Baseball Card Guide: How To Tell If Your Baseball Cards Are Worth Money

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Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

When I was growing up in the 1980s, baseball cards were my life. When birthdays were approaching, my parents never asked me what I wanted for my present because they knew what I wanted. Sitting down in my room and tearing open packs was the best part of every birthday. The thrill of the chase, whether I was trying to find a Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck rookie, a Mark McGwire 1985 Topps USA Baseball Team rookie, or later, a Billy Ripken 1991 Fleer card with a 4-letter-word written on the knob of the bat, was about as much fun as a kid could have. The reward for uncovering one of those chase cards felt like millions of dollars to my 8-10 year old self.

As I became a teenager and then a young adult, I stopped collecting. The cards that were my carefully protected, top-loaded treasures were stacked in boxes in a closet in my parent's house. They sat there throughout college, and then for years after as I moved around from state to state. I didn't really think about them much, but figured that eventually I would grab them and see if they had any value.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and I had a life changing moment, when I decided to make a $20 purchase, the first card I had bought since my childhood.

You may have a similar story, with boxes of cards sitting in some closet or storage facility that you haven't looked at in years. You have been seeing all the news reports about the resurgence of the sports card market, but you have no clue if your cards have any value or how to appraise them.

In this article, I will attempt to help you understand the modern day hobby, how to find the value of your cards, and answer some of the questions that I know I needed some clarification and guidance on when I first got back in to the hobby.

1. Why invest in Baseball Cards?

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This answer will vary depending on what your goals are.

For me, first and foremost, collecting baseball cards is a hobby and it's a lot of fun. Some of my best memories as a kid are going to the local card shop with my dad and brother, frequently coming home with packs to open and bonding over finding some of our favorite players. It's important to remember that while some cards can be extremely valuable, at the end of the day, the goal should be to have fun, make memories and enjoy your collection.

For others, it's a business. Whether you want to open up your own local card shop, buy and sell cards on eBay, or be one of those people who wait on line overnight at Target and Walmart hoping to score retail boxes to flip for a profit, with the proper amount of education and knowledge, you can make a lot of money in this space.

However, I can not stress enough how important it is to be educated BEFORE buying or selling anything. If you attempt to enter the hobby without understanding which cards and products sell, why they sell, and how to sell them, you are almost guaranteed to lose money.

The best advice I can give on how to get educated is to read a lot of articles (like this one), follow all of the big sports cards accounts on social media, consume their content daily, and watch the big card breaking pages Instagram live streams. When you are in the streams, ask questions and interact with people. Making friends and connections is key.

When you decide it's time to start buying and selling, you will make mistakes. Making mistakes on less expensive products is much more palatable than on big ticket items. You need the reps, so you might as well start small and work your way up.

2. What Makes a Baseball Card Valuable?

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The most important determining factor of how much your cards are worth will come down to condition. There are condition issues that you have complete control over, and others that are totally out of your hands.

To start, it is extremely important that you store your cards properly. This will include first placing your cards in to protective penny sleeves. These will ensure that the surface of the card does not get scratched or damaged. The next step is to place the cards in to a rigid plastic top-loader. Once you have done this, your cards should be fairly well protected from the elements.

However, it is important to note that even if you have your cards stored properly, they often come with condition issues straight from the factory. Some cards will come out of packs with surface scratches, print defects, dinged corners, and they may even be mis-cut and off-centered. In order to have a true mint conditioned card with perfect edges, corners, surface and centering, there is a lot of luck involved.

If you have cards that are well protected and in great shape, the main determining factor of value will come down to getting your cards authenticated and graded, which is a process in which an independent company will assign a score from 1-10 based on how good the condition of your card is. For more on grading, check out this article.

The final determining factor for value is simply supply and demand. What led to the crash of the sports card industry in the 1990s (commonly referred to as the "Junk Wax Era") was a mass overproduction of cards. Nowadays, many of the most valuable cards are serial numbered, which ensures that supply stays low. Studying the PSA population report to see how many of each grade for any particular card exist will give you an idea of just how rare your card is.

3. How To Find the Value of Your Baseball Cards

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The two websites that I use to find the value of my cards are eBay and CardLadder. Both are fairly easy to navigate.

To appraise your card on eBay, there are a couple of steps that you must take:

  1. Figure out exactly what card you have: There will often be small print on the back of your card that tells you the manufacturer, what year the card was produced, as well as a set number. In the pic above, you will see that this is a "1985 Topps Mark McGwire #401". If you type that card in to the search bar on eBay, you will be able to see what people are asking for the card.
  2. Filter your search: If you want to see what the card is actually selling for, all you have to do is filter the results of your search by clicking "sold items" in the "show only" tab. It is important to remember that appraising your card is much easier when it is graded. If your card is raw (ungraded), your best bet would be to zoom in on photos of other raw cards that sold and try to match the condition to that of yours.

CardLadder is an amazing website that will give you all sorts of analytics, PSA population reports, market caps and charts. It is an extremely valuable tool, but they don't have anywhere near as many cards in their database as eBay does. For a beginner in the hobby, or a person who is just getting back in to it, I would stick with eBay at first. However, as you get more comfortable in the hobby and are buying and selling, they should absolutely be on your radar.

4. Rare Cards to Look Out For

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You may have seen news over the last 12-18 months about record breaking sales in the sports card hobby. Back in January, the hobby's most iconic card–the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie–sold for an eye-popping $5,200,000 to entrepreneur Rob Gough. It was one of only six that received a PSA 9 grade, making it one of the finest examples of that card on the planet.

However, news of cards that have been selling for six-figures seems to be dropping weekly, and I wrote this article to keep track of all of the most expensive sales.

If you have ungraded versions of any of the cards on this list, it is important to remember that you must get them graded for them to have a chance of being worth anywhere near what those cards sold for. For instance, a 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson PSA 10 is worth $100,000+. A raw, poorly conditioned version of that exact same card sells for as low as $2.25.

5. What Are My Baseball Cards Worth Today?

1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. ($110 - $2405)

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Current Value (PSA 10) $4,101

You may have noticed that the number of PSA graded cards takes a significant dip as the grades go lower than a PSA 8. That's due to the fact that it simply isn't worth it to have a card graded that won't bring back at least a PSA 8. Check out PSA's Grading Standards to give you an idea of where your card may grade out and what PSA looks for.

Total Graded by PSA: 74,811

PSA 10: 3,839 ($2405)

PSA 9: 24,533 ($303)

PSA 8: 31,001 ($110)

1990 Topps Tiffany Frank Thomas ($116 - $2552)

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Only 15,000 1990 Topps Tiffany sets were produced, and they were only made available through hobby dealers, making this Frank Thomas card ultra-rare.

Total Graded by PSA: 896

PSA 10: 101 ($2552)

PSA 9: 414 ($352)

PSA 8: 310 ($116)

1985 Donruss Roger Clemens ($26 - $406)

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Although Roger Clemens was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball for well over a decade, he is one of the most polarizing athletes in modern history due to his connection to steroids. He has maintained a strong collectors market due to his large market appeal, playing for both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. If Clemens finally makes the Hall of Fame one of these days, this card could see a spike in value. However, the black border on the card makes any damage pop and makes bringing back a PSA 10 very unlikely. 

Total Graded by PSA: 8548

PSA 10: 519 ($406)

PSA 9: 2197 ($61)

PSA 8: 2851 ($26)

1980 Topps Rickey Henderson ($152 - $180,100)

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Only .1 percent of these Rickey Henderson rookie cards grade out to be a PSA 10, making it one of the rarest cards on the market today. There are no sold PSA 10 listings currently on eBay. 

“The blue ink backs and the white gloss front almost highlight corner and edge wear. But even cards that have been locked away untouched in packs or boxes are victims of the factory,” says Beckett Senior Vintage Grader, Andy Broome. “Centering plagues this set when it comes to condition. Whether it is diamond cut cards or just-off side-to-side, finding a card with gem mint or better centering is extremely tough. It’s that perfect storm of condition that is required for a perfect card.”

Total Graded by PSA: 20,866

PSA 10: 24 ($180,100)

PSA 9: 1986 ($6877)

PSA 8: 9680 ($1225)

PSA 7: 5123 ($152)

1993 Topps Gold Derek Jeter ($165 - $5900)

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Derek Jeter, the "Captain" of the New York Yankees, is about as collectible as they come. A superstar who played his entire career under the big lights of New York City. Jeter was a 14-time All-Star and always seemed to play his best baseball in the most clutch spots on the biggest stage. Combine these facts with a total population of only 379 total PSA 10s, and you can see why the most recent one sold on eBay went for $3,000. However, if you have one of them sitting in a box somewhere, the odds are very low that it will grade out as a PSA 10. 

Total Graded by PSA: 5934

PSA 10: 379 ($5900)

PSA 9: 2923 ($410)

PSA 8: 1985 ($165)

1992 Bowman Mariano Rivera ($127.50 - $730)

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You can copy and paste everything written about Derek Jeter and fill it in for Rivera. The best relief pitcher of all time, doing it on the biggest stage and thriving in the biggest moments. PSA has graded only 6297 of these cards, however, 1398 of them (22 percent) have come back as PSA 10s. This is by far the highest percentage of any of the six cards listed in this article. 

Total Graded by PSA: 6297

PSA 10: 1398 ($730)

PSA 9: 3337 ($188.50)

PSA 8: 1150 ($127.50)

6. What's Next for The Baseball Card Market?

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One of the most fun aspects of collecting baseball cards centers around prospecting and trying to stay ahead of the hobby by buying cards of players that you think will be break out stars.

I recently wrote this list of my favorite ten MLB prospects and why I think their cards are good investments. You will notice in this article that cards have changed dramatically since the 80s and 90s. Most of the valuable modern cards are typically shiny, colorful and sometimes chrome. Some of them come autographed, with serial numbers and all sorts of variations and refractors.

If you are looking to keep things basic, Topps still produces their standard sets without all of the bells and whistles. Their most current basic set is Topps Baseball 2021 Series 1. Panini also makes baseball cards, however, you will notice that they do not have an MLB license to use the team logos or uniforms, making Topps and Bowman the top dogs in the baseball card space.

I realize that we have covered quite a few topics in this article and that it may seem overwhelming at first with so much to learn. However, if you take the time to learn the products and consume enough content, you can get up speed relatively quickly.

If you have any questions, I would be happy to help. Feel free to reach out to @cardtalkpod on instagram or twitter anytime!

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