Tobacco Road

Dustin Whittenburg is collecting some of the most prized baseball cards in the world

Published in 2023 Texas Super Lawyers magazine

By Erik Lundegaard on September 15, 2023


Beware of what you don’t let your kids do.

Dustin Whittenburg grew up in the 1980s in the Texas Panhandle, just outside of Amarillo, playing football. “That’s in the heart of Friday Night Lights country,” he says with a verbal shrug. “Everybody plays football.”

He also collected cards, but leaned toward baseball more than football. “I always liked the history of baseball,” he explains. “And back then they would have card shows. eBay didn’t exist. Online auctions didn’t exist. People would sell baseball cards from town to town at conventions, and sometimes when a convention came through, I would get my dad to take me.”

I remember my dad telling me, ‘Oh, those aren’t worth anything. Don’t invest your money in baseball cards.’

Dustin S. Whittenburg

Which is where he first encountered the T206 set: 524 cards issued between 1909 and 1911 through 16 tobacco companies, with the idea, Whittenburg says, “to entice children to use tobacco.” That collection featured players from the minor leagues, Southern leagues, and the Major Leagues, including future Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. The less famous Major League players in the set are known to collectors simply as “the commons.”

“At that time, you could buy the commons of the T206 set for between $15 and $25 a card,” Whittenburg says. But his father warned him off. “I remember my dad telling me, ‘Oh, those aren’t worth anything. Don’t invest your money in baseball cards. Just forget about it.’”

Those cards, it turns out, continued to grow in value and Whittenburg didn’t forget about them. He now owns more than 70% of the T206 set. What got him back into collecting as an adult, though, was less correcting a missed childhood opportunity than the vagaries of his profession.

With a master’s degree in accounting, Whittenburg went to law school with the idea of becoming a tax lawyer. “And then life happened,” he says. “You find yourself in a practice area that you might never have thought you would be doing.”

For him, that was toxic torts, for which he studied to come up to speed. “You start to learn about asbestos and tobacco products,” he says—including, he adds, those early days of enticing kids to use tobacco through trading cards. Curious, he went online and bought a few. “And that’s when I started collecting a fully graded set.”

His collection isn’t limited to American sports. He goes after cards featuring cricket players, silent movie stars and cars. “To know a society,” he says, “you have to know their entertainment.”

His main focus, the “white border” T206 baseball cards, he jokingly refers to as the original Bitcoin. “There aren’t a whole lot of them, and they’re really hard to fake,” he says. “The pictures were actually lithographs, and it’s hard for modern-day printers to duplicate those small lithographs with that card stock. … You’ve never seen those cards go down in value.”

Now a tax attorney with an eponymous firm in San Antonio, Whittenburg doesn’t take long getting into the numbers. His cards are graded by Professional Sports Authenticator, one of the four main grading authorities, and he is No. 63 on its leaderboard of more than 130,000 users. “The way you get there, you have to hit certain goals,” he explains. “You have to have a set of each sport—basketball, hockey, baseball and football. … Forty-five hundred points is all of the points you can get. And I was the 63rd person to get 4,500 points.” Meaning he can’t get any higher? “No,” he says. “Unless they change the system.”

His T206 collection, he stresses, does not include the set’s four most highly valued cards. Two of those are “error” cards that were quickly corrected. Joe Doyle was listed with the wrong New York team, while Sherry Magee’s name was misspelled “Magie.” The others are Hall of Famers: Eddie Plank and Honus Wagner. “I don’t know why the Eddie Plank card is so rare, but it is,” he says. As for Wagner? “There’s a theory that Honus Wagner did not want to encourage kids to use tobacco; so after they printed a certain number of his cards, he told them to stop using his image.” Ironically, that move simply made his card more desirable. Last year, a T206 Wagner card sold at auction for $7.25 million. Other than Mickey Mantle’s rookie card, it is the most valuable card in the world.

“There are certainly less than 100 known Honus Wagner cards from this set out there,” Whittenburg says. He has no plans to buy one soon.

Whittenburg also collects other types of sports memorabilia, including baseballs autographed by teams ranging from the 1929 New York Yankees to the 1990 Atlanta Braves. “Everybody has to have a hobby,” he says. “It’s better than running up bar tabs, right?”

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