Sports cards have gone from cigarette packs to million dollar sales
The recent sale of a LeBron James rookie card for a whopping $1.8 million gives you a sense of how much collectors are willing to pay for rare sports cards. Regardless of the sport, there are those rare cards in pristine condition that individuals with the coin will pony up tens of thousands of dollars or more to buy. Here are the most valuable trading cards by sport.
Card: 1909 T206 Honus Wagner
Manufacturer: American Tobacco Company
Value: $3.12 million
The "Holy Grail" of sports cards was sold in cigarette packs from 1909 to 1911 until the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop put the kibosh on it for reasons that are unclear. Only 50 to 200 of his cards were distributed compared to the thousands that were circulated for other players. Today, the three cards that have been graded high on the Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) scale keep getting exchanged between collectors for ever-increasing prices. To date, the most paid is $3.12 million in 2016 for the one known as the "Jumbo Wagner" for its unusually large borders.
Card: 2003-04 Upper Deck "Exquisite Collection" LeBron James
Manufacturer: Upper Deck
Value: $1.845 million
The fact this card is so much younger than the others on this list gives you a sense of how manufacturers have leaned into the boom of high-end collecting. Upper Deck only produced 23 of these cards, which were signed by James and include a piece of his jersey from his rookie season. This particular one also had a very high PSA scale rating of 9.5 and leapfrogged several others in value. Before this sale, the most valuable basketball card was the 1948 Bowman George Mikan which can go for over $400,000 in top condition.
Card: 1948 Rocky Graziano
Manufacturer: Leaf Brands
Very few companies have produced boxing cards and the Leaf Brands' 1948 set of 49 all-time greats is one of the best. The 50th card was supposed to be Graziano, but he refused to sign off on it because of what was believed to be a contract dispute. Nevertheless, a handful of cards made it into circulation, and they are now as rare as the T206 Honus Wagner, but not as valuable. On July 20, a card with an excellent-to-mint grade (PSA 6.5) sold for $87,330.
Card: 1935 Bronko Nagurski
Manufacturer: National Chicle
The National Chicle Gum Company produced professional football's first card set and its most valuable card. This card in mint condition (PSA 9) featuring the Chicago Bears star in his Minnesota uniform can go for three-quarters of a million dollars. That was welcome news to Hunter Heaney, who found 10 of these cards in his father's collection in 2013. Note: National Chicle also included Knute Rockne in the set, as the legendary Notre Dame head coach died in a plane crash four years earlier.
Card: 1996 SI for Kids Tiger Woods
Manufacturer: Sports Illustrated
This one is debatable. In 2001, a gem mint (PSA 10) version of this card, which was in a perforated sheet with seven others in the December 1996 issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids, sold in a private sale for $125,000. Since then, Woods' popularity has had ups and downs, and the card has been heavily counterfeited. Today, a card in this condition will go for around $10,000-$15,000. The second-most valuable golf card is the 1932 U.S. Caramel Bobby Jones. Its stock has continued to rise and one in mint condition is valued at $80,000.
Card: 1979 Wayne Gretzky
The Canadian candy company worked with The Topps Company in a variety of ways. In 1979, the companies had a deal where Topps would produce a hockey card set, which O-Pee-Chee would take and modify under its brand for Canadian distribution. That happened to be the year hockey's greatest player debuted. Today, a gem mint Topps version of Gretzky's rookie card is valued at $150,000, while an O-Pee-Chee version is at $465,000. Since O-Pee-Chee cards were of lower quality than Topps', only two Gretzkys have been verified at PSA 10. One of them is being offered on eBay for a "Buy it Now" price of $1 million. Ironically, Gretzky once owned a T206 Honus Wagner.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports' Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.