For generations, fans of all sports have enjoyed the thrill of collecting cards of their favorite players and teams and trading them with friends and fellow collectors. And nowadays, the hobby is gaining some serious steam.
Since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, however, collectors have keyed in on trading card value, which has led to more buying, selling and trading that has gained momentum in the ensuing three decades. In 1991, PSA made its debut as the hobby’s first third-party card authentication and grading company and its footprint continues to grow every year.
There are several factors that impact trading card value, not the least of which is the grade a card might receive from an objective and independent firm. Popularity of the player, scarcity of the issue and the overall condition of the card can all affect a card’s desirability and, therefore, secondary market value. Whether it sports an autograph from the featured player or, perhaps, contains a piece of one of his/her game-worn jerseys could also play a role in the card’s potential escalation in value.
The following are all factors that can impact a card’s potential value in the open market.
Player, Team Selection
The more popular the player or team, the more desirable a card can be. Vintage Hall of Famers such as Jackie Robinson or Mickey Mantle, or modern stars like Mookie Betts, Mike Trout or Cody Bellinger are likely to be more highly valued than players who are not as well known or successful.
The same applies to teams as well. Some teams, like the 27-time World Series Champion New York Yankees, have a certain allure to collectors and therefore boast a strong following. Other squads, like the San Diego Padres, for instance, have yet to win a Fall Classic and therefore interest in their cards tends to be not as strong, unless we’re talking about baseball legends like Tony Gwynn.
Sentimentality does not usually factor into card value on a grand scale. In general, a star’s cards tend to be valued higher than others. Additionally, certain cards, especially a player’s first-year issues, are worth more because rookie cards represent their first league-licensed releases and have always held a soft spot in the hearts and wallets of collectors.
Trading Card Popularity
If the card and athlete are popular, there’s apt to be a market for the card, and value tends to value. With no popularity, no market, value is hard to come by.
Popularity applies to the player and his achievements on the field, but also to the set(s) in which he’s featured. A perfect case in point where a popular player’s rookie card is not necessarily his most valuable is Mantle.
His true, definitive RC can be found in the 1951 Bowman Baseball set (card #253), but his most sought-after and coveted card remains the 1952 Topps #311. The reasoning is simple: collectors appreciate the ’52 card more because of its beautiful design (up-close portrait with vibrant colors) as well as the important fact that it represents Mantle’s first appearance in a Topps set.
A quick look at recent APRs (auction prices realized) of the two cards shows a wide variance in secondary market values. The ’51 Bowman card in PSA Mint 9 condition averages $700,000 at auction, while the ’52 Topps card in the exact same grade last sold in August 2018 for $2.88 million.
Trading Card Rarity
Prior to the 1980s, the production of trading cards was relatively limited. As a result, some cards are worth more due to their age and scarcity. Cards produced after this era can often be less valuable.
From the days when cards were issued in series, “high number” cards that were printed toward the end of the baseball season are more difficult to find and thus generally fetch more on the open market than cards from earlier series. “Short prints” are cards that were printed in lesser quantity than other cards in the set, so these are valued higher than regular-issue cards.
Upper Deck introduced insert cards sprinkled into its products in the early 1990s. This was a strategy used to drive interest in the product and, of course, sell more packs. These variations often consisted of crash-numbered, limited cards, some of which were autographed and some of which sported a different color variation or enhancement that made them unique to the base-level cards. A perfect, contemporary star whose rookie card falls into this category would be Mike Trout’s 2011 Topps Update #US175. His modern classic, true to form, also comes in a slew of parallels – 14 total – all of which see the mighty righty following through with a powerful swing.
A well-documented, earlier example involving a print variation is the Mickey Mantle card found in the 1969 Topps Baseball set. What makes the set unique is that from its run of cards #441 to #511, there are a variety of white and yellow letter cards including Mantle’s #500. Since most of the cards in the set feature the player’s last name printed in yellow, the “white letter” variations are much scarcer. Mantle’s white variation of his name now fetches several times the value of his yellow version, depending on the card’s condition.
Graded vs. Not Graded
A graded card is a baseball card that has been judged by a professional grader on its authenticity and condition. Collectors tend to pay more for graded cards versus ungraded cards, whether at auction, on eBay or through a private transaction. When a card is graded, it indicates that the card being sold has been determined to be authentic by an independent, third-party authentication firm. Cards are graded by PSA officials on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being “poor” and 10 being “Gem Mint” condition. Trading cards that are not graded are susceptible to differing opinions on condition between buyers and sellers, often leading to differences of opinion on value.
Condition is easily the most important factor when assessing a card’s value. A card in pristine condition will always be worth more than the same card in poor condition. Regardless of its rarity or subject, the condition of the card will affect its value. The condition of any card is determined by inspecting its corners, edges, centering, and surfaces for any noticeable wear and tear.
- Corners should all have sharp, well-defined edges. Corners that are rounded, torn, or frayed will diminish the card’s value.
- Edges are assessed by turning the card sideways and looking at the edge straight on. Potential damage includes chipping or dents.
- Centering refers to how the player image was printed on the card. PSA determines centering by comparing the measurements of the borders from left to right and top to bottom. Ideally the border shows the exact same width (50/50) on all four sides. The less centered it is, the more it negatively impacts the card’s grade.
- Surfaces of many contemporary baseball cards include glossy or metallic card stock finishes, so damage is often easy to recognize. Any creases, indents, marks, fading, scratches, or stains will ultimately devalue the card.