Last Updated on May 16, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
“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.
What baseball cards are valuable today
The value of cards produced before the early 1970s never dropped much, if at all. Star cards from the 1970s, especially rookie cards of Hall of Famers, still retained most of their value. Rookie cards of players like Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Robin Yount didn’t lose much, if any value because by the time the overproduction era was in force, they were established players. It was the wave of players who came after them whose bubble burst.
Cards of star players from earlier decades are worth something too. Rookie cards of star players have continued to increase in value. So have any cards of mega-stars printed during their playing days. We’re talking upper echelon players like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and the like.
What caused prices to drop
When I collected cards in the 1980s, my friends and I all thought our baseball card collections would make us rich. Our teachers warned us it was a bubble. But in our defense, we were in our early teen or even pre-teen years. None of us had experienced a bubble. If I told you I even knew what a bubble was at 13, you wouldn’t believe me. None of my classmates did.
In retrospect, it was like just like the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble. Prices rose too fast and for the wrong reasons, then there was a correction. Two big factors played into the correction.
In the 1980s, baseball card manufacturers did the logical thing to do. They printed as many cards as they could sell. That was good in the 1980s but it’s bad today. Cards from the 1980s are probably more common than cards from last year.
And since kids like me bought them with the expectation they would be valuable, we carefully preserved those 1980s cards. Cards of utility infielders and fourth outfielders went into archival boxes. Cards of even minor stars went into plastic sleeves or even cases. We didn’t just carefully preserve Mark McGwire. We also carefully preserved Andy Van Slyke and Rob Deer.
Too many of these cards were printed in the first place and too many of them survived. Rookie cards of players like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire and Don Mattingly soared to Mike Schmidt and George Brett and Robin Yount heights or beyond, with nothing to support those values. They were young players with a couple of great seasons to their credit but not a full Hall of Fame resume yet. And the cards weren’t rare.
In 1994, baseball players went on strike. This happened twice in the 1980s as well, but in 1994, the strike ended the season in August. That meant no playoffs and no World Series. Baseball had economic problems but the general public had a hard time feeling sorry for the billionaire owners and the millionaire players. The minimum salary of a baseball player at the time was around $100,000. The average was closer to $1 million. Among the US population as a whole, the average salary was $23,753.53. Minimum wage was $4.25.
It was hard for someone making $24,000 a year to feel sorry for people who made 42 times as much as they did playing a game.
After the strike, baseball juiced up. Actually, it turned out some players were juicing before the strike too, but it went up a notch after the strike. At first, fans loved the increased home run output. But after it became clear what they were seeing was only slightly more real than professional wrestling, things crashed back to earth. Cards of scandal-tainted players like Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens lost value.
Paradoxically, 1980s players whose production didn’t match that wave, like Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, also suffered. 1980s stars didn’t get respect because they didn’t match the output of 1990s stars. But even after the 1990s stars got discredited, the 1980s players still don’t get respect because they didn’t match the output of 1990s stars. Double standard much? It’s a shame but it may take another generation for those players to get the respect they deserve. In the meantime, there are too many of their cards out there.
But some cards proved to be bubble-proof. Generally speaking, we’re talking vintage, pre-1970 cards of high-tier Hall of Famers. The nicer the condition, the better, but affordable low-grade cards of the really big names like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle still sell very quickly.
It dawned on me sometime around 1987 that cards of Hall of Famers weren’t that much more expensive at the time than 1980s cards. But while Jose Canseco’s cards would drop if he went into an 0-for-40 slump, or Don Mattingly’s cards would drop if he didn’t win a batting title, I knew Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente weren’t going to have bad years. So I started buying and trading for those cards.
My late-career Kaline and Clemente cards haven’t done much but keep up with inflation, but at least they’re still worth something. I could get most of my money back out of them if I needed to.
When I buy cards today, I tend to go not just for pre-1970 cards, but I usually dial it back to pre-1950 cards. I collect for enjoyment, not investment. But I know if I ever need to sell off my 1935 Goudey set, I won’t have much trouble. I may or may not turn a profit but I won’t lose terribly much.
What about modern cards? Well, Kris Bryant’s cards will probably always be less common than Ryne Sandberg’s cards. But I also expect a higher percentage of Kris Bryant’s cards to grade in top condition due to better quality control if nothing else. The other question will be how much demand Kris Bryant’s cards will have in the future. Modern cards may be valuable someday, but I still think pre-1970 cards are a safer bet.
Not that I’m planning on using either of them as a retirement vehicle, for the same reason I won’t use video games as one. I use index funds and real estate for that. I learned my lesson.
Here are some more tips on how to value cards, how to grade cards, and how to sell cards. And here’s a scam to avoid on graded cards.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.