When it comes to determining the value of sports cards, there are several factors to consider. Just like any other product or commodity, simple economic principles can be applied to sports cards to determine value. Below are listed the primary factors which one needs to consider:
- Age of the card
- Player shown on the card
- Condition of the card
- Scarcity or availability
If you know very little about cards or are unsure of what you have, please reference this guide to help learn more information about your cards. It will help you determine who and when produced the card, and put you on the correct path to determine the value of your card collection.
In general, sports cards can be sub-divided into 3 major categories:
- Pre-War (pre-1948)
- Vintage (1948-1969)
- Modern (1970-present)
The first sports cards were produced and distributed by cigarette manufacturers. These “tobacco” cards were placed inside the pack of cigarettes and served as a marketing tool and also gave rigidity to the packs. These cards quickly gained popularity and were sought after by both adults and children.
The first widely distributed baseball cards were produced in the late 1880s by Goodwin & Co. and are called Old Judge cards, named after the brand of cigarette. Tobacco companies continued to issue sport cards with their cigarettes until the American involvement of WWI at which point they bowed out.
After tobacco companies ceased distribution, candy and gum companies became the primary means by which sports cards were distributed.
In a general sense, Pre-War cards are typically the most valuable cards. Most experts believe that while millions of these cards were produced, only a small percentage of these cards have survived, and typically in very poor condition.
Single cards from this era can commonly reach values of hundreds to thousands of dollars if found in acceptable conditions. The “Holy Grail” of baseball cards, the 1909-1911 T206 Honus Wagner is valued at between $100,000 to $3,500,000.
After WWII, the Bowman Gum Co. produced the first set of the “Vintage Age” in 1948, issuing their black and white cards in packs of gum. Bowman enjoyed very little competition, issuing cards annually until 1951 when the Topps Chewing Gum Co. entered the market. While having relatively little success their first year, Topps transformed the sports card market in 1952 with their introduction of their bigger, more colorful, more attractive cards. Topps and Bowman would battle over the card market for the next few years, until Bowman ultimately had to bow out in 1955. Topps would enjoy the luxury of being the primary producer of cards until the early 80s.
As for value, cards from the Vintage era (1948-1969) typically have more value the older they are. Complete sets (mid-grade) from the mid to late 50s are typically worth between $2000-$3000, while complete sets from the 60s are typically worth between $1500-$2500.
The most popular set from the Vintage era is the 1952 Topps set. Due to low distribution on certain cards, a complete set can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Hall of Famers and rookies from the Vintage era are also popular and have good value. Cards of players like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron can be worth hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
By 1970, production levels of sports cards began to rapidly increase. Also, kids and adults began to learn that their cards had value, and began to handle and store them with care.
In 1981, the Topps monopoly was busted with the introduction of two new distributors of sports cards, Donruss and Fleer, and the sports card market erupted. Dealers and collectors began buying and hoarding these cards in volume. In an attempt to gain market share, these three companies grossly overproduced cards.
During this time, sports cards ceased being a hobby for the youth, and became a business dominated by adults. In the late 80s, new companies, such as Upper Deck and Score entered the market and the cost of sports cards continued to be driven up.
By the mid-90s, cards had become unaffordable to kids, and coupled with the Major League Baseball strike of ’94-’95, the sports card market crashed.
As for the value of Modern cards, due to the severe over-supply, there remains very little demand for these cards. Complete sets from 1988, the peak production years, sell for less than $5. Complete sets from the early 80s sell for $30 and less.
In short, cards from the Modern era have little to no value (with the exception of a very few select cards)
Not all cards from a given year are created equal. Cards that show a “common” or average player generally will have significantly less value than that of a card that shows a Hall of Famer or rookie.
As an example, let’s say you own 400 cards from the 1968 Topps set. If all of the cards are commons, then the cards may have a value of $100-$200. However, if the cards contain a few Mickey Mantle and Nolan Ryan rookies, then the cards may be worth $1000-$2000, 10x more than in the first scenario.
From the Pre-War era (pre-1948), some of the names of the highly sought after and valuable cards are:
- Babe Ruth
- Lou Gehrig
- Joe DiMaggio
- Ty Cobb
- Honus Wagner
- Shoeless Joe Jackson
- Christy Mathewson
- Cy Young
From the Vintage era (1948-1969), some of the names of the highly sought after and valuable cards are:
- Mickey Mantle
- Willie Mays
- Hank Aaron
- Roberto Clemente
- Sandy Koufax
- Jackie Robinson
- Roger Maris
- Stan Musial
- Ted Williams
From the Modern era (1970-present), unfortunately the vast majority of stars and Hall of Famers have little value. Even superstars like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds rookie cards sell for less than $10. The most significant card in the Modern era is the Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie, which is valued at $500-$1000 in high grade.
The condition of a card is paramount when determining its value. Collectors seek after and pay premiums for cards in high condition. To determine the condition of a card, for following 4 criteria are considered:
- Corner wear
- Edge wear
- Surface wear/blemishes
Based on these four criteria, cards are given a number or grade rating from 1-10 to describe the card. Please reference this page for a complete guide on how to determine the condition of a card.
The value of a low grade example versus a high grade example of the same card can be greatly different. As an example, consider the value difference of a 1953 Topps Mickey Mantle based on condition:
- 1 – $250
- 3 – $500
- 6 – $1,900
- 8 – $12,000
- 9 – $90,000
It is important to note that grading standards are very rigid and it is very rare to find Vintage and Pre-War cards in high grade, which is why they command such high premiums. In fact, some criteria, such as centering, are out of the owner’s hands, and are simply a result of how the cards were cut in the factory. Still, the centering of the card carries as much weight as corner wear when it comes to determining the grade. To just show how tough the grading standards are, most cards that are pulled directly from packs and immediately put in plastic holders will typically receive a grade of 7 or 8 (due to centering and printing imperfections).
This concept is really quite simple yet very important to determine value. In general, cards that had high production levels and are readily available are not going to have much value.
Why is a 1987 Topps Barry Bonds rookie worth $5 and a 1954 Topps Hank Aaron rookie worth $500? Quite simply, because the availability of the Barry Bonds is much higher than the Hank Aaron. In fact, this principle can be applied to nearly every card in the Modern (1970-present) era. All of these cards are not only readily available, but also readily available in high grade.
For Vintage (1948-1969) cards, the production levels were also quite high, and are still readily available, but the scarcity/availability factor mainly applies to condition on cards from this era.
To better demonstrate this concept, go back to the 1954 Topps Hank Aaron rookie. In low-mid grade, this card is readily available and relatively easy to find. The challenge for cards from this era is to find them in high condition. The mid grade Aaron rookie is worth $300-$500, but is relatively tough to find in high grade, and is worth thousands of dollars.
For Pre-War cards, it can be quite challenging, and near impossible not to find the card in high grade, but to find the card in any grade! Many cards from this era were produced with low quality card stock, had low production runs and only issued in certain regions.
Because these cards have limited availability, they are highly sought after by collectors and will bring large premiums when offered for sale.