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Even in the oft-unpredictable world of collectibles, baseball cards can seem like an outlier. A question very often asked is this: Why are baseball cards so valuable? These little cuts of very thin cardboard don’t seem to compare with rare antiques, old toys, or even aging coins. What gives?
Baseball cards carry value for a number of reasons, the primary one being scarcity. The level of difficulty to find a particular baseball card weighs heavily on its asking price: the law of supply and demand.
Additionally, baseball as a game tends to carry more sentimentality than other sports, so older or longtime fans will go out of their way to find old cards of their favorite childhood players (or teams).
Scarcity means in short supply, so what makes baseball cards different than, say, collecting coins? In a word, fragility. Little cardboard cutouts are easily damaged. And as any collector knows, the condition of a collectible has a huge impact on value.
Over time, baseball cards get lost, bent, crushed, faded by sunlight ~ or tossed in the trash by moms. Water damage, or kids writing on them, also wipe out value. The older the card, the more likely that fewer remain in the pristine condition that collectors prefer.
And there are collectors who try to get an entire set from a single year, meaning hundreds of baseball cards. And they want them in at least near-mint condition. We’ll go over card conditions below.
Because periodically a news item surfaces where a single baseball card was sold for an astronomical amount. That’s what happened in August 2020, when the most-sought-after baseball card of them all, the T206 White Border Honus Wagner, 1909-11, was sold for $6,606,296. (And that card’s condition was rated 3 on a scale of 1-10!; for more on the Wagner T206, see Related Questions at bottom).
However, these stories are rather rare. A vast majority of baseball cards hold little value. For the most part, they must be old, at least prior to 1980, and preferably before 1970.
People care because anyone who has ever had a collection of baseball cards, no matter how small, dreams that the next card worth 7 figures is in their attic or basement. There are a number of reasons why the odds of this are very slim, which we’ll outline below.
- Some baseball fanatics collect anything they can find related to a certain player, or even a team.
- Collectibles, as a whole, is a big industry in the United States.
- Older folks are more likely to have money to spend, and can harken back to their childhood by purchasing old and rare baseball cards, boosting values.
- Some longtime collectors never lose the thrill of looking closely at an old baseball card ~ front and back (where the statistics are!).
- Competitive people want the best collections.
- A lot of people have get-rich-quick dreams.
The value of anything is not a price placed upon it. A true value is what someone pays for that item. So those looking at baseball card pricing guides who see a lot of dollar figures attached to individual cards think it’s easy to get cards, keep them a few years, then sell them off for a profit.
The problem is in the selling. It’s not as easy as it seems. And baseball card selling is very time-consuming:
- It’s a fragile product that needs careful care and storage; a lot of cards take up a lot of space
- Sellers need to take photos of each card, both sides, to post for sale
- It takes a considerable amount of time to write text for sales ads, and monitoring sales sites like eBay
Values of baseball cards are often exaggerated, overestimated, or just plain overblown. A very small percentage of baseball cards are worth big money. Again, a vast majority of baseball cards are hardly worth anything. Why is that?
The values and popularity of baseball cards has ebbed and flowed since they surfaced for good in the late 1800s. Here’s a brief run-down of key points in the industry’s history:
- Pre-1900. Little cardboard items featuring teams were created to help advertise businesses.
- Tobacco cards. Early in the 20th century, tobacco companies began producing cards to protect their product from being crushed, and to use baseball for promotions. However, early on, few cards were produced because the tobacco companies had little business competition, therefore little incentive to advertise.
- Depression recovery. In the 1930s, card manufacturers took advantage of superstars of the era like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg, and later Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, to reach kids and provide a little affordable fun. It was this “rediscovery” era when Goudey Gum introduced the sale of packs of cards that came with a stick of gum.
- Late 1940s Revival: Bowman & Leaf. Baseball cards were not manufactured during either World War out of respect for the war effort. But the late 1940s started a process that rolled into the most significant developments for the industry in the years following. The Bowman and Leaf brands put out sets that generated noticeable attention.
- Topps monopoly, 1952-1980. Up to 1951, card manufacturers competed to sign players to use their names and photos on their cards. After a major lawsuit, Topps purchased the rights from Bowman, and kept an almost-complete monopoly on baseball cards for many years.
- Antitrust, competition. Fleer and Donruss finally won an antitrust lawsuit against Topps, opening the field. Those 3 companies all produced their own sets in 1981. Today, there are almost more baseball card manufacturers than you can count.
- Greed. By the mid-1980s, overproduction of cards, elimination of releasing cards by series spread out over a baseball season, boring designs, and other problems seriously limited the value of baseball cards after 1980.
- 1990s: Boom and Bust. First, manufacturers started producing elaborate, overly glossy, and sometimes thick cards (which are harder to damage, meaning there are a lot more “mint” versions), then overpriced them massively. Where collectors could get a pack of 10 cards for 10 cents in 1973, the same pack in 1993 could cost $1.50, or more. Then the historic Major League Baseball strike occurred in 1994 to hurt interest in the game (and cards industry).
- Late 1990s comeback. Eventually lesser manufacturers went away, the remaining ones learned lessons, and the historic home run chases of 1998 caused a baseball card boom. At the same time, collectors discovered how the internet could be used, with online boards, and services like Beckett’s guides.
- eBay. This Silicon Valley company was a smash success from its inception in 1995, changing card collecting forever. When eBay made buying just about any baseball card easy, values began to be checked by the sheer availability of most cards, and ease of having any card shipped right to your home.
Up until eBay and its online auction competitors, baseball cards were hard to locate to purchase, even if you had money. You had to really spend time developing sources, keeping in contact with other big collectors, and attending baseball card shows.
Think about how hard it would be to try to buy a single baseball card outside of your region before the internet. That is a huge reason cards carried bigger values pre-1995-ish.
Aside from the year, a card was produced, here is a list of factors that can boost a single card’s price:
- Popularity of players. All stars, Hall of Fame members preferably.
- Rookie card. The first card produced of a player who eventually became a star is almost always the most expensive card of that player. Rookie cards are very strongly sought.
- Autographed. Cards signed by the actual player are popular.
- Error card. Sometimes the manufacturer makes an error on a card like misspelled name, wrong team, bad photo, etc. They catch the mistake and fix it ~ making the cards with the errors valuable because there are fewer of them.
- Late series/high-number card. Before 1980, Topps released batches of cards in a series, like 149 cards at a time. For example, the famed 1952 edition was released in six series spread out through the season. Topps purposely waited to release most of the top stars until a later series, to keep kids buying cards. However, the company ended up producing later-series cards in smaller quantities ~ because the late series ran into football season, and school started to grab kids’ attention.
- Condition. The more perfect, almost untouched the card is, the more value it carries. Cards with more than one flaw generally are worthless.
Baseball card conditions are judged by considering its corners (especially), edges, and surfaces, and even the quality of the photograph used, and how well-centered on the card it is. High-valued cards have no print defects, a centered front and back side, and sharp edges and corners.
There are also professional grading services, where collectors send their cards away to come back graded, usually on a scale of 1 to 10. A card graded a 10 would be more valuable, so serious collectors send many cards to the grading firms.
Question: How in the world does the single Honus Wagner baseball card go for over $6 million?
Answer: Again, it’s a matter of scarcity, since only a very limited number of that card was produced, before Wagner stopped the company from making more. The reason either was he protested the card’s advertising of tobacco; or he desired better compensation for use of his name and likeness. Regardless of the reason, Wagner was a superstar baseball player, some even call him the greatest ever, and only about 50 of the T206 were produced.
Q.: Was there a peak in interest in baseball cards?
A.: Some say the late 1980s, before manufacturers began massively overproducing sets, making fewer rare cards. There were at least 3 manufacturers, making baseball cards for sale available on almost every store counter.