Although the 1970s may not have been quite the golden era for baseball that, say, the 1950s were, the decade produced a good number of stars. An important thing to consider, too, is that many players Generation X grew up watching came up in the 1970s. That, along with lower production numbers, makes it an important decade in today’s market. Let’s take a year by year walk through the most valuable baseball cards of the 1970s.
One thing to remember: When it came to wax packs with bubblegum, Topps had the market to itself. Kellogg’s and Hostess issued some sets this decade, but Topps ruled the roost. The 70s didn’t have the variety of sets we enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. That said, the most valuable baseball cards of the 1970s include some sleepers that are easy to overlook.
The caveat: Condition
Condition is everything, and that’s especially true of 1970s cards. In pedestrian condition, with one or two bad corners, bad centering, or perhaps a crease, most of these cards are worth $10 or less. It’s in high grade that these cards become valuable, reaching three figures, and even four figures in the case of a perfect card of a first-tier Hall of Famer.
The 1970s are more condition-sensitive than other decades because more 70s kids saved their cards than didn’t, it seems. But whereas 80s kids put their cards in sleeves and read Beckett religiously, 70s kids kept their cards in shoeboxes. All of this means fewer perfectly pristine examples of 1970s cards exist today than from later decades.
So if you have a stash of 6,000 1970s cards, don’t get the wrong idea. Plenty of people will be interested, and you’ll get money for it. But don’t expect to use the proceeds to buy a house outright.
If you’re a collector and willing to settle for mid-grade or low-grade cards, the good news is that you can find affordable examples of any card on this list, and mid-grade examples of the big names still sell for about what they did in the 1980s when they were still playing.
Rookie cards of Hall of Famers rule
As with other decades, the most valuable baseball cards of the 1970s are generally the rookie cards of Hall of Famers. The 70s offer late-career cards of greats like Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, and the prime seasons of Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan and Pete Rose, and those are generally the most valuable cards in sets that didn’t offer any big-name rookies.
But most of what you’ll find here are rookie cards of Hall of Famers. A few stars who played in big markets and didn’t quite make the Hall of Fame are here too. But the big money goes for rookie cards of Hall of Famers elected on their first or second ballot. Think along the lines of Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Robin Yount. These cards exist in small enough quantities that they rebounded nicely from the baseball card bubble.
The decade started off with the rookie card of Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, card #189 in the set. He was the 1970 Rookie of the Year and won two World Series with the Yankees. In 1979 he bought a twin-engined jet and tragically crashed the plane while practicing takeoffs and landings. He died at the age of 32. Munson is not in the Hall of Fame, and his statistics suggest he would be a below-average Hall of Famer even for a catcher, due to the brevity of his career. That said, had he played 2-5 more seasons, there’s little doubt he would have made the Hall of Fame. His mystique and status as a Yankee legend keeps the value of his early cards high.
Kellogg’s issued 3D cards featuring multiple layers protected by a piece of plastic. The plastic is prone to cracks, creating a challenge for high-grade cards. The 1970 Kellogg’s set doesn’t include any rookie cards but includes several established stars. Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, and Roberto Clemente can all reach double-digits in nice shape, but Clemente is the most valuable card.
The 1971 Topps set featured black borders that went all the way to the edges. It made for a very sharp design, but keeping cards in pristine condition proved difficult. Top-grade 1971 cards command a steep premium. Highlights of this set include the second-year card of Thurman Munson, the rookie cards of Steve Garvey and Bert Blyleven, and the shared rookie card of Dusty Baker and Don Baylor. The Baker/Baylor rookie card was a short print. Blyleven was the only Hall of Famer of the group. Garvey was a perennial All-Star for the Dodgers. Baker and Baylor were stars who went on to be successful managers.
Yes, there were better rookie classes than the class of 1971, but those sets didn’t have those tough black borders. Second-year cards typically aren’t worth as much as rookie cards, but the 1971 action shot of Munson at the plate became iconic.
The most valuable card in the 1972 Topps set is #79, featuring Carlton Fisk and Cecil Cooper. Cooper had a nice career, making five All-Star teams in Milwaukee, but Carlton Fisk ended up being the Hall of Famer. He set a career record for the most games played at catcher and hit an iconic home run in the 12th inning to end Game 6 of the 1975 World Series against Cincinnati.
The class of 1973 includes the rookie card of Mike Schmidt (shared with Ron Cey and John Hilton). Schmidt, whose work with the glove and bat captured the imagination of a generation of Phillies fans, is the key card in the set. It’s the most famous card of the decade and always among the most valuable cards of the 1970s. It’s tough to find an example of this card for much less than $75, and professionally graded pristine examples will sell for thousands.
The most valuable Kellogg’s card for 1973 is Nolan Ryan at $20-$25.
The key card in the 1974 Topps set is the Dave Winfield rookie. Winfield, a five-tool player, played 22 seasons in his Hall of Fame career and was one of the rare players to go straight from college to the Major Leagues, without any time in the minors. His card also provides the biggest what-if of the decade, surrounding the Padres’ failed move to Washington, D.C.
The 1974 set featured cards of 15 of Winfield’s San Diego Padres teammates printed “Washington, Nat’l Lea.” Businessman Joseph Danzansky was going to buy the team and move it to Washington, until McDonald’s cofounder Ray Kroc swooped in with an unconditional offer. Kroc’s no-strings-attached deal kept the team in San Diego. Topps quickly issued corrections. The most valuable of the 15 error cards is #250 Willie McCovey, the Hall of Fame first baseman we remember for his 19 seasons playing for the Giants. The McCovey card is worth $5-$6 in typical mid-grade, and can exceed $25 when professionally graded in high condition.
The other 14 cards, if you like oddities, are #32 Johnny Grubb, #53 Fred Kendall, #77 Rich Troedson, #309 Dave Roberts, #102 Bill Greif, #125 Nate Colbert, #148 Dave Hilton, #197 Vicente Romo, #173 Randy Jones, #226 Padres Team, #241 Glenn Beckert, #364 Cito Gaston, #387 Rich Morales, and #599 Dave Freisleben. In pedestrian grades, you can expect to pick them up for $1-$3 each. In high grade, they can exceed $20. Had Topps printed a Washington variant of Winfield, there’s little doubt it would have been the most valuable card of the 1970s.
Two players made their debut in the 1975 Topps set. Some 24 years later, they entered the Baseball Hall of Fame together. Those players were George Brett and Robin Yount, who starred for 20 years in Kansas City and Milwaukee, respectively. But 1975 had two more. Red Sox slugger Jim Rice debuted on a card he shared with Dave Augustine, Pepe Mangual, and John Scott. Expos and Mets catcher Gary Carter debuted on a card he shared with Marc Hill, Danny Meyer and Leon Roberts.
In 1975, Topps experimented with a 20% smaller card size to reduce costs. Topps only distributed this test issue in Michigan and California. So the “mini” versions of any 1975 Topps card command a premium over the regular version.
If you want an affordable Robin Yount rookie card, look for his 1975 Hostess card. It’s only worth a fraction of the value of his Topps card from the same year.
The most valuable card in the 1976 Topps set is the rookie card of Dennis Eckersley. After about a decade as a successful starting pitcher, Eckersley made a late-career transition into the bullpen in the late 1980s. His dominance as a ninth-inning closer arguably transformed the role. Some consider him the first modern closer.
In 1976, Kellogg’s also issued a rookie card for Dennis Eckersley. The Kellogg’s Eckersley usually sells for around $20.
Andre Dawson‘s rookie card is the highlight of the 1977 Topps set. A five-tool outfielder, he played half his career in Montreal in relative obscurity. Another interesting card from this set is Dale Murphy‘s rookie card, though it’s no longer worth anywhere near what it was in the 1980s.
Although it’s not a rookie card, the 1977 Kellogg’s George Brett usually sells for $10-$20.
A pair of Hall of Famers made their debut in the 1978 Topps set. Paul Molitor shared his rookie card with Alan Trammell and two other players who didn’t quite become stars. Molitor, as his card indicates, came up as a shortstop but he had his best seasons playing elsewhere in the infield. Trammell took longer to get into the Hall of Fame than those of us who watched him in the 1980s expected. Eddie Murray, the legendary power-hitting switch hitter and 1977 rookie of the year, got his rookie card all to himself. The 1978 set features another rookie card for a latecomer to the Hall of Fame in Jack Morris.
For an oddball rookie card, seek out the 1978 Kellogg’s Eddie Murray card. It typically sells for $10-$20.
In 1978, Hostess also printed an Eddie Murray rookie card. It and Nolan Ryan are the two priciest cards in the set. Eddie Murray is the only Hall of Famer I can think of with three 1970s rookie cards, though many 1980s stars had three cards.
Capping off the decade, Ozzie Smith debuted in the 1979 Topps set. The smooth-fielding, acrobatic and rangy Smith became a fan favorite and an All-Star fixture in St. Louis with the Cardinals, where he played 15 seasons. Smith wasn’t really known for his bat, but from 1982 onward, he put up better numbers at the plate than Garry Templeton, the shortstop the Cardinals traded for him. Smith wasn’t gifted with a great bat or great throwing arm, but his work ethic more than made up for both. He is arguably the greatest defensive shortstop of all time, and the “arguably” caveat will get you in a lot of trouble in St. Louis.
In 1979, Hostess also included a card of Ozzie Smith in its last set of the decade. An uncut 3-card panel consisting of Smith, Nolan Ryan, and Willie Montanez sells for $60 or more in nice shape when graded. It may be the most underrated card of the entire decade. A pristine Smith card with space around the border can sell for very high amounts. A more pedestrian-condition Smith card sells for a few dollars. It’s rarer than a Topps and certainly one of the best cards of the 70s.