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Baltimore Nuns Blessed By A Pittsburgh Baseball Icon

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Honus Wagner baseball card

A framed T206 Honus Wagner baseball trading card sold to a private collector for $2.8 million in 2007. A creased, clipped and laminated Wagner card given to a nun at the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore sold at auction this week for $262,000. Kathy Willens/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Willens/AP

What makes something valuable?

An order of nuns in Baltimore is almost a quarter of a million dollars richer this week because of an old baseball card.

The brother of a nun of the School Sisters of Notre Dame died early this year, leaving an old baseball card in his safe deposit box clipped with a note: "Although damaged, the value of this baseball card should increase exponentially throughout the 21st Century!"

It was a 1909 Honus Wagner card. Mr. Wagner — a Pittsburgh Pirate and one of the first members of the Baseball Hall of Fame — was renowned for his grace and kidded for his barrel-legged physique.

But what makes his 1909 T206 baseball card more valuable than gold, inch for inch, is that only about 60 are known to exist.

Mr. Wagner stopped the American Tobacco Co. from putting his baseball card into mass production. Some biographers say he objected to putting a child's plaything in a pack of cigarettes. Others say he wanted more money for the use of his face and name than the $10 the company offered.

Wayne Gretzky, the Hall of Fame hockey player, once owned a mint-condition T206 Wagner card that sold for $2.8 million, more than most diamonds. The Wagner card stored in the safe deposit box was creased, clipped and laminated, but still sold at auction this week for $262,000.

"Heavenly days!" Sister Muller of the Sisters of Notre Dame told The Baltimore Sun. "I just couldn't imagine it. I had never even heard of Honus Wagner!"

The sisters may light candles for Honus Wagner now.

The nuns say money from the sale will help support their teaching missions around the world. It is impossible not to be happy for them, and the good that money will do.

But in a time of economic anxiety, it's hard not to ask: What makes an old baseball card, of all things, worth so much money?

It's one of just 60, but it's not an original work of art or literature, or a missing piece of the Rosetta Stone. It's not even signed by Honus Wagner. The clipped, creased card is not a place to live or a life-saving operation. Fans who love Honus Wagner can get better pictures of him at the Pittsburgh Pirates gift shop.

What makes something valuable? There are lots of considerations. But in the end, the value of an item amounts to what someone is willing to pay for it. Maybe someone who pays a quarter of a million dollars for an old baseball card will find it as important to give at least as much money to some good things in the world, too.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small