How much are the most valuable baseball cards worth?
A children’s throwaway, bringing generations a sense of closeness with their heroes, has now become big business, no longer suitable for small fingers
Baseball has given so much to the world, both the wider sporting world and the daily lives of ordinary citizens, that it is difficult to know where to begin. Phrases and concepts like “three strikes and you’re out” and “touch all the bases” have made their way into jurisprudence and boardrooms worldwide, even in countries with no baseball heritage to speak of. A theater group in India might congratulate an actor on “knocking one out of the park”, without really considering where the phrase originated.
But one of the great objects that baseball has given to the world is without any doubt the trading card. The concept was so simple, so effective, that it was grabbed by all major sports worldwide within two decades, from cricket to soccer to Australian rules football, they all copied this wonderfully perfect form of fandom and have never looked back.
In the early days, they were simply stiffeners for packs of tobacco, later sold with taffy or bubble gum, and they became collected and traded amongst young children almost immediately.
The flimsy cardboard that they were made of and their distribution method meant that a card’s individual survival was not predicted, but as with most things in the world, eventually the children’s fun of studying every facet of a card, flipping it over and over through candy-stained fingers and stacking your cards up and wrapping a rubber band around them before going to bed, gave way to the very adult world of finance.
Adults saw value in this collectable and no longer would generations of children be allowed to play with baseball cards, since father now keeps them in an airtight plastic container, locked away in a safe in his office. To paraphrase Bob Marley, some people are so poor, all they have is money.
The heyday of the baseball card was from the 1920s to the 1970s, when billions were distributed annually in packs of bubble gum to children all over the world. By the 1980s, lawsuits and anti-trust legislation broke open the market, which, perversely had the effect of beginning the slow demise of their cultural importance. With the emphasis now firmly on value, adults turned their attention to cards, with modern companies contorting themselves into ever more ridiculous positions to artificially create scarcity, and therefore value.
With the NBA now producing cards as well, some of the biggest prices for sales of rare cards are held by basketball stars, such as a 1997 Kobe Bryant card, which sold for $2 million in February this year. Or perhaps you may consider a 2000 Tom Brady rookie card, which was traded for a fraction over $2.25 million when it went under the hammer in 2021.
A 2003 LeBron James card tied the price paid by a 1952 Mickey Mantle when both were dealt in 2021 for $5.2 million, making them jointly the second-most expensive trading cards ever sold. But the king of the high-value trading cards is still the classic: a 1909 Honus Wagner tobacco card was sold last August for $6,606,000.
Created by the American Tobacco Company, Honus Wagner, a dedicated lifelong non-smoker, objected to its production because he did not want children to buy tobacco in order to obtain his card. Whereas other cards in that run released “hundreds of thousands” of copies into the public, only around 50 cards featuring the Flying Dutchman were ever circulated.
For generations of us who grew up actually loving, studying, looking at and playing with our baseball cards, we might have made a little money if we had kept them in pristine condition. But then we might not have fostered the deep-seated love for the game, and that would have been a true loss indeed.