I’ve talked about the most valuable baseball cards of the 1970s and 1980s. But what about the least valuable baseball cards? What does it take to be on that list? What is the Kmart blue-light special of baseball cards?
When it comes to baseball cards, rookie cards are usually more valuable than non-rookie cards. But when we think of the Pantheon of valuable baseball cards, they tend not to be rookies. Instead, they tend to be scarce cards from hugely popular, iconic sets. The T206 Wagner. The 1933 Goudey Lajoie. The 1952 Topps Mantle. So what is the most valuable rookie card?
Everyone who collects baseball cards wants a Babe Ruth card. Unfortunately, cheap Babe Ruth baseball cards are pretty hard to come by. His most famous cards, 1930s Goudeys, cost as much as a nice car. Even though I’m not much of a car guy, the car is more practical. Even unattractive 1910s and 1920s strip cards of Ruth run four figures, especially cards from his early days with the Boston Red Sox. But there are several vintage cards of Ruth’s that don’t always break the bank, including cards from his playing days. You just have to look off the beaten path.
“Will baseball cards ever be valuable again?” someone asked me recently. The answer is that it depends. Not all cards were valuable in the first place.
Part of the problem is there was a time when 90% of boys collected cards. Now they don’t. Prices dropped due to simple supply and demand.
Babe Ruth is arguably the greatest baseball player of all time. No doubt he’s the most famous baseball player of all time. Goudey was the top baseball card brand of the 1930s, so Goudey and the Sultan of Swat make a legendary combination. When it comes to Goudey Babe Ruth cards, there are several options.
I don’t generally recommend baseball cards as investments. But Goudey Babe Ruth cards have increased in value over time and they aren’t hard to sell quickly if the need ever arises. So they are a safer investment than most other baseball cards, at least.
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.
A couple of years ago, former Sports Collector’s Digest editor Bob Lemke stumbled across Goudey sales figures for baseball cards in the 1930s and 1940s. He presented the figures while expressing a disinterest in doing the math to try to figure out how many cards Goudey sold.
For some insane reason I decided to take a stab at it. Or, rather, make my computer take a stab at it. And I came to some unexpected conclusions.
It was June 2, 2015, the 80th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s final Major League Baseball game. That day, I bought a lottery ticket. I spied a 1935 Goudey Babe Ruth card on Ebay, which casually mentioned it was an “RP,” which is usually shorthand for “reprint.”
Chances were, the seller was telling the truth, and hoping some bidders would fail to notice the code word. But the card looked just convincing enough that I decided to place a bid, just in case the seller was wrong. I won. The total price including shipping was $11. No one else had taken the bait.
Several times now, I’ve seen people like me, who used to collect baseball cards, went on hiatus, then came back, ask how to avoid counterfeit baseball cards, or at least detect them before it’s too late.
There’s a surprisingly simple answer that often works really well.