Baseball Greats: Wagner vs. Williams

Whether you buy baseball cards fanatically or you’re just a casual baseball fan, you likely know the names Ted Williams and Honus Wagner. They are, without doubt, two of the greatest players to ever don a major-league uniform. But they played in different eras and achieved different accomplishments.

Ted Williams vs Honus WagnerComparing these two giants — and they were both big men for their time — is therefore fraught with difficulties. But a few statistics are known:

  • Williams is tied for 20th on the all-time list of career home run leaders with 521. When he retired, he was third on the list behind Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx.
  • Wagner ranks 10th, even today, in career stolen bases with 723. When he retired, he was third on the list.
  • Williams finished with the most bases on balls in eight different seasons, twice reaching 162 walks in a single season. He is 4th on the all-time list.
  • Wagner was not a home run hitter, as few were in his era, but he is 9th all-time with 643 doubles.

Great Players, Great Teams

If you’re a baseball fan, you probably buy baseball cards and follow the standings every year. You may know, for instance, that the Boston Red Sox — Williams’ team — won the World Series in 2004 after 86 years of frustration. That included 1946, the only year Williams played in the Series. His team lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Williams hit only .200 in that Series.

Wagner, on the other hand, led his team to two World Series. The first, in 1903, was an eight-game loss to the Boston Red Sox, who were the dominant team of that decade. The second was a seven-game win over the Detroit Tigers, a matchup that pitted Wagner’s Pirates against Ty Cobb’s Tigers. Wagner hit .333 with two doubles, a triple, and six stolen bases.

Uneven Comparisons

While some statistics are evident when you buy baseball cards — just look on the back! — others aren’t so easy to decipher. For example, Wagner played mostly shortstop, one of the most demanding defensive positions in baseball. Williams, meanwhile, played left field and played it rather absentmindedly, according to some.

Even though Williams is considered one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, who would you rather build a team around? Williams was a fearsome slugger, but Wagner anchored his team both in the field and with the bat. Defense matters in baseball.

Meaningful Statistics

It may be difficult to compare players across eras, even when you buy baseball cards of theirs, but comparing them in context to their competition may work. For example, Wagner led his league in hitting eight times, while Williams led his only six times. Williams, of course, was the last hitter to bat .400 for a full season (.406 in 1941). In Wagner’s best season, though, he hit .381, which isn’t too bad.

Over a five-year span, Wagner stole 50-plus bases every year, reaching 61 once. He averaged 42 steals (and 100 RBIs) per 162 games over his career. Then again, Williams recorded over 100 RBIs in nine of his first 10 seasons. He averaged 37 home runs and 130 RBIs per 162 games over his career. Both players walked more than they struck out, but Williams (2.85 walks per strikeout) did it better than Wagner (2.26).

In Comparison

This blog has compared baseball players before:

It’s a difficult balancing act, even though baseball allows for these types of debates. While Williams was a tremendous hitter, he missed all or most of five seasons to combat duty. Wagner, meanwhile, was a model of consistency, only once failing to hit .300 in the seasons before he turned 40 years old — he hit .299 in his second season.

When you buy baseball cards, the most valuable aren’t always of the greatest players. Wagner’s face graces the most sought-after card in card collecting history, the T206 that sold for more than $3 million. Williams’ rookie card has sold for more than $200,000.

Odd Cuts and Gum Stains

Baseball cards and other sports cards are always in danger of being damaged. They are naturally fragile products, since most — especially the older, more valuable cards — are made of pressed paper and ink. Everyone knows paper is fragile: it bends, absorbs liquid and is subject to any number of indignities.

For example, the square edges of cards can get nicked. You may find an odd fold or crease in the card. If the cards are old enough or haven’t been protected well enough, you may see cards with humidity stains, thumb prints, food stains or even cup ring stains!

Packaged Problems

Then there are the cards that were imperfect from the start. Card companies still sell baseball cards that are imperfect. They print cards in vast sheets. Those sheets are cut into individual cards that go into packs. While they’re better at it now, years ago, those cuts weren’t always accurate, leaving cards that are the right size, but with cuts that are past the normal borders.

Back in the days when companies sold baseball cards with tobacco or bubble gum, many cards — well, one per pack, at least — came out of the package with stains. Gum stains are the most common type of packaging stain, but you may also find cards with glue stains, smeared ink or a double image.

Intentional Manipulation

Unscrupulous dealers or individuals may try to alter a card’s appearance when they sell baseball cards to deceive buyers. Some of the ways that people purposefully manipulate sports cards include:

  • Fixing corners, to make them sharper
  • Bleaching, to hide stains or other marks
  • Restoring color, to make the card look less worn
  • Removing stains, to improve its appearance using chemicals
  • Cutting edges, to clean up the corners and edges to make the card look cleaner

Most manipulations leave trace evidence that the fix was made. Corners or edges look as if they haven’t aged with the rest of the card. Bleach leaves a funny smell. New color doesn’t match the original and bleeds. Grading experts can usually tell when a card has been doctored. Whether you buy or sell baseball cards, have the card authenticated by a professional service. Then you’ll know its true value.

What to Do About Defects

All sports cards are rated 1 to 10, which reflects the condition of the card. A PR-FR-1 grade means the card is poor to fair in quality, with worn edges, scratches or stains. On the other end of the scale is a GEM-MT-10 rating or gem mint, which is a card in perfect condition.

If you’re looking to sell baseball cards, defects decrease the value of your cards. Every defect, whether print-related or age-related, reduces the value of the card — and doesn’t matter if the card depicts Hank Aaron or Paul Zuvella. You’d best accept the card condition as it is, because trying to fix the problems can destroy any value your cards have.

Leave Them Alone!

Every defect drops a card’s grade two points or more, depending on the defect. An otherwise perfect card that was printed off-center (a packaged problem) will never be graded as a GEM-MT-10. You can say the same for a clean-looking card that shows evidence of cut edges.

While new technologies have emerged that purport to make undetectable card repairs, they haven’t been embraced by all card collecting hobbyists. You risk any value your card holds if you subject it to any kind of repair. Before you sell baseball cards, just keep them clean and properly stored to protect them — that’s the most you should do.