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Mudville: July 19, 2024 6:45 am PDT

Who the Hell is John Wagner?

During World War II, production of baseball cards from major companies ground to a halt along with many non-essential businesses of the period. When it was time to return in 1948, Leaf threw down a spellbinding set to announce their grand return with authority.

The 98-card set looks like top-drawer, high school art class paint-by-number portraits of the game’s legends on a rainbow of different color solid backgrounds. It’s glorious. There’s a portrait of Satchel Paige sheepishly looking down against a bright yellow background, his blue and red Indians cap printed with little regard to staying in the lines.

There’s a forlorn Babe Ruth staring out at collectors against a sky consisting of tomato soup; his deep blue Yankee hat rests atop his head, but his trademark smile absent from his moon face. It’s a somber card, appropriate to the fact that the Babe subsequently died in August of that same year.

One of the set’s great mysteries is that although there are only 98 cards, the set is numbered to 168. Skeptics believe that Leaf wanted kids to believe they were missing cards so they would be roped into buying more packs.

Of all the fantastic cards in the set – and there are many – there is one that stands out as unique amongst the others, the masterpiece known as the 1948 Leaf Honus Wagner trading card.

Wagner had been retired for 31 years by 1948 but was still a coach with the Pirates at the ripe young age of 74. Leaf used a picture of Ruth in his younger days – but for Wagner, he looks every bit of 74 years old, or even older on this iconic piece of cardboard.

Even though there were no other coaches included in the set, the inclusion of Wagner’s card makes perfect sense. Including Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner was a fitting tribute to yesteryear as kids ripped packs looking for the wave of new young stars like Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson and Phil Rizzuto.

The card itself stands out as particularly thought provoking. Generally, other cards featured portraits of players with a few of them feigning actions like swinging a bat or following through with a phantom pitch, ball still in hand.

Wagner’s card is none of that. The card captures Wagner, seemingly caught off guard, about to load a gob of chew into his cheek. Looking at the card, you can imagine Wagner peering down at his pouch, grabbing a pinch and just as he looked up to put it in his mouth – catching a glimpse of the camera.

The husky Wagner most certainly looks as if he’s going to strangle the photographer the second he gets that wad packed in his cheek. It’s unlike any other image to ever appear on a card. Urban legend has it that the T206 Honus Wagner card is so rare because he objected to it being included with tobacco products, yet here’s the Flying Dutchman about to pack a fatty for the post-war youth.

There are two other strange things you’ll notice about the card at first glance. Wagner is dressed in his home greys, but the Pirates familiar black and yellow colors are replaced by a light blue. Unlike Ruth’s hat, which is propped up on top of a tuft of his Ruthian hair, Wagner’s blue Pirates hat looks about two sizes too small.

It’s only a quick trim away from being a Yarmulke.

The Pirates switched to black and yellow in 1948, so this would be one of the last cards to feature the blue and grey. Another thing that stands out is his name on the card. The real estate that the names were afforded on these cards is perhaps the largest of any set produced, and there in bold letters on a red panel it says “John Wagner.” Who the hell is John Wagner? Leaf didn’t put “George” on Babe Ruth’s card, although they did use Luke Appling’s full first name – Lucius – which is fantastic in its own right. But this was Honus Wagner, baseball royalty.

Call him Hans, Honus or even his given first name, Johannes. But Leaf went in their own creative direction. Either way, Leaf could have written whatever they wanted for Wagner’s name, and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference. This marvelous card is a visual headliner in one of the best sets you’ll ever see.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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