Although first introduced to the public in the mid-1860s, soon after the game’s inception and soon after photography became popular, baseball cards were not mass-produced until the 1880s. It was around this time that tobacco brands such as Old Judge and Gypsy Queen inserted cards inside their products with player illustrations, mainly to keep the fragile packaging intact. Baseball cards became a hit with fans, especially children, who received a bonus piece of gum inside packages from the early 1930s.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the value of baseball cards skyrocketed, thanks to deep public interest in nostalgia and the explosion in popularity of “rookie cards,” cards featuring. featured players in their first Major League Baseball season.
Now considered investments by high-end collectors, mint-condition rare cards have sold for millions. In 1991, an industry standard for card scoring and authentication was established by Professional Sports Authenticator, a sports memorabilia company. Other companies also rate cards based on their condition, including Beckett Grading Services (BGS) and Sportscard Guaranty Company (SGC).
For more than 70 years, the main player in the card company was Topps, which was licensed by the MLB and the MLB Players’ Association to produce official baseball cards. In August 2021, Topps was slated to be replaced by Fanatics, which will produce officially licensed MLB cards from 2026.
From Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame member Honus Wagner to Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, here are nine iconic star player cards that have been sold or auctioned off for big money:
1. Honus Wagner | Card sold for: $ 6,606,000
Star power: Known as “The Flying Dutchman,” Wagner recorded 3,420 hits and 723 stolen bases during his career with the Louisville Colonels and the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1897 to 1917. He led the National League at bat. eight times and kills and steals five times each. In 1936, he was part of the first class of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Iconic map: 1911 American Tobacco Company T206, which sold for $ 6.606 million in August 2021.
Legend has it that Wagner was a teetotaler who hated using his image to sell tobacco. Others argue that Wagner demanded more compensation from the company for using his image, and therefore production of the card was limited. Whatever the reason for its rarity, the Wagner T206 card remains the most well-known baseball card.
2. Mickey’s coat | Card sold for: $ 5.2 million
Star power: A formidable all-rounder before an injury-filled decline, Mantle – who played from 1951 to 1968 – is considered the best switch hitter in MLB history. If he hadn’t been injured so often, he might have threatened Ruth’s all-time home run record. Mantle ended his MLB career with 536 home runs.
Iconic map: 1952 Topps # 311, which sold for $ 5.2 million in 2021.
This is perhaps the most legendary collectible card in the sport, and it’s not even Mantle’s rookie card. That honor goes to his 1951 Bowman card. But the 1952 Topps Mantle has one thing the card doesn’t: a fabulous story.
In 1952, Topps owner Sy Berger left the printing presses running for some of his company’s cards. But the late summer release chilled collectors on the cards, and cases of the product remained unsold. By 1960 Berger had as many as 500 cases of cards, including Mantle’s now valuable card, thrown into the Hudson River.
READ MORE: The epic battle to break Babe Ruth’s Home Run record
3. Baby Ruth | Card sold for: $ 4,212,000
Star power: Known as “The Great Bambino”, “The Sultan of Swat”, “The Colossus of Clout” or simply “The Babe”, Ruth was the first world star of the game. Like Wagner, he was selected in the game. All-Century MLB team and Hall of Fame First Class member in 1936. Ruth, who played from 1914 to 1935, was the longtime all-time MLB champion until ‘he was surpassed by Hank Aaron (1974) and Barry Bonds (2004).
Iconic map: 1933 Goudey # 53, which sold for $ 4,212,000 at an auction in July 2021.
In 1933, a year after its last World Series title, the Goudey Gum Company produced a 240-card deck, including four Ruth cards. But card # 53, with Ruth on a bright yellow background, remains the norm. This iconic card has been classified in mint condition by Professional Sport Authenticator.
READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Babe Ruth
4. Mike Trout | Card sold for: $ 3.9 million
Star power: Widely regarded as the best active player in the game, the future Hall of Famer was a star in nine of his first 11 seasons. The Los Angeles Angels outfielder has won three American League MVP awards.
Iconic map: 2009 Bowman Draft BDPP89 Superfractor, which sold for $ 3.9 million in August 2020.
Topps, which produces Bowman maps, began creating “parallel” maps in 1992, shortened versions of base maps that are rarer and more valuable. The Superfractor version of Trout’s autographed Bowman Draft rookie card – a glittering gold edition limited to a single copy – set the record for the highest card sale until it was eclipsed several times in 2020 and 2021.
5. Nolan Ryan | Card sold for: $ 600,000
Star power: One of the most feared power pitchers in the game, Ryan struck out an MLB record of 5,714 batters, nearly 1,000 more than roster number 2 Randy Johnson. He was an ironman, throwing for four teams during a 27-year career from 1966 to 1993 before retiring at 46.
Iconic map: 1968 Topps Rookie Card # 177 (featuring Mets pitcher Jerry Koosman), which sold for $ 600,000 in August 2020.
Some may argue about Ryan’s lack of success as a team. He played for only one World Series champion, the 1969 New York Mets. But he set many records. Koosman, who got the top spot on the map, was a good player in his own right. He ended his career with 222 wins. Few of these cards were found in excellent condition.
6. Jackie Robinson | Card sold for: $ 392,400
Star power: Hall of Fame member Robinson broke the MLB color barrier in 1947, becoming an icon of social justice. A remarkable all-rounder, he played in four sports (baseball, basketball, soccer and track) at UCLA. Robinson, who played from 1947 to 1956, was a six-time National League star and named MVP in 1949. His No. 42 jersey was retired by all MLB teams.
Iconic map: 1948 Leaf # 79, which sold for $ 392,400 in March 2021.
The iconic 1948 card – the most desirable of a set filled with debut cards from big stars such as Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn and DiMaggio – received a PSA 7 rating. A 10 rating, “gem mint condition” , is the highest PSA rating.
READ MORE: Jackie Robinson Facts, Quotes & Stats
7. Joe DiMaggio | Card sold for: $ 218,578
Star power: Joltin ‘Joe’s 56-game consecutive hitting streak of 1941 is one of the sport’s most amazing marks. 13-time all-star and nine-time batting champion, DiMaggio was a pop culture icon who married Marilyn Monroe and was immortalized in song in 1941 by the Les Brown Orchestra with lyrics by Alan Courtney and Ben Homer.
Iconic map: 1939 Play Ball # 26, which sold for $ 218,578 in July 2021.
One of many obscure makers’ DiMaggio cards, the 1939 Play Ball card is considered his best rookie card. The normally stoic star smiles on the Play Ball Card. Other high quality versions of his World Wide Gum 1936 and Goudey 1938 maps may order even more than this map.
8. Rickey Henderson | Card sold for: $ 180,100
Star power: Known as “The Man of Steal,” Henderson, who played for the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees in his 25-year career, is considered the best leading hitter in the history of the MLB. He is the all-time leader in stolen bases and races (2,295). Henderson’s 1,406 career interceptions are nearly 500 more than number 2 player Lou Brock.
Iconic map: 1980 Topps # 482, which sold for $ 180,100 in February 2021.
From the 1950s to the early 1980s, Topps made cards that often deteriorated quickly and thus lost value to card collectors. As a result, a pristine Henderson rookie card from Topps became nearly impossible to find. According to Professional Sports Authenticator, the sports memorabilia rating service, more than 23,000 copies of the card have been rated. Only 25, 0.1 percent of those manufactured, got a mint condition designation.
9. Ken Griffey Jr. | Card sold for: $ 23,100
Star power: “The Kid” has combined a rare blend of skill and athleticism to become a fan favorite, especially with his first team, the Seattle Mariners. First-round Hall of Fame member with 99.3% of the vote, Griffey, who retired after the 2010 season, has been a 13-time star and has led the AHL four times. He ended his career with 630 home runs.
Iconic map: 1989 Upper Deck # 1, $ 23,100 in March 2021.
Griffey’s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card was an instant sensation. Unclassified copies sold for over $ 100 soon after the set was released. Griffey then justified the hefty price tag by becoming perhaps the best player of the 1990s.
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