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Both fans and casual observers of baseball will ask about baseball cards as an investment. Are these thin little cardboard cutouts with a big photo on the front worth enough to purchase with intent to sell for profit, either immediately, or for the long term?
We researched whether or not baseball cards are a good investment. Most expert baseball card collectors would say that baseball cards can be a good investment, given adequate education and research to best understand the industry. The values of top baseball cards almost always rise each year, making cards safe especially for long-term investing.
Still, those same baseball card experts would advise that baseball cards should not be your primary outlay of funds for investing.
Most of your investments should come in traditional form, like stocks and bonds, or maybe real estate. Instead of investment, think of buying more baseball cards as a way to generate income from the hobby, and in the process make it more exciting.
Anyone can invest money in baseball cards if they want. New and old cards are available to buy in any number of venues, from brick-and-mortar retail stores like Target, to online sales sites like eBay, or via any number of online routes including Amazon.
The big question is, How much to invest? Let’s start by saying how not to invest in baseball cards: by buying as many new cards as you can, storing them, and waiting. Just like it is when planning a baseball game, the more you know, the easier it becomes.
The most typical forms of investing in baseball cards could be divided as such:
Some investors buy a specific card or group of cards with the sole goal of selling it fast at a profit, usually soon after the purchase. As opposed to house flipping, which most often involves investing in improvements to the property to increase its value, that is not possible with baseball cards. They are what they are, and can only be damaged, never improved.
Either this owner bought a card at a very favorable low price, or he or she is gambling that some event in the near future will quickly boost the card’s value. (Imagine owning an Aaron Judge rookie card before the 2022 season when he hit a record 62 home runs).
In this scenario, the buyer also purchases cards with intent to sell relatively soon ~ but longer than mere card-flipping, maybe for up to a year or 2. The big difference here is usually the cards are not bought with the initial intention of selling. These buyers are lukewarm to the cards, purchasing because they like them but in no hurry to sell.
In this strategy, buyers hold the cards from 2 to 9 years, selling periodically but not consistently. These collectors have sizable piles of cards, and have a keen eye for current events or other life happenings that can boost the value of a hard he or she holds. These collectors know in their head all the cards they hold.
This is buying a card or cards and letting them “vet” over many years, up to 10 years, often more. A lot of casual investors do this with new baseball card sets straight from the manufacturer, buying them in a protective box. These collectors won’t even open those boxes, before storing then away.
This actually is a style of baseball card collecting done by almost all who participate in the hobby ~ not just collectors. Casual collectors almost always will buy or trade for their favorite player or players, whether at the moment or from years past. For instance, I collect Hank Aaron cards, because his home run chase in 1973 and 1974 got me interested in baseball.
In this style, the collector buys or gathers cards from a particular team or teams. Most often it’s his or her hometown team, because the cards would be more attractive for sale to collectors living nearby. Some fans collect teams based on city population, meaning the New York and Chicago teams, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, and so on. The idea being, more potential customers to buy cards (especially online).
Still others might pick a particular champion team, like the 2004 Boston Red Sox, because either they’re a big can of that team, or believe there are other big fans who might shell out big bucks for a whole team set. (Note: this does not include the “team card,” the single cardboard featuring the team photo on front, checklist on back; almost always this particular card carries very little value, unless it is very old, or needed to complete a set).
These are groups of cards with some commonality, such as Hall of Famers only, or a full field of 9 for a particular team. Lots became popular with online sales, namely on eBay, where savvy sellers realized they could squeeze up to 9 cards into an envelope without paying extra for a regular letter postage. (Note 2: Cost of shipping is a key factor for many in choosing which collecting style to go with. A strategy on eBay, for instance, is to advertise Free Shipping, and then cover part or all of that cost in the asking price. The concept is to stand out from a very crowded field; but in doing so, the seller must consider costs).
Many baseball card investors go the route of the full set, either because it is easier than selling single cards at a time, or it’s more lucrative over time, or a combo of both. The strategy is as it sounds: get an entire set from the same brand and year, e.g. Topps 1972, and hold as it increases value over time.
Before the 1980s this was common practice for collectors, to “collect ‘em all!” (as card wrappers used to state). In the old days, brands released cards in groups (called a series), meaning only like 150 at a time in packs sold at stores. Well, as baseball seasons drag on into August and September, interest in the sport wanes and fewer cards sell ~ sometimes to the point where the manufacturer just stops making them. This means cards from the last series of any set pre-1980 will be more valuable than others from the same brand and year.
From 1980-on, with the introduction of Fleer and Donruss to compete with Topps in the baseball card market, manufacturers dropped the series concept and began doing full prints of sets at the same time. This was a huge change, as was the quality of printing and reduction in mistakes in production.
Around this time, an invention to easily house the exact number of baseball cards from a season into a protective cardboard case brought popularity to purchasing whole sets brand new.
Those big changes in the 1980s changed baseball card collecting in many ways. However, the old-fashioned set-completion-1-card-at-a-time type of collecting continues. In fact, when collectors can find all the cards from a year before 1980, especially if most of the cards are in very good condition or better, can be quite lucrative.
First, the older the card or cards, the better. This does not mean every older card will be worth more than one that has been in existence for less time. It just means that generally older cards are harder to find, because over the years, cards were lost or damaged, and therefore carry higher values because they are harder to find.
Remember this: a card is worth only what a buyer is willing to pay for it. Beginners in baseball card collecting will get an annual value guide (like the one put out by Beckett’s), and get dollar bill signs in their eyes. They think the cards they have will automatically sell for the prices listed.
Well, if you had a lot of cards listed with very high values, in very good condition or better, AND you found a buyer, you could make big bucks.
But in reality not every collector is interested in all those cards. Or, you just have not connected yet. This is a reason why baseball card collecting is most often seen as a long-term investment, because how much you make most certainly can be tied to how much energy you put into finding buyers. Marketing takes time (and money).
Compared with more traditional investing platforms like the stock market, baseball cards do not hold a tangible value, e.g. the value when first released for public sale by the manufacturer. In that sense, the same worries involved with cryptocurrency apply to baseball cards: in hand, the items hold no value. (Ever touched a bitcoin?).
Additionally, baseball card values change, and not for business or economic reasons like publicly traded companies. For stocks, investors generally can see when a company is going downhill.
With baseball cards, big values can disappear overnight. This occurred with a lot of early cards of superstars like Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa, once steroid use became very public. They broke records, prices for their cards soared, then the records were tainted by the illegal drug use allegations.
Which makes diversifying your collection probably more important with baseball cards than with stocks. Avoid overloading too much investment into a single brand or season, for instance, because down the road either could be somehow marred. For instance, for a set you liked when first released, the next year it was revealed that the manufacturer overprinted the set, meaning more cards available and lower prices.
Try to gather cards of different players, from differing series (pre-1980), or seasons, or types of cards like the minis produced in 1975. Maybe focus on getting cards in the best condition during years when it’s hard to find mint cards (like Topps 1975).
For big investments, carefully get rookie cards, error cards, or those with autographs. Basically, rare things to find.
The online world changed baseball card collecting dramatically, and you can purchase almost any card or set on eBay, or other selling sites like Amazon. Big cities might even have old-fashioned retail baseball card shops.
Rookie cards, or the very first card printed for a particular future star, are the most sought after and valuable. This is true for trading cards with all the major sports, baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.
After that, it’s usually cards that are either printed in error, or had some story as to why only a certain number were printed in the first place. For the former it could be a spelling error that was corrected when found, resulting in a very small amount of the original to be found.
The latter is the reason for the most-valuable baseball card ever, the Honus Wagner card produced by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911 ~ commonly called the T206 Honus Wagner card.
In 2022, a Wagner T206 graded 3 (out of 10) by SGC sold for a record $7.25 million. The sale broke the previous record, also for a T206 (though a different version graded only a 2 SGC), for $6.606, in 2021.
The card company was able to put out only a few for sale before it ceased producing the Wagner card ~ either in a dispute over payment, or because Wagner was not a tobacco user and did not want to be associated with promoting it. It is estimated that only 50 to 200 versions of the T-206 exist ~ and most in terrible condition.