HONUS OR BOGUS
Before you start digging up your yard in search of one of those rare and valuable Honus Wagner tobacco cards that keep turning up in rusty tin cans, consider that most of the Wagner cards being found are worthless reprints clipped out of collectors' guides. "There are probably 40 genuine Wagners out there and 20,000 reproductions," says Larry Fritsch, a baseball-card authority from Stevens Point, Wis.
Wagner cards, as most baseball fans know, are the sports memorabilia collector's equivalent of Monets and Van Goghs. Only a precious few dozen exist—tobacco companies had printed only a small number of the cards as promotional giveaways back around 1910 before Wagner, a Hall of Fame shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and a staunch opponent of smoking, forced them to stop—and a Wagner card in top condition can fetch $100,000 or more. Tales of Wagner finds keep popping up:
•In May 1989, a 14-year-old boy in West Pittsburg, Calif., acquired from his grandfather a card initially thought to be a genuine Wagner. The boy's parents (who asked that their names and their son's not be made public) told reporters that the card would fund their son's college education. A few weeks later, however, when their son was posing for a photo with the card, the photographer—actually a scam artist, police say—snatched the card and ran off. The thief was never caught, but experts eventually determined that the card had been only a reprint.
•In April, a 12-year-old boy named Lanny from Stockton Springs, Maine, was raking his yard when he came upon a rusty tobacco can wedged in the foundation of a burned-down barn. Inside was a damaged old card that, according to two experts who have seen it, is a real Wagner. Because the card is in poor shape, it's probably worth "only" $15,000 to $40,000; Lanny says he will sell it and share the money with his parents and two brothers.
•Last week in Pittsfield, Maine, just 30 miles from Stockton Springs, Arlo Quint, 12, was digging for worms in his yard with two friends when they unearthed a tooth-powder can containing four old cards, one of which appeared to be an almost mint-quality Wagner card. A collector called Quint and said she would pay $300,000 for the four cards (the other three, of Eddie Plank, Roger Bresnahan and Johnny Evers, are also rare) if they were genuine, but all four are apparently reprints.
Fritsch says that if a Wagner card doesn't have SWEET CAPORAL and SERIES 150 printed on the back, it's probably a reprint. But if you dig one up in your backyard, you ought to show it to a few experts just to make sure.