Baseball Card Values: How To Determine Their Worth
One of the most common questions I receive is: how much are my baseball cards worth?
The fact is, baseball card values can depend on many different factors...
So how do you put a price on them?
This guide covers the most common things to consider when pricing and selling baseball cards.
Let's jump right in!
One last thing before we get started...
As a reminder, the best way to ensure the value of any of your cards is as high as possible is to please, please, please make sure you are storing them using some kind of sleeve or holder.
I wrote a guide on the best card sleeves and holders to use for your collection so be sure and check it out.
Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente...
Players like these need no introduction and collectors are constantly chasing their cards.
They were the best players of their era.
And the heroes of many kids.
That's why collectors have emotional ties to these cards and are willing to pay up to own them.
Usually cards of Hall of Famers and stars will be worth more than "common" players.
It's not the case 100% of the time as there are many quirks to this hobby.
But, it's a good rule to follow that cards of star players will typically have premiums on them.
For most players, their most valuable baseball cards will be their rookie card.
But, it's not always the case.
Take Roger Maris cards, for example.
1958 Topps Estimated PSA Value: $1,650
1962 Topps Estimated PSA 8 Value: $2,200
His 1962 Topps card is actually worth more than his 1958 Topps rookie card.
The reasoning has mainly to do with issues we'll discuss later that make it such a difficult card to find in top condition.
Normally, the older a baseball card is the more likely it will have higher value.
There are many exceptions to this rule, too many to list, but in general this is true.
For example, common 1909 T206 cards are worth something while many common cards printed in the 1980's are not.
A 1963 Topps Pete Rose is worth more than a 1983 Topps Pete Rose.
And so on.
The logic is simple here: fewer older cards exist than newer cards. Many were destroyed or lost.
That additional scarcity drives up the price.
Modern cards from the 1980's onward were printed in massive runs so typically their value is much lower.
Luckily for you, the hobby has divided cards into three main eras to quickly gauge their value: pre-war cards, vintage cards, and modern cards.
Pre-War Baseball Cards (Printed Prior to 1945)
Some of the most valuable baseball cards you'll ever encounter were printed prior to World War II.
This segment of the hobby is filled with cards of legends like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Honus Wagner and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, just to name a few.
Typically, these cards are characterized by their smaller sizes, beautiful artwork and reverse sides that featured advertisements of tobacco or candy companies.
Cards of Hall of Famers and stars from this era can easily be worth thousands of dollars, especially if they are in great shape.
Even common cards (those of non-star players) can be worth major money depending on which card it is.
These are typically cases where a card has a rare printing error or it was pulled early from production for some reason and not many survived.
Vintage Baseball Cards (Printed From 1946 - 1979)
This segment of the hobby is driven by huge names like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente.
The most popular vintage set of all-time is easily the 1952 Topps set.
And the Mickey Mantle card within it is by far the most valuable of this segment of the hobby.
Modern (Printed In 1980 Or Later)
At this point in the hobby's history, card manufacturers began printing cards in huge quantities.
Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Leaf, Upper Deck, Score and several other companies rushed to print cards to keep up with demand.
The market became flooded and card values almost became worthless in some cases.
But, like everything in life, there are exceptions.
The 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson rookie card, the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas rookie card (no name on front variation) and the 1993 SP Derek Jeter rookie card are some of the more notable of the era.
When I was a kid, I would love going to the two local baseball card shops near me to chase many of the rookies and stars of those days.
Sadly, though, nearly 100% of the cards of this era are worthless.
One thing that affects the value of ALL baseball cards is their condition.
It doesn't matter if it's a star player, error card, variation, whatever...
...the card's condition will still be key.
Just like any other type of collector, baseball card collectors want to own quality items.
So they're willing to pay higher prices for higher quality cards.
Buyers and sellers should focus on several key factors that professional graders look at such as:
Centering - From top to bottom and left to right, how well is the card centered? Centering is probably the biggest concern for most collectors. On the front side, if a card exhibits no worse than 55/45 to 60/40 centering on the front and 75/25 on the back then it is usually considered a well-centered card.
Below you can see clear differences in centering between these two 1973 Topps Nolan Ryan cards.
The one on the left exhibits near-perfect centering while the one on the right favors the top and left parts of the card.
Corners - You want to see sharp corners. Ideally "razor sharp" as many people in the hobby like to call them. Round corners are signs of heavy use and are considered eye soars.
Here is a look at a gem mint copy of Carl Yastrzemski's 1967 Topps #355 issue alongside close-ups of each of the four sharp corners.
Edges - Nice, clean edges go a long way to help a card's eye appeal. Sometimes you'll see vintage cards that were poorly cut and don't have nice clean edges. Professional graders (and collectors) will make exceptions for cards with known cut issues. But when possible, you want to see edges free of chipping and notches.
Both of the Jackie Robinson rookies below were graded PSA 9 Mint condition and exhibit very nice edges.
However, if you look closely at the 1949 Bowman, you can see the left-hand edges are not as smooth. That set is well-known to have rough cut issues so professional graders take that into consideration.
Surface - One of the easiest ways to ruin a card's value is if it has a crease on it. Other issues like indentation, marking, scratching, staining and loss of gloss can significantly reduce a card's value.
When you look at these two examples of Joe Dimaggio's 1941 Play Ball baseball card, you can quickly see differences in surface quality.
The one on the left features rich coloring, no creasing, no chipping and has strong eye appeal.
But, the one on the right shows fading, a bit of staining, creasing and paper loss.
You can always refer to cards listed for sale online as a reference only. See what a Gem Mint 10 or NM-MT 8 looks like by finding current examples listed for sale.
But please be careful and remember those are only references.
It's just too tough to notice some condition issues, especially surface and gloss issues, by looking at your card with the naked eye and comparing it to a professionally graded copy online.
Remember: Professional graders use high-tech optical equipment when reviewing them and grading them. They can see errors you can't.
Since we looked at condition as a key value factor, it's important that we look at grading, too.
After all, professional graders do nothing but judge the condition and authenticity of cards.
Collectors will generally pay more for graded cards versus non-graded or "raw" cards.
They're paying for the peace of mind that someone has professionally judged the card to be authentic and in a certain condition.
With raw cards, it's sometimes tough for a buyer and seller to agree on a card's condition and therefore a price.
Or even agree if a card is authentic in the first place.
Professional grading companies work hard to eliminate that doubt.
There are three main professional grading companies that compete in the vintage baseball card hobby:
2) Sportscard Guaranty
PSA is generally thought to be the leader in the vintage card circle but there are many who prefer SGC's dark-colored holders.
One of the funner things about this hobby, in my opinion, is the ability for a printing error to affect a card's price.
But not every type of error will increase a card's price.
So it's important to distinguish between the different types first:
1) Corrected errors: the manufacturer catches the error and corrects it but not before some versions with the error have already made it into circulation; those error cards in circulation are fewer and more rare
2) Uncorrected errors: the manufacturer doesn't correct the issue and therefore only one version of the card exists in circulation
Typically, only the first situation will result in higher than usual prices.
It's because two or more different versions of a card now exist.
And collectors are willing to pay more for the rarer, uncorrected error version.
Let's take a look at some examples of both:
Corrected Error Cards (ERR)
Arguably the most sought after error card of them all is the T206 Joe Doyle with "NAT'L'" printed at the bottom.
When the card was printed, Doyle was a pitcher for the New York Highlanders of the American League.
But some cards slipped through production and made it into collector hands with the term "NAT'L" printed on them as if to signify he was part of the National League.
The company quickly caught the error, chipped off the "NAT'L" from the printing plate and printed the remainders without it.
That small error results in huge prices.
How much so?
A copy of this card in just PSA 3 VG condition is estimated to fetch $550,000!
Think about that for a second...
...that small error equates to roughly more than half a million dollars.
Uncorrected Error Cards (UER)
These types of cards are more oddities than anything...
Do you notice anything weird about the image of Hank Aaron on his 1957 Topps baseball card?
Hank Aaron batted right-handed.
However, Topps reversed the image of the photo negative on the card so it looks like he's batting lefty.
But since they never bothered to correct this issue and all of his 1957 Topps cards were printed that way, it's not rare.
It's still valuable because of who he is, but not nearly as valuable had Topps quickly corrected this issue leaving only a few of his cards like this in circulation.
The point of all this is that you have to be very careful when sorting through your collection.
On the surface, it can appear you don't have anything of value if you don't recognize any star players in a stack of cards.
But you never know what may be lurking in there.
So you have to double and triple check to make sure you don't have an error card that could potentially be worth a lot of money.
Print variations occur for numerous reasons in this hobby.
They're not exactly errors. They have more to do with multiple different designs of the same card.
And like errors, they can cause prices of even common cards to soar.
Take, for instance, the 1958 Topps Bobby Richardson cards...
...the normal card will come with his name in white letters at the top.
But the rarer and more expensive variation shows his name in yellow letters.
In the chart below, notice the steady increasing difference in price between the white letter and yellow letter variation...
...that's because you have both the rarity of the yellow letter variation itself and finding one in mint condition coming into play at the same time.
Price estimates taken from PSA online SMR price guide
A PSA 9 example of his white letter card is estimated to bring in $600.
But a PSA 9 example of his yellow letter variation is estimated to bring in $2500.
Almost five times as much!
Luckily for collectors, sometimes star players will even have variations for a particular card.
The 1969 Topps Mickey Mantle white letter variation is a prime example.
Usually you'll find his last name spelled in yellow lettering but if you're lucky to get the more rare variation of this card, you'll see his last name spelled in white letters.
Estimated PSA 9 Value: $12,500
Estimated PSA 9 Value: $40,000
Variations aren't always limited to differences on the fronts of cards either.
For example, sometimes a card will have two different colored backs.
Like the 1952 Topps red backs versus black backs or the 1956 Topps white backs versus gray backs.
1952 Topps Red and Black Backs
1956 Topps Gray and White Backs
There are even variations in the actual information printed on some card backs, too.
Take the 1959 Topps #322 Hank Hanebrink for example.
One variation shows a statement about him being traded to the Phillies and the other one does not:
Estimated PSA 8 Value: $400
Estimated PSA 8 Value: $25
Similar to the story with error cards, the rarer print variations are usually priced higher since collectors seek out the uncommon and unusual in this hobby.
Not every card in a given set was printed in the same quantity as the rest of the cards in the set.
Sometimes a card was pulled from production for one reason or another.
That was certainly the case with the T206 Honus Wagner and why it is so scarce today.
Most T206 cards can be found quite easily, but few Wagners survive today since the American Tobacco Company pulled them from production.
Either he didn't want his likeness being used to promote tobacco or he didn't feel he was being properly compensated.
No one is quite sure which is the real reason but it resulted in fewer in circulation and that drives prices sky high today.
Hang around this hobby long enough and you'll start to become familiar with the term "high number" really quick.
Many vintage cards were printed in series. It was the company's way of methodically releasing cards out to kids in bunches so as to keep kids' interest high over the spring and summer.
If a player's card was part of the last series to be printed in a given set, it's usually considered more rare since fewer of them were printed.
By the time the last series of cards were printed, baseball season was coming to a close and therefore companies were ramping down production in preparation for football season.
These "high number" cards at the back end of the set can therefore carry a significant price premium, especially if found in high grade.
Take the 1961 Topps #523 Joe Gibbon card for example. Cards #523 to #589 are considered "high number" cards in the set.
Common high number cards like Gibbon's are estimated to be worth anywhere from three to fifty times as much as other common cards in the set.
Sometimes baseball cards were part of short print runs and even for no apparent reason.
Take the 1964 Topps Giants set, for example. There are seven short print cards in the set and Sandy Koufax is one of them.
Not often is a Sandy Koufax card more valuable than a Mickey Mantle card within the same set.
But that's the case here with this card. All because of the fact that far fewer were printed.
These "short prints" like this can be expensive depending on which card and which set you're talking about.
Always be sure and check to see if your card is a short print.
Position In The Set Sequence
It may sound odd at first but even the card's position in the set sequence can increase its value.
One of the most well-known examples of this is the 1952 Topps #1 Andy Pafko card.
It was the first card printed in the set.
That means it was located in the upper left corner of the printing sheet:
This position on the sheet exposed it to more damage than most cards.
Added to this was the fact that back then kids would stack their cards in sequence and bind them with rubber bands.
Being card #1, his was usually on the top of the stack, that meant he was in direct contact with the rubber band.
That meant even more exposure to damage and wear.
Of course, there are always market conditions to consider.
Like anything else, baseball card prices go up and down during good and bad economic times.
So, if the market's hot then you'll get more money for your cards than when times are bad.
There are several different prices guides out there but they should all be used in certain situations.
For example, PSA's guide will only contain information about PSA-graded cards.
And the Vintage Card Prices guide may have more recent market-based values to judge your card's price.
You'll have to give them each a try and get used to what works best for you.
Vintage Card Prices
This is one of the most popular price guide resources for vintage card collectors.
It tracks recent sales history of all eBay and other online auctions so that you can quickly see what current market values are.
It's a paid tool but well worth it.
Here's a look at how their information is displayed when you look up a card:
I had to cut off the screenshot at just the section that contains PSA-graded card pricing. But it also contains SGC and Beckett information, too.
The nice thing is that their information is up-to-date as it's got all the most recent sales data.
I am not affiliated with them in anyway but I highly recommend them.
Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA) Sports Market Report (SMR):
For another point of reference, you can also check the PSA SMR.
In it, you can find price estimates of PSA-graded cards only.
There is both an online and print version.
The online version is free while the print version is a monthly publication sent only to PSA paid members.
It contains articles and other hobby news, too, that you may not find on their website.
Beckett Price Guide
When I was a kid, Beckett's monthly price guide publications were what everyone used to help judge prices.
That was before card grading existed.
So you'd have to jude your own card's condition, look it up in Beckett's guide, and price it accordingly.
Now Beckett has an online resource for vintage baseball cards that you can use.
It's a paid resource but contains lots of information so it may be worth your while.