The topic of grading baseball cards can be a touchy one in this hobby, and for good reason.
On the one hand, professional grading offers a level of standardization and assurance (in the form of authentication and third-party vetting that comes along for the ride) that has helped infuse the hobby with money and new collectors (OK, and investors).
On the other hand, all that new money and focus on graded cards has helped drive up card prices pretty much across the board, making it harder for the average collector to afford the cards they want.
And, besides — old-time hobbyists will tell you the real joy of this game is in tracking down the cards you want, regardless of condition, and loving them for their innate beauty.
Both sides of the coin are true to a large extent, of course, and graded cards are here to stay, like it or not.
Much more than that, though, every collector needs to have at least a basic understanding of how baseball card grading works, and how to grade cards themselves.
The Importance of Baseball Card Grading
Why do you need to understand grading, you may ask?
Well, no matter what you think about graded, or slabbed, cards, there’s no escaping the fact that the price of just about every card you buy or sell throughout your collecting life will be influenced by that card’s condition.
The better the condition a card is in, the more you’ll have to pay for it … or the more you can sell if for.
But if you don’t know how to differentiate between a mint card and a mere excellent-to-mint (EX-MT) card, for example, you’ll be susceptible to making bad deals at both ends of those transactions — you’ll end up paying more than you should and/or selling for less than you could get.
And, with so many cards on your want list (right?), who can afford to leave money on the table? No matter what your hobby interests or motivations, there’s never as much moolah for the cards you want to own as you would like.
So it really is vital that you understand the two main types of grading baseball cards: grading them yourself and professional grading.
In fact, even if you think you’re going to submit your cards for grading, you’d be well-served to first learn …
Before you even consider sending a card in for professional grading, or dropping big coin (whatever that is for you) — or selling your cards, for that matter — you really need to practice your own grading skills.
Well, for all the reasons above, namely, to protect yourself from bum deals and also to help you decide which cards to submit, or whether to have your cards graded at all.
Now, you’re not likely to start slabbing cards and slapping grading labels on them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t “grade” cards anyway — that is, determine their condition.
There’s a lot that goes into that endeavor, especially if you’ve never done it before, but the basic idea is that you need to judge each card based on:
- Corner sharpness
- Edge wear
- Physical damage — creases, tears, missing pieces
- Surface gloss
- Surface stains, front and back
- Centering, front and back
- Overall visual appeal
If you want to get into the nuts and bolts of determining card condition — and you should want to — check out our full post on how to grade baseball cards.
And, just as you need to develop your skills in figuring out card condition for yourself, you should also have a basic understanding of how professional grading works.
Professional grading companies emerged in the early 1990s as the hobby was accelerating out of the 1980s boom and into the downright mania that followed.
The idea was simple — collectors, dealers, and investors could send their cards in to a trusted third party, who would apply a set of objective grading standards through a rigorous and repeatable process to come up with a definitive ruling on card condition.
To ensure the continued integrity of a card after it had been graded, the grading company would also enclose the card in a sealed case and mark it with a serial-numbered label that displayed basic card information — set, player, card #, etc. — as well as the adjudicated grade.
Today, even though everyone involved, and technologies involved, are more sophisticated thanks to decades of collective experience behind us, the basic process of professional card grading remains largely unchanged:
- The collector decides whether their cards are worth grading. If yes …
- The collector packs up the cards and sends them to the card grading company of their choice, with payment for the service level they choose.
- The collector waits … and waits … and waits … and waits (OK, it’s not always that bad).
- The grading company grades the collector’s cards and sends them back.
- The collector receives the graded cards in the mail and immediately disagrees with the ruling of the card company, while also wishing they themselves had spent more time self-grading the cards before dropping so much money on the service.
Yes, that last one is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a scenario that definitely plays out on a regular basis, and that drives home the main point here…
You need to make sure you have a decent understanding of what all is involved in grading baseball cards, whether you like it or not. And, even better than that, you really owe it to yourself to figure out how to grade baseball cards on your own if you plan to be in this hobby for the long haul.