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Out of left field

Honus Wagner baseball card sale targets stadium debt

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Josh Wagner doesn't field questions about his familial tie to a Major League Baseball legend very often. The distance separating the Missoula-based writer, comic artist and playwright from Baseball Hall of Famer Honus Wagner is vast, regardless of whether it's measured in time, bloodline or athletic ability. The link is rarely drawn by anyone other than relatives and baseball-savvy friends.

"He doesn't come up a lot," Wagner says. "He's not a name quite on par with Babe Ruth and other ball players of that caliber, even though statistically he was up there in the same ranks. I guess his name just doesn't have the same force those other names do."

So Wagner was surprised—and intrigued—recently when he received a call from two Missoula men regarding his distant relation. Honus Wagner, one of baseball's most respected but least recognized stars, played for the Pittsburgh Pirates throughout the early 20th century. He batted a 21-year career average of .329, stole more bases and scored more runs than any of his contemporaries and is to this day considered the best shortstop in baseball history. Many sports enthusiasts know him as The Flying Dutchman. But beyond the professional highlights, Josh Wagner had no family anecdotes to share with the inquisitive duo.

"As far as I know, nobody I've talked to ever knew him personally," Wagner says of his immediate family. "My grandpa [the deceased Howard "Buzz" Wagner of Hamilton] was raised in Japan, so I think by the time he came back to the states Honus had already passed away. It's hard for me to say there's any sort of personal connection."

But the call Wagner received came with an interesting bit of news. Missoula's Joe Vai, one of the callers, had in his possession a 1909 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card—the Holy Grail of baseball memorabilia—which he claimed to want to raffle off through major and minor league venues nationwide during the 2011 season. Vai told the Independent the fundraising campaign is still in negotiations, but says the beneficiaries of that fundraiser would include a list of charitable organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of America. Also on that list is Missoula's Osprey stadium, which still owes various creditors an estimated $3.5 million, which Vai considers a priority recipient in his grand plan.

The 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card—the Holy Grail of baseball memorabilia—has sold for as much as $2.35 million at auction. One of less than 60 copies known to exist recently surfaced in Missoula, and the owner hopes to use its value to help get the Osprey stadium out of debt. - PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME
  • Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame
  • The 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card—the Holy Grail of baseball memorabilia—has sold for as much as $2.35 million at auction. One of less than 60 copies known to exist recently surfaced in Missoula, and the owner hopes to use its value to help get the Osprey stadium out of debt.

"The ultimate goal is to support different charities," Vai says, "to use [the card] as a humanitarian project."

Vai's card—rediscovered about two years ago, Vai says, in an old book on fireworks—joins the ranks of fewer than 60 Honus Wagner cards known to exist worldwide. Their rarity has made the cards as much a legend as their subject, and their value to collectors is unprecedented. The School Sisters of Notre Dame, an order of nuns in Baltimore, auctioned a beat-up Wagner card last year for $220,000; a near-mint condition card previously owned by Wayne Gretzky went for $2.35 million in 2007, the highest price ever paid for a baseball card.

"We're very intrigued, obviously," says Play Ball Missoula chairman Wes Spiker, who confirms he was contacted about proceeds from the card's sale going to debt relief for the stadium. "Anything to help the Missoula civic stadium we need to take a hard look at. This was [Vai's] idea. He wants this card to help not only the civic stadium but a couple other organizations in town or in the region. We're interested."

But Wagner card claims have been known to raise eyebrows in the past. Due to the card's extreme value, a number of fakes have surfaced on the collectibles market over the years. So Vai last year turned to Missoula native and Advertiser Montana Printing owner James Palmer to authenticate his card. Palmer says by enlarging the card and determining how it was processed he was able to confirm the card's authenticity.

"I'm not an expert at this, so I suppose a guy could always say, 'You didn't check this, you didn't check that,'" Palmer says. "But I've seen enough printed product in 40 years that I can tell when it's a copy as opposed to the real thing...This card seemed to fit."

Just as the card passed Palmer's test, Vai's pitch to benefit the local stadium seems "pretty good" to Spiker. He says his only hesitation stemmed from the fact that the deal is "so unusually generous." And it comes at a time when Ogren Park could use a helping hand. Spiker says Play Ball and the stadium's investors are close to presenting an exit strategy to the Missoula City Council, but the park lost its widely hailed financial guru with the death of Play Ball board member and longtime Missoula banker Hal Fraser in January.

"Knowing the amount of people that this could help, that's just great satisfaction," Vai says. "Realistically, to me, it's an old card. It's a piece of cardboard."

From the family perspective, Josh Wagner is just glad to see someone taking a renewed interest in The Flying Dutchman's legacy. Vai is currently working on a book—The Left-handed Monster—documenting the history of the Honus Wagner card; Palmer says he's agreed to print between 500 and 1,000 copies. That kind of attention, Wagner says, could help make Honus a household name—beyond just his own household.

"There are a lot of pictures of him as an older man out there, and he's almost a spitting image of my dad's dad," Wagner says. "There's one picture of him as a younger man that a lot of people say looks like me. I think it's mostly in the nose. That's a very prominent nose in my family."

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