Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Gibson more rare than Wagner

In 2016, Marketside Pizza inserted baseball cards in pizzas they sold at Walmart in the USA. The move was a hit among bloggers and modern collectors, and was a bit of a throwback to something baseball card collector's haven't seen in a while.

In the 1980's and 1990's, baseball cards being distributed with food products was quite common. Cereal, bread, soft drinks and snack foods of all kinds ran promotions containing sports cards. As you work backwards from there, baseball cards being distributed with some product becomes more and more common. Though I am not clear on the exact method of distribution, a card set associated with food items that you may not be aware of is the 1913 Voskamp's Coffee Pirates, a regional 20-card set released by B.H. Voskamp's Sons Inc Wholesale Grocers.
It may be difficult to tell from the photo, but each card features a black/white posed image over an off-white background. The back contains the checklist for the 20-card set and the following note:
"When you have a complete set bring them or send them to us. We will return the photos to you and furnish you with one reserved base ball seat, Grand Stand, Forbes Field, or two general admission seats, or four bleacher seats."
Below that note is the B.H. Voskamp's name and their address in Pittsburgh, PA. There are surely earlier examples of this type of promotion using some kind of collectible set, but I can't name it right off of the top of my head. The formula was pretty simple: Entice people to buy your product and collect some cards, and then trade the complete set of those cards for some type of goods or service. It was also common to make the task of actually completing the set particularly difficult by including a 'chase' card.

In the case of this set, the chase card must be that of Ed Mensor, as the card has simply never been confirmed to actually exist. Hank Robinson also used to be considered 'unconfirmed' until recently, meaning the population of that card is exactly one.

Considering the cards were to be returned upon set completion, one would expect that even if rare, a few Mensor and Robinson cards would have survived. Surely more than just one Robinson, at least. Of course the set is over 100 years old, and it was only a regional promotion, so the quantities of the entire set is certainly much lower than any national promotion or collectible card of the time.
Prior to the internet, there probably weren't too many people outside of the Pittsburgh area with any experience with Voskamp's. Even with the internet, finding examples of this set isn't the easiest thing to do, though a few will sell at major auctions, and even on eBay, every year. Just how rare is this set, though?

Realizing the flaws in relying on SGC and PSA population reports (not every card has been graded, how reliably does either company remove cards from their reports when they are re-submitted or crossed-over, etc), consider this: To date, PSA and SGC have graded a combined total of 79 1913 Voskamp's Coffee Pirates cards (of those 79, 8 are Marty O'Toole). By contrast, the two grading companies have graded a combined 44 T206 Honus Wagner cards. In other words, for every 2 Voskamp's that have been graded, 1 Honus Wagner T206 has been!

Now, I think it's safe to assume that the T206 Wagner is probably more likely to be graded than a Voskamp's Coffee card. But even if only 25% of Voskamp's are graded and 80% of Wagners are, then even the most common 1913 Voskamp's Pirate has a smaller population than a T206 Honus Wagner!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mr. Wagner, will you kindly step outside for a moment?

As a George Gibson fan, I find myself reading a lot of books about the Pittsburgh Pirates. Inevitably, you'll cover much of the same games and seasons, but I do find it interesting to read from the perspective of different players. Plus, each new book seems to find one or two things that were completely unknown to me previously.

Last year, I finally got around to reading a biography about Honus Wagner. It's been on my to-do list for awhile. This past Summer, I was ordering some books from McFarland Publishing (I get a lot of baseball books from these guys; they're an awesome company to deal with) and decided to finally pickup the Wagner bio. They actually had a couple to choose from and for reasons I don't actually remember I went with Honus Wagner - The Life of Baseball's "Flying Dutchman" by Arthur D. Hittner.

In short, I really enjoyed the book. For anyone looking to read a biography of one of baseball's all-time greats, you won't go wrong with this one. This post isn't a book review, to be clear, but there was a particularly interesting story covered in the book that I wanted to share.
Here's a snippet of the book from page 192:
    For the first time in three years, Wagner attended the Pirates' training
camp in Hot Springs. He arrived late, his brother Al in tow. Now over 40 and
out of the game for two years, the elder Wagner worked out with the club and
played a creditable shortstop for the second stringers.
    Wagner disliked the public attention which he inevitably attracted at the
Arkansas resort. One day a photographer sought him out at the hotel. A clerk
directed the young man toward Wagner, who was chatting in the lobby with
teammate George Gibson. Uncertain which of the two was the legendary Pirate
star, the photographer took a chance. "Mr. Wagner," he inquired tentatively,
"will you kindly step outside for a moment? I want to take your picture."
Instantly, the camera-shy Wagner turned to Gibson. "Go ahead, John," he
motioned to Gibson. "All right," smiled Gibson picking up on the ruse, "come
on, take my picture until you drop." The Pittsburgh backstop then escorted
the photographer to the lawn outside the hotel where he posed for several
pictures as the Pirate shortstop. The cameramn returned the following
day with a cache of "Wagner" picture postcards, which he offered at a nickel
This story, regardless of who played the role of Wagner during the photo shoot, is amusing. Given the focus of this blog, it's that much more interesting that Gibson was doing the posing. And clearly required at least a little further investigation.

In the chapter notes, Hittner referenced an early 1911 edition of The Sporting News for this story, so I tracked down that copy of The Sporting News to read more.

Apparently, the story goes that a Pittsburgh newspaper ordered a photographer to head to Hot Springs in March of 1910 to take action photos of all of the Pirates. Absent that day were Gibson and Wagner, so early the next morning, the photographer headed to the hotel to complete his assignment. There is no mention of Gibson ever posing "as himself" for the photographer, but The Sporting News version of the story continues that when the "Wagner" photos of Gibson were being sold the next day, "Some of the players, to help the joke along, purchased, and it was not until several days had elapsed that the [illegible] learned of his 'mistake'."

The Sporting News copy that I'm reading (courtesy of is difficult to read, and what I am able to read does not mention the actual name of the photographer.

But suffice it to say, I'm now extremely curious if any examples of this postcard survived. Maybe more than any other season, it seems there are a number of 1910 Hot Springs photos of the Pirates in personal collections, on the internet and occasionally at auction, so it's not a complete impossibility, right? And if the photographer figured it out after a few short days, did he simply start to sell Gibson postcards?

Does anyone out there know more about these postcards?
Anyone out there have one in their collection that they can share a photo of?

That'd be awesome to see.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Enthusiastic about Coca-Cola

So it's well documented that Ty Cobb was a wise investor. And if you read past the claims that he was mean, dangerous, grumpy and all that, you'll find many examples of his generosity and willingness to help out old ballplayers who were down on their luck, or struggling financially. I doubt it's documented anywhere what his net worth was, or what his stock portfolio looked like, but there are two stocks he is very regularly associated with. It seems his Georgia roots allowed him to get involved with the Coca-Cola company relatively early on, and his ties to Detroit connected him to the Ford Motor Company.

If you read about the relationship between Cobb and other players, those that considered him a friend have been quoted saying that he handed out investing advice to anyone that would listen -- sometimes right in the middle of a baseball game.

How many players actually took that advice is obviously unknown.

One thing I have always wondered, though, is what Cobb's involvement was in recruiting ball players to appear in the series of Coca-Cola ads that ran in newspapers from at least as early as the 1910s and at least into the mid-1920's. Here's an example of George Gibson's ad below:

The top of the ad reads: "George Gibson of the Pittsburg Nationals (Champions of the World) let the League as catcher with a percentage of .983 and caught more games than any other catcher last year. He writes us that he is enthusiastic about Coca-Cola."

The image, in case you don't recognize it, appears to have been cropped from George's M101-2, as shown below:

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has documented the full checklist of players that can be found promoting Coca-Cola, but some of the big names of the day are available, including Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Frank Chance, John McGraw and Eddie Collins.  The set isn't all hall-of-famers, though. In addition to Gibson, Charles Dooin and Owen Bush are featured in ads, among many others.

Finding these ads isn't terribly difficult. They are regularly available on eBay and other sports forums and can be found in quite good condition for a very fair price (read: much cheaper than the tobacco and caramel cards of the era in many cases).

It's an easy way to add a period piece to a collection.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Beauty of a Back Run: T206

If you are ever thinking about dipping your toes into the waters of prewar baseball cards, then one set you should consider is the 1909-11 T206 White Borders set. Now, I should qualify that statement. At just over 500 cards (between about 514-523 depending on how you count some of the variations), it may not sound like a big set if you're in for the long haul, but some of the cards within the set are pretty far out of reach for most collectors. This is, after all, the set that features the famed Honus Wagner card. Even if you tell yourself you don't need that card, then you still have to deal with Eddie Plank.

Then there are the variations -- Magie, Doyle, O'Hara and Demmitt, among others.

The T206 set was released in packs of cigarettes by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911. Among the brands of tobacco produced by the ATC, 16 were chosen to contain the cards that Burdick would ultimately define as the T-206 set. The brand of cigarette that any given card was distributed with can be determined by simply flipping over the card and looking on the back. There are some really excellent sites on the internet that can you can visit to read about the different brands, and difficulties of collecting each back.

Within the brands, there are also different series. They are defined as the 150 subjects series, the 350 subjects series, the 350-460 subject series and the 460 series. Some of the more common brands (Piedmont, Sweet Caporal, Soveriegn) included the specific series within the branding on the back. This creates additional variety for player collectors or series collectors. For more information about the different series' and brands of T206, you should check out these, two, particularly good sites: and

Because there are so many ways to slice and dice this set, there are many ways to collect it. Some collectors just want one of each brand, others one of each brand from each series. Some collect just the minor leaguers, some focus on a specific brand or series, others on a team, and some on just one player.

As you may have predicted, the rest of this post will talk about doing a player collection from the T206 set.

The image above shows the George Gibson "back run". Included in this back run there are 10 different backs -- Piedmont, Sovereign, Sweet Caporal, El Principe De Gales (EPDG), Hindu and Old Mill (OM). Because Gibson was issued in the 150-350 series, you can also see that some of the backs mention '150 subjects', others mention '350 subjects' and some don't mention a quantity at all.

The nice thing about this grouping is that they range in difficulty (and therefore, price). You can pick up the Piedmont and Sweet Caporal backs with relative ease. The 150s are generally easier than the 350s. The Sovereign is a little more difficult, but not impossible, the EPDG is tricky, but it's out there, and the OM and Hindu, while not down right impossible, will require a bit of luck and timing.

And depending on how strict you are with your back collecting, you don't even have to stop here. There are all kinds of print defects floating around out there (also known as 'freaks'). A few years back, a George Gibson T206 was auctioned off that had a mostly blank back, except it had a few colour passes of Gibson on the back creating a ghost effect.

There is also such thing as a wet sheet transfer, where the back of the card is faintly visible on the front, presumably because sheets of the cards were stacked on top of each other after being printed but while the ink was still wet. You can also find proofs of the cards, cards that still have some of the lines for cutting, and others that have been cut poorly to the point they contain parts of another card. One such example is the T206 Gibson shown here, that has is name printed on the top and the bottom of the card. This leads to the possibility that there's a T206 Gibson out there with no name on it whatsoever. There are other cases still where the top and bottom names don't match (I have never seen a Gibson like this).

Because the T206 set has been reprinted so many times, you can even collect reprinted versions of a given player. Admittedly, while I doubt most people add these cards to their collection, it is one way to add a few additional brands or unique backs to a T206 collection as the reprints don't always respect what print combinations truly were made available to the public.

When Topps started issuing their own modern-day T206 sets, they included buybacks of actual T206s, so there's that option as well. That I am aware of, there are 4 different Topps "frames" that contain T206s. George Gibson can be found in all four.

If that *still* isn't enough variation for a back collector, you can *still* keep going. The ATC not only issued the T206 "white borders" set, they issued some other sets that are very similar to T206s but do have key differences. As catalogued by Burdick, they are T213 Coupon Cigarettes, T214 Victory Tobacco and T215 Red Cross Tobacco. These three sets share a lot of the same images, allowing the "back run" to continue. If you want to see this kind of collection in action, then I encourage you to check out The Greatest T206 Back Run Ever Assembled.

In closing, I'll simply say this: If you want to further investigate T206s or putting together a T206 back run of your own, then I encourage you to check out these three links below. All three will give you more than enough info to get you going, while providing you with some entertaining reading: