Nowadays, the first person to sell a baseball card for more than $1 million prefers to collect the original paintings to MAD Magazine and things like refrigerator magnets, small toys, and matchbooks. He hasn’t bought a baseball card in 27 years, just after he bought the most famous copy of the most famous baseball card: the PSA 8 T206 Honus Wagner.
Michael Gidwitz is full of encyclopedic energy about his collection, recalling things he bought at local card shows and shops in the 1960s when he was a teenager. His memories are also a stream of consciousness, hitting on key moments in his life, partly defined by his involvement in the hobby.
A copy of the T206 Honus Wagner.
Gidwitz wanted to buy the Wagner in 1991 but was outbid by Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky when it sold for $451,000. He was OK being outbid then, setting a limit at $400,000 when he thought his biggest competition would come from one of his hobby friends.
“I was the 800-pound gorilla,” he said. “It took someone from outside the hobby to beat me.”
But when the opportunity arose again in 1996, Gidwitz made sure to come out on top. This time, he had more money and he was willing to pay up to $1 million.
With an eventual winning bid of $640,000, Gidwitz considered it a bargain. The card had gone up by $190,000 in five years since the previous auction, but it had the added provenance of once being owned by The Great One.
“I bought the Wagner card because if you go to a museum and ask them, ‘What’s the best painting?’ Some might say it’s The Mona Lisa or The Last Supper,” Gidwitz says. “For baseball cards, it was this Honus Wagner card, and I owned it. How many times can you say you owned the best?”
Image courtesy of Mike Gidwitz.
Gidwitz had reached the pinnacle of card collecting. He was the man. He had accumulated a pretty impressive collection up to that point, but nothing could top the Wagner. He’d have people visit his Chicago condo to check out his collection and view the famous T206. It was the Mona Lisa of trading cards, and for a while, his condo was the Louvre.
“You buy the card, you’re happy, you want to show people,” he said.
But some of the people he invited proved to be poor guests.
“People are stealing [stuff] out of my apartment when they’re coming over. Stuff’s missing!” he says emphatically. “Who’s putting [stuff] in their pockets?”
All four versions of Babe Ruth from the 1933 Goudey set were stolen. He’s still missing a pristine Hank Aaron rookie card. Then, he had the worst possible thought: what if someone stole the Wagner?
“I didn’t feel comfortable having that in my house, so I removed it and had to put it in a safety deposit box,” he said. “If I wanted to look at it, I had to plan a day ahead. You gotta be so careful that it takes the fun out. It’s a rose with thorns on it.”
In 2000, after four years of holding Wagner, of which it spent most of its time in a box, Gidwitz was looking to sell. A year earlier, he saw a game-used Mickey Mantle glove sold for $239,000 at auction, so he knew he could sell the T206 for $1 million.
Gidwitz auctioned the card through Robert Edward Auctions, gaining national - and even global - attention for the historic bidding that would ensue. He was interviewed by every media outlet, and he got to show off more of his collection. The final hammer price was $1.27 million, nearly double what he paid four years earlier.
“I figured if I could be the first guy to sell a baseball card for $1 million, that’s good enough,” he says. “Because you can’t mention the history of baseball cards without mentioning me selling it for $1 million.”
He used the money to start buying original MAD Magazine artwork. He enjoyed the art, thought they were good investments, and he got close to many of the artists who created the covers. It’s a passion he continues today.
“After I sold the Wagner, it’s not the same,” Gidwitz said. “What are you going to do next? You know what I mean? You move on.”
He also became disillusioned with the industry. He could see then, more than two decades ago, that it wasn’t like it used to be when he would go to card shows in the ‘70s in Chicago.
“This was before there were any guidebooks or anything like that. It was like the Wild, Wild West,” he laughs. “It was just nuts. The standard uniform was just guys in white undershirts. They looked like mechanics that came from a car shop. It’s like a freak show, each guy worse than the next.”
Pez dispensers that Gidwitz enjoys collecting.
Not only had prices skyrocketed, but he also saw more alarming trends. He noticed big dealers - many well-known - getting real good at restoring cards or having others fix them. In the 1980s and 90s, he spent a lot of money on mint cards, only to find out they were trimmed. When grading became more prevalent he likened restoration to baseball's steroid era, “just about everyone was doing it.”
He saw graders at the time – who were also card dealers – buying cards at shows and, he was told, switching them at work. He knew of people with access to graders who would influence a card’s grade.
“I saw that and wanted out. The nature of the collector changed,” Gidwitz says. “There were so many reasons to move on, and I just wanted to have fun. If you go back to the old days, any of the guys from back then will tell you they never saw mint cards. A lot of cards have been altered.”
Ever the collector, Gidwitz enjoys collecting small toysand Pez dispensers.
Gidwitz lives in Brazil most of the year, but still has an office and apartment in Chicago. He has a business, preciouspaper.com, where he has a catalog of items for sale, all of which he picked up over time. The catalog also includes baseball cards and memorabilia, non-sports, MAD Magazine original art, and comic art, to name a few.
“When you find collectors, very few people have had as much fun as I have,” he says. “I had fun buying the stuff, collecting it, and now I’m going to have fun selling it. Besides, you’re only borrowing this stuff. You’re either going to sell it, or you’re going to pass it down.”
He’s going to move in the beginning of 2025 to a new office in Chicago. He wants people to know he’s looking to move uncut sheets of Topps, Fleer, and Donruss baseball spanning from 1981-1985. He started collecting uncut sheets because he felt they would be more difficult to alter, unlike what he saw happening to the cards.
Gidwitz’s preciouspaper.com site features sport and non-sport collectibles.
Now, Gidwitz is happily adding magnets to adorn his refrigerator. Every so often, friends will send him matchbooks. His collection of Pez dispensers are displayed all over his house in Brazil. He’s also actively seeking original MAD Magazine artwork, which he started collecting after selling the Wagner.
“Buy what you love,” he advises any collector. “People can collect anything. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s the thrill of finding something new - that you didn’t even know exists.”
For four years, Gidwitz owned the greatest baseball card on Earth. Like an athlete in their prime, Gidwitz was at the apex of collecting. But like every athlete, their prime lasts only so long. And so too came his time as the top baseball collector in the world. He wants people to know the best part of the hobby has always been the people he met along the way, even if some betrayed him.
He tells me he considers me a friend, and I consider him one too.
Now, he’s waiting for some magnets from Beijing and Singapore that a friend is bringing him.
“You just want to have fun,” he says.