Nolan Ryan Baseball Cards: The Ultimate Collector’s Guide
If there's one thing that quickly stands out about Nolan Ryan baseball cards it's this:
there are a ton of them to collect.
But, it's easy to understand why...
Ryan captivated the hearts of endless amounts of fans over with his incredible velocity and strikeout power.
And he did so over a career that spanned across four different decades.
Incredible popularity over a very long career will obviously result in countless amounts of baseball cards to collect...
However, there are some Ryan cards that standout more than others.
And in this guide we'll look at his best mainstream cards and some of my favorite oddball issues as well.
Let's jump right in!
Mainstream Nolan Ryan Cards
First let's take a look at Ryan's key mainstream cards from Topps before we talk about some of his oddball cards.
These are the ones that most collectors are familiar with.
1968 Topps #177 Nolan Ryan Rookie Card
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $100,000
During the 1960's, Topps began creating rookie cards that featured multiple players and therefore, not only is this Ryan's rookie card, it's technically Jerry Koosman's as well.
In addition to this Topps version, there are also Milton Bradley, O-Pee-Chee and Venezuelan Topps versions of Ryan's rookie card that are similar in design but feature subtle nuances that differentiate them from one another.
The burlap borders of the 1968 Topps set are instantly recognizable and the horizontal, dual-player layout definitely gives the card a lot of character.
Ryan's rookie remains one of the most iconic vintage rookie cards in the hobby and arguably the most important rookie card of the 1960's alongside that of Pete Rose.
1969 Topps #533
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $10,500
Ryan's second-year card from the 1969 Topps set is another huge collector favorite throughout the hobby as it features a young Ryan with the closest thing to a smile as you'll get on any Ryan card.
The purple button with his name in white and yellow in the top right corner along with the Mets team name in yellow at the bottom give this card a lot of pop.
Ryan's calm and non-aggressive pose along with that subtle smile don't paint him as the dominant and intimidating pitcher he was as some of his later cards do.
But there's no arguing this card's eye appeal.
1970 Topps #712
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $6,250
Hobbyists have mixed feelings about the 1970 Topps set design due to those rather bland, grey borders.
However, those grey borders are precisely why this card can be so valuable since they easily show wear and that makes them tough to find in top grade.
And centering is another tough challenge as sell.
Condition issues aside, I still think this is a great-looking card that is saved by a nice image of Ryan with the stadium in the background.
1971 Topps #513
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $24,000
The 1971 Topps set is easily my favorite of the decade but their black borders make it nearly impossible to find them in mint condition.
They're just far too susceptible to showing wear and chipping.
That's why you can expect to pay thousands of dollars for one in top grade.
I've always loved the image of Ryan ready to burn one across the plate offset by that fantastic vintage RC Cola sign in the background.
This is such a great card.
1972 Topps #595
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $2,500
Some love this set design.
Some hate it.
No matter which side you're on, there's no arguing that this Topps design was very fitting for the time with its bright, psychedelic look and feel.
Ryan's serious gaze into the distance almost offsets that boisterous design, however.
In his first year with the Angels in 1972, Ryan broke out in a big way after finishing with a 2.28 ERA, 19 wins and 328 strikeouts on his way to making his first All-Star team.
1973 Topps #220
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $2,750
In 1973, Ryan would set the MLB single season record for most strikeouts with 383, besting Sandy Koufax's previous record of 382 by one strikeout.
That season was also the closest Ryan would ever come to winning a Cy Young award.
Incredibly, even though he notched 21 wins, a 2.87 ERA, a 1.227 WHIP, fanned 383 batters and threw two no-hitters, he still finished second in voting behind Jim Palmer.
It's safe to say that Ryan had certainly found his stride with his new team and on his 1973 Topps issue he looks calm and collected in his Angels uniform.
1974 Topps #20
Estimated PSA 9 Value: $1,400
Every Nolan Ryan baseball card should feature an image of the legendary hurler like this one.
Topps perfectly captured Ryan's mystique as a blazing fireballer with the angle they used in this action shot.
Can you imagine how intimidating it must have been for opposing hitters to face off against Ryan?
This is what a 100+ mph fastball looks like right before it's released.
Topps did an outstanding job with this card as they let the image of Ryan do the work on this card while presenting his name, team affiliation, and position in a non-intrusive and straightforward manner.
1975 Topps #500
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $5,000
The 1975 Topps set is instantly recognizable with its bright, two-tone borders and bold team names across the top.
But, while the design elements may be bright and flashy, Ryan looks as calm and reserved as ever.
Rookie cards of George Brett, Robin Yount, Jim Rice, and Gary Carter are the key focal points but Ryan's card is just as sought-after and expensive.
Mint copies will set you back over $1,500 and PSA 10 Gem Mint copies go for well into the five-figure range.
During the season, Ryan would tie another Koufax record after notching his fourth no-hitter.
1976 Topps #330
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $1,000
One of the things I've always liked about Ryan's 1976 Topps issue is the cartoon image of the pitcher in the lower left.
Let's face it, the image that Topps chose for Ryan isn't the most exciting so at least the cartoon and bright color scheme on the name and team plates at the bottom still provide some pop.
Even though the 1976 season saw a bit of a dip in his overall numbers, Ryan still threw an amazing 7 shutouts that year.
1977 Topps #650
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $750
The 1977 season was highly productive for Ryan as he would rack up 22 complete games, 19 wins, and 341 strikeouts on his way to finishing third in the Cy Young vote.
His 1977 Topps card may seem a bit busy as well with its flashy design elements across the top and large facsimile signature near his face.
Ryan looks onward into the distance with a serious and overpowering demeanor for which he was famous.
1978 Topps #400
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $3,000
Ryan's 1978 Topps card has always stricken me as the least flashy of any of his cards of that decade.
Aside from the Angels team name in cursive in the lower-left corner, everything else about this card is very uniform and conservative.
Even the image of Ryan himself looks very structured.
The 1978 season wasn't all that flashy for Ryan either as he would amass only 10 wins.
1979 Topps #115
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $350
Even though this may be Ryan's least expensive card of the 1970s, it is one of my favorites of that decade.
I enjoy the team and nameplate along with the Topps logo in the lower-left corner.
They may seem simple but I think they give the card a lot of character.
Overall, it's just a nice card with few condition challenges aside from centering issues here and there.
Despite his dominant strikeout totals and no-hitters, Ryan had failed to win over owner Buzzie Bavasi and the 1979 season would be his last in an Angels uniform.
1980 Topps #580
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $300
Topps kicked off the 1980s with a very busy design for this Nolan Ryan card.
The bright color scheme and design elements may seem flashy.
But, along with the great image of Ryan on the mound ready to burn one across the plate, everything comes together nicely to make for a card with strong eye appeal.
Prior to the start of the 1980 season, Ryan became the first million dollar baseball player after signing a four-year contract with the Astros that paid him $1 million per year.
1981 Topps #240
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $135
I've always loved the 1981 Topps design because of the cartoon hats in the lower-left.
But, I almost laugh a little bit whenever I see this card because of the way Ryan is positioned: it makes the hat on his head look nearly identical to the cartoon hat.
You have to wonder if Ryan and/or the Topps photographer orchestrated the whole idea.
Despite all this, the card still boasts a huge amount of pop.
Late in the 1981 season, Ryan became the third pitcher in MLB history to throw a no-hitter in each league after notching his fifth overall.
1982 Topps #90
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $750
I love the retro jerseys of the 1980s like those of the Padres, White Sox and definitely the Astros.
Ryan has one on full display in this shot of him in mid-delivery on the pitcher's mound.
I've always been kind of impartial to the 1982 Topps set design as it's definitely unique but not really all that exciting.
Mint copies of this card will sell for around $15 but that doesn't really justify the cost of grading them these days.
1983 Topps #360
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $475
The 1983 Topps set is famous for containing rookie cards of three Hall of Famers: Ryne Sandberg, Wade Boggs, and Tony Gwynn.
While those three are by far the stars of the set, Ryan's card is another one of the key cards as is the case with pretty much every set in which he appears.
It's hard for me to pick a favorite Topps design of the 1980s but this one is up there as I've always loved the nod to their 1963 set design with the circular player images in the bottom right corner.
This card is bright and colorful overall with strong eye appeal as Ryan looks to be signaling a fastball during warm-ups.
1984 Topps #470
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $350
Topps again went with a design in 1984 that featured a secondary player headshot, this time in a box in the lower-left corner.
Don Mattingly's rookie card stands alone as the key card of the set to collect but with so many Nolan Ryan collectors out there, this card is arguably the second-most coveted alongside Darryl Strawberry's rookie.
The tone of the card overall feels somewhat rigid due to the block letters and square headshot at the bottom but that doesn't stop it from showing a lot of pop.
Any card with Ryan throwing the ball is just fine by me.
1985 Topps #760
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $350
Ryan's 1985 Topps card is one of his best-looking of the decade as it features a great balance of color and imagery.
As usual, Ryan's card is one of the most sought after in this set stacked with five key rookie cards of the era in Kirby Puckett, Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Eric Davis and Orel Hershiser.
This is arguably one of the best images of Ryan throwing of any baseball card on which he appeared.
The 1985 season would see him selected to his second of just two All-Star appearances in his nine seasons with the Houston Astros.
1986 Topps #100
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $1,000
The 1986 Topps set is another one of those sets that draws mixed opinions because of its design.
But, in recent years they've seen a large uptick in interest and Ryan's card is one of the keys.
Ryan's card pops as the bright orange Astros team name at the top perfectly complement the retro Astros jersey that he's wearing.
Usually, I prefer a Nolan Ryan card to show an image of him pitching but this one gets a pass as all of the design elements fall nicely into play.
1987 Topps #757
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $90
Few sets in all of Topps' history are as easy to identify as their 1987 release.
Those woodgrain borders, team logos, and player names in a comic font along the bottom are instantly recognizable.
Although he failed to make the All-Star team in 1987, he led the league with a 2.76 ERA and came as close to topping 300 strikeouts in a season while in an Astros uniform after racking up 270.
He'd finish fifth in the Cy Young voting that season as well, the closest he ever came with the Astros outside of his 1981 campaign in which he finished fourth.
1988 Topps #250
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75
1988 would be Ryan's last year with the Astros.
This is another one of my favorite Ryan cards from the 80s as the Astros jersey he's wearing along with the design elements of the card create fantastic eye appeal.
You'll notice that by the time we start discussing Ryan's base cards of the late 80s that grading them doesn't make much financial sense.
Even a PSA 10 Gem Mint copy is worth less than the cost to grade it.
But, thankfully the hobby is still full of pure collectors who aren't always in it for the money.
1989 Topps #530
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $100
Although still pictured in an Astros uniform, Ryan was at the start of a five-year stint with the Texas Rangers in 1989.
Don't worry, though, as he was included in the Topps Traded set that year wearing his Rangers uniform instead.
I've always loved the cursive team names and wavy player name banners in this set.
And how can you not love the image of Ryan throwing heat?
During the 1989 season, Ryan would make his one and only All-Star team as a Ranger and he'd top 300 strikeouts in a season for the sixth and final time.
1990 Topps #1
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $60
I've always had a soft spot for the 1990 Topps set.
It's the first set that I can remember that I started collecting heavily, or at least as heavy as a kid with birthday card money and loose change here and there could manage.
Many hate the multi-color design of these cards but I can't get enough.
While his base card is nice, Topps also included a subset of Ryan cards which paid tribute to his career that spanned across four decades with four different teams.
1991 Topps #1
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75
Not since his 1968 Topps rookie card had Ryan appeared on a card with a horizontal layout.
And what a fantastic job Topps did with this one.
Paying tribute to Ryan by making him card #1 in the set for the second time in a row, their photographer masterfully captured a terrific shot of Ryan giving it all he's got.
This was definitely not a bad way to kick off their 40th anniversary celebration.
1992 Topps #1
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $60
Arguably the most interesting shot of Ryan on any of his baseball cards on this list is his 1992 Topps #1 on which we see an overhead view of him throwing the ball.
The design of the card in this set was innovative at the time with borders and player images overlapping different design elements of the front.
And there were "Topps Gold" parallels, too, that contained player and team nameplates at the bottom that were embossed in gold.
Overall, it's a great-looking card.
1993 Topps #700
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75
The 1993 season would be Ryan's last in the Majors as his arm would finally give up on him during a game against the Mariners on September 22, 1993.
He was so close to completing his 27th full season as a big leaguer when a ligament in his elbow popped as he was pitching.
His remarkable career had come to an end but I've always thought his 1993 Topps card beautifully captured him doing what he was best known for: throwing some incredible heat.
1994 Topps #34
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $80
Topps would pay tribute to Ryan's 27 seasons in the big leagues with a commemorative card in their 1994 set.
Another great shot of Ryan captures him right after releasing a pitch in his Rangers uniform.
Great design elements and a nice color scheme keep the card somewhat conservative but still flashy enough to honor such a legendary pitcher.
My Favorite Oddball Ryan Cards
Outside of Ryan's mainstream Topps, Donruss and Fleer issues, there are many other "oddball" cards that can be much more difficult to find.
Some were test issues, so you rarely see them come up for sale at all due to how scarce they are.
Others may not be so scarce but they're still interesting in their own right.
Anyway, here are some of my favorites.
1969 Mets Team Issue
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $2,000
For the 1969 season, the Mets issued a 16-card team set that was available to fans at Shea Stadium.
The card measures 5" x 7" and features a black and white image of a young Nolan Ryan with a bright smile on his face.
Because of the paper stock on which they were printed and their size, they are often found with any number of tears, dents and other condition issues.
1972 Topps Candy Lids Test Issue
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $5000+
I love Topps test issues and this one is no exception.
The company did release two candy lids issues in both 1970 and 1973 but for some reason their 1972 offering never made it out of test mode.
The lids measure a tiny 1-7/8" and you rarely see them come up for sale or auction because of their scarcity.
1973 Topps Comics Test Issue
Estimated PSA 8 NM-MT Value: $13,000
Another incredibly rare test issue is Ryan's 1973 Topps Comics that was also never publicly distributed.
Intended to be packaged with bubble gum, these "cards" are basically wrappers in which the gum would be placed.
Because of their intended position around the exterior of the gum, I can't imagine the amount of damage these would have suffered had they actually made it to the public.
Maybe that's why they were never released.
Today, they are arguably the most desirable of any test issue on which Nolan Ryan appeared.
1973 Topps Pin-Ups
Estimated PSA 8 NM-MT Value: $4,200
Part of a 24-card set, the 1973 Topps Pin-Ups are also another rare test issue that were intended to serve as the inside of a bubble gum wrapper.
Instead of comics, though, these feature a big, bright photo of a young Nolan Ryan in his California Angels (minus the Angels logo).
The 3-7/16" x 4-5/8" Pin-Ups are also incredibly rare and condition sensitive.
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $250
Even Hostess jumped into the baseball card world during the mid to late 1970s as a way to help promote their products on shelves in bakeries and grocery stores across the country.
While they're not overly scarce because of their mass distribution, they still can be tough to find in high grade.
As they were actually part of the boxes in which Hostess products were packaged, you can imagine the scratches, dings and dents they suffered in transit and storage.
Nolan Ryan's Legacy
We may never see a more overpowering pitcher who could stand the test of time quite like Nolan Ryan.
Once his career and fastball picked up steam in the early 1970's, there was no stopping him.
His incredible velocity struck fear into hitters across four decades of play.
Because he was so popular, there were so many oddball and mainstream Ryan cards produced.
I may even have to come back and edit this in the future to add more.
Throughout his career, he would put up some fantastic achievements that included:
- 8x All-Star
- 1969 World Series Champion
- 2x ERA Title
- 7 No-Hitters
- 5,714 Strikeouts
What is most amazing to me is that he never one a Cy Young.
Ryan goes down in history as one of the greatest pitchers to ever play, and in 1999 he would be immortalized after being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.