Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and the most valuable baseball cards ever sold
Collecting rare baseball cards is a billion-dollar business. What was once an innocent hobby enjoyed by schoolkids and fanboys has become a booming industry in which the contents of a shoebox or three-ring binder can be flipped for millions of dollars. Rare baseball cards are a more established investment vehicle than Bitcoin, with a 100-plus year history of hide-and-seek success stories and financial windfalls. The most valuable baseball cards combine nostalgia-tinted history, art appreciation and scarcity economics.
The industry standard for rare baseball card valuation comes from Professional Sports Authenticator (www.PSAcard.com), the “world’s largest trading card, autograph and memorabilia authentication and grading service.” The PSA uses a 10-point grading system, with a perfect-10 “mint” condition being the highest grade available. But perfect condition isn’t necessary for the crème de la crème of vintage cards, whose limited availability or unique features make the simple possession approach pricelessness.
Here’s a rundown of the most valuable baseball cards, each of which has its own tale to tell and fortune to fetch.
1909-11 “Jumbo” T206 Honus Wagner
The T206 Honus Wagner has always been the most sought-after card in the card-collecting game. It was first listed at a price of $50 in Jefferson Burdick’s The American Card Catalog in 1933, making it the most expensive card on record then, as it is now. The 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner cards with the Sweet Caporal Cigarettes backing is so sacred, it is referred to as the “Holy Grail” of the industry.
The 2013 ESPN 30 for 30 short film, “Holy Grail: The T206 Honus Wagner” details the fascinating story behind an iconic collectible. But there have been developments since the documentary wrapped production.
On Oct. 1, 2016, the card known as the “Jumbo” T206 Honus Wagner sold for a record $3.12 million at Goldin Auctions. The “Jumbo Wagner” earned its nickname — and increased value — due to a mis-cut that makes the card larger in size (2 11/16” in height instead of the standard 2 5/8”) and gives it a slightly wider white border. The “Jumbo Wagner,” which has a PSA 5 grade, had previously been sold for $2.1 million in 2013.
1909-11 “Gretzky” T206 Honus Wagner
The card so nice, it’s listed twice… The 1909-11 T206 set was distributed by the American Tobacco Company, but cards featuring Wagner were removed from circulation due to objections from the Hall of Fame shortstop. Wagner either wanted money for the use of his likeness or didn’t want to children to see him endorse cigarettes — or both. As a result, only 50 to 200 Wagner T206 cards ever existed.
The “Gretzky” T206 Wagner held the previous sales-price record, with the PSA 8 graded card commanding a whopping $2.8 million in 2007. The anonymous buyer was eventually revealed to be Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, who retains possession and has reportedly turned down as much as $10 million for the card since adding the “Gretzky Wagner” to his collection. The card’s namesake is, of course, NHL “Great One” Wayne Gretzky, who purchased the card along with Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall for $451,000 in 1991.
Adding intrigue to investment, collectibles kingpin Bill Mastro — who purchased the card for $25,000 in 1985 and sold it for $110,000 two years later — admitted to trimming the card to give it crisper corners and sharper edges. The long-rumored discovery came when Mastro was under oath in federal court, as part of a plea bargain that still ended in prison time (for memorabilia crimes unrelated to the T206 Wagner).
1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle
Topps’ first year in the sports trading card business was 1952, making any of the 407 cards in the inaugural set a valuable commodity. But this particular image of “The Mick” is by far the most valued, with a PSA 8.5 card topping the $1 million mark at Heritage Auctions in 2016. The origins of the card stem from Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen, one of the more colorful personalities in the industry.
The 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps #311 is especially scarce, since fewer high-numbered cards (Nos. 311–407) were printed in the set. Oh, and let’s not forget that Topps infamously (allegedly) dumped thousands of unsold high-numbered cards into the Atlantic Ocean. In hindsight, 1952 Topps high-numbered cards were million-dollar fish food.
1915-16 Sporting News M101-5 Babe Ruth
The official rookie card of Babe Ruth shows off the Boston Red Sox lefty ace before he was traded to the New York Yankees and became the greatest slugger of all time. Just a reminder that the “Sultan of Swat” was one of the greatest pressure pitchers ever: Ruth combined to throw 31.0 innings with a 0.87 ERA, 0.935 WHIP and 3–0 record in two World Series championship runs with the Red Sox in 1916 and 1918, at age 21 and 23, respectively.
In Aug. 2016, the piéce de résistance of the 200-card Sporting News M101-5 set sold for $717,000. A higher PSA of the same M101-5 version (or from the nearly identical M101-4 set) would be expected to command over $1 million.
1909 American Caramel E90-1 Joe Jackson
If you bought an American Caramel to snack on in 1909, the “Shoeless Joe” Jackson rookie card that came with it would eventually appreciate to be worth six figures 100 years later. The highest graded of the collection, a PSA 8.5, netted $667,189 in Aug. 2016. Oh, it’s so, Joe.
Since Jackson was banned from baseball following the “Black Sox Scandal” of allegedly fixing the 1919 World Series — in which “Shoeless Joe” hit .375 with a .956 OPS over 32 at-bats in a losing effort — there are fewer of his cards in circulation, increasing the value of all Jackson cards that come to auction.
1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle
The official rookie card of “The Mick” is one of the crown jewels of the card-collecting game. Mantle hit .267 with 13 HR and 65 RBI over 96 games as a 19-year-old in 1951, setting the stage for a career that included three MVP awards and 536 career HR.
Manufacturer errors make it difficult to find a decent PSA grade, but in 2017 a PSA 9 mint condition 1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle sold for $588,000. This card has several unique features. Mantle is wearing No. 6, rather than his famed No. 7 and the horizontal layout is one of only 39 printed that way in the 324-card set. One of the others? Willie Mays’ rookie card.
1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth
This “pre-rookie” card features Babe Ruth prior to the start of his big-league career, as a member of the International League’s Baltimore Orioles. The card has either a blue or red tint and border, although both colors are considered equally rare and valuable. This particular sale was a savvy investment that paid off for one collector who purchased the card for $199,750 in 2007 before flipping it for a Ruthian profit via a $575,000 sale through Robert Edwards Auctions in 2017.
Although the 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner remains the industry standard, there may be as few as 10 known 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth pre-rookie cards in existence. As a result, even a PSA 1 grade fetched $152,750 in 2009. The scarcity of the card and the player it features make this a long-term bet to be sold for even higher prices in the future.
1955 Topps #164 Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente’s official rookie card is the prized possession from a 1955 Topps set that also includes the rookie cards of fellow Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Harmon Killebrew. A PSA 9 copy of the Clemente classic sold for $478,000 during a Heritage Auctions’ event in Feb. 2016. Prior to that record-setting public sale, another Clemente rookie had sold for $310,700 in July 2015.
The price of this Clemente rookie card seems to be driven by the popularity of the player, more so than most high-end collectibles. Clemente was a 12-time Gold Glove right fielder, four-time batting champ, NL MVP and World Series MVP. The Puerto Rican legend died at 38 in a tragic plane crash, en route to deliver aide to earthquake victims in Nicagagua on New Year’s Eve 1972.
$3 Million “Lucky 7 Find”
1909-11 T206 Ty Cobb
(with “Ty Cobb – King of the Smoking Tobacco World” back)
“The Lucky 7 Find” is the ultimate “Golden Ticket” story of happenstance and gives even non-collectors hope of a lottery-ticket baseball-card payday. In March 2016, a family was cleaning out the home of their great grandparents, when they stumbled upon a brown paper bag full of paper, letters and baseball cards — which turned out to be seven T206 Ty Cobb cards with the famously valuable “Ty Cobb – King of the Smoking Tobacco World” backing. The real kicker? Great granddad might not have even been a baseball card collector; but he did roll tobacco cigarettes and smoke a pipe.
In May 2017, the seven Ty Cobb cards were sold for roughly $3 million, or somewhere between $400,000 and $450,000 apiece. The cards ranged from PSA 1.5 to 4.5, with the two PSA 4.5 cards as the highest-graded known T206 Ty Cobbs. Prior to the find, there were only 22 known T206 Ty Cobbs with the Ty Cobb back in existence.
1909-11 T206 Eddie Plank
The T206 Eddie Plank might be the second-rarest collected card, with only 75 to 100 known to be in existence. Folklore has it that the Eddie Plank printing plate was broken during production. But that theory has been largely debunked, in favor of the thought that Plank (and Honus Wagner) wanted to be paid for his likeness and/or didn’t want to endorse American Tobacco Company to children. Whatever happened, it has driven up the price, with a T206 Plank being sold for $414,750 at Robert Edwards Auction in May 2012.
There is also another classic card tall tale attached to Plank, with the “Fairy Godmother Find” near Boston in 2016. A manila envelope in the bottom of a hat box contained 366 different T206 cards, circa 1910. Among those in the envelope were three Ty Cobbs, three Cy Youngs, three Christy Mathewsons, two Walter Johnsons and … an elusive Eddie Plank.
1909-11 T206 Joe Doyle
(with “N.Y. NAT’L” misprint & “Hands Up” pose)
“Slow” Joe Doyle is the outlier among players on this list, in terms of talent and achievements. Sure, he was a solid pitcher (2.85 career ERA over 436.1 innings from 1906-10), but he wasn’t exactly Wagner, Ruth, Mantle, Cobb or Clemente. No, this card isn’t about the player as much as it is about everything else. This story is very much “inside baseball” — card collecting.
Doyle pitched for the New York Highlanders of the American League, but the card is incorrectly labeled “N.Y. NAT’L” (National League). As a result, when the error was spotted, the plate was pulled and corrected; so very few misprints remain in circulation. This is also from the famed T206 set, adding significant value. Put a cherry on top with the “hands up” pose, and this “Slow Joe” earned $414,750 in fast money at a 2012 auction.
1954 Topps #128 Hank Aaron
This card isn’t as rare as it is coveted by collectors, with various pristine PSA 9-10 copies of the 1954 Topps #128 Hank Aaron rookie card selling for $358,000 in 2016; $357,594 in 2012; and $312,000 in ’16. This card feels older than it is, with a baby-faced “Henry” Aaron, playing for the Milwaukee Braves, with an antiquated Native American logo.
Like Clemente, Aaron is one of the most beloved players ever, making his cards more popular (and expensive). Aaron failed to make the All-Star team as a 20-year-old rookie and a 42-year-old legend; but he made 21 straight All-Star appearances in between. “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron’s 755 HR are still the standard for many purists (and Hall of Fame voters, apparently), and his 2,297 RBI and 6,856 total bases are still the undisputed all-time marks.
1938 Goudey Gum Company #274 Joe DiMaggio
Bubble gum and baseball cards were a potent combination for Goudey Gum Company, who combined the two in 1933. With kids (opposed to say, millionaire card collectors) as their target audience, Enos Gordon Goudey — dubbed the “penny gum king of America” by confectionary magnate William Wrigley Jr., for whom Chicago’s Wrigley Field is named — packaged cards with Goudey Gum. Prior to that, cigarettes and caramel had been the standard-issue card giveaway.
In Feb. 2017, a 1938 Goudey Gum Company #274 Joe DiMaggio sold for $288,000. The card features DiMaggio’s head on a cartoon body, with quotes surrounding “The Yankee Clipper.” The quotes included, “He’s a member of the Yanks’ Murderers’ Row and flirts with the home run record,” “Considered one of the greatest outfielders of all time,” and “Pretty fair salary for a young fellow” written next to a drawing of a man carrying a money bag with “$25,000 a year” on it.