THE BLOG
07/14/2010 04:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An All-Star Baseball Card

By Jon Pace, The New York Public Library

On this, the week of the 81st Major League Baseball All-Star Game, it seems appropriate to commemorate the game by remembering a baseball great who never had the fortune to play in one.

The subject: legendary shortstop Honus Wagner, who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Louisville Colonels (you don't remember the Colonels?!) from 1897 until 1917.

This year, the sole representative from the Pirates is a middle reliever named Evan Meek. Now, with all due respect, Mr. Meek is having a terrific year in middle relief (check out that 1.11 ERA!). But if Honus Wagner were playing for the Pirates today he would be representing them in Anaheim.

Wagner is regarded as one of the finest ballplayers of all time. For his career he hit a ridiculous .328, had over 3,200 hits, and drove in over 1,700 runs.

You have to remember that he played during the deadball era, when it was quite common to see guys hit under 10 home runs and drive in over 120 runs during a season, which Wagner did in 1901 when he hit 6 home runs and drove in 126 runs while hitting .353! (Quick Trivia: Who was the last person to drive in over 100 runs and hit fewer then 10 home runs? Paul Molitor in 1996.)

Wagner never made it into an All-Star Game - because they didn't exist. He never won an MVP Award ... because they weren't given out until he was past his prime (though he did finish second for the award in 1912). He played so long ago that certain standard baseball statistics such as strikeouts weren't even recorded. He was part of the first class ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. To this day, when baseball historians rank the greatest shortstops of all time, Honus Wagner still places ahead of modern-day greats Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Derek Jeter.

To say he is a baseball immortal is an understatement.

2010-07-14-honuswagnercard.jpegAnd yet when people think of Wagner today, the first thing they usually associate him with is a baseball card distributed with Sweet Caporal Cigarettes circa 1909-11.

This is a very, very valuable and rare baseball card. In fact, the Honus Wagner card is perhaps the most revered of all 20th century baseball memorabilia, because so few examples survived after Wagner had the card pulled from circulation.

His reason for doing so, as his granddaughter explained it in 1992, was quite noble. Although he was a big fan of chewing tobacco (or Chewbacca, as his granddaughter called it, though probably not as an homage to George Lucas), he didn't want children to have to buy tobacco in order to get his card.

As a result, the card became so elusive, so revered, so sought after that even guys who played hockey wanted it (Wayne Gretzky bought a copy in 1991, only to resell it in 1995)! The few cards still in existence have sold for millions at auction.

The Honus Wagner baseball card is part of the Goulston Baseball Collection, a unique collection of baseball memorabilia donated to The New York Public Library by Leopold Morse Goulston of the Boston Braves.

SEE MORE FROM NYPL:
Treasures of the New York Public Library: The Honus Wagner
"America's National Game:" The Albert G. Spalding Collection of Early Baseball Photographs