There are only 60 Honus Wagner baseball cards left in the world, ESPN estimates, and the last time one went to market—in Aug. 2021—it sold for $6.6 million, becoming the most expensive sports card ever purchased.
That Wagner card, however, had never been a part of 1990s celebrity sports kitsch history, nor had it ever been the subject of a presidential pardon. But next month, an auction opens for a truly one-of-a-kind Honus Wagner baseball card with a backstory story that’s as utterly bizarre as the cardboard item is precious.
“[This card] is known in the hobby as ‘the Charlie Sheen All Star Café Honus Wagner,’ and is a celebrity of its own,” said Brian Drent, president of the Mile High Card Company, which will be managing the card’s auction.
The origins of the T206 Honus Wagner card begin with the player himself. Wagner, born John Peter Wagner, began his 21-year Major League Baseball career in 1897, playing mostly with his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. “The Flying Dutchman,” as the shortstop was nicknamed, won eight National League Batting titles and was among the first players inducted into the Hall of Fame. But before his legacy was enshrined as a Hall of Famer in 1936, it was put to print in 1909 when his image was plastered on baseball cards.
The cards were only printed for two years, making them a treasure for collectors, including the actor Charlie Sheen. An avid baseball fan, Sheen owned a prized Wagner card in the 1990s when he was recruited to help open the All Star Cafe, a burgeoning culinary enterprise in New York.
“[It was] a sports-themed restaurant, like basically a sports bar on steroids,” Drent told The Daily Beast. Planet Hollywood initiated the concept and recruited celebrity investors like Wayne Gretzky, Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, and Ken Griffey Jr. and Shaquille O’Neal.
The high-profile sports bar launched in the heart of Times Square in 1995. According to Sports Illustrated, the restaurant was 34,000 square feet and welcomed Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then real-estate tycoon Donald J. Trump, Stevie Wonder, Whoopi Goldberg, and, of course, Charlie Sheen to its opening night. Diners sat in baseball glove booths while surrounded by precious sports memorabilia—autographed jerseys, iconic pennants, used-bats, and at least one inimitably rare baseball card: Sheen’s Wagner.
Alongside the celebrity investors and patrons, the All Star employees took notice of just how remarkable it was to have such a precious item within reach.
Thomas Gartland, All Star’s executive chef, admitted to Sports Illustrated in 2020 that “jealousy” and “greed” prompted him and his fellow coworkers began scheming to snatch the card. After fabricating a look-a-like, the restaurant bandits swapped Sheen’s Wagner for a fake in 1998. Gartland’s nephew, Benny Ramos, helped by delivering the contraband to a collector who bought it for $18,000.
“I should have known better,” Ramos told SI decades later. “I knew it was wrong.”
The swindlers may have gotten away with the scheme had the heist satiated their greed. According to SI, a month after swiping the Wagner, they tried pilfering more of Sheen’s loaned memorabilia from the cafe and were eventually caught.
The band of thieves pleaded guilty to felonies, which followed them long after the All Star Cafe closed its doors in 2007, and after Charlie Sheen sold off his recovered Wagner in 2001 for $75,000, a record at the time. But nearly 20 years after the simple Wagner card became “the Charlie Sheen All Star Café Honus Wagner,” President Barack Obama came across Ramos’ request to have his felony dropped—and granted the All Star thief a presidential pardon.
As for the card, Drent told The Daily Beast, “We’re expecting it to sell in the in the $3 million range.” The auction begins on March 10 and the digital gavel will drop March 31.
Greed isn’t compelling the Wagner’s transfer this time, though. The anonymous seller, who Drent would only describe as a business executive in Oklahoma who bought the card for $400,000 more than a decade ago, is donating the proceeds to the Boys and Girls club of Oklahoma.