What Makes Baseball Cards Valuable?

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Like most things, your card collection’s value is determined by a number of factors, with some of those factors being more important than others.

Typically, you need most of the factors listed below to be in alignment if you’re hoping for your collection to be worth anything.

  • Featured player
  • Year/era
  • Type of card
  • Scarcity/print run
  • Trends

For instance, you can have a great player’s card, but if it’s in terrible condition, that value is greatly diminished. On the flip side, though, you can also be holding a no-namer, but other present conditions might actually result in that card being a quite coveted piece of cardboard. Does it make sense to grade cards, then? Well, maybe—that’s for another time!

What Makes Cards Valuable?

I’ll be honest, it gets complicated! Determining value is of increased importance when figuring out where to trade baseball cards or how to sell cards online. For instance, you might think holding a Hank Aaron or Willie Mays is akin to holding a $100 bill.

Well, it sometimes is – and sometimes more than $100 – but it’s not that automatic, and that’s what we are here to work through.

Featured Player

The most obvious factor when it comes to card value is the featured player—but it’s also the most misleading!

While there is no doubt if you’re holding a Hall of Famer, the chances of that card being something valuable increases, there are also many a Hall of Famer card that simply isn’t worth the cardboard it’s printed on—from a 1991 Score Ken Griffey Jr. to a 1988 Topps Nolan Ryan, and many, many more.

A few things here, too. The “player” factor doesn’t just mean “is this a Hall of Famer?” When we talk about players, we are really looking at a few different things:

Is it a Hall of Famer? Here is an alphabetical list of Hall of Fame baseball players.

Is it a future Hall of Famer? Here is a prediction article on who might soon be inducted.

Is it a Top Prospect? Here is a list of the top 100 prospects from mlb.com.

Is it a Trending Player? Meaning, is it a player on the cusp of doing something great? More on this point a few sections below.

Year/Era

I’ll assume that, if you’re wondering if baseball cards are worth anything, you’ve been out of collecting for a while, and thus, your collection is probably made up of pre-2000 sets, and more so, 1980s-1990s Topps, Donruss, and Score.

Here is a quick breakdown on what you can expect depending on the year of the cards you’re holding:

Pre-WWII

If you have cards of the pre-WWII variety, you’re in good shape for having something valuable in your possession. Just take a look at what pre-WWII cards are going for right now on eBay. (eBay, of course, being one of the best free baseball card price guides available.)

The problem is, with these older cards, it’s difficult to determine the year or set. Along with eBay, Dean’s Cards looks to be an authority on pre-war cards; it’s a good place to start your research.

Post-WWII

Immediately beyond anything within 1940-1960, you’re still dealing with good chances of having something of value. You’re also entering an era of the first-print or rookie cards of some of the best to have ever played the game.

How do you know how old your card is?

It’s typically pretty easy to figure it out. Quickly, flip the card over and check a few things:

One, sometimes the year is printed clearly on the back of the card. Easy enough!

Alternatively, most cards have the player’s stats listed on the back. All you have to do is look down at the latest year listed, and then add one year to it.

Reason being, what you’re looking at is a player’s history. It would make sense then, that the last year listed on the card is the previous year played, and thus, the card in your hand represents the year of production.

So, with this one, the last year listed at the bottom of the stats list is 1958, and thus, it is a 1959 card.

Type of Card

As you thumb through the different cards of your collection, you’ll obviously notice the different players and years already mentioned above. But, you’ll also notice a few other differences, too, some being more subtle; all of which could combine to determine the card’s value.

Rookie Cards

It’s not hard to understand that a player’s rookie card is likely of the most valuable of all of that single player’s cards. If a Hall of Famer has an amazing 20-year career, that’s 20 years of cards; from regular issues to insert cards, subsets, and more. Thus, there are a lot of cards of just that one player floating around.

But, out of all of them, there is only “one” rookie, or a handful of rookie cards depending on the year and the number of different card manufacturers at the time. For instance, there is only one Joe Namath rookie card, and yikes, is it beautiful.

How do you know if you have a rookie card? Using a process similar to identifying the year of the card as described above, you can see if you have an RC.

One, look at the front of the card. Does it have any markings that would lead you to believe you have a rookie card on your hands? For instance, any “RC” (which stands for “rookie card) shields or rookie logos like “rated rookie”?

Then how about the back of the card? Remember the list of previous year stats? Well, if there is only one line of stats present, there is a good chance you have a rookie.

Especially with the more modern cards, though, this gets a little cloudy in dealing with prospects yet to make their big league debut, draft picks, etc., in which case you aren’t dealing with a “rookie card” but the first ever to be seen of the player in question, which still makes it valuable. I won’t get into distinguishing between a true rookie card and something similar, as Cardboard Connection has a nice breakdown on it for your reference.

Error Cards

This will flow into the next section on scarcity, because that’s what makes the error card so valuable. Yes! A mistake can actually be good, as shown in this case. In fact, it can even lead to a card being one of the best baseball cards of the 1980s.

How do you know if you have an error card on your hands? The astute collector can usually spot an error, if that error has to do with a misprint regarding the player’s name, stats, and other factual information.

For instance, the Frank Thomas NNOF (No Name on Front) is one of the most known, coveted errors cards that was ever printed. And then, as mentioned, the Barry Bonds 1987 Donruss Opening Day card is one of the most popular of the 1980s, because as you might have noticed, that’s not Barry Bonds on the card!

Anyway, while an error card is rare, they come around more than you’d think. And, believe it or not, errors are still being discovered even years after the cards are put through production.

Scarcity/Print Run

I put this close to last because it’s really the culmination of all of the above—scarcity makes value. Cards of Hall of Famers are valuable because the player, but also because they are sought after, and thus more scarce than other players’ cards. Same with older vintage cards; there are less in existence, which also applies to error cards.

Beyond that, what hasn’t been mentioned is the fact that some cards are intentionally printed with lesser quantities. For instance, take the 1952 Topps Set. The “High Series” of cards was released after the season, when there was less interest in baseball from the fan’s standpoint, and thus were printed in lesser quantities, which is pretty standard practice.

Thinking about basic supply and demand, those higher series cards are going to be more highly sought after, and thus, more valuable.

Additionally, as collectors of the last few years are accustomed to, there are certain inserts, subsets, autos, and jersey  cards printed in lower quantities, with those serial numbers actually stamped on the card, ranging most commonly from runs of #/750 to #/100 or #/50 and even #/1.

By looking for a printed serial number on the front or back of the card, you can easily discover the printed quantity. For instance, on the card below you see “21/30” on the top left. That means there were 30 copies of this particular card printed, and this is the 22nd. 

Depending on the set, you might find higher serial numbers like /2019, which is typical of Topps gold parallels over the years (golds in 2018 would be /2018 and golds in 2020 would be /2020, etc.).

Trending Players

This is one of my favorite things about card collecting, as it is one of the many instances where selling cards, buying, and trading follows the everyday performance-based ups and downs

Meaning, while a player is hot, their card values also rise. As those players cool, those values decrease. At times, such trending is more pronounced than that, and can spike on a single day thanks to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter or a player hitting four home runs in a game.

For instance, look what happened when Sean Manaea of the Oakland A’s pitched a no-hitter earlier this year against the Boston Red Sox. His card sales peaked wildly on April 21, 2018 but have since come back down to what is considered normal.

Of course, you really have to be in-tune with the day’s slate of ball games in order to spot and take advantages of trends while they’re unfolding, that is, if you’re wanting to sell your cards at peak price in real time versus going through the process of getting them appraised, etc.