Before stickers in Cracker Jacks there were baseball cards in packs of cigarettes. The American Tobacco Company started a promotion in the early 20th century featuring Major League Baseball cards in their cigarette packs. It was marketing genius, incentivizing cigarette smokers to buy the ACT brand, and perhaps too encouraging non-smokers to buy packs in hopes of getting a cardboard picture of their favorite player.
For a short time, from 1909 to 1911, Honus Wagner‘s steely demeanor graced the inside of some of those tobacco boxes. But not long doing. Wagner, who didn’t like the message it was sending to children, demanded that the American Tobacco Company remove his card from their cigarette circulation. Some historians argue as an alternative reasoning for the demand, that Wagner didn’t like someone profiting off of him without his fair cut. (Wagner, for what it’s worth, smoked cigarettes habitually.) In making this request, Wagner started the century-long process of his card– the T206 Honus Wagner– becoming the most valuable in baseball history, and oftentimes the most controversial.
Most estimates put the number of T206 cards with Wagner’s likeness somewhere fewer than 200. With so few known to exist, and even fewer in quality collector condition, the value of the T206 has grown faster than the S&P 500.
The most famous among these rare and valuable cards is undoubtedly the T206 “Gretsky” Honus Wagner. Chronicled in ESPN’s 30 for 30 Shorts, this iteration of the card has seen its worth jump as high $2.8 million dollars in a 2007 private sale to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick. It was later determined, though, that the card had been trimmed on the edges to improve its condition and artificially inflate its value.
In an online auction in 2013, another T206 sold for $2.1 million to an undisclosed buyer. That $2.1 million figure set the price record for a publicly sold card, eclipsing by more than thirty percent the previous record holder — that very same T206 Honus Wagner at auction in 2008. If someone had the foresight, or the Back to the Future time-travelling knowledge, they could have bought a five cent pack of cigarettes in 1909 and turned a 42,000,000% (that’s million) profit in a little over 100 years. It may not cover the first month’s salary on some of the inflated Major League contracts in today’s game, but it’d afford plenty of peanuts and Cracker Jacks.