A Chicago Cubs Collection That Helped Two Brothers Bond
by Kevin Glew
From the black cat in 1969 to Steve Bartman in 2003 to back-to-back National League Division Series defeats in 2007 and 2008, Mark Wagner, his brother, DeWayne, and his father, Raymond, had suffered through the heartbreaks and disappointments of being a Chicago Cubs fan together.
So when their beloved team finally won the World Series in 2016 - the team's first in 108 years - Wagner rejoiced, but unfortunately he celebrated alone.
"It was great to win, but my father died in 2014 and my brother died last March," said Wagner. "So when I was watching the Cubs celebrate, I was thinking, 'If only my dad and brother could have held on.' It was bittersweet."
With help from his brother, who was 14 years older than him, Wagner has assembled an extensive collection of vintage Cubs rookies and team sets. The two of them could often be spotted at Chicago-area card shows together.
"Sometimes when he'd buy a big-ticket item for one of his sets, my brother would say, 'Don't tell my wife about this. I'll take this out of my business account money,'" recalled Wagner with a chuckle.
It was Wagner's brother who introduced him to the PSA Set Registry approximately 15 years ago.
"I remember my brother called me one day from work and he said, 'Hey, PSA has started this thing call the Set Registry.' And I replied, 'What?'" remembered Wagner. "I looked on there and [at that time] there were maybe 1,000 sets in total. I thought, 'Yeah, we've got to do this!' So I jumped in on it."
And jump on it they did.
They each proceeded to build several vintage baseball issues, with Wagner eventually focusing on Cubs team sets and key cards of legends like Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins.
Their love of the Cubbies was instilled in them by their father. Growing up in Batavia, Illinois, Wagner remembers his dad taking him to games at Wrigley Field. Wagner first fell in love with the Cubs as a seven-year-old in 1968. He can recall the heartbreak of the 1969 season in which the Cubs were in first place for much of the season before being overtaken by the New York Mets in September. In what many now regard as an omen of things to come, a black cat passed behind Santo while he was in the on-deck circle at Shea Stadium during a game on September 9th that season.
"I remember the 1969 season, but I think it affected my brother and my dad a lot more than me because I was just a kid and I thought, 'We'll be able to do it another year,'" said Wagner. "I was optimistic, but my dad and brother were very despondent."
The first game at Wrigley that Wagner remembers attending was Ernie Banks Bat Day in either 1969 or 1970.
"We got a baseball bat [at that game]," said Wagner. "It was a little smaller than a regular baseball bat, but it wasn't quite a mini bat. I still have the bat. It's in my garage."
A couple of years earlier, Wagner had started collecting baseball cards.
"Nineteen sixty eight was the first year I remember opening wax packs. I recall pulling a Hank Aaron card in the first pack and I was very happy," reminisced Wagner. But what he really wanted was an Ernie Banks card. Unfortunately, he explained, "when I was opening packs from 1968 to 1971, I never pulled one."
Wagner also recalls trying to trade with other kids for Cubs cards. He still has his cards from his childhood, but most of them are in lower grade. He did, however, keep his 1968 Topps Aaron in nice shape.
"It would probably get a [PSA EX-MT] 6 if I sent it in," said Wagner.
Like many young collectors, Wagner stopped pursuing cards once he was in high school and a decade would pass before his interest was rekindled.
Then in 1987, when Wagner's brother was visiting for the weekend, his brother told him about a card show that was taking place and invited him to go. "So we went to the show and I bought a 1970 Topps Banks. It wasn't in great shape, but I'd never had a 1970 Banks card. That got me hooked and back into the hobby. So I only took about 10 years off before I got back into collecting, and I've been collecting ever since."
Initially he focused on vintage baseball sets from the late-1960s through the mid-1970s, while his older brother worked on 1950s sets. The first set that he completed was the 1970 Topps set. But it was at the 1989 National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago that Wagner finally achieved one of his childhood collecting goals.
"I had never pulled an Ernie Banks card out of a pack," explained Wagner. "But at the 1989 National, I bought a 1971 Topps rack pack and pulled two out of that one pack."
By this time, Wagner had started working for Syn-Tech Ltd., a high performance, synthetic lubricants manufacturer in Addison, Illinois. He has now worked for the company for 30 years and serves as a production manager.
As his collecting progressed, he started to concentrate on vintage Cubs team sets. He discovered PSA in the early 2000s and initially wasn't a fan of the idea of grading his cards, but he soon saw the value in it.
"I started by submitting some of my best cards, and when they came back as [PSA MINT] 9s, I realized that this was the way to go," he said.
Wagner has since completed almost every Cubs team set from 1954 to 1977 on the PSA Set Registry. The first Cubs team set he finished on the Registry was the 1970 Topps set. This is also his favorite team set.
"The 1970 set was a pretty good representation of the 1969 team," explained Wagner. "The sad part is Shea Stadium is in the background of some of the photos [on the player cards]. It's like this evil thing looming behind them. It's like the devil is on their shoulder."
Wagner has also assembled some of the finest Cubs player sets on the Registry - including Basic and Master sets of Banks, Santo, and Williams. His Williams Master set is No. 1 on the Registry. Over the years, his brother, who was amassing his own 1950s Topps sets on the Registry, helped him with his collection.
"My brother gave me my 1958 [Topps] Banks card as a gift," said Wagner.
Wagner's collection also includes many rare Cubs cards, including some condition sensitive 1960s O-Pee-Chee singles.
"My favorite rare card is my PSA [NM-MT] 8, 1966 O-Pee-Chee Banks (#110)," he said. "I think there are nine PSA 8s of that card."
He also ranks his two PSA 8, 1965 O-Pee-Chee Ron Santo cards (#110) and a PSA 8, 1971 O-Pee-Chee Banks (#525) as highlights of his collection.
These days, Wagner is attempting to complete 1949 to 1955 Bowman Cubs team sets on the Registry.
"There are some really tough cards in those sets," he said. "I'm one card away on the 1955 Bowman set, but it has taken me 12 years to get down to this one card."
His Cubs collection also includes pennants, Wrigley Field seats, tickets, and autographs. Over the years, he has met Williams and Jenkins and narrowly missed out on meeting Banks.
"When I was little, my parents took me to a very expensive steakhouse, which they rarely did," shared Wagner. "And while we were there, my dad said, 'Turn around and look at the table behind us, but don't stare.' I turned around and there was Ernie Banks with his wife. Ernie saw me and smiled because he knew that I knew who he was because my eyes got huge. I said, 'Dad, can I go over there?' And my dad said, 'Don't go over there. They're having a meal. Don't disturb them.' I said, 'But dad!' I joked with my dad years later that I was a little kid and that he [Banks] would've forgiven me."
Wagner has enjoyed being a part of the PSA Set Registry community, and over the years, he attended PSA luncheons that were held at the National with his brother.
"I've enjoyed going to the Nationals and attending the PSA Set Registry luncheons and sitting with other collectors," he said. "I just find it fascinating."
He has met some fellow vintage Cubs Registry enthusiasts at these functions.
"At times, there can be a lot of competition for [vintage] Cubs cards," he said. "I think I got a lot of my cards before a lot of these people jumped in, which is good. I'm glad I've got what I've got and I'm always thankful for what I have."
He's also thankful for the time he spent collecting with his brother. Building Registry sets together helped the two brothers, who were born 14 years apart, form a deep bond.
"When DeWayne was in his hospital bed near the end of his life, I pulled up some of his Registry sets [on the computer screen] - because he uploaded images of every single card - and we looked at them together," recalled Wagner.
The 1956 Topps Baseball set was the one that meant the most to his brother.
"He managed to finish that set [on the Registry]," said Wagner. "And even though he has passed away, we have left his 1956 set up on the Registry."
For more information on trading cards featuring Chicago Cubs players, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/#13baseball-cards.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments. Thank you to Mark Wagner for providing the cards that accompany this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of June 2017.