Phoenix Art Museum Hits a Home Run with Rarest Cards in Baseball History

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Visual Arts Issue: March 2016

Hank Aaron card / Courtesy Ken Kendrick, Phoenix Art MuseumOnce a children’s hobby, collecting baseball cards has become as much a National Pastime as the game itself. The first cards were created in the mid-19th century, with tobacco companies later including cards with their products to seduce buyers into purchasing enough smokes to complete the set. Kids got in on the action when cards started appearing in chewing gum packages around the time of the Great Depression.

The Holy Grail of baseball cards is the T206 Honus Wagner, produced by the American Tobacco Company from 1909-1911. Company execs pulled the card at Wagner’s request shortly after it was issued (he didn’t want kiddies to get hooked on tobacco just to get his card). Less than 200 were produced, and few Americans will ever see one in person. But baseball fans can get an eyeful of the most expensive piece in sports trading card history at Phoenix Art Museum’s special exhibition, The Ultimate Collection: Iconic Baseball Cards from the Diamondbacks Collection.

The exhibit features more than 40 highly prized sports cards from the private collection of Arizona Diamondbacks managing general partner Earl G. “Ken” Kendrick, including a Bowman 1954 Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle ‘s Topps rookie card and one lone basketball card: a 1986 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan.

Kendrick started gathering trading cards as a youngster growing up in West Virginia; he later learned that his mother had saved his once-prized collection from the trash bin after his interest waned. “When I see these cards today, it makes me think back to my youth and most of all, it makes me remember my father, listening to games together on the radio, and sometimes traveling to see Reds games in Cincinnati,” says Kendrick. “Today, these cards represent a legacy for my own children.”

Kendrick’s legacy is a solid investment. His version of the T206 Honus Wagner, also owned by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky at one point, was purchased for a record $2.8M in 2007—making it the most expensive sports card purchase of all time. The second and third most desirable cards are worth around a half-million each, with Kendrick’s collection boasting 16 out of 20 top-ranked cards in the world. It’s crazy to think that a childhood pastime originating with 50-cent chewing gum packs is worth millions today.

“The Ultimate Collection” is on display through April 24 at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave., to coincide with Cactus League Spring Training games around the Valley. Tickets are $8 with General Admission purchase (total of $23 for adults, $20 for seniors, $18 students and $14 for kids 6-17).