after I won it for less than I expected. Gotta love technology.
The Hall of Famers, of course, did not come as fast as the commons. But selling off the other cards allowed me to buy them at a pretty good rate and I’d often get several at a time, focusing mostly on lower-grade ones to fit the budget.
Unfortunately, with any battle, there are casualties. Mine came in the form of a lost card of a baseball player.
I had purchased a trimmed card of Carl Lundgren on eBay for about $25. It was the Kansas City version of his card as opposed to his more expensive Cubs variation. The card arrived but what happened after that is anybody’s guess. It went missing soon after and I never discovered its whereabouts. Since jumping into pre-war, it’s the only card that I can remember ‘losing.’
I was routinely having packages arrive in the mail and my desk was just kind of a mess. My best guess is that the card was, sadly, tossed out with a slew of empty envelopes and packaging that was routinely cluttering things up.
While $25 is nothing to sneeze at, fortunately the loss was not greater than that. Losing the card taught me a valuable lesson about being more careful. I never found the Lundgren so had to find a replacement. I ultimately got the one shown here. This is another one of my ‘cleaner’ cards.
Card after card, I slowly started reaching the end. I was sleeping less, more irritable, and as my dog could probably attest if he could have talked, was just acting like kind of a jerk. The Monster was getting to me and, suffice to say, obsession is not too strong a word. I had begun to knock off some of the Hall of Fame players that had multiple cards. But at the top of the list, of course, were the four Ty Cobbs and that’s what I was dreading.
I knew at some point I couldn’t avoid the elephant in the room and casually began looking around for these cards. Prices were high, of course, but not as high as they’ve gotten in recent years. I also sold off a few more things to help ease the blow.
I spotted the first Cobb card I seriously considered and immediately had reservations. For one thing, the red background portrait card was raw. For another, it was in pretty rough shape. But I had grown to know the cards pretty well and it was a reputable seller so figured I’d throw in a bid. That bid of around $350 was ultimately enough to win, somewhat to my surprise. The raw condition certainly scared some folks off but the card looked perfectly fine and it was.
I quickly sent it off to SGC, partly for authentication but also to protect it as it had several creases. The card is the least attractive of my Cobbs but to find one at that price, even four years ago, was still a bargain. The same card today would be double that cost. After that, I purchased the two Cobb bat cards on Net54 and, ultimately, the coveted green background card from a dealer. Here, with all of their flaws and in the order I purchased them, are my Cobbs. All told, I got these cards for about $2,000. Today, the green would probably be about that alone.
518 is a milestone where many T206 collectors call it quits. At that point, it’s the set minus the Big Four and Demmitt/O’Hara St. Louis variations. And I pretty much decided I would at that point, too.
My memory of hitting 518 is kind of a blur, to be honest. My days were spent seeking out the remaining cards I needed, comparing options across sellers, and just putting a lot of grunt work. It was kind of annoying and, frankly, the cards became less enjoyable. Many times, it seemed more about completing the set for the sake of doing so and I stopped appreciating them like I did early on when I had only a few.
With it all behind me now, I really enjoy looking at them and appreciate them much more. But in building the set, even though I completed it fairly quickly, it was just kind of draining trying to find bargains, gather enough cash for buys, etc. I despised the holes in my binder pages more than I enjoyed the cards, to be honest. That feeling started to disappear as I got closer to completion, though.
Aside from the Cobbs, the only card I truly recall near the end was the final one. For many, that card would be a significant one. For me, though, it was some dude named J.F. Kiernan.
Now, Kiernan is not a common common, per se. He is one of the Southern League cards and, even in bad condition, those typically start around $40-$50 since they were printed in smaller quantities. He is not one of the most revered Southern Leaguers but it was a card that I had great difficult finding at the right price.
Unfortunately, I never did and overpaid for one. I paid something like $60 for this Kiernan that appears to have two bullet holes in it. And, no, the irony that, like my Kiernan, my card collecting budget was shot with this set, was not lost on me.
Getting to this point was such a relief. I just felt drained. Worse yet, I was at work when I bought the last card and I couldn’t even enjoy the achievement. It felt more like a kick in the you know where than it did a celebration.
It’s hard to put into words but I can very distinctly still remember the feeling. Kind of like Frodo after he got rid of the one ring. I know that sounds hyperbolic but if you’ve built the set, perhaps you know what I mean. There was some degree of joy but it was also like you’d not slept in two days and then suddenly remembered you were tired. I’d gotten there in a very short time (about nine months), though. Someone taking more time with it and really enjoying every step along the way would have a different feeling. Me? I was pooped.
And … Why Not – Let’s do 520
I was pretty content to reach 518 and was really planning to call it quits there. I’d contemplated trying to get to 520 but had done enough damage to my wallet and, frankly, what did I need with two more variations of cards I pretty much had?
While the Big Four are the established rarities, there are two other very tough cards for Bill O’Hara and Ray Demmitt. Those cards feature the pair with their new St. Louis teams and are found with only Polar Bear backs. These same cards are in the set but feature the players with their New York uniforms instead. PSA has graded roughly only about 150-200 of each of the St. Louis cards. Even in low-grade condition, they don’t usually sell for much less than a grand each.
Lightning just sort of struck, though, as I found very low-grade copies from two sellers on Net54 within the same week, no less. Both are even missing the same upper left corner, which I’ve always found hilarious. One was actively for sale and I simply happened to be logged in at the right time to buy it quickly. That was easily the best ‘right place, right time’ experience I had with the set. The other was a card that a seller not actively shopping it but had agreed to sell. Both were well under $1,000 and fair market at the time.
After only about nine months’ time from start to finish, I could finally say I was truly done, right?
A Work in Progress
Done is a bit of a relative word. In terms of adding any of the Big Four cards, that won’t be happening. But what I am still doing is upgrading on occasion. In general, I’ve got two specific types of upgrades.
First, I try to find as many non-Piedmont and non-Sweet Caporal backs as I can. The majority of the ones I have are the easier diverse cards, like Polar Bear, Sovereign, and Old Mill. But I do have a others, including some EPDG, Tolstoi, Cycle, and American Beauty. Of my 520 cards, I’ve got about 125-150 of those tougher backs and that’s one really cool thing I like about my set.
The backs have presented an interesting problem. Do I want a card in worse condition with a rarer back or do I want the card in better condition with a more common back? I’ve mostly gone with the latter but the answer has varied a little for me, depending on the damage, the back in question, and the player.
Second, I try to upgrade some of the worst cards. Most of the worst of the worst, I’ve upgraded. I’ve still got a few really bad ones like the Demmitt/O’Hara, but my set has gone from somewhat offensive to a much more quality low-grade set. Almost all of the cards are in the P-G range with some VG. I’ve really tried to upgrade poor cards more to a F-G level when at all possible.
For example, I recently upgraded this card shown above of Hall of Famer Sam Crawford.
What did this set teach me? What can I share about it? Nothing of great importance, I’m afraid. I don’t have any ‘What is the Meaning of it All’ type of statement to share. But there is definitely one thing I would have personally done differently if I was buying The Monster all over again.
My strategy with this set was to acquire as many cards as I could as quickly as I could and that meant buying up most of the commons first. I was enamored with the cards and wanted to get as many as I could as fast as I could. That is a great way to fill a binder quickly but also not the best move economically.
Here’s the thing. I had nearly half the set done very quickly after loading up on commons. But in doing so, I also passed on bargains of stars that I could have gotten cheaper. A distinct example I remember was a Hal Chase card with the pink background, which is the most valuable of his five in the set. I had an opportunity to buy one for $30 at one point but passed. By the time another one came around, I had to pay $50 for it, which was more in line with its value. Do that enough and you’ll end up spending quite a bit more money than you need to.
The best piece of advice I can give in building this set is to buy with an eye towards value. Don’t look for the best card or the most cards — look for the best bargains. You can’t always do that with other sets that are rarer and sometimes have to bite the bullet if you won’t see a particular card again for sale for a very long time. But T206 is relatively plentiful and there’s no need to rush yourself into a purchase. Buy the best value, period. If that means buying the most expensive card first instead of knocking out a large portion of a set, do it. That kind of mindset may mean less progress on a set in the beginning but will also save you money later.
That’s my Monster tale. What about yours?