As far as hobbies go, collecting baseball cards can be very expensive — and incredibly lucrative, too. Rooted in nostalgia and a deep love for America’s pastimes, sports memorabilia is a billion-dollar industry, and baseball cards are a major part of that.
A baseball card’s worth, however, is contingent on many factors, including the condition of the card, its age and how rare it is.
Here’s a look at the industry’s history, what makes a card valuable and just a smattering of the baseball cards that could net you a pretty penny if you happen to have them sitting in an old, dusty box somewhere.
The Humble Beginnings Of A Lucrative Industry
You may hear the phrase “baseball card collection” and picture a dusty attic or grimy garage sale. Others picture Sotheby’s Auction House. The baseball card was introduced in the late 1800s as a promotional tool by the nation’s tobacco companies. In a sense, those simple artist renderings included inside tobacco products were the precursor to the toy in a box of cereal.
In the decades that followed, trading baseball cards would blossom into an industry of its own. Companies such as Topps, Donruss and Fleer emerged, selling new cards each year for all major U.S. sports. The surge in popularity has also made the early renditions valuable commodities, at home on the auction block next to priceless works of art.
Who Determines A Card’s Value?
Unfortunately, the lucrative market of sports collectibles attracts its fair share of fakes and forgeries. By the 1990s, the problem was so severe that the FBI saw fit to begin an investigation dubbed Operation Bullpen. The case, overseen by the Chicago branch of the bureau, led to the arrests of 14 counterfeiters across five states. The Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) was founded in the years that followed.
Though a private entity, not a government agency, the PSA has grown into the most trusted third-party authenticator in the world. All of the cards on this list have been inspected by their rigorous four-level screening process. Receiving this seal of approval is the first step to being taken seriously in the sports memorabilia marketplace.
Baseball’s Sunken Treasure
In 1952, baseball card manufacturer Topps printed an abundance of Mickey Mantle cards due to his popularity at the time. But as the baseball season drew to a close and sports fans turned their sights to football, Sy Berger, a top man at Topps, was left with tons of unwanted stock.
So, in 1960, after years of trying unsuccessfully to sell the cards, Berger loaded the Mickey Mantles (along with Jackie Robinson and Eddie Mathew cards) onto a barge and had them dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, a mint-condition 1952 Mickey Mantle card would go for well over $2 million (see: No. 2 on this list).
Famous Collectors Of Baseball Cards
You may be wondering who even has the extra hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars sitting around to spend on tiny slips of cardboard from bygone eras. Well, other sports icons and celebrities do.
One of the most valuable baseball cards of all time, the Honus Wagner card, was purchased for $451,000 by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky in 1991 (Gretzky later sold the card for $500,000 to Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment to be used as the grand prize in a promotional contest). Other athletes, such as Evan Mathis and Dmitri Young, along with celebrities like Robin Williams, Bryan Cranston and Billy Crystal, have been known to drop significant amounts of cash on baseball cards and other sports memorabilia.
Check Your Attic!
As they say, one person’s tossed-away old garbage is another man’s cash-cow collectible. It’s possible you (or your older relatives) have a valuable piece of history lurking in your basement or attic and you don’t even know it.
In 2018, one Connecticut man discovered that a forgotten box in his attic held hundreds of old baseball cards, including a rare Mickey Welch card valued at $30,000. The man told Forbes that his earnings from selling the cards would go toward his three children’s college fund and his own retirement.
20. Christy Mathewson, 1914
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The 1914-1915 set of the cards printed by Cracker Jack are noted for their sameness — pretty boring by sports collectible standards. The 1914 Christy Mathewson card is the exception in that it’s set horizontally while all of the other cards in the set are set vertically (see below, in the Instagram share from one lucky owner).
The 1915 edition has its own distinction as it features Mathewson in a different pose. He is the only player to be pictured differently on both the 1914 and 1915 cards. That experts cannot determine why the Mathewson cards were different perhaps only adds to their allure.
19. Ted Williams (Rookie Card), 1939
Most fans consider Ted Williams to be the best hitter to ever play the game. The “Splendid Splinter” managed to hit 521 career home runs, despite losing five prime playing years due to military obligations when he left baseball to serve in the Korean War.
18. Joe DiMaggio, 1938
What sets this Joe DiMaggio card apart from the others? Cartoons. The face of this 1938 pressing (#274) features a smiling DiMaggio atop a hand-drawn body. The white space is filled with illustrations praising Joltin’ Joe as “one of the greatest fielders of all time” and worthy of his whopping (at the time) $25,000 salary.
Although DiMaggio was a huge celebrity, he was also known to be quite a private and serious person. One can only imagine his reaction to seeing these cards for the first time.
17. Jackie Robinson (Rookie Card), 1948
There is no understating Jackie Robinson’s impact on the game of baseball or the country as a whole. As the first African-American player in the major leagues, Robinson faced incredible pressure and unfathomable racism on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
This card is considered Jackie’s only true rookie card and captures Robinson during his challenging first season. It’s particularly rare to find these cards in good condition.
16. Stan Musial (Rookie Card), 1948
This card is notable as it was part of the first set printed by Bowman Baseball Cards. Stan “The Man” Musial appears in black and white, years into his career, as one of the greatest sluggers of all time.
The 1948 season was also significant as Musial posted career-high batting stats to capture the Most Valuable Player award. In May 2017, a Stan Musial rookie card sold for $360,000 due to its perfect condition — the only known card like it.
15. Ty Cobb, 1909
Though almost identical to other sought-after Ty Cobb cards, the 1909 edition is considered extremely rare. What sets this card apart? Rather than displaying the branding of one of the tobacco companies sponsoring the cards, this issue features the phrase, “‘TY COBB – KING OF THE SMOKING TOBACCO WORLD” — perhaps the “Just Do It” of its time.
There are only 15 known examples of this card, and even one in poor condition can sell for six figures.
This card was part of what is known as the Lucky 7 Find. The Lucky 7 are seven “King of the Smoking Tobacco” cards that were discovered by a family among their great-grandparents’ belongings. Once authenticated by the PSA, they became some of the most valuable collectibles on the market.
14. Joe Doyle, 1909-1911
They say mistakes are why pencils have erasers. Mistakes are also why this 1909 Joe Doyle card is so valuable. A pitcher for the now-defunct New York Highlanders, Joe played in the American League … but according to this rare card, he pitched in the National League.
It seems Larry Doyle, a second baseman for the New York Giants, played in the National League and the American Tobacco Company mixed him up with Joe Doyle. The mistake was caught and remedied, but not before several cards were printed with the error intact.
13. Satchel Paige (Rookie Card), 1948
By the time Paige enjoyed his rookie season in 1948, he was already a huge star. Up until that year, baseball — like much of the country — had been segregated. Paige pitched his way to a legendary career in the Negro Leagues and ultimately became an incredibly popular player in the Majors.
Collectors are hard-pressed to find mint-condition cards documenting his long-overdue rookie year due to the poor quality of the original pressing. When they are found in good condition, they can be worth a huge chunk of change. In November 2018, a Satchel Paige rookie card sold for $432,000.
This photo is of a painting that replicates the original card image.
12. Roberto Clemente, 1955
Timing and a good PSA rating can make a world of difference, and the rookie card of Hall of Famer and humanitarian Roberto Clemente is a prime example of this. A 10-rated version of his 1955 card once sold for over $430,000. Just a few years later a lower 9-rated card sold for nearly $480,000. The exact same rookie card with an 8 rating is reported to go for only $30,000.
11. Willie Mays, 1952
There are many factors that determine a card’s value, and in the case of this 1952 Willie Mays, it is sought-after not for featuring the Hall of Fame ballplayer, but for being the first Topps card to do so.
A 2016 collectibles auction that featured several of the cards on this list (in various conditions) raked in millions of dollars. But this card outsold them all with a price tag of $478,000.
10. Babe Ruth, 1914
This rare card marks the Babe’s second appearance on this list. As a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, a young Babe Ruth was toughing it out in the minor leagues at the time of this pressing. Last sold for almost $600,000, the card is thought to be one of only 10 in existence.
Yet another Babe Ruth card, a 1932 U.S. Caramel card depicting Ruth’s face, also drew a pretty penny recently, netting $432,000 at an April 2019 auction.
9. Nolan Ryan/Jerry Koosman, 1968
If you’re in the market for two ace pitchers sharing one rookie card, this 1968 Topps card of Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan (in perfect condition) will run you just over $600,000. Although there have been thousands in circulation, this is the only version to receive a perfect score from the Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA).
8. Sherry Magee (Error Card), 1909-1911
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It's the most celebrated "error card" in the baseball trading card hobby, elevating a solid player from relative obscurity to a T206 pantheon shared with Cooperstown immortals Honus Wagner & Eddie Plank. A tiny handful of T206's bearing the misspelled "Magie" surname were made before word reached the American Tobacco Company that the correct spelling was "Magee," the proper format that represents the overwhelming bulk of the print run. The full PSA population contains 124 representations of the Magie error with all but seven rating VG-EX 4 or below. The air quickly becomes rarefied as we move to the upper half of the ten-point scale, with this spectacular NM-MT 8 specimen appearing alone at the top as the finest known . . . #t206 #magie #sherrymagie #tobaccocards #collect #vintage #tradingcards #baseballcards #cards #mlb #baseball #themonster #errorcard #thehobby #psa #nm-mt8 #heritageauctions #auctioneer
Like the goof-up that led to the hapless Joe Doyle having one of the most coveted baseball cards ever, Sherry Magee’s card is valuable in large part because of a spelling error that made its way onto some — but not many — of the cards.
If you squint at the bottom of the error cards, Magee’s last name is spelled “Magie.” The mistake was quickly caught, however, so not many cards were produced with this spelling, leading to a scarcity of the error cards.
In 2018, a Sherry Magee error card with a PSA rating of 8 sold for $660,000 at auction.
7. ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, 1909
It stands to reason that a sterling reputation is less important than a mint-condition baseball card. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson is notorious in baseball circles for his part in fixing the 1919 World Series. The gambling conspiracy known as the Black Sox Scandal saw Jackson, along with his teammates, receive a bribe in order to throw the game.
Nevertheless, Jackson’s 1909 rookie card went for $667,149 in 2016. Even a lesser-quality version sold for almost $90,000 just a few years earlier. And in early 2019, another Joe Jackson card — this one from 1910 — nabbed $600,000 at auction.
6. Eddie Plank, 1909-1911
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The first edition of The #DavidHallT206 Collection had amazing results across the board this weekend, setting numerous records, including this Eddie Plank @psacard VG 3 that realized $252,000. That figure bested the record for a PSA EX-MT 6 which is $239,000! . . . #eddieplank #T206 #collect #vintage #cards #tradingcards #baseballcards #tobaccocards #t206cards #psa #worldrecord #davidhall #mlb #baseball #hof #halloffame #thehobby #heritageauctions #auctioneer
The value of the Eddie Plank card is rooted in both Plank’s quality as a player and the scarcity of his baseball card. Playing for the Philadelphia Athletics, Plank was a Hall of Famer and a top pitcher of his time, so his would be a coveted card regardless, but in addition to this, the Eddie Plank cards were produced in very small quantities, making the card a rare and desirable find.
In 2012, an Eddie Plank card reportedly fetched $700,000 at auction.
5. Pete Rose/Pedro Gonzalez/Ken McMullen/Al Weis, 1963
This 1963 card features not one but four promising rookies — one of which happened to be controversial slugger Pete Rose. Rose is the undisputed hit king of major league baseball. Despite holding the career record for hits, Rose has been barred from the Hall of Fame for betting on games in which he was involved.
One of these cards, celebrating pure potential, sold for as much as the 1916 Babe Ruth card, thanks to it being in perfect condition.
4. Babe Ruth, 1916
Though the Bambino is known as one of the great home-run hitters, a fresh-faced Babe (then a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox) graces this simple black and white card printed by the Sporting News.
This rare glimpse of the “Sultan of Swat” mid-pitch makes the card that much more special. In 2016, 100 years after its initial printing, a version of this card sold for $717,000.
3. Mickey Mantle (Rookie Card), 1951
The fact that back-to-back Mickey Mantle cards rank so highly on this list speaks to Mantle’s immense popularity with sports memorabilia collectors. While Mantle’s 1952 card is more highly coveted, his 1951 card is precious in its own right, as these cards are notoriously difficult to find in good shape. Mantle’s rookie cards are often marred by poor centering, wax stains on the back and print lines, so finding one in good condition is a bit like finding the Holy Grail.
In 2018, a Mickey Mantle 1951 rookie card sold for $750,000.
2. Mickey Mantle, 1952
Value: $2.88 million
Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle played his first season in Yankee pinstripes in 1952. That year he hit over .300 with 23 home runs. Most significantly, this was the year that Mantle replaced another legend, the recently retired Joe DiMaggio. A mint-condition Topps brand card that commemorates this event sold for a stunning $2.88 million in April 2018.
1. Honus Wagner, 1909-1911
Value: $3.12 million
The 1909-1911 Honus Wagner is one of the rarest baseball cards in the world, with as few as 25 in existence. A version in top condition was sold for over $3 million in 2016. The collectible was originally printed by the American Tobacco Company to accompany packages of ATC cigarettes. Legend has it that Wagner himself halted production of the card, refusing to allow ATC to use his likeness to sell tobacco. The company relented and halted production.