Christy Mathewson T205 Error Combines Rarity, a Star Player, and a Popular Set
The elusive one-loss error card of Christy Mathewson is considered a necessity for master set completion — but should it be?
There are many twists and turns in the popular T205 baseball card set. Among them are the many errors and variations, which make the pursuit of a master set terribly challenging.
The most valuable of those is the rare ‘No Stats’ version of Dick Hoblitzell’s card. But it’s no surprise that a card of the legendary Christy Mathewson is a big target, too.
The Mathewson is a rare error card. Let’s be clear — Mathewson’s ‘regular’ card in the set is highly sought after, too. In the minds of some (including me), it’s one of the most gorgeous pre-war baseball cards out there. Even in low-grade condition, a nice respectable copy will start at about $1,000. But it’s the error that is the truly elusive one.
The 1911 T205 set is viewed as one of the first baseball card releases to provide statistics on the back. In that regard, collectors of modern cards might be somewhat underwhelmed when coming face to face with the back of a T205. That’s because the statistics offered are very limited and a far cry to the information found on many newer cards. In the case of Mathewson’s cards, for example, the only statistics provided are games won, games lost, winning percentage, and fielding percentage. Meat and potatoes stats today, such as strikeouts and ERA, are nowhere to be seen. But ironically, it’s that statistical section that gives us the critical error on Mathewson’s cards.
In 1908, the hurler went an incredible 37-11 on the mound. That’s what you’ll see on the majority of his cards. A select few, however, made that record even better, crediting Mathewson with an otherworldly 37-1 mark.
The error card is so difficult to locate because the mistake is found only on the cards with the rarer Cycle-brand cigarettes on the back. While not as scarce as some of the other tobacco brand advertisements found in the set like Drum or Broadleaf, the Cycle cards are certainly some of the harder ones to find.
How the mistake happened is unclear. But there have been many thoughts since the mistake was discovered.
Some have wondered if the card could be the result of a light print strike — meaning that, the back is indeed correct and the second ‘1’ merely was not printed completely with ink not affixing properly to the card. However, that does not appear to be the case. If it were, some cards would presumably have a properly printed ’11,’ or partially-printed ’11’s, and I am not aware of examples showing either of those. It is possible that a problem with the plate could have existed, omitting the second ‘1’ entirely on all copies. But again, there’s no real evidence of that, either.
The most accepted theory seems to be the back simply containing a typo. That has helped produce the theory that the Cycle backs printed first with the error only being discovered afterwards before all other cards were printed for the various back advertisements. We will likely never know the exact circumstances of what happened.
Master Set Controversy
The card is an error and not a true variation. That is important to setbuilders because, while the card is considered to be needed to complete a master set, a basic set does not require it. At their core, variations are only cards that were intentionally printed to be different. This one merely contains a mistake in the printing, however it occurred, and some collectors don’t feel it is all that important.
Regarding master sets, the card is not without some degree of ‘controversy.’ Namely, while the card is considered to be a necessity to achieve a master set, some collectors have disagreed with that notion.
The biggest argument against it is that all Cycle cards contain the same error. It is not a case of the card being printed with the mistake and later being corrected (at least within the Cycle brand printing). Thus, it is an uncorrected error of sorts with no Cycle being any different than the other. Because all Cycle cards are found with the erroneous 37-1 record, not all collectors believe it is necessary for a master set. However, right or wrong, PSA’s registry does list it as a card that is technically required for full completion.
The question is, should it be?
It’s a tricky question and you can make a good argument for both sides. Even aside from the varied tobacco brands, the card does have a legitimately different back. There is no disputing that and cards with different fronts or different backs are often indicated as necessities for master sets. On the other hand, since all Cycle cards contain the same mistake, should the Cycle cards be treated any differently than the other backs with different tobacco advertisers?
For example, most do not consider it necessary for collectors to achieve every front/back combination to have completed a master set. You don’t need a Piedmont card, Sweet Caporal card, Cycle card, etc. of every card in the set for a master set in the eyes of most. So if there is only one type of Cycle card, how is that different from one type of Drum card, one type of Broadleaf card, etc.?
I see both sides of the coin and it’s easy to understand why collectors haven’t really come to a consensus on it.
All of that notwithstanding, the card is quite valuable for a few simple reasons.
Obviously, Mathewson is a superstar player. That has no doubt increased the popularity of the card even among non-set collectors. While other errors in the set are mostly pursued by master set collectors, Mathewson’s card has drawn in even collectors not focused on T205 or the complete set. Another key thing is that it is found in a popular set that is widely collected.
However, the rarity is easily the most important distinction here. To date, PSA has graded only 26 of these cards (in comparison to grading about 800 of the other Mathewson cards). Part of that, again, is because the Cycle-backed cards are fairly rare and all of those other Mathewsons are a combination of every other back.
Why is rarity the most important thing here and not the Mathewson name? That’s easy. Look at the other highly-publicized error cards in the same set — Dick Hoblitzell, Pat Moran (a stray line of text on the back), and the stats version of Dolly Gray’s cards (most of his cards do not have the statistics). Those cards all sell for a lot of money and none feature what would be considered even remotely big names.
The Mathewson name helps make this card important, no doubt. But it’s the rarity that drives the value. How valuable is it? A recent sale of a low-grade PSA 1 sold in 2021 in an REA auction for $4,200. A PSA 5.5 (highest graded by PSA) sold earlier in the year by Heritage for $63,000.