'Eye on the Iconic' series features rare Honus Wagner baseball card

A new display brings together various elements to tell a unique American story, centered on a piece of American pop culture.

A Johannes “Honus” Wagner baseball card, considered by collectors as one of the rarest and most iconic pieces of sports memorabilia, will be on view at the Winterthur museum through June.

As part of the museum’s “Eye on the Iconic” revolving exhibit, the prized Wagner card on loan from the New York Public Library is on display alongside a “Hans Wagner” cigar box label from the Winterthur Library collection.

Its appearance coincides with opening of the 2018 Major League Baseball season this week, which may have fans chomping at the proverbial bit to view this special piece of baseball history.

The tiny card – barely larger than two postage stamps – was part of a series released in cigarette packs in the early 20th century.

The reason the card is so rare – there are only 50 known copies in existence, with one selling for over $1 million at auction – is because Wagner took umbrage with the fact that kids would have to buy a pack of cigarettes to get the card.

“Honus wasn’t anti-tobacco in any way – he used tobacco products and was fine with his image on the cigar box,” said Gregory Landrey, Winterthur’s director of academic affairs and organizer of the exhibit. “He just didn’t want children having to buy cigarettes. He was very involved with children’s organizations after his career.”

Wagner is still considered one of the best – if not the best – ever to play shortstop, with stats that are impressive today: a .327 career batting average, 3,415 hits, and 101 home runs.

Those numbers helped Wagner become one of the original first five inductees into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, alongside legendary players like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, who famously noted that Wagner was probably the best player among the group.

“Coming from Ty Cobb, that was high praise,” Landrey said.

The exhibit also explores America’s fascination with its “National Pastime,” and how its influence spread throughout the country, with game results broadcast via telegraph, and crowds gathered outside of newspaper offices to get the first word on scores.

“This was before TV or radio or any modern media, so all that exists of these games are the printed box scores,” Landrey said. “You either had to be there, be a journalist covering it or you had to read about it the next day.”

Rebecca Duffy, a second year student with Winterthur’s American Material Culture program, helped track down some of those box scores. She even located an original telegraph for the display, on loan from the Chester County Historical Society, to demonstrate how information was communicated in the days before the internet.

While Landrey noted that a display focusing on sports may seem unusual at Winterthur, it sits comfortably beside the museum’s Dominy Clock and Woodworking Shop reconstructions of shops used by the Dominy family, four generations of craftsmen who worked in East Hampton, N.Y., from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s.

And sitting in a slot at the edge of the window display is a nearly 150-year-old handmade baseball bat.

“It just shows how far-reaching the influence of baseball was – even way out in the remote Hamptons,” Landrey said.

Being the child of immigrants, Landrey said, Wagner and his contemporary, Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont, present two sides of an American success story.

“They’re separated by only six years, but they both came here and built a legacy, albeit from two completely different perspectives, but still uniquely American,” he said.

The Wagner legend

The son of German immigrants and born in the borough of Chartiers, in what is now Carnegie, Pa., Wagner (sometimes known as “Hans”) began his professional baseball career with the Louisville Colonels in 1897. When the team was eliminated at the end of the 1899 season, Wagner made the move to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Although a legendary player in his own right, Wagner is perhaps best known for the 1909 World Series, when he helped lead the Pirates to victory over the Detroit Tigers (featuring the mighty Ty Cobb) in seven games, making it the first Series to go that far.

While scores in the 1909 Series went back and forth, with the Pirates losing 5-0 game four, they shut out the Tigers 8-0 in game seven for the pennant.

The Pirates’ victory was their first championship of the modern major league era. At the time, Wagner led the league with a .339 batting average and 100 RBIs.

Following an abbreviated season in 1917, Wagner retired from playing and went on to coach for the Pirates for 39 years.

Wagner died Dec. 6, 1955 at the age of 81, and is buried at Jefferson Memorial Cemetery in the South Hills area of Pittsburgh.

The Wagner card and exhibit is on display through June 17.