The fascinating story of the world’s most famous baseball card

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist

PHOENIX – There it is. A perfect rectangle, sealed in hard plastic, placed into a green velvet holding box, protected by a glass display case, hard by an alarmed exit door just in case anybody gets any ideas. The colors on it still pop after more than 100 years: the gray uniform, the blue collar, the brown hair, the yellow background, the peach face and the letters along the bottom: WAGNER, PITTSBURG.

It has been ogled and sold, altered and sold again, exposed as a fraud and sold yet again, and now the most important baseball card in the world finally gets to rest in a room with almost all of its finest friends after all these years of drama. The single finest collection of trading cards ever assembled filled a room at the Phoenix Art Museum, and the pièce de résistance – the card that somehow makes the perfect, sharp-cornered Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron cards feel like plain-old pieces of cardboard – is the 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner, whose owner paid $2.8 million for the privilege of calling it his.

Ken Kendrick stood by the Wagner card Wednesday and started telling stories about what his collection means to him. The modern baseball-card industry has been dying slowly for years now, and yet what surrounded the Arizona Diamondbacks owner – 16 of the 20 highest-rated cards in the world – fit in at an art museum. Not just because so many cards from the ’50s were gorgeous, minimalistic monuments. Each came with a story, too.

The card featuring Wagner, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Hall of Fame shortstop, is rich with intrigue. It was the industry’s imp, a tiny creature of perpetual amusement and shenanigans. Bought for $25,000 by a collector named Bill Mastro in 1985, it was sold for $110,000 to another collector two years later, its edges looking far more crisp than upon Mastro’s original purchase. Two years after that, Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall quadrupled its price again, buying it for $451,000, and the cost kept going up, to $500,000 and $640,000 and $1.27 million and $2.35 million and ultimately, in 2007, to $2.8 million from an anonymous bidder.

That was Kendrick, who has held the card long enough for Mastro to admit to his edge-trimming scheme as part of a plea deal with the government on an auction-bid-rigging case. What should’ve destroyed the card’s value only has added to its infamy, and were Kendrick to sell it today, the McNall-Gretzky Wagner, as it’s now known, might be worth twice as much as he paid for it.

The upper echelon of the baseball-card industry works that way, and Kendrick is addicted to the chase. Even though the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is the Guernica to Wagner’s Starry Night, it is not actually the first Mantle card. In 1951, Bowman made Mantle’s true rookie card, and after Kendrick obtained it recently, the seller was asking for tradebacks.

“His chances of acquiring it back from me are slim or none,” Kendrick said, “and slim just left town.”

Kendrick could’ve purchased two of his coveted four remaining cards within the last year. In December, basketball player George Mikan’s gem-mint – that’s 10 of 10 on the scale from card-grading company PSA – 1948 Bowman card sold for $403,664, nearly twice what it cost in 2009. Kendrick has a 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente rookie graded a 9 – mint. That’s not good enough. A 10 sold last year for $432,690. Add in the 1935 National Chicle Bronko Nagurski ($240,000 in 2006) and a 1954 Ted Williams card made by a hot-dog company – imagine keeping a piece of cardboard that came out of a hot-dog package in perfect shape for more than seven decades – and it would complete Kendrick’s collection, all for at least $1.5 million.

Rather than spend the cash, Kendrick might have to adopt the same philosophy as the team he owns.

“It’s a little bit like in the real world of baseball,” Kendrick said. “If you want a really top player, you may have to trade a couple of really outstanding younger players to get that top player. That may be how this will go. It’s possible I’ll acquire them financially.”

As is, his collection is plenty satisfactory. It was on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and will stay in Phoenix through April 24. Toward the back of the room, in its own case, is the T206 Wagner, a card valued originally more for its scarcity than notoriety. The T206 cards came in cigarette packs. Wagner hated the idea that children would buy cigarettes just for his card, so he forced the American Tobacco Company to stop printing the card. Only a few hundred existed even a century ago.

When Kendrick bought the Wagner card, he showed it to his son, Cal, and explained the story behind it. “As 11-year-olds tend to do,” Kendrick said, “he paid little attention. Kind of acknowledged me showing it to him, and he went away. I told him that someday this card will belong to you.”

A few hours later, Cal came back.

“Daddy,” he said, “you know that card you showed me?”

“Yeah,” Kendrick said.

“I just want you to know,” Cal said, “I would never sell it.”

Kendrick beamed, and nine years later, he calls that conversation “probably one of the great joys that I’ve ever had. … Lord would be willing and my net worth would remain, these would be passed to my children. And my son hopefully would take what he said serious and keep them in our family.”

For the next month, it’s the public’s. Anyone can appreciate the colors, smirk at the 90-degree corners that really weren’t, gawp and marvel at the spectacle of it all. The McNall-Gretzky Wagner, perfectly imperfect.