Collecting, Researching, Pricing & Enjoying 'The Monster': An Analysis of the Baseball Card Set, Part One - Rarity and Pricing for the 16 Different Backs

Introduction

In response to increasing collector interest in the various back combinations for cards, beginning in the May 2015 issue of the SMR we will be publishing base "commons" prices for the 16 different back variations in the set. Keep in mind, when you tally all the players and all the back combinations, there are over 5,200 different cards! The following is the first in a multi-part series of articles in which the various aspects of this popular and challenging set of cards will be analyzed. A special thank you goes out to experts Pete Gustafson, David Hall, Scot Reader and Ted Zanidakis for sharing their knowledge and extensive research.

Joe Orlando
PSA President

It is generally accepted that the three most significant and avidly collected sets in the hobby are the baseball card sets of 1952 Topps, 1933 Goudey and the 1909-1911 American Tobacco Company T206 set.

The 1952 Topps is the most important post-war baseball set. It was the first large set for Topps. And the 407-card, 1952 Topps set includes 26 Hall of Famers from the late 1940s thru the 1950s and 1960s "golden era," including Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and the most famous and valuable post-war card, Mickey Mantle.

The 1933 Goudey set is the most significant set from the 1920-1945 era. This 240-card set includes a whopping 64 Hall of Famer cards, including four cards of Babe Ruth and two of Lou Gehrig. The set also includes one of the most famous baseball card rarities, the 1933 Goudey Lajoie.

Not to be outdone, the 1909-1911 T206 set includes 524 different player images/team changes and varieties. The T206 set features 38 individual Hall of Famers, with a total of 76 different Hall of Famer images, including four Ty Cobbs, four John McGraws, four Joe Tinkers, three Cy Youngs, three Christy Mathewsons and multiple images of many other Hall of Famers. And the T206 has the most famous and valuable of all sportscards, the Honus Wagner.

What sets the T206 set apart is that they were printed with 16 different tobacco brand backs. They were also printed in three distinct series: the first "150 Subjects" series, a second "350 Subjects" series and a final "460 Subjects" series. (Actually, it's even more complex than that as there are some series overlaps and differing time frames.)

Finally, there are different factories indicated and several different back colors. All told, there are over 5,200 different confirmed T206 player back combinations, with several new confirms added every year. Research experts estimate that the possible back variations represent a total of 5,753 possible individual cards. As of this writing, the actual number of confirmed backs, series and factory variations is 5,251.

With so many cards and back variations, there are a lot of different ways to collect this set. Of the 524 unique player images and team changes, there are 390 major leaguers and 134 minor leaguers. There are players from all 16 major league teams plus players from 14 minor league teams in the American Association and Eastern League, and 26 minor league teams from four different Southern leagues.

The most common way to collect the T206 set is to collect either the entire 524-card player set, or the 520 players minus the four ultra-expensive rarities: the Honus Wagner, Eddie Plank, Doyle N.Y. Nat'l variation and the Ty Cobb with the Ty Cobb back. In addition, there are many collectors who just focus on single favorite teams.

When the different backs and back variations are considered, there are literally hundreds of ways to collect and hundreds of different sets collectors are pursuing. Taking it a step further is collecting the entire 524-player set with all possible combinations of the 16 different brand backs - a daunting project indeed!

There are many collectors who pursue various individual brand back sets, for example building a complete set of T206 Hindu backs or Tolstoi backs, etc. One collector (Ted Zanidakis) has succeeded in putting together a complete set of all of the Sovereign backs by player and series - the only complete set we've ever heard of. Some back collectors are even more specialized and collect some of the more difficult back/series combinations, such as one collector we know working on a set of the Cycle 460 series cards.

Collecting T206 in various ways is like peeling layers of an onion. If one wants to go deeper into the T206 "onion," you can collect by back brand, series and factory. There are many people following this challenging road, including those who collect individual players with all possible back variations.

Robert Edward Auctions once auctioned the complete 16-card Charley O'Leary "hands on knees" back variation set. And would you believe there is one collector pursuing a complete back variation set of Cy Seymour? We know one major dealer/collector who is working on a complete set of Mike Donlin "batting" because, in his words, "It's my favorite card in the set." The coolest complete player back variation set - and the biggest - may be the complete 58-card Ty Cobb set.

One very popular way to collect complete back variations is to collect by team. We met one collector at a recent National show that was collecting a complete back variation set of the Indianapolis Indians. There are just five players in the Indianapolis set, but there are a total of 44 cards in the complete Indianapolis Indians back variation set.

We also know one collector who put together a near-complete set of Baltimore Orioles, a very tough set to finish. And there is one collector who works on the Boston Doves, the National League Boston team at the time, soon to change their name to the Braves and ultimately move to Atlanta.

Then there is the ultimate T206 collection - aptly called "The Monster." There are currently 5,251 confirmed different cards in the complete "Monster" T206 back variation set. This set has been called both "a lifetime project" and "impossible" by people who should know. Still, there are some people working on the complete set, and it's no secret in the hobby that the President of PSA's parent company Collectors Universe (David Hall) has acquired nearly 4,900 of the 5,251 cards during his now eight-year hunt.

Trying to amass a complete set of the 5,251 cards in the T206 "Monster" set may indeed be impossible. (Imagine owning 78 Drum backs as David Hall does and knowing you still had 72 more Drum backs to find and buy to have a complete Drum back set!) And note that a complete 5,251 back variation set would include three different Honus Wagners and four different Eddie Planks! You can see why this mega-set has been dubbed "The Monster." As far as we know, a complete 5,251 card set has never been completed.

And then there are the T206 "Oddities" collectors, a subject unto itself and perhaps the object for a future Sports Market Report (SMR) article. But enough said about series and factory (and back color) variations and collecting "The Monster."

With this article we are just going to focus on the 16 brand backs and their respective rarity and pricing. We have some exciting research to share with you, and we are of course excited about PSA posting back prices in the SMR, both online and in the monthly, printed version.

T206 Brand Back Rarity and Pricing

There are 16 different T206 cigarette brand backs. In alphabetical order: American Beauty, Broad Leaf, Carolina Brights, Cycle, Drum, El Principe De Gales, Hindu, Lenox, Old Mill, Piedmont, Polar Bear, Sovereign, Sweet Caporal, Tolstoi, Ty Cobb and Uzit. And they range from very common to ultra-rare. We have three very interesting pieces of research to present which shed light on the respective rarity of the T206 brand backs.

First, as of February 10, 2015, PSA has graded a total of 175,228 T206 cards. During the first few years of grading, PSA did not designate the back brands. Since PSA began designating back brands, it has graded 113,857 T206 cards. This is obviously a statistically significant sample size. By comparing the percentages of the back brands graded, we can get a fairly accurate picture of the relative rarity of the various brands, at least as it applies to the T206 cards graded by PSA.

We also have two other significant back brand data sets to present. During the past six years, T206 collector David Hall has made a study of every T206 card he has seen for sale in any auction or on eBay, a total of 90,314 cards. This survey includes not only PSA-graded cards, but also cards graded by other grading services and "ungraded" (i.e., raw) cards.

From 2008 to 2013, T206 expert and author Scot Reader collected data on 101,962 T206 cards for sale, similar to the Hall survey. Like the Hall survey, the Reader survey includes back brands for PSA, other grading services and raw cards, with a heavy focus on eBay offerings.

The PSA T206 back brand Population Report and the Hall and Reader T206 back brand surveys are somewhat different samples in terms of focus but of similar sample size. The striking thing about the three data sets is how similar the percentages of the 16 different back brands "seen" turn out to be.

The Reader survey shows the rarer backs as being somewhat less frequently seen than the Hall Survey and PSA-graded numbers. But considering Reader focused on eBay a little more than Hall and PSA would have a tendency to get the rarer (i.e. more expensive) cards submitted for grading, this seems understandable. Regardless, the three data sets give what we feel is quite consistent insight into the relative rarity of the T206 back brands.  See chart for the actual numbers of cards and the percentages.

T206 Backs Rarity Comparison

This is exciting research, and we feel these two data bases shed much light on the rarity and potentially the survival rates for the various T206 back brands. Now let's take a look at the individual back brands, using the three data bases above and the common knowledge of the many years of research conducted by many T206 enthusiasts and experts over the years. We'll discuss the back brands in approximate order of rarity.

The "Common" Backs

The two most common T206 backs are the Piedmont and Sweet Caporal brands. According to the PSA, Hall and Reader numbers, Piedmont and Sweet Caporal backs represent over 75% of the surviving T206 cards.

PiedmontPiedmont

Piedmont. By far the most common T206 back brand is the Piedmont, the flagship brand of the American Tobacco Company. According to the PSA, Hall and Reader data sets, over half of all T206 cards have a Piedmont back. Obviously, when it comes to pricing T206 back brand "commons," the common price is for Piedmont backs (also Sweet Caporals - see below).

But note that Piedmont backs come in four variations: Series 150, Series 350, Series 460 - factory 25 and Series 460 - factory 42. One of the variations, the Series 460 - factory 42, is considered a rarity and sells for a significant premium. And there are a few individual cards that are very rare, such as the twelve Series 350 "secret" (sort of) cards of players who were represented in the 150 Series; however, some were sent to the minors, retired or were traded, and consequently their cards were printed in the 350 series in extremely limited amounts. More about the various individual rarities in future articles.

Sweet CaporalSweet Caporal

Sweet Caporal. The second "common" back brand in the T206 set is the Sweet Caporal. According to the PSA, Hall and Reader numbers, if you see some T206 cards, the odds are that a little over one in four will have a Sweet Caporal back. Sweet Caporal backs also come in the most series and factory variations, a total of nine variations. Some of the variations, notably the factory 25s, are somewhat scarce and sell for modest premiums among the specialists. And there are some individual rarities.

The "Better" Backs

The next three backs to discuss in terms of rarity are the Old Mill, Polar Bear and Sovereign. They are considered "better backs" and sell for modest premiums over the prices for Piedmont and Sweet Caporal backs. According to the PSA, Hall and Reader numbers, each of these backs represent 4% to 5% of the surviving T206 backs.

Old MillOld Mill

Old Mill. Note that there are three variations for the Old Mill back: the major league player backs, the Southern (minor) League backs which have different wording than the major league player backs, and the extremely rare Southern League Old Mill brown lettering backs (almost all Old Mill Southern League backs have black lettering). Interestingly, for Old Mills, the cards seem to be either relatively common or very rare. There are a few player cards for which only a few Old Mill backs survive.

Polar BearPolar Bear

Polar Bear. About 5% of T206s have Polar Bear backs. They usually sell for small premiums over the Piedmont/Sweet Caporal "common back" price. Interestingly, Polar Bear tobacco was not sold in cigarette slide boxes as were the other brands; it was sold in pouches of raw tobacco for the "roll your own" crowd. So the Polar Bear back cards were included in the pouches with the raw tobacco. Consequently, T206 cards with Polar Bear backs often have tobacco stains, and while somewhat easy to obtain in lower grades, Polar Bear backs in higher grades (PSA NM 7s & PSA NM-MT 8s) are very rare.

SovereignSovereign

Sovereign. Sovereign backs are the scarcest of the three "better backs," though they are readily available in most grades. Sovereign backs are found in all three series: 150, 350 and 460, with the 350 being the most common and the 460 the scarcest. In addition, Series 350 Sovereigns come in two different colors: forest green and apple green.

The "Scarce" Backs

There are five T206 back brands that are definitely scarce: American Beauty, Cycle, El Principe De Gales, Hindu and Tolstoi. They sell for a premium over the Piedmont/Sweet Caporal price and definitely more than the Old Mill-Polar Bear-Sovereign "better back, common" price. Of the five, Hindu backs are the rarest, and El Principe De Gales backs are marginally the least scarce. Each of these backs represent approximately 1% to 1.5% of the surviving T206 cards.

American BeautyAmerican Beauty

American Beauty. There are three types of American Beauty backs: the 350 Series with frame, 350 Series without frame and the 460 Series. The 350 Series with frame is approximately two to three times more prevalent than the other two.

CycleCycle

Cycle. Cycle backs have two series: 350 and 460. The Cycle 460 series is about three times as rare as the Cycle 350 series, and the 460 series is quite popular with T206 back collectors.

El PrincipeEl Principe

El Principe De Gales. EPDGs (as they are known in the T206 collector community) are slightly more available than the other four "Scarce backs," and they come in only one variation. Note that there was recently a find of several hundred, very nice EPDGs which have been and will be sold at auction, to the great pleasure of many T206 back collectors.

HinduHindu

Hindu. The Hindu back is the rarest of the five "scarce backs." And of the five, Hindus are by far the hardest to find in high grades. It even gets better, as there are two very distinct varieties of Hindu: the Brown Hindu and the very rare Red Hindu. There are no players that have both Brown and Red Hindu backs. So the Hindu back for a player is either Brown or Red.

There have been two recent finds for Red Hindus in the past few years, one auctioned by SCP Auctions and one auctioned by Heritage. The finds included four Red Hindu Ty Cobbs, bringing the total known figure for Red Hindu Cobbs to six (an estimate obviously).

TolstoiTolstoi

Tolstoi. Tolstoi backs are definitely scarce. Like the EPDGs there is only one type of Tolstoi back.

The Rare Backs

There are two T206 backs that are true rarities: Broad Leaf and Carolina Brights. Of the 113,455 T206 back brands graded and designated by PSA, only 231 have been Broad Leafs and just 267 were Carolina Brights.

Broad LeafBroad Leaf

Broad Leaf. Broad Leaf back T206s are very rare and very avidly sought by T206 collectors. There are two types of Broad Leafs: the 350 Series and the ultra-rare 460 Series. Only a handful of players are known with Broad Leaf 460 backs, and most are one of a kind. Broad Leaf 460s sell for between $5,000 and $15,000 depending on the player, and almost all very low grade. And note that PSA has never graded a T206 Broad Leaf of either series higher than PSA EX-MT 6.

Carolina BrightsCarolina Brights

Carolina Brights. Like the Broad Leaf, the Carolina Brights back is very rare. And like the Broad Leaf, PSA has never graded a Carolina Brights higher than PSA 6. There is only one type of Carolina Brights back.

The Extremely Rare Backs

There are three T206 back brands that are major rarities: Drum, Lenox and Uzit. For Lenox, only 162 have been graded by PSA, while there have been a mere 108 Drums and 106 Uzits graded by PSA. Each of these extremely rare backs represent just one-tenth of one percent (approximately) of the total T206 backs graded and designated by PSA!

LenoxLenox

Lenox. There are two types of this extremely rare back: the black letters and the ultra-rare brown letters. For the brown letters, only a handful are known, and most are one of a kind.

DrumDrum

Drum. Drum backs are arguably the most famous of the T206 backs. There is an on-going debate as to which is rarest, Drum or Uzit. When all is said and done, they are very close in rarity, and both are extremely rare in any grade. To date, 150 different player images that have Drum backs have been identified, including Ty Cobb - red portrait, Walter Johnson - hands at chest and Christy Mathewson - dark cap. There are numerous one-of-a-kind Drum backs and many for which just two or three survivors are known. One of the most famous T206 back finds was the "St. Louis find" of 32 Drum backs which was auctioned in 2009.

UzitUzit

Uzit. Though for some reason Uzit backs haven't had the notoriety of the Drum backs, they are definitely as rare. And note that  a mere 55 player images are confirmed to exist with a Uzit back, the most coveted being the Ty Cobb - bat off shoulder. Both Uzits and Drum backs are ultra-rare in high grade. In 2014, the only known Uzit back graded PSA 8 (Hooks Wiltse - portrait with cap) sold for $22,818 at auction.

The Ultra Rarity

Ty CobbTy Cobb

Ty Cobb. There is one T206 back brand that stands above all others, the Ty Cobb with the "Ty Cobb Tobacco" back. It is the Ty Cobb red portrait image and approximately 15 or less are known to exist, all in low grades. There is a bit of controversy about this back as some enthusiasts feel it really isn't part of the T206 set, and experts have differing opinions. Either way, it is Ty Cobb, it is the rarest T206 back brand and it is definitely one of the most famous baseball card rarities.

Survival Rates

One of the most controversial research projects is the attempt to estimate the actual survival rate for T206 cards and backs. How many T206 cards survive today? And how many survive for each of the different player images and back combinations? Of course, this is an area that is just expert estimates (some would say "speculation"), but the T206 set is probably the most thoroughly researched of all sportscard sets and many experts have spent decades analyzing this set.

We have compiled our estimate for T206 survival rates per back brand. Our estimate is based on PSA grading numbers, years of discussions with other experts and our many years of personal experience. That said, see chart for our estimated "low" and "high" survival range numbers.

T206 Survival Range Estimate

This concludes our brief discussion of T206 brand backs and their rarity. We are listing this as a "Part One" article. We plan on presenting more detailed discussions of the various backs and back variations in future articles. Now let's talk about pricing.

Pricing T206 Back Brands

PSA has recently begun designating all of the series, factory and color variations for the T206 back brands (see the PSA Population Report). With this issue of the SMR, we are pricing the "commons" for the 16 different T206 back brands. Note that these are prices for the non-Hall of Famers. Obviously Hall of Famers, stars and rare varieties sell for premiums. And these prices are for the most common variation of the specific back.

Future plans include enhancing the pricing for back variations (a big task, but we're working on it), and of course, we'll add the popular back brand "sets" to the PSA Set Registry. The following initial T206 back brand prices are based on auction results and input from T206 experts. We hope enjoy your T206 collecting, and as always, we welcome your comments, suggestions and questions.

T206 Pricing

To learn more about the T206 set, please visit www.PSAcard.com/cardfacts/. Click here for a direct link to the T206 page.