How to value baseball cards

If you have a collection, knowing how to value baseball cards is helpful. That way, if you need to insure or liquidate the collection, you’ll receive a fair price.

But fair also means realistic. A lot of factors go into value. It’s not too different from valuing other vintage collectibles, so if you already know about those, you have a head start.

Also, even though my focus here is on baseball cards, more or less the same principles hold true for any vintage trading cards: football, basketball, hockey, or non-sports cards.

Being realistic

There are lots of stories of rare cards turning up in weird places that turn out to be worth a fortune. Remember, these occurrences, like the cards, are rare. That’s why it makes for good television.

What’s a lot more common is when I find a stash of a couple hundred 1980s or 1990s cards in a house I’m cleaning out. Flipping through those cards is fun because it gives me a nostalgia trip. But they’re a lot more valuable psychologically than they’ll ever be financially. With a few notable exceptions.

In the mid 1980s, I held out hope that my Rafael Palmeiro and Jose Canseco baseball cards would someday pay for something nice. They might get me a nice cup of coffee–at a convenience store. Today I can buy unopened packs of 1980s cards for about what they cost in the 1980s.

Your cards might be valuable, but keep in mind they also might not. Topps steadily increased production in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, competitors started joining in, really increasing the glut. So many people were collecting that it didn’t matter much. Baseball cards were huge then. I’m talking Pac-Man, Mario, Rubik’s Cube, Michael Jackson, Star Wars huge. If you were a boy, you might not have liked all of those things, but you liked most of them.

Then the strike of 1994 hit. It wasn’t long before cards that had been selling for a hundred dollars or more fell to under $10. Good vintage cards recovered, so there certainly are cards that are worth more today than they were in the 1980s. But a lot of cards I collected in the 1980s are worth less today than they were then.

There’s a persistent myth out there that all baseball cards are valuable. Someone who knows how to value baseball cards accurately can discern which ones are worth pennies and which ones are worth dollars.

Birds of a feather

Most collections will have a pattern. Remember, it probably started with a kid buying packs with his allowance. The bulk of the collection will probably occupy a few consecutive years.

It’s also natural for the collection to fan out a bit. Perhaps a relative also collected, and contributed some cards. If there’s a streak of cards from one block of consecutive years and another streak from another block of years, that’s likely what happened.

My cousin had a neighbor whose father had collected cards. So he had hundreds, if not thousands, of 1960s cards, in addition to his 1980s cards. My cousin and I both acquired some 1960s cards by trading with him. We were glad to trade minor stars of the 1980s for 1960s commons–nobody else we knew had any cards that old.

Almost any collection I find today from the 1980s shows signs of that kind of circulation. Everyone knew someone who had an older brother or a father with cards. Those relationships pumped a few 1960s and 1970s cards onto the trading block again.

There was another factor in play. In the mid-late 1980s, card dealers sprung up all over the place, capitalizing on the craze. Even the town of 9,000 in southern Missouri where I lived had one. St. Louis had at least six. Those shops pumped more than a few vintage cards back into circulation as well.

Reprints

This 1935 Goudey Babe Ruth card is an unmarked reprint. Now that it's about 30 years old, it can fool some experienced collectors.
This 1935 Goudey Babe Ruth card is an unmarked reprint. Now that it’s about 30 years old, it can fool some experienced collectors.

Beware of reprints. During the craze of the 1980s, a lot of companies started reprinting copies of older cards. We dreamed of getting rich and someday owning a Honus Wagner card, but we knew it wouldn’t happen when we were kids. At least we could own a reprint of it. Realistically, the same went for Babe Ruth. Wagner cost as much as a house. Ruth cost as much as a decent used car. It goes without saying that by the time we were old enough to have Babe Ruth money, we wanted the car. By the time we had the money for a house, Wagner had gotten more expensive.

If you find a bunch of superstar cards that span several decades between 1900 and 1970 among a stash of run of the mill 1980s cards, they’re probably reprints. A legitimate collection is going to have its fair share of dreck, and the dreck will span the decades.

Maybe some kids were like me. I traded a lot of my rookie cards of 1980s stars for Hall of Famers of the past. I reasoned that retired Hall of Famers weren’t going to have a bad year, so their cards weren’t going to go down in value. So my classmates would get an old card, and when they got tired of it, they’d trade it for another. Eventually someone would trade that card to me. After a couple of years I had a pretty nice stash. But when you look at my pre-1980s cards, I had a lot of commons as well. And my good vintage cards weren’t thousand-dollar specimens. $20, sure. Again, patterns. We got cards of players our fathers told us about, and we bought what we could afford.

Some printers marked their reprints as such. Others didn’t, and assumed everyone would be able to tell. But since they weren’t real, nobody took good care of them, making it easier to pass off unmarked reprints as the real thing.

Condition

1935goudeyallen240px
This 1935 Goudey card shows signs of wear, though they frequently turn up in even worse condition than this one.

Condition rules. I have a 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card. I paid $10 for it sometime around 1987. It’s probably worth $60 today, but no more than that. But you thought Mickey Mantle cards were really valuable, right? Well, my Mantle looks like it got run over by a truck. But it’s Mickey Mantle. I’d rather have that card than none at all.

Had that Mantle card been in nice shape, it would be worth hundreds of dollars today. In really nice shape, a couple of grand.

There are several ways of grading cards. Some people use a scale of poor-fair-good-very good-excellent-mint. Others use a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being my Mantle card, and 10 being a card that’s absolutely perfect, no factory printing or cutting defects and rarely, if ever, directly touched by human hands.

Generally speaking, a 10 is worth twice as much as a 9. And the higher in grade you get, the more nitpicky it is. There’s far more difference between a 5 and a 6 than there is between a 9 and a 10. For that matter, there’s probably more difference between a 5 and a 6 than there is between a 6 and a 9. But each time you drop a number, the value of the card halves. It works a lot like the Richter Scale.

A 5 or a 6 is still a nice-looking card. Realistically, most of the nice cards in any given collection are probably in this range. If you want to know how to value baseball cards realistically, it starts and ends with a realistic view of condition.

How cards got into poor condition

Older cards tend to be in worse condition than newer cards. In the 1980s, we all had the idea that our collections were valuable and would stay that way. To our fathers and grandfathers, they were toys. They’d rubberband their cards together and carry them around in their pockets. We traded our cards. Earlier generations flipped them. No, really–back then, flip didn’t always mean “trade.” They’d play games where they’d toss the cards toward the wall, and whoever got closest to the wall got all the cards. Older cards show signs of this kind of handling.

Worse yet, if there wasn’t any shirt cardboard on hand, kids would clothespin cards to the spokes of their bicycles to make them make noise. It didn’t really make it sound like a motorcycle, but noise is noise. Hometown stars didn’t get that treatment, but a star from a hated rival team might. Out-of-town utility infielders were certainly fair game.

My 1959 Mantle probably didn’t really get hit by a truck. More likely, it just changed hands a lot. If a player you’ve never heard of looks even worse, it probably got a lot of bicycle time and somehow avoided being thrown out.

Identification

Most cards have a manufacturer and copyright date on the back. With a few exceptions, card designs change every year. So it’s pretty easy to distinguish between a 1970 Topps card and a 1971.

For cards that don’t readily identify themselves, flipping through the pages of a book like the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards helps.

How to value baseball cards

Finally, let’s talk about assigning dollar values. Or, at least, monetary values. Remember, some cards are worth pennies. The Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide is the standard everyone recognizes. You can simply look up the card by year, make, and card number to find its value in several common conditions.

But if you don’t want to spend $35 and can’t find the guide in your local public library, do an Ebay search. Search on the card in question but check the box that says Sold Listings on the lower left. This will tell you what prices people actually paid for the card in question within the last 90 days. You’ll probably even be able to find one or more examples in comparable condition to yours. That’s the nice thing about Ebay. Ebay prices will usually be a bit lower than Beckett, but Beckett is trying to measure what dealer storefronts charge. People are willing to pay more in person than online. I’ve talked more about price guides vs. Ebay history here.

When you sell to a dealer, you can expect to get 1/3 the price listed in Beckett. But the dealer is probably only interested in pre-1981 or even pre-1972 cards. Most of them already have more modern-era cards than they can ever hope to sell. If you have something really good that will sell fast, like a Mantle or Ruth card, you may get half of book value.

That’s how to value baseball cards realistically.

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