Using History to Build History

Oceansider shares rarest baseball card for Schoolhouse Green fundraiser

By Joseph Kellard

The 1909 Honus Wagner is considered the "Mona Lisa of baseball cards." (Credit: Wikicommons)

The 1909 Honus Wagner is considered the "Mona Lisa of baseball cards." (Credit: Wikicommons)

People suggested that he was foolish, that he should have just pocketed the valuable, sold it and never told a soul.

But soon after Keith Pearsall found the Honus Wagner baseball card that once belonged to his grandfather, considered the winning lottery ticket of baseball cards, he shared the good news with his family, and next month will share it in a fund-raiser for the Oceanside community.  

When Pearsall and his sister, Susan Farrell, moved their grandfather's belongings from their parents' Rockville Centre home in 1992, an old box fell apart in Pearsall's hands. Out spilled bunches of cards bearing pictures of turn-of-the-century actors, battleships, flags of nations and sports figures. Among them was the gem: a 1909 Honus Wagner card.

Wagner played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and is considered the greatest shortstop of his time. A contemporary and bitter rival of Ty Cobb, Wagner was a charter member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

While never as famous as Cobb or Babe Ruth, Wagner's card is the most valuable because it is so rare. A devout Quaker and teetotaler, Wagner disapproved of smoking and would not allow his image to be marketed by tobacco companies, which at the time were the only makers of baseball cards. There are perhaps a dozen of his cards still in existence. The card reads simply, "Wagner, Pittsburgh," and on its back, instead of statistics, is an ad for Caporal Tobacco.

Pearsall's eyes grew larger as he recalled reading that hockey great Wayne Gretzky had purchased the same card a year before for $451,000.

"My sister and I looked at each other, laughed and said, we don't have that kind of luck," Pearsall joked. "We probably have Robert Wagner."

Pearsall took his find to Doubleheader Baseball Cards & Memorabilia in Oceanside, and the owner, Norm Siegal, declared the card authentic.

In addition to finding the Wagner, known as the "Mona Lisa of baseball cards" and "The King of cards," Pearsall found cards of three other charter Hall of Famers, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Cobb. He keeps all four preserved in Lucite holders in a safe deposit box.

Not only did other dealers try to con him into believing his Wagner card was counterfeit, but Pearsall had to deal with others telling him he should have secretly sold it and banked the money.

Pearsall took his card for appraisal to the Smithsonian, Christie's and the Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as to Danny McDermott, who popularized the hobby of baseball card collecting, and Barry Helper, a notable memorabilia collector.

Soon after he found the Wagner card, Pearsall was interviewed by various media outlets, including Sports Collectors Digest, Bloomberg News and Charles Kuralt's CBS radio show, the last of which was heard by a sick boy who, through the Baltimore-based Grant-A-Wish Foundation, asked to meet Pearsall and see his Wagner card. His wish was granted.

"The boy could have asked to have seen John Glenn or Ronald Reagan," Pearsall said, "and I work for the Town of Hempstead. I'm a civil servant, a regular guy, and I just happen to have hit the lottery in a unique form."

Recognizing that rare baseball cards attract many avid collectors, Pearsall decided to display the card at various events to raise money for causes he supported. The most memorable showing, and the one that drew the greatest crowd, was for the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, when 1,000 people an hour came to view his Wagner card, including baseball greats Willie Mays and Jim Palmer.

"Willie Mays danced with my mother that night, and told me, 'You know, I knew Honus Wagner,'" Pearsall recalled with excitement. "So I said, 'But I don't have one of your cards.'"

Pearsall will take his Wagner and other cards out of his safe deposit box — his insurance company requires that he routinely switch the card from one bank to another and that armed security accompany him to certain events — to display them for a cause in his hometown. The Student Council at School 5 will host a memorabilia fundraiser at School 6 on June 12. The proceeds will benefit the Schoolhouse Green, a project dedicated to building a replica of Oceanside's first schoolhouse on the property of former School 1 on Foxhurst Road, which will serve as a historical center for the town.

The project was originated by Oceansiders Betsy and Bob Transom, and Pearsall has been part of it since its inception.

"When they started to organize the Schoolhouse green," he said, "I told them from day one we have this card to do fund-raisers. If we'd go to Baltimore to do it, we'd certainly go to Merle Avenue. If it could help, we'll be there."

* This story originally appeared in the Oceanside/Island Park Herald in 2004.