A Beginner's Guide to Sports Card Collecting

The History of Collecting

Card of baseball pitcher Jimmy Wiggs

Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Most sports cards were originally promotional items given out by tobacco companies to promote their products. In the 1930s, the tobacco was replaced by gum and the cards became more of the focus, as companies such as Goudey and Play Ball produced cards. It wasn't until after World War II that cards began to be produced by companies on a regular basis, first with Bowman in 1948, then with Topps in 1951. Topps was the only card company from 1956 through 1980 after it acquired Bowman. In 1981, Fleer and Donruss entered the market, as did Upper Deck in 1989. Since the late 1980s, there has been an explosion of card sets, with each of the four card companies producing dozens of sets in each sport under a variety of labels and set names.

What to Collect

Prior to the late 1980s, deciding what to collect was a simpler affair. One could afford to buy most new sets that came out and spend their time collecting older items to fill in their collection. Since the explosion of new sets, however, collectors must be a lot choosier. Many people only buy one or two new sets per year. Some only collect individual players.

Some of the most popular types of cards to collect are:

Rookie Cards

The first card of a particular player is usually the most valuable card of that player. From the 1940s through the 1970s, it was easy to decide which particular card was the "rookie" because in most cases there was only one card of a particular player produced each year. Over the last 20 years, however, there has usually been more than one card and often dozen, even for a new player in their first year. Generally, most of these cards will be considered "rookies" and be worth more than an average card but will differ between each other in price based on the quality and scarcity of the set and the quality of the card, among other factors.


The latest fad to take over card collecting has been the insert. These limited edition cards, sometimes containing signatures of players and sometimes containing pieces of jerseys, bats, gloves, bases, and other sports equipment, are put into packs in limited quantities. These individual cards can sometimes sell for thousands of dollars the moment they leave the pack. In addition, there is a recent trend to take older cards and insert them into packs as well with many cards worth thousands in the secondary card market.

Complete Sets

While it is harder than ever for new cards, many collectors started out by collecting complete sets and many still do today. This is particularly prevalent in cards before 1981, but also with several newer sets (such as Topps Heritage) that have particular interest for collectors. Starting in the late 1980s, this became more difficult due to the explosion in the number of sets, as well as the explosion of insert cards. Since inserts are limited production cards, completing a newer set that has inserts can be very expensive. For many vintage collectors, however, it is still the norm.


Unopened packs have always had the allure of the unknown. While new packs once were relatively cheap unless they contain a key rookie, that is not the case today, due to the prevalence of inserts. New unopened packs can range anywhere in cost from $1-$100 and vintage unopened packs from the 1950s and earlier can easily go for thousands of dollars.

Player/Card Desirability

The biggest key to card prices, invariably, is the player on the card. While scarcity and condition are key things to consider when determining prices, it is ultimately the desirability of the player on the card that is the determinant of price. Player desirability is a product of many factors.

Ultimately, player desirability is a combination of numbers (i.e. their career statistics), regional factors, and a certain intangible quality. In most cases, offensive players who are considered the best in their sport will be those of the greatest value (the only defensive players of value are strikeout pitchers and the occasional goalie, like Patrick Roy.)

More factors affecting price include scarcity and condition.


In many collectibles, the phrase is used that "condition is everything." This is true of card collecting as well. There are very few rare sports cards. Most can be had relatively easily for a price. What is rare, however, is older cards in good condition and newer cards in "perfect" condition.

In cards, the condition has to do with 3 major factors:

  • Any defects to the card when it was printed
  • Any defects to the card when it was cut
  • Any defects to the card after it left the pack

Most of the damage to cards that affects the decision is the result of handling of the cards after they leave their initial packaging. Prior to that, however, defects can occur when the cards are printed onto large sheets (such as a double image) or when the sheets are cut into individual cards (problems which result in centering issues.) Ultimately, everyone wants the most attractive card.


When future Hall of Famer Honus Wagner, lifelong hater of smoking, learned that a tobacco card has been produced with his likeness, he took action to have the card withdrawn from distribution. Only a handful remained in circulation. It is currently the most valuable baseball card in existence due to the desires of its subject and its great scarcity, perhaps the ultimate example of the scarcity principle at work.

Modern card companies have taken scarcity to a new level with insert cards, cards specifically limited in their production to drive pack sales. It is the scarcity of these inserts (sometimes only 1-5 are made) that ultimately drives their price and the price of their packs and sets.

Is Professional Grading Worth It?

Companies such as Beckett and Collectors Universe provide professional grading services; that is, an independent organization that will, for a fee, grade your card (either through a hobby shop, by mail or at a show) and provide a rating of your card. Most grading services are identified by a 3 or 4 letter anagram (Beckett Grading Services—BGS, Professional Sportscard Authenticators—PSA) and most have a rating scale of 10 (some have a scale of 100) ranging from Poor (1) to Gem-Mint or Pristine (10). In addition, these companies add additional codes to indicate other defects, such as "OC" for off-center cards. Most grading companies issue "population reports", which tell collectors how many of a given card has been given a certain grade, so a collector can see how scarce a card is in a given grade.

Cards that have professional grades of 9 or higher are often listed at prices that are substantially higher than the "Mint" grade listed in a sports card price guide. For a card graded 10, the price can sometimes be 10 or 20 times the price of the "Mint" grade. Due to the extreme prices differences between grade, sellers often will have a card graded by two grading services, allowing them to sell the card at whichever grade their think will be more profitable.

Whether or not you should have your cards professionally graded depends on the reason you are collecting. If you are collecting for the enjoyment of it, you probably don't need professionally graded cards (although they would help establish a reliable price if you were looking to ensure your cards.) Regardless, cards below $20 do not generally need to be professionally graded, because the return on their sale is too low to make the investment in grading worthwhile.

If you are selling cards in the $20 and up range and look at collecting as a speculative investment (in which case it really is just speculating, not collecting), then you should take a look at professional grading. If you want to sell in online auctions, professional grading is essential as a means of relating condition information about your cards to potential sellers. If you have a professionally graded card, you can, with relative accuracy, estimate the price a given card might fetch in the marketplace and sell at the appropriate time.

Where to Buy Cards

There are two primary ways to buy cards, one is in unopened packs or boxes, and the other is in the secondary market as an individual card. Obviously, the first method can be the cheapest if you get lucky, while the second method is the only guarantee of getting the card you want but you will pay close to market value.

At one-time baseball card packs could be purchased in any corner grocery store, this has largely changed. While larger chain stores, such as K-Mart, do carry a limited selection of new cards, it is specialty hobby stores, focused only on sports cards (or sometimes another collectible like comic books as well) that do the majority of the serious card business. There is even a difference between the unopened packs and boxes bought in a retail store and a hobby store. The hobby store packs sometimes have inserts that are not included in the retail packs. Hobby stores also, unlike retail stores, are places to buy older cards and sets.

Outside of stores, there are a number of venues for purchasing new and older cards. There are thousands of sports card shows around the country each year, primarily in convention centers and shopping malls. Some of these are large, prestigious events, including the past and present stars, while others are simple affairs with the same groups of dealers and collectors meeting on a regular basis. Sports card auctions are another good venue, whether they are held in person, over the phone, through the mail, or online.

Buying and Selling Online

There is a large, thriving online auction market for sports cards on almost all major auction sites, and there are many dedicated to just sports cards, giving collectors a wide variety of options to choose from in terms of price.

Large auction sites such as eBay and Yahoo sell almost everything but have a large audience devoted to sports cards and memorabilia. Price guide companies like Beckett also have their own auctions, as do a number of sports card only auction houses. They provide auctions not only online, but over the phone and in person as well.

Finding Prices

Beckett is the industry leader in sports card pricing, publishing an annual price guide, monthly publications for each major sport, and an online price guide service. Krause Publications publishes Tuff Stuff magazine, a price guide, and Sports Collector's Digest, a weekly for hardcore collectors containing ads and show and auction information.

The Bottom Line

Sports card collecting is a hobby that has undergone a tremendous amount of change over the past 20 years. Although the number of sets produced each year is staggering, the flip side is that there has never been more variety for collectors. Whether you are looking to spend a little spare cash or your life savings, sports card collecting can fit your needs.