Honus Wagner Card Case Plea Deal Rejected Again by Judge

A U.S. judge rejected for the second time a plea agreement between prosecutors and William Mastro, the former sports memorabilia auction house chief accused of altering a rare baseball card to boost its value.

The onetime Mastro Auctions principal, charged with mail fraud, agreed to enter a guilty plea admitting he used shill bidders to increase prices and altered a 1909 baseball card depicting the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner. In exchange, he was to receive a prison term of no more than 30 months, according to an April 2 court filing.

The agreement would let Mastro avoid a potential 20-year sentence if convicted at a trial and it wouldn’t require him to aid the prosecution of three other men charged in the case.

“I’m not sure what I’m getting into, so I’m not getting into it,” U.S. District Judge Ronald A. Guzman in Chicago told lawyers for both sides today.

American Tobacco Co. issued the Wagner card as part of a 524-card set without the ballplayer’s permission, said Ken Goldin of West Berlin, New Jersey’s Goldin Auctions. Wagner didn’t want youngsters buying cigarettes to get his photo, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. When he objected, the card was withdrawn from what later became known as the T-206 series.

Goldin sold another T-206 Wagner card for more than $2.1 million on April 6.

‘Best Player’

“Honus Wagner was the best player in baseball. People seem to forget his historical importance,” said Goldin. “He was considered the greatest player at the turn of the century in baseball.”

Maybe 150 were issued, of which perhaps 50 or fewer exist today, Goldin said in a phone interview.

“It’s really the face of the hobby,” he said. He declined to comment on the controversy surrounding the Mastro card.

Guzman first rejected the Mastro plea deal in February, asking Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy DePodesta, “What does the government get out of this?”

In an April 2 court submission, prosecutors laid out their theory of how the cost of Mastro’s alleged bid rigging should be determined and what they learned from him.

Mastro “candidly spoke” of using shills to bid up auction prices and of “having cut the sides of the T206 Honus Wagner card despite prior statements to the contrary,” according to the court document.

Prosecutors said his statements helped solidify their case against the other defendants.

Collector Letter

The judge today confronted lawyers for both sides with a letter he received from a collector claiming to have been bilked by Mastro in a $10,000 purchase in 1998.

“I’m not at all sure what it means,” the judge said. “Let’s move on from there.” He set a conference for May 14 at which the parties may be forced to select a trial date.

Michael Monico, Mastro’s attorney, and Randall Samborn, a spokesman for acting Chicago U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro, declined to comment after today’s hearing.

Mastro, 60, of Palos Park, Illinois, owned the auction business until 2004 and was its chairman and chief executive officer from 1996 to February 2009, according to the government.

The case is U.S. v. Mastro, 1:12-cr-00567, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.