Sunday, September 5, 2010

Behold the Black Babe Ruth ... and the Puerto Rican Rival to the T206 Honus Wagner

Behold the Black Babe Ruth … and the Puerto Rican rival to the T206 Honus Wagner.

By Mike C. DeNero


Two decades ago, The Great One bought the great one. Wayne Gretzky, the most prolific hockey player ever, purchased (with Bruce McNall) the world’s most cherished baseball card for an eye-popping $451,000. After changing hands again, this 1909-1911 T206 Honus Wagner sold for a shocking $2.8 million in 2007. Rarely does a collector peruse a memorabilia magazine without seeing a photograph of this American Tobacco Company product, which, along with hundreds of other cards in the T206 set, was peddled in loose packs of cigarettes during the time when Model Ts replaced horses. Today it remains the most celebrated piece of cardboard in the business, and arguably the most valuable sports memorabile in history.

Nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman” for his outstanding speed, Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner was one of baseball’s greatest baggers. One of the original inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the mostly Pittsburgh shortstop played in the National League from 1897 to 1917, when he retired owning a supermajority of all offensive records that matter. Adding to his nifty glove-work and blazing speed, he hit over .300 in 17 consecutive seasons, led the league in slugging six times, and won five league batting titles.

Nearly a century later, however, few would argue that Wagner was a better player than, let’s say, Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. And although he was popular for his time, he never reached the cultural-icon status of Joe DiMaggio; nor as the son of German immigrants does he have a heritage-based following that rivals that of Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg (Jewish), Roberto Clemente (Latino), or Jackie Robinson (African-American). Indeed, more Americans of German heritage probably identify with Ruth or Lou Gehrig. Similarly, few would point to the aesthetics of the card as a value enhancer. Although the lithograph of a stern, ruddy-faced Wagner against an auburn backdrop does have a Mona Lisa-like aura to it (what was he smirking about?), this offset portrait of a young man, hair parted, in a buttoned-to-the-Adam’s-apple, gray “Pittsburg” (sic) jersey with wide, dark-blue collar is not to be mistaken for a da Vinci. Well, what about vintage, you ask? Consider this: a 1909-1911 T206 Ty Cobb, which graded the same as the T206 Wagner by the same grading company (PSA 8), sold in February 2010 for $25,076.40. That’s certainly not chump change, but it falls roughly $2.5 million short of the Wagner.

So what accounts for the T206 Honus Wagner’s stunning value? For many, the answer can be found in tobacco (or more precisely, not in tobacco). At some early point, probably at the behest of Wagner himself, the American Tobacco Company pulled the T206 Wagner from production. Although historians disagree as to Wagner’s motivation, many believe that the chaw-chewing shortstop didn’t want his image pasted on baseball cards used to promote smoking. In any event, today only about 50 T206 Wagners are thought to exist, and so the answer is simple: the T206 Wagner is so valuable primarily because it’s so rare.

In fact, it’s almost as rare as the 1950-51 Toleteros Josh Gibson.


Like Honus Wagner, Joshua Gibson was a professional baseball player who played most of his career in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Like Wagner, Gibson became a superstar playing at his hometown Forbes Field. Like Wagner, Gibson eventually was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (36 years after Wagner, in 1972). Unlike Wagner, however, Gibson was African-American and never played a day in the major leagues. He died of a stroke at the youthful age of 35 on January 20, 1947, just 85 days before Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers and forever smashed the MLB color barrier.

One of the biggest stars in the Negro Leagues from 1930-46, Gibson’s prodigious power earned him the nickname “The Black Babe Ruth.” Because the Negro Leagues did not consistently compile game statistics, much of Gibson’s 17-year career with the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords is hazy, subject to debate, and the thing of legend. But as Larry Schwartz notes in an article on Gibson, there was “[n]o joshing about Gibson’s talents.”

Officially, the MLB Hall of Fame claims that he swatted “almost 800” career homers. Legend has it that he hit nearly 900 dingers. The Hall of Fame credits him with a lifetime batting average of .359. Other sources, however, argue that it was closer to .385, the highest in Negro League history. The Sporting News, 30 years later to the day, claimed that on June 3, 1937 Gibson hit a home run 580 feet at Yankee Stadium. Legend has it that, three years earlier, he hit the only fair ball out of the House That Ruth Built. Stats and heroics aside, the best evidence of Gibson’s greatness is the testimony of Hall of Fame players that witnessed him play. “He hits the ball a mile,” said flamethrower Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators. Satchel Paige, a former Gibson Negro Leagues teammate before going on to dominate the major leagues, went a step further in describing Gibson. Paige said, simply: “He was the greatest hitter who ever lived.”

One cannot—indeed, should not—revisit Gibson’s legacy without recognizing the depriving effects and sickening stain of Jim Crow. Even writing or saying the term “Negro Leagues,” for instance, is an uncomfortable exercise for many (including the author). But for those who were a part of the Negro Leagues (as players or fans), it is a source of pride. And why not? They claimed one who, according to Paige and others, had no equal: The Black Babe Ruth. And while historians grapple with the accuracy of Gibsonian legend, only those who watched Gibson play know the real story.


Felix Vega, Jr. grew up a Josh Gibson fan. Vega, who was born in New York City, has a heavy build and stands two inches beyond six feet. Nearing 73 years of age, his eyes are still sharp and brown but his hair is now gray. When asked to describe his father’s appearance, Vega’s oldest son will tell you, endearingly, that his “old man is a cross between Pavarotti and Perry Mason.” After his birth, Vega’s parents took him back to their native Puerto Rico, where he has lived an active life and been blessed with a large family, including five children. Through it all, though, Vega has never forgotten the memories of his own childhood in Puerto Rico, where amidst the baptisms, first communions, graduations, and patron saint festivities, one activity predominated: baseball.

Vega grew up in Santurce, a working class barrio in San Juan. And his childhood routine mimics that of many children on the island at the time. During morning school breaks, Vega would practice pitching in the schoolyard. After school, he would study a few hours and then play baseball with his friends. After dinner, he would listen to baseball on the radio. On the weekends, his dad would often take him to the park where he would . . . you guessed it. There was another notable fact about Santurce. It is home to the Cangrejeros de Santurce (“Santurce Crabbers”), a Puerto Rican Winter League baseball team that for a few years in the 1940s boasted an American slugger named Josh Gibson.

By the time Vega was old enough to hit live pitching, Gibson was already a legend in Puerto Rico. In the 1941-1942 winter season, his batting average was .480, he belted 13 home runs, and was the league MVP. By 1948, a year after Gibson died, Puerto Rico had hosted other future Hall of Famers, including Vega’s favorite player, Willard “Home Run” Brown. That year, the talent and excitement surrounding the Puerto Rican Winter Leagues prompted the production of what are now extremely rare baseball card sets: the 1948-1951 Toleteros (“Sluggers”), a collection of the Puerto Rican Winter Leaguers.

When Vega was ten, he shined shoes to afford the Toleteros cards that he religiously bought at la tienda local. This practice continued for three years during which time Vega became the proud owner of the 1950-1951 Toleteros Josh Gibson. The card depicts the prodigious slugger, bat in hands, body torqued, a sly smile on his face, in his trademark explosive follow through. For sociologist fodder, the picture of Gibson is against the backdrop of a chain-link fence and surrounded by white borders. Within the white borders, the name “Joshua Gibson” is prominently etched in black.

Like Josh Gibson himself, there are many unanswered questions surrounding the Toleteros sets (e.g., how many cards were issued?). But looking back over seven decades of life, Vega has all the baseball answers he needs. He knows he’s the original owner of one of the rarest baseball cards known to man. He knows it’s a card of a player that many consider one of the greatest players of all time; a player who actually played in Vega’s childhood barrio in Puerto Rico.

He knows he possesses the most prized card of the Black Babe Ruth. He’s one of about 12 people on the planet who can say that.

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