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Those new to collecting baseball cards have to wonder, what is this “graded” card stuff? Truth be told, even some old-time collectors wonder about the industry that grew just by assigning numbers to baseball cards depending on how good or bad they look.
So, how are baseball cards graded, actually? The “grading” of cards is done by card-grading companies, who employ people experienced or trained in the particulars of baseball card conditions and values to rate cards for public consideration.
There are many well-recognized companies that will grade cards, sent to them from all over the world, for a fee. However, a trio of grading companies dominate, which we will explain below. We will also dig into why baseball cards are graded, who is doing the grading and how, and other details into this rather mysterious part of the card collecting industry.
Some baseball cards are valuable, especially as they age. So much, in fact, that outside parties get involved to help determine just how much each card might be worth.
In reality, anyone can grade a baseball card. You might have a Pete Rose card from any given year, and the cardboard looks great, so you would give it an A, maybe an A-minus. After all, Pete Rose was a great player, right?
However, relying on individuals to grade their own baseball cards would prove chaotic. Each person would have their own parameters as to why the card holds value, with a lot of subjectivity involved.
Today, baseball card experts at card-grading companies grade cards ~ but it wasn’t always this way.
Growth of the internet in the mid-1990s created a sudden boom in interest in baseball card collecting and selling ~ and pretty much for all sports or collector’s cards in general.
With online resources, card owners could reach many more potential buyers, and a lot of people got involved with selling baseball cards, and selling them fast.
As more cards began to change hands, the potential for fraud became very real (much like big fraud came hand-in-hand with online selling). Collectors are always worried about buying a fake card, or a piece of cardboard that’s beat up much more than the seller indicated.
What everyone needed was an independent, 3rd party to be the arbiter in terms of the “grades” of cards. Around the turn of the century, companies blossomed that existed to do just that, and today there are almost too many to count.
However, the industry continues to be dominated by what is known as the Big 3.
Top Baseball Card Grading Companies
Most baseball card collectors turn to Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), Beckett (BGS), or
Sportscard Guaranty Corporation (SGC). The acronyms are important, as they indicate who did the grading, and it carries a little value in terms of trust.
Collectors mail their valuable cards to be examined, rated, and sealed professionally in hard plastic cases. The final grade for these pseudo-sealed cards is displayed prominently at the top.
That’s because those grades ~ in fact, just their presence attached to a card ~ increase values of baseball cards.
Baseball card grading has become a very big business, and the Big 3 of the grading companies stick steadfast to their own numerical grading system, so there is no uniform way to compare cards unless graded independently by more than a single grading company. And that’s uncommon.
Usually a card owner goes with 1 of the Big 3, and here’s the process from there:
- Send card (very carefully) to a grading company
- Include a fee payment for the card or group of cards
- A company employee or contractor will closely examine the card(s) closely, for condition, as well as authenticity
- They assign a grade to the card, usually a number between 1 and 10, with 10 being best
- Your card (or cards) are secured into a hard-plastic holder, in a way that will not damage the card
- The final grade, along with the acronym for the grading company, is prominently displayed above the front of the card
- The graded, plastic-sealed cards are returned
Graded cards can carry much, much more value than their non-graded counterparts. The grading takes much of the unknown, or guesswork, out of the buying process. Over the years, card collectors have become accustomed to trusting the major card-grading companies.
Most baseball card collectors, even those only involved for a year or so, know what card graders look for. Minute details can differ from grading company to company, but they almost always involve these 4 elements:
This means the width of the border around the card, which you hope is universal. The border size should be the same on all 4 sides. Often, cards are not centered, because slips in the manufacturing process affect the cutting process.
Baseball cards are printed in huge sheets and then cut mechanically. Some sheets are cut better than others. Centering of cards will be listed as 50/50, 60/40, 70/30, etc. You want cards that look balanced. Avoid cards badly lopsided.
Next is the 4 corners, which is the first thing most seasoned card collectors look at, since a single bent or squished corner means the card is not near perfect condition. Cards with 4 sharp corners, which look almost untouched by humans, are valuable especially if they are old.
Inspect all corners front and back, as sometimes corners are marred by a printing error on one side only. Cards with 1 or 2 unsightly corners rarely are graded above 8 (out of 10).
All 4 edges of a card should also be as immaculate as the corners. Some brands, or years of cards, are known to produce poor edges sometimes. This is especially true of cards with no borders, but a dark-color bleed off the edge, or just edges that are dark and show dings more easily. Look very, very closely at the edges of cards ringed with black. You want sharp edges, and a consistent color all around.
This is the condition of not only the glossy front, but the back also even if just brown cardboard. Baseball card surfaces can be marred by any number of things, including in the old days sticks of gum leaving sticky residue. Very glossy cards can be ruined by scratches, and even bland old cards can be damaged by moisture, or creases. Cheaper series of cards might have smeared ink, or just images that don’t print normally.
This process involves human eyes and feeling fingers, and is not really scientific. Often, a card is graded on a spontaneous reaction, or a “good feeling” by the grader just because the card looks darn good.
Mostly, however, seasoned graders look closely for the details noted above. The best card graders are not overly impressed to see something very rare like a Honus Wagner baseball card from the early 20th century. They judge and grade every card the same way, regardless of the player.
The numerical grading system used by the big card-grading companies is not the same, which is not optimal, but it is what it is. Here is a rundown:
- PSA grades on a flat scale, 1 to 10 straight up, with of course 10 being best
- Beckett also grades cards on a 1 to 10 scale, but also issues sub-grades (halves, or .5s).
- SGC grades on a scale up to 100, which is then translated into a card grade of 1 to 10. They then use it to give the card a grade of 1 to 10.
In general, cards rated 9 and above can be considered to be worth the estimates printed in baseball card collecting books. These are known as “book values” and can be deceiving for new collectors, who might have a card and see the top values for the card ~ but their version is too damaged to qualify for the book estimates.
Card collectors will notice use of certain terms for the grade level of cards, with Gem-Mint and Mint being up top, basically cards with no flaws. Some cards are even graded “Pristine 10,” which supposedly are very rare and can increase the value of a card exponentially.
Generally, old-school descriptions are used for cards, like mint, near-mint, very good, etc.
Not all baseball card collectors choose to engage the process, or invest money in, having their cards graded. This can include moderately serious collectors who do indeed sell cards online, but only in their own way, with only digital photos or scans and their written description of the card and condition.
Many baseball card collectors choose not to bother with the grading, since profit margins in card-selling can be slim, and they don’t like to pay for the service. Also there is the doubt of mailing cards, with basically 2 chances for cards to be lost or damaged in transit.
A simple way to test your card-grading skills is to grade some for yourself. Carefully inspect a group of cards, assign grades only known to you, and then submit them to the companies to see how you fared.
Graders for the card-grading companies can also look for other elements, like aesthetics of a card, or what they feel is a special resale value.
They can consider other things including how a series may have been printed 1 year, or grading brands differently especially if 1 almost always produces perfect cards. This occurs more often from about 1990-on, as the card printing and cutting process became computerized.
Older cards grade lower than newer cards, because collectors expect less with them since they’ve been around so long. It certainly does not mean older cards are not worth as much as the squeaky clean new cards; it means that collectors are more apt to let minor imperfections slide.
Question: When buying a card online, what should I look for, or ask?
Answer: Hope for clear photographs, and many of them, with the cardboard removed from plastic baseball card protectors. If acceptable, look very, very closely and compare with the written description. If you cannot see the card in-person before agreeing to send money, ask first whether all the corners and/or edges are sharp, or ask a question about something specific you saw in a photo, like a dot or blur. Just be sure there are no noticeable imperfections, and if so, ask about them. It might result in a lower sale price.
Q.: How do you become a card grader?
A.: There isn’t a card-grading certification process, as each company has different grading scales. The best way to become a professional card grader is to get recognized by a big card-grading company. Be forewarned that the market to be a card grader is packed and hard to crack, you may have to pass a tough test, and the pay will not be much, no more than around $35,000 a year, and as low as $16,000 annually. You will need good eyesight, and an impeccable attention to detail. For more information, turn to YouTube videos about what certain baseball card grades look like in examples.