How Much Are Baseball Cards Worth?

What every baseball card collector should know about the value of thier cards. This is a basic guide to acquiring and maintaining a valuable collection.

Having been an avid collector of baseball cards for the vast part of 35 years, I am often asked by novice collectors to appraise the value of their collection. Always careful not to damage their newly found enthusiasm, or dreams of funding their kids college education through their latest discovery, I begin the conversation with these simple words, "Cards are worth only what someone is willing to pay for them." However, there are some rules of thumb to help out the novice collector. These rules are as follows:

*Condition of the Card:

The condition of the card greatly impacts its value. A card in pristine shape will generate top dollar, while a card in poor condition will generate a fraction of that and most often will be harder to sell. There are generally accepted grading scales that help ascertain the condition of a card. Most of these scales can be found in monthly or yearly hobby publications such as the BeckettĀ® Baseball Collector price guide. These guides are available in most book stores, grocery stores, or discount stores. The scales generally rate the cards from a condition of " Gem Mint" down to a condition of "Poor". These scales take into account various factors such as the conditions of the corners, surface, centering, printing error, creases, blemishes, and general wear and tear on the card. Mint cards are generally void of errors, defects or abuse. They are well centered and have sharp corners. The more defects or the larger the flaw on a card the lower the grade it will receive.

*Grading Services:

One of the most recent trends in card collecting is using a professional grading service to grade your cards. For a fee that ranges from $4 to $25 per card, a collector can have a card graded by a professional grading service. The service encapsulates the card in a seal plastic container designed to preserve the condition of the card. The cards are issued a grade on a scale of 10 to 1 with a grade of 10 going to a card in Gem Mint condition. While I strongly recommend a grading service for a collector's most expensive cards, it generally adds little value to less expensive, common, or over produced cards.

*Older Era Cards:

Most cards printed prior to 1980 hold a higher premium than their recent counterparts. From the late 1940's through the early 1980's, most baseball cards were the product of one company, The ToppsĀ® Company, Inc. While a few other companies ventured into and out of the business during this span of time, only Topps produced a steady stream of product. Because of this, cards from that time period are often scarce when compared to cards from recent years. The opposite holds true for the period of time from 1985 to the mid 1995 when companies over produced most of the sets they marketed. These sets rarely hold their value well. Another factor that accounts for the higher values of cards from older eras, is that prior to the 1980's cards were rarely housed in the protective plastic holders, sleeves, boxes, or the cases that are now offered for storage. Thus cards prior to 1980 are much harder to find in mint condition. The cards that are found in mint condition, often obtain a value far greater than those suggested by the price guides. Baseball cards produced before the late 1940's are even less common and also command a higher premium due to both scarcity and conditions of the cards.

*Scarcity:

Scarcity then is an important factor in determining the value of a card. Some cards, especially those of an older era, are harder to find than others. There were years when the production run by a card company might have been much lower than at other times. Even within the same production year a set may have been distributed in two or three separate series. Normally the latter series where printed in smaller quantities, making them scarce with regards to the earlier series. Scarcity drives up the value of the card when demand catches up to or exceeds the supply of the card.

In the modern area, some card manufacturers have created a built in scarcity factor to entice collectors to their product. This built-in scarcity is in the form of short printed cards, inserts seeded in lower quantities than the cards from the main set, and serialize cards. The serialize cards have an imprinted serial number which notifies the collector of the exact number of cards printed. Autograph cards and jersey cards are two of the most popular recent inserts.



*Rookie Cards:

A rookie card is a card which comes out in the year a player makes his first appearance in a mainstream card set. Often times a players rookie card (RC) does not correspond with a players first year in the major league. Some card companies issue a player's first card when he is drafted, in the minor leagues, or even years after he has first played in the major. Rookie cards are usually one of the most sought after cards of a player, and they command some of the highest prices. While many collecting fads come and go, the collecting of a player's rookie card has remained one of the pillars of the hobby. Until a person gains confidence as a collector, it is best to consult a price guide to determine which issues make up a player's rookie cards.

*The Players:

Another major factor that remains is the appeal of the player. Some players are in demand due to a stellar playing career. For examples, players that are bound for the Hall of Fame are generally more valuable than other players in the same set. The same holds true for cards of young players who come through the minor leagues showing great promise. The value of these cards, are often driven up by collectors who are speculating on what type of career the player will have. Players who play ball for some of the better teams or larger cities generally have a bigger fan base. This also may drive up the price of their cards.

*Bargains:

As in any free market economy, the laws of supply and demand play a critical role in the value of a card collection. With so many companies now competing for a collector's dollar, and so many card dealers selling in the secondary markets, there are ample opportunities to assemble a valuable collection for a fraction of what a price guide says they are worth. E-auctions like those found on e-Bay are great places to find the cards you are looking for at times for a fraction of what you would pay at a card store with higher over head. Flea markets are also a wonderful place to find good deals on cards. It has not been uncommon for me to find cards from the $5-$40 range selling for pennies at a flea market. My personal rule of thumb is to try to find the cards I am looking for at 10-25% of the price stated in the price guide.

*Selling your Cards:

Once again, basic economic laws are critical to the amount of money you can get for selling your collection. Normally, dealers who will re-sale the cards they buy, offer to pay between 25%-60% for the cards that they want. Remember, not only do these dealers have a great deal of over head to cover, but they also need to make money from the transaction. Selling thorough e-Bay or other on line auctions will generally net you an amount in the same range.

The best time to sell your cards is when the particular player has had an outstanding year, broken a record, or is headed into the Hall of Fame. These are times in their lives when they are highly visible to collectors, and the demand for them goes up. The worse time to sell is right after the player has been injured.

*Other Factors:

As in most complex economies, there is a great deal of additional factors that might affect the value of a card. Some of these factors are, the charisma of the player, the region of the country you are buying the card, the type of set the card comes from, and the esthetics of the card set.

These rules of thumb aside, the "Economic Golden Rule" will always apply. A card is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay for it.

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