Baseball Card Collecting 101

Charting out your plan is the first course of action

The first rule of thumb is to collect baseball cards of players and teams you like. That way, even if they don’t appreciate in astronomical value, you’ll always like the cards you have. For example, if you’re a fan of the 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros, you’ll want cards featuring stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Josh Reddick. These guys are the heart and soul of the ‘Stros lineup, so this fearsome foursome is a must-have for any card-carrying member of Astros Nation.

To piggyback these cards with Houston standouts from yesteryear – Hall of Famers like Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell – would be the next logical step for the serious Astros collector.

The first rule of thumb is to collect baseball cards of players and teams you like. That way, even if they don't appreciate in astronomical value, you'll always like the cards you have. Click To Tweet

History

Baseball cards have been around for a very long time, dating to the late 1880s when they were used inside tobacco-issued products as a way to help stimulate sagging sales. The most famous of all tobacco-issued baseball cards remains the elusive 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner card.

As the story goes, Wagner – a career .327 hitter who won eight National League batting titles while playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates – was neither a smoker nor tobacco chewer, so he objected to his likeness being associated with the sale of cigarettes. His card was quickly pulled from circulation, which accounts for its scarcity. Nevertheless, upwards of 70 of the cards were inserted in packs and sold. Today, the number of authentic, graded 1909-11 Wagner T206 cards is said to be less than 40. Its record sales at auction have lifted the T206 Wagner to legendary heights in the hobby as it is now commonly referred to as the “Holy Grail” of baseball cards.

Manufacturers

Since 1887, when Goodwin & Company was packing out baseball cards inside of cigarette brands like “Old Judge” and “Gypsy Queen,” the cards have taken on many different shapes. Major trading card producers in the 1930s included the National Chicle Co. and Goudey Gum Company, both of which used to sell one trading card and one slab of bubble gum inside colorful wrappers for just a penny. Most of the cards measured 2.5” wide x 2.5” inches high and depicted players via colorful portraits.

Brooklyn-based Topps made its entrance in 1951 and soon found itself as the only player in the market. Topps held a stranglehold on the industry until the 1980s when Leaf, Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck made their respective debuts. Today, only Topps and its sister Bowman brand are still producing MLB-licensed baseball cards that generally measure 2.5” wide by 3.5” high. One of its most treasured releases of all time is the highly coveted 1952 Topps Baseball set which includes the prized Mickey Mantle #311 card.

Getting Started

Now that you have some perspective on where the hobby’s been, you need to get started. Depending on your budget, there are several routes to take. For instance, you can always walk into your local hobby shop and see what’s on display. The region of the country usually dictates the players featured, and special inserts became all the rage after Upper Deck introduced its first Reggie Jackson and Nolan Ryan autographed cards in the early ’90s in some of its earlier “Baseball Heroes” releases.

Inserts are not part of the base set. They are added into the regular set less frequently and can include game-used memorabilia swatches featuring players’ game-worn jerseys, bat barrels, even pieces of their fielding gloves. And when you open a pack of cards and discover a signed game-used memorabilia card featuring a sought-after player, you’ve pretty much hit the Holy Grail regarding rare collectible finds. In hobby circles, these are called “lucky pulls.”

 

Today, only Topps and its sister Bowman brand are still producing MLB-licensed baseball cards that generally measure 2.5” wide by 3.5” high. One of its most treasured releases of all time is the highly coveted 1952 Topps Baseball set. Click To Tweet

 

A single foil pack, which can hold from three to 12 cards depending on the set brand, can range in price from 99 cents all the way up to several hundred dollars. Obviously the bigger the buy-in, the better your chances for a big reward. But because high-end inserts are randomly seeded, there’s no guarantee that the foil pack or even the hobby box you’re buying holds the rarest cards. It’s simply the luck of the draw.

Rookie Cards

Before the advent of inserts, hard-core hobbyists sought out rookie cards (RCs) of players. Aspiring investors saw this as a chance to capitalize on the potential of certain first-year stars who would perhaps blossom into superstars and, if all went well, eventual Hall of Fame inductees. A perfect example of this pursuit came in the form of Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card (#1). With his meteoric rise to stardom, collectors believed the sky was the limit for Junior, who was indeed inducted into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility (2016).

Factors behind a player’s card appreciating are simple: popularity, individual stats, championship rings and HOF potential. Scarcity and condition are two more factors that play a critical role in how much a player’s rookie card appreciates, but because today’s collector is savvy and consumed with card preservation, there simply are more rookie cards in mint condition than ever before.

In the 1980s and ’90s, many investors bought up 100-card lots of some players’ RCs at low prices on the secondary market thinking that the cards could wind up selling for as much as $50 down the road. But just like our culture’s fondness for fast food, today’s collector prefers pulling a high-end insert card immediately from a pack and selling it on eBay or via an auction house, rather than waiting out a player’s career to see if the investment pays off.

Completing Sets

When is a set complete? That’s usually determined by the collector’s perseverance. Years ago, hobbyists went out of their way to collect every card in a set. But with more inserts popping up, not everyone can afford the pursuit. And while base level cards are fine, it’s the inserts (autographed, game jersey, game used, etc.) that ignite pack sales at hobby shops.

Some releases still contain set checklists, but there are proven hobby publications like Sports Market Report (SMR) that lists set contents so collectors have an easy checklist to follow. Keeping track of one’s collection is imperative if the goal is to complete the set. In fact, the PSA Set Registry hosts more than 50,000 sets! Home to the world’s finest card and ticket collections, the PSA Set Registry gives collectors an opportunity to safely show off their PSA-graded items in a secure online environment and compare their collections to some of the greatest ever assembled. You can start with just one card or ticket and build your set over time. It’s completely up to you.

Card Preservation

It’s important to try and keep your cards organized and in good condition. That way they’re easy to peruse, perhaps in the middle of a potential trade. One way to go about this is to invest in three-ring card binders with nine-card pocket sheets so the cards are stored cleanly and safely without risking dinged corners or creases. This also places the cards out of direct sunlight, which can fade the coloring.

For your most prized possessions, you may even want to invest in recessed cardholders, which allow you to show them off in impressive fashion. And for the serious collector, you can always get your cards graded by third-party companies like PSA. We not only authenticate cards, but provide graded conditions (GEM MT 10; MINT 9; NR-MT 8; NM 7; EX-MT 6; EX 5; VG-EX 4, etc.), which ultimately help you sell your cards quicker and easier to prospective buyers. It costs a little bit of money up front, but could go a long way toward upgrading your collection.

Camaraderie

The ongoing pursuit of building your collection is almost as much fun as completing it. Lasting bonds between neighbors, classmates, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandkids and grandparents are built and generational gaps are quickly bridged. Baseball, collecting and investing: three events none of us can seemingly escape.

Posted by Terry Melia

Terry Melia is a hobby veteran who has served in various PR and marketing roles for industry movers and shakers including The Upper Deck Company and SCP Auctions and is currently working as PSA's Public Relations Specialist.

4 thoughts on “Baseball Card Collecting 101

  1. Since the game of baseball has changed in the sense that it’s not a family game any longer and that it’s getting expensive to attend a game, What’s the future of collecting baseball cards? Will baseball cards ever come back with higher values?

    1. Define ‘higher values’. Trout, Kershaw, Sale, Altuve rookies do well in high grades. Cabrera rookie autos from Topps traded get close to 4 figures, Jeter autos are always a draw, and prospects like Devers, Ohtani, Judge, Gleyber Torres, etc all sell well.

  2. I collected back in the 80’s and 90’s and was interested in getting back now that PSA makes a card more legit as it gives a framework for a value.

    My only hesitancy is that I see PSA 10 cards valued way beyond a normal collectors budget. So the catch 22 for me is do I want a collection that is affordable of PSA 6,7,8,9’s or a collection that I can’t afford of PSA 10’s? The problem is I lean towards PSA 10’s, and that is something that is well out of my price range.

    1. Your quandary is a good one, Dave. And it all depends on whether or not you’re thinking of selling your collection, or parts of it, down the road. Obviously, the higher the grade, the more bang for your buck later on. Like everything else in life, this is a situation that’s largely dictated by one’s budget. The pursuit is in your hands, whether you opt to invest in PSA 6 through 9’s or go after PSA 10’s. Good luck with your decision.

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