Background - If someone thinks "tobacco card," that person immediately visualizes a T206. Issued during a three-year period throughout the heyday of the National Pastime just prior to World War I, these American Tobacco Company inserts - distributed in the packs of that monopolistic company's cigarettes - have been popular conversation pieces for nearly a hundred years. T206s defined the style, size and content of its era's baseball cards. The issue set a standard that would endure (and be copied) through a long interval of competition from early candy collectibles and anonymously made, cut-out pictures, which would last until the advent of "bubblegum" cards.
Never assigned a formal, all-encompassing title by its maker, the issue derives its T206 identity from a single line in Jefferson Burdick's definitive volume, The American Card Catalog. The reference reads, simply, "T206 - Baseball Series ... white borders " Serious hobbyists in modern times have tagged T206 with a nickname - "The Monster" - to affectionately acknowledge the difficulty of gathering all of its more than 520 entries.
Ubiquitous at the time of their distribution, T206's baseball depictions were just one of the themes ATC chose to promote and complement its Piedmont, Sweet Caporal, American Beauty, Polar Bear and other top-selling brands. Flags, birds, fish, soldiers, actresses and a host of additional topics are also well-represented in any vintage accumulation of small treasures from the early 1900s, but the baseball cards are, by far, the most memorable of those keepsakes.
The T206 cards' dimensions - about 1 7/16" by 2 5/8", and designed to conform to the packages they once shared with tobacco products - are "just right." They're perfect to accommodate the beautifully colored player images they convey, allowing an ideal amount of room for a caption detailing a subject's surname, team and league. A T206 card sits neatly in one's palm as the viewer looks at its athlete's features, and the card is easily overturned to allow scrutiny of the reverse-side advertising. Storage was easy, too. Many "old-time" collections have been found, often sorted into team groups by a family's great-grandfather, with cards still carefully housed in empty cigarette packs.
Composition - Much more than a single set of tobacco cards, T206s were actually the summary of several groups released within a three-year period encompassing the 1909 through 1911 seasons. As the issue advanced in longevity during its distribution, its content expanded to accommodate fans (and smokers) living outside relatively few major league cities during that time. Minor league players from a number of associations, and numerous towns from Minneapolis to Mobile, were soon included on the set's cumulative roster. Also, captions were updated on certain player cards to reflect changed allegiances as their subjects were traded, and poses were switched, presumably to keep the issue "fresh" - no one likes handfuls of duplicates! Perhaps to a greater degree than any other category of baseball cards, The T206 set acted as a living, breathing chronicle of the 1910 era's game and its personnel.
Finally, when American Tobacco moved along from production of the T206 issue in favor of newer cardboard innovations, it left behind a total of 524 distinctly different "White Border" player portrayals as a legacy to the modern collecting hobby. These include 390 cards that picture major league players (with multiple poses and captions for the same player counted separately) and 134 minor leaguers. The breadth of the series' lineup would be enough in itself to intimidate all but the most determined collectors. 500+ cards isn't the real challenge, though ... the true obstacle to completing the T206 set is its fabled rarities. Certain "key" players in the set - Wagner and Plank, to cite just two, are famously elusive, and few discussions of vintage baseball cards take place that don't gravitate toward these T206 depictions.
Key Features and Rarities - Regarded beyond anyone's reasonable doubt as the most famous baseball card in the world, T206's Honus Wagner entry enjoys renown and mystique like no other cardboard collectible. The legendary skills of the Pirates shortstop would be enough to propel Wagner's name to the top of an enthusiast's want lists, but the image of The Flying Dutchman - surrounded in its T206 incarnation by a distinctive orange occupies a niche in the card-collecting world that is incomparable and unique. Even the stories accounting for the Wagner's great rarity afford delicious intrigue, wild theories and abundant apocryphal tales, ranging from Wagner's reputed aversion to tobacco products, to the notion that he felt inadequately compensated for the use of his likeness. Wagner's T206 is a primary focus of card historians and its capture is a defining achievement for serious collectors. The card has been the theme of numerous articles and essays, has fueled countless hours of conversation and speculation, and holds an indisputable position as an icon of the sports-collecting hobby.
Wagner's fellow enshrinee, Philadelphia A's pitcher Eddie Plank, shares a heightened quality of rarity in the T206 set with his Pittsburgh colleague, and is viewed as the issue's second-most desirable depiction. Explanations for the Plank card's status are conjectural and range from the routine (opposition, once again, to association with tobacco) to the obscure, with the suggestion that a broken printing apparatus somehow affected only the Plank portrayal.
Those are the "Big Two," and these high-profile relics are as elemental in understanding the appeal of the T206 issue as they are in plotting the assembly of a full set in modern times. And, although Wagner and Plank are the most universally recognizable"flagship" scarcities in the crowd, there are others that will emerge at once during the aspiring T206 aficionado's first stages of research: Magee (with caption misspelled "Magie"), Demmitt and O'Hara (shown with St. Louis), Elberfeld, Brown and Smith. All are names that occur with predictable frequency on the wantlists of those enthusiasts who wish to conquer the classic White Borders.
One more aspect is the illumination of relative difficulty, with respect to T206 cards, that has focused on the cards' players. But citing the cardfront images of Wagner and Plank, et al, centers only on one dimension of the series' content. A whole new world is encountered when one addresses another facet of these personality-filled collectibles: the cards' backs.
As already mentioned, T206 cards were enclosed with a host of the different brand names that were encompassed under the American Tobacco Company's organizational umbrella, and the cards' stylishly conceived back-printing was tailored to suit the specific cigarettes with which the items were packaged. The majority of T206s bear reverseside advertising touting the company's popular Piedmont, Sweet Caporal, Old Mill and Sovereign trademarks. Numbering 16 varieties in all, the hierarchy of scarcity ascends from those four names upward through such exotic types as American Beauty, Carolina Brights, El Principe de Gales and Hindu and nears its culmination with seldom-seen Hindu, Drum, Uzit and Lenox logos. The pinnacle of cardback difficulty is found in the ultra-rare "Ty Cobb" reverse design, wherein Cobb (who, incidentally, is the "Ty Cobb" back's only confirmed obverse subject) is termed "King of the Smoking Tobacco World." The vast number of back versions, when factored into an equation containing 524 distinct player illustrations on the cards' fronts, yields an exponential increase in the number of different T206s available to collect ... a prospective life's work for the tobacco card hobbyist who wishes to face a serious and immensely rewarding challenge.
Bottom Line - Although examination of T206's extent and complexity tends to intimidate the reader, it's probably far too easy for the issue's inherent charm to be camouflaged by excessive detail. T206's famous and expensive Hall of Famers are certainly daunting in their own way, and mention of the set's rarities and their mysteries, and the obscure back designs, imply that an investment of scholarship is necessary to properly approach the White Border gallery. Incredibly, that's not the case.
True appreciation of these special collectibles, in its purest sense, doesn't rely upon any of those complicated aspects. An emotional fascination with baseball history is inevitably prompted by a close look at a single card ... Its colors, its subject's expression, the straightforward but simple arrangement of the front and the vintage printing on the back. The thoughtful observer grasps the set's flavor by looking at just one of its components ... then a second, and so on. Before long, it's only natural that one "casually" seeks to gather the players comprising one's favorite team and, just that quickly, a fulfilling project has begun! T206's magic has been perpetuated in this fashion for almost a century and the spell, as many can attest, is irresistibly alluring.