Today in Sports History: March 22nd

The portrait of Honus Wagner in the T-206 card.

3/22/1986 - Jordan scores only eight

In his fifth game back from a foot injury that kept him out most of the season, Michael Jordan scores just eight points as his Chicago Bulls fall to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 123-97. Defending him was the Cavaliers' World B. Free, who in 1981 had legally changed his name from "Lloyd" to "World," his blacktop nickname. Free scored 38 points against His Airness.

For many years, this game was known as the only scoring blemish in Michael Jordan's career -- the only time he didn't finish in double-digits in his 1,109 games as a member of the Bulls. When he came back with the Washington Wizards in 2001, his streak of 866 straight games with 10+ points ended with a six-point outing against the Indiana Pacers. (In his very next game, Jordan scored 51 points against the Charlotte Hornets -- becoming the first 40-year-old to ever score 50 in a game.) In his two years with the Wizards, Jordan failed to reach double-figures a dozen times.

Ironically, Jordan would also post his career-high against the Cavaliers and even ruined their season on more than one occasion. Additionally, less than a month later, Jordan scored 63 in a double-overtime playoff loss to the Boston Celtics -- setting a record for points in a playoff game. The Bulls managed to advance to the postseason that year, even though they posted an awful record of 30 wins and 52 losses. Chicago benefited from the league's newly expanded playoff format, which allowed 16 playoff teams instead of the previous 12. And because there were only 23 teams in the league at the time, the Bulls still managed to grab the No. 8 seed, even though Jordan missed 64 games that year.

Incidentally, the team the Bulls beat out for the No. 8 seed was none other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished with 29 wins.

3/22/1991 - Gretzky buys Wagner card

In 1909, the American Tobacco Company began printing baseball cards with cigarette ads on the back. Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner, one of the best players of his era and one of the first five inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame, demanded that they not use his image in a card. Although Wagner regularly chewed tobacco, it's believed that he didn't want to encourage kids to buy cigarettes -- since the cards were a package deal with the smokes. "He loved children," his granddaughter, Leslie Wagner Blair, once explained. "He didn’t want kids to have to buy tobacco to get his card."

The ATC ceased production after Wagner wrote a letter to Pittsburgh scorer John Gruber, saying, "Dear John: I don't want my picture in cigarettes." The ATC had asked Gruber to seek Wagner's permission, and had promised him $10 if he could get it. Knowing this, Wagner ended the letter with, "but I don't want you to lose $10, so I'm enclosing a check for that sum." That check, according to Fred Lieb's book The Pittsburgh Pirates, was never cashed and "hung in (Gruber's) den until the day he died."

Only a few hundred Honus Wagner cards were ever produced, making them the most valuable baseball cards in the country. One particular Wagner card -- in nearly mint condition, and with a limited edition ad for Piedmont Cigarettes on the back -- has been sold over and over again, once for as much as $2.35 million. On this date in 1991, Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall bought this card for the then-massive sum of $451,000. Gretzky and McNall had purchased highly-expensive collectibles before, including an autograph by telephone inventer Alexander Graham Bell, but nothing compared to what collectors deemed the "Holy Grail of baseball cards."

Gretzky made the card even more famous, adding a footnote that the greatest hockey player of all time once had it in his possession. When he eventually became the primary owner of the card, he sold the merchandise -- then referred to as the "Gretzky T-206 Wagner" -- for half a million dollars. The card has changed hands several times since and continues to escalate in worth. In 2000, it crossed the million-dollar mark when it was sold on eBay for $1.265 million dollars.

Less than 100 Wagner cards are known to be in existence, and though none are as valuable as the Gretzky card, all are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Brian Siegel, who purchased the Gretzky card in 2000, said of the other Wagner cards: "You could stick (it) in the middle of the street and let cars drive over it through the day, take it in your hand and crumple it up, and it still would be a $100,000 card."

3/22/1994 - Magic becomes Lakers coach

The Los Angeles Lakers announce that Magic Johnson will replace head coach Randy Pfund, who was fired after compiling a 66-80 record in less than two seasons. Johnson, who was only 34, had retired in 1991 when he learned he was HIV-positive. He had felt healthy enough to play on the 1992 Dream Team, and had attempted a comeback with the Lakers less than a year earlier before an adverse reaction from players convinced him to change his mind.

"I'm happy to be back for however long it is going to be," Johnson said at his introductory press conference. "I know it's going to be for a month, anyway."

Asked what he thought about Johnson's coaching prospects, Pat Riley, who had coached him in Los Angeles, stated, "Now he'll know what torture really is."

Johnson discovered almost immediately that coaching wasn't in his heart. Things got off to a solid start, as the Lakers won five of their first six games under their new coach. By they closed out the season with 10 consecutive losses, the longest losing streak in franchise history, and finished the season with a pitiful 33-49 record -- missing the playoffs for the first time since 1976. Not even a month after taking the job, Johnson announced in the middle of April that he wouldn't be returning for the '94-95 season.

"I've got to get out for a better person to come in here," Johnson said at the time. "There's a lot of things I can't stand, so it's better for me to leave and let another guy come in who can stomach it. ... It's never been my dream to coach. I want to own (an NBA team), be a businessman. You've got to chase your dreams."

Magic's brief coaching stint ended with a 5-11 record. He become a part owner of the Lakers that summer.

Further reading:

  • Associated Press: 12-year-old boy uncovers rare Honus Wagner card
  • Sports Illustrated: Bruce McNall is an owner whose tastes run from antiquities to the priciest athletes
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