Known as the "White Border" set because of its most identifiable feature, this is indisputably the most desired set in the history of the hobby. Designated "T206" by Jefferson Burdick's American Card Catalog, it was issued over a period of three years in packages of cigarettes during a period of intense competition. The set has almost everything collectors could want: errors, variations, minor league cards, most Hall of Famers from the era, and scarce cards. It also contains the most valuable card in the hobby, the legendary Honus Wagner card. The demand for cards of this set is so great that many collectors specify that they will accept T206 cards in any condition, as long as most of the card is still intact!
The card fronts feature a color lithograph of a player surrounded by a white border. A few cards were printed in a horizontal format, but almost all of the 523 cards in the set were oriented vertically. Card backs do not contain any statistics; instead, an advertisement appears for the cigarette brand the card was packaged with. The cards were printed on sheets by one factory, and each brand was allowed to place its ad on the backs. There are sixteen different brands that issued these cards, with Sweet Caporal and Piedmont the most common. Other brands are Sovereign, American Beaty, Broadleaf, Cycle, Drum, Carolina Brights, El Principe de Gales, Hindu, Lenox, Old Mill, Polar Bear, Tolstoi, Ty Cobb and Uzit. Additionally, some blank-backed cards have been found.
According to Bill Heitman's excellent hobby book "The Monster," there are over two thousand different front/back combinations within the T206 set. With variations of some companies' back designs, there are over 30 different backs possible. No card can be found with all the different backs. One brand -- Ty Cobb -- can only be found on a single card, Cobb's own "red background" card.
Since the T206 set was issued over a period of years, there are some particulars here that are not found in other sets. In addition to the big league players found in the set, minor leaguers--from Houston to Providence, and Minneapolis to Atlanta--appear as well. The minor league players are harder to find than major leaguers because they were only printed for one year (1909) and were mainly distributed around their leagues' geographical area. Several players in this set are pictured with different poses (Ty Cobb had four, and Hal Chase had five, for example). A few players have cards with two different teams, to reflect a trade. The different poses and teams are noted in the checklist below.
Some of the hobby's scarcest card can be found in this set. One of Sherry Magee's cards shows his name spelled as "Magie." While most collectors see it as the most valuable error card in the hobby, others have noted that the "i" may have been the result of a printing flaw (there are several players with misspelled names in the set, but none were subsequently corrected, so there be some truth to that theory). Joe Doyle's "NY Nat'l" variation with Doyle's hand shown above his head is scarce. Legend has it that a shortage of Eddie Plank cards was caused by a broken printing plate; whatever caused the scarcity, Plank's Hall of Fame status has only helped the value of the card to rise.
That brings us to the Wagner card. No other card in the hobby (not even the 1952 Topps Mantle card) has generated as much excitement. There is a great deal of disagreement about why Wagner's card was removed from circulation. The story that has been used most often is that Wagner was against tobacco products and did not want his image used to help sell cigarettes. While that sounds like a noble cause to some collectors, to others it sounds like a latter-day version of the old George Washington/cherry tree story. These collectors insist Wagner had his card pulled because the American Tobacco Company did not pay him enough. Whatever reason the card was pulled, it has created the most sought-after card in the hobby.