Learning how to grade baseball cards is an essential skill for any collector or investor, regardless of your hobby experience or goals.

Why?

Simply because the value of any individual card depends to a large degree on its condition, whether or not that card has been professionally graded. By honing your own grading skills, you will be more equipped to properly value your cards or the cards you’re considering buying, which can help you avoid bad deals.

After all, no one wants to may for a card than it’s worth or to sell your own cards for less than you might be able to get. Same goes for trading — you want to operate on a level playing field, and proper condition evaluation goes a long way toward helping you get there.

Pre-grading your own cards is also an important step in deciding whether or not to submit them for professional grading.

But …

Just how do you go about grading a baseball card (or other sports card)?

Well, there are a lot of points to consider, and it can seem overwhelming if you’ve never gone through the process before. But the good news is, grading cards is a systematic undertaking, and you will get better at doing it the more practice you put in.

The entire process can be broken down into distinct aspects of each card that you need to consider in order to build up an overall grade. Each piece is pretty simple to understand, but I’ll issue one caveat before we get started: you need to be ruthless in your evaluation of card condition, especially when you’re dealing with your own cards.

In fact, when you’re grading your own cards, you should do a little role play and think about it like this: pretend you’re considering buying that card — how would you grade it then?

The natural tendency is to grade other people’s cards more harshly than your own, but with practice and working toward complete objectivity, you can reach a point of consistent grading standards, no matter who owns a particular card.

And remember, too, that grading should be blind to other considerations. There is no room in determining card condition for sentiments like “it’s in great shape for an old card” or, “that card is always off-centered, but this one is perfect other than that.”

Nope. A mint card is a mint card, and a poor card is a poor card. Any other considerations will color the eventual buying or selling price — an old card that hardly ever shows up in better than VG shape will have a different price curve than a Junk Wax common, for example — but the grading process only cares about what the card actually looks like.

With all that in mind, below is a rundown of how to grade baseball cards by considering each aspect of condition in turn. It’s worthwhile to read through this once or twice before you actually start assessing a card’s condition, so you have the general ideas percolating in your mind.

Then, as you work through these steps again in the context of grading a specific card, write down (on paper, in a spreadsheet, whatever) how you grade the card in question for each category … you’ll need that information when we assign a final overall grade.

Now, let’s get grading!

Corners

Corners should be perfectly sharp and square, with no fraying, bending, rounding, fuzziness, or strange angles (which could indicate the card has been trimmed).

Within those corner considerations, you can make further distinctions about the severity of any particular defect.

If a corner is frayed, for instance, you might consider how deep into the card body that fraying extends. And rounding can occur at just the very tip, or it can progress to wearing off the whole corner, in effect changing the overall shape (as distinct from the condition) of the entire card.

A bit more on each of those condition defects:

  • Fraying: the layers of cardboard have separated from each other to some degree at the corner, leading to a sort of “flapping” and each layer being distinctly visible
  • Rounding: the “point” of the corner has been worn off, leaving a rounded edge, usually with some associated surface scuffing, and often with some fraying, as well
  • Fuzziness: while still mostly sharp, the corner exhibits some roughness, manifesting in small straggling bits — fuzziness; may be the beginning of rounding or fraying
  • Bending: the corner has been bent back and creased on the card surface
  • Odd angle: the corner does not necessarily exhibit other defects, but the two sides don’t meet at a 90-degree angle; often indicative of a card hand-cut from a larger piece OR of trimming done in an attempt to “sharpen” the corner

Here is a visual representation of some of these common corner conditions and defects:

baseball card corner grading

Edges (Borders)

Card edges, or borders, should be straight and clean, and free of defects like dings, creases, or tears.

Here is a rundown of some of the most common types of edge damage:

  • Chipping: most often seen on cards with colored, non-white borders, this occurs when pieces of the card surface are “chipped” away along the edge, leaving a dull splotch of a different color (usually white, gray, or brown)
  • Denting: a portion of the card edge is compressed, or dented, below the surface of the rest of the card; often the result of rubber bands used for grouping card together, overtight card holders, heavy objects being placed unevenly on card surfaces, or even pinching during the original printing process
  • Fraying: as with corners, edges can exhibit a separation of cardboard layers (fraying)
  • Discoloration: as most card borders are white, they are often the most susceptible to showing discoloration: yellowing, staining, fading, lack of brightness, etc.
  • Creasing: bending along the edge of the card that affects the surface layer, the underlying cardboard, or both
  • Tears: card tears most commonly begin along an edge; sometimes the result of direct shearing force, sometimes a progression of denting

Here is a visual representation of these edge defects:

Physical Damage

In addition to the edge and corner damage we’ve already noted, we need to account for physical defects across the rest of the card. These can take almost any form you might imagine, but a few of the more common (and dramatic) include:

  • Creases: bending of the card deep enough to cause permanent folds in the cardboard, surface photo layer, or both
  • Tears: rips that extend beyond card borders and into the meat of the card
  • Holes: perforations or areas of wear that extend through both sides of the card; may be caused by pins, extreme friction, hole punches, burns, or other agents of damage
  • Missing pieces: corners ripped off or other chunks of the card torn away and completely missing; this is usually the most extreme form of damage and generally renders a card virtually worthless — unless it’s a hobby heavyweight, like the T206 Honus Wagner or 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle
  • Warping: cards can bow out or in (relative to the card front) over time, which can sometimes be corrected but can also lead to other structural defects
  • Water damage: stains, bubbling, brittleness, warping, or other defects caused by the card being exposed to moisture or in direct contact with a liquid (I’m including this here instead with “Stains” below since water can cause structural damage beyond staining)

Here is a visual representation of some of these common physical defects:

Surface

The front surface of a card should retain its original gloss or sheen. Front and back should be free from gouges, scuffs, or other mechanical deformities.

Some common forms of surface damage include:

  • Loss of gloss: fairly minor problem that results in a dulled surface when compared to a “new” card from the same set; applies to the fronts of all cards and also the backs of newer cards that have glossy or photo-based reverses
  • Scuffing: areas of surface damage that result in visible dull and worn spots; usually caused by the friction of an object being inadvertently rubbed over the card surface
  • Scratching: long and/or thin abrasions typically caused by a sharp object running across the card surface
  • Gouging or peeling: patches of the surface missing, due to acute and severe localized abrasion or scraping by an object, or by two cards being stuck together and then pulled apart
  • Crease: a “surface crease” affects only the top (or bottom, the case of a card back) photo layer of a card, crinkling the paper without extending to the cardboard beneath

Here is a visual representation of some of the most common surface problems you might encounter:

baseball card surface damage

Stains

Cards live in the real world and can come into contact with all sorts of substances, either intentionally or by accident. The result is often a stained baseball card.

We covered water stains and other water damage above, so here are some of the other types of stains that are fairly common to find on sports cards.

  • Pen marks: writing, drawing, or scribbling on the card front or back with a pen, pencil, crayon, markers, or other utensil; not surprising when you consider that cards were originally marketed mostly to kids
  • Gum stains: mostly pertains to older cards, which were sold with gum; can affect card fronts or backs; other food items that might have stained cards over the years include caramel, cookies, pastries, hot dogs, and many others
  • Wax stains: as with gum stains, this mostly affects older cards, which were packaged in wax-paper wrappers; both card fronts and backs are susceptible
  • Glue stains: in the same vein as wax stains, glue was often used in packaging in the early decades of the hobby; some collectors also used/use glue to affix cards to various surfaces, leaving behind stains and often more severe structural damage
  • Tape (or tape stains): as with glue, collectors have often used tape to affix cards to album pages and other objects over the years; the aftereffects include cards with tape stains or actual tape still attached

Here is a visual representation of some common types of stains that frequently show up on baseball cards:

baseball card stains

Centering

Card images and other design elements should be well-centered, with equal amounts of border visible on the left and right side of the card, and on top and bottom. Numerical values can be assigned to centering, representing the amount of border space present in each region as a percentage.

For example, a perfectly-centered card has 50-50 centering side-to-side, and 50-50 centering top-to-bottom, as borders are evenly split — 50% to the left, 50% to the right for the horizontal measure; 50% on top, 50% on bottom for the vertical.

As another example, if a card’s left border is roughly twice as large as its right, the centering might be graded as 70-30.

Centering applies to both card fronts and backs.

Another aspect of card grading closely related to centering is the card cut, which should be straight and true. Any tilting of the design and/or image on a card will ding its grade, and a severe miscut, wherein part of one card appears on another card, can severely sap values.

A quick recap of centering considerations as they apply to card grading:

  • Left-to-right centering: borders should be equal in size on both sides of the card
  • Top-to-bottom centering: borders should be equal in size on top and bottom of the card
  • Cut: borders should be “square” and not tilted one way or the other
  • Back centering: all centering considerations apply to both card fronts and backs

Here are some examples of the types of centering you might see on baseball cards:

baseball card centering

Image

Image(s) on the card should be crisp and clear, with no blurriness, fading, distortion, color defects, printing dots or flares, or other issues that detract from the visual appeal of the card.

Here is a visual representation of some photo imperfections that might plague a baseball card:

baseball card photo defects

Color

In addition to tinting problems with the actual image on a card, other design elements can also suffer from coloration defects. Some of the possible defects in this category inlcude:

  • Separated colors: two or more colors of ink used to make a a third (or fourth, etc.) color can sometimes show up offset from each other on cards, leading to a “double vision” effect and inconsistent color schemes
  • Missing ink: a particular ink color may have been excluded (or ran out) during printing of some cards; though a defect, striking examples such as the “blackless” 1982 and 1990 Topps cards can actually carry a premium
  • Back discoloration: card backs can show up faded or otherwise exhibit a different shade from the intended color, and distinct from other cards in a set
  • Faded or discolored design elements: as with photos, card design elements can appear faded or discolored

Here is are some visual examples of non-photo coloration defects that sometimes affect baseball cards:

baseball card color defects

Printing Defects

Aside from from the coloring issues discussed above, other printing-related problems can manifest in cards that are less than perfect. Here are some of the defects that can afflict baseball cards as a result of the printing process:

  • Blank back: what it sounds like — a card with no back; can be intentional (as in a proof card) or a mistake (as when two sheets stick together or part of the printing process is missed); blank backs can carry a premium depending on which player is involved
  • Wrong back: the card back features one player, while the card front features a different player; results from misaligned or mismatched printing sheets; like blank backs, wrong backs can command a premium depending on the players involved
  • Print lines: stray lines or other marks (like smudges) that cross a card front or back; often caused by damaged printing equipment or foreign items — fuzz, dust, insects, etc. — being inadvertently introduced into the printing process
  • Print snow: white dots across the card front (or, occasionally, the back), due to incomplete ink coverage during the printing process
  • Missing foil: all or some of the gold or silver foil used in a card design is missing; can happen because of a missed step in the printing process, faulty equipment, QA issues in applying the foil, or even post-production damage; applies mostly to modern cards (obviously); the same sorts of issues can arise with other on-card additions — holograms, relic pieces, plastic covering for 3D cards, etc.

Here is a visual representation of some of these common print defects that can affect the overall condition of a baseball card:

baseball card printing defects

Overall Visual Appeal

OK, “visual appeal” is pretty subjective, and it doesn’t play into any grading scale, at least not officially.

But where it does play a role is when a card goes up for sale. How?

Well, a card that “looks good” despite grading out as VG (see below) or Poor or whatever, might well command a higher selling price on the open market than an “ugly” card.

Again, very subjective, but think of it like a question(s) potential buyers need to ask themselves …

Would this card look good on display with the rest of my collection? Would I be happy to look at this card ever day? Does looking at this card make me happy?

Touchy-feely stuff, sure, but we can objectify it a bit. In particular, overall visual appeal is helped out when …

  • a card is fully intact, with no missing pieces despite any other structural defects
  • any creases present don’t cross or mar the main subject of the card (usually a face or action scene)
  • card colors are rich and unfaded
  • any print lines or dots steer clear of the main field of vision
  • all four borders are present
  • no tears cut through the heart of the card
  • heavy damage on the card back leaves the card front nearly untouched

These considerations may not drive the numbers on a card grade to a large extent, but you should definitely take some time to ponder them when it comes time for money to change hands.

Putting It All Together

OK, so you’ve read through the list of all the areas you need to consider when grading a baseball card, and you have a pretty good idea of what defects you should be on the lookout for.

Now … are you ready to put theory into practice? Ready to “grade” your first card?

Great! Grab a card, and let’s get cooking.

Now, if you haven’t already done so, take the card that you want to determine condition for and run it through our gauntlet of condition tests above. Scrutinize your card carefully and, yes, ruthlessly. Remember — pretend you’re buying this card rather than already owning it, and apply the same sort of rigor to your grading as you would when getting ready to plunk down cash.

For each category, write down how your card fares — is it perfect? How many defects does it have? How severe are they?

When you’re done, you should have a sort of scorecard showing you:

  • Corners: How many sharp corners? How many have damage? How extensive is the damage?
  • Edges: Are the card edges straight and true? Is there any damage? How much?
  • Physical Damage: Is the card free of creases, tears, holes, and other physical defects? If not, how many are there, and how bad are they?
  • Surface: Are the card surfaces, front and back blemish-free? Do they maintain their original gloss? Are they scuffed?
  • Stains: Is the card “clean”, front and back, or are their stains or foreign substances on the surface or sides? Gum? Wax? Glue? Other? How extensive is the damage?
  • Centering: Are the card borders even all the way around, front and back? If not, how far off-center, and in which directions? Is the card miscut?
  • Image: Is the image clear, bright, and well-colored? If not, how detracting (and distracting) are the defects?
  • Color: Are the colors on front and back full and true? Or are they faded, tinted oddly, or missing?
  • Printing Defects: Is the card free from print-time defects? Or are there print lines? Snow? Blurred ink? Missing card elements? How severe is the damage?
  • Visual Appeal: Regardless of defects, does the card “flow” well? Is it attractive? Would it look good displayed in a collection? Would you be proud to display the card?

With your catalog of condition points in hand, it’s time to use those evaluations to apply an actual grade to your card.

To do this, we’ll lay out some commonly excepted condition “buckets” and then use our scorecard to figure out how an individual card slots in. These are time-honored grades that have been part of the hobby vernacular for decades, and grades that have become standards across almost every professional grading company.

And, speaking of grading companies, they will typically apply numerical values to these text-based grade levels, as well, and some will assign ranges of scores to each grade level (something like, any card that scores between 90 and 95 is a “Mint” card, for example).

We’ll steer clear of any particular numbering system here, though, and opt instead for a qualitative grade as the final product of this exercise, which you can use for any card you want to evaluate.

Here, then, are those coarse-grain grade levels, and an explanation of each. As you read through, compare the description to the list of defects you compiled for your card and determine what condition bucket that card fits in.

Gem Mint (GEM)

This grade is reserved for cards that are pretty much perfect, with just very slight allowances made for minor centering and back imperfections. In general, a Gem Mint card will have:

  • Four sharp corners
  • Straight and clean edges
  • Full surface gloss
  • Centering of 60-40 or better on the front
  • All borders fully visible on the back (75-25 centering or better)
  • Free of any stains or discoloration
  • Free from all but the most minor and nearly imperceptible printing flaws

Mint (MT)

For many years, “Mint” was used to describe only perfect cards, but even “perfect” began to wilt and bifurcate under the heat of increased scrutiny as card prices escalated in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Gem Mint” was born to describe the most blazing of the best, with “Mint” relegated to describing cards that appear pristine at first glance, but which are just a touch south of perfection on closer inspection.

General characteristics of a Mint card include:

  • Four sharp corners
  • Full original surface gloss
  • 65-35 or better centering on front, with back borders at least 10% visible
  • Slight border discolorations
  • Minor wax or gum stain on the card back
  • Minor printing defect

It should be noted that any more than one of those imperfections will drop an otherwise Mint card down to …

Near Mint-to-Mint (NM-MT)

A Near Mint-to-Mint card is nearly as visually stunning as a Mint or Gem Mint card, but it typically exhibits multiple minor defects.

Among those might include:

  • Slight fraying at one or two corners
  • 70-30 (or better) centering on the card front, or 90-10 on the back
  • Slight border discolorations
  • Minor wax or gum stain on the card back
  • Minor printing defect

Near Mint (NM)

A Near Mint card generally appears very nice on first inspection, but closer examination will reveal multiple, still fairly minor, condition problems.

Among the defects that a NM card might exhibit are:

  • Minor surface wear or loss of gloss
  • Minor fraying at multiple corners
  • Slightly blurry photo(s)
  • Minor wax or gum stain on card back
  • Border discoloration (off-white instead of white borders, e.g.)
  • Minor printing defect
  • 75/25 (or better) centering on the card front, or 90-10 on the back

Excellent-to-Mint (EX-MT)

Another step down the perfection scale, Excellent-to-Mint — or EX-MT — was a common “manual” grade doled out during the ’80s and ’90s, representing a big, broad grouping for cards that definitely weren’t mint, but that were too good to be labeled “Very Good” (see below).

These days, of course, grading is much more nuanced, with even half grades representing hundreds or thousands of dollars in value in the case of some low-supply, high-demand older cards.

So …

For our purposes, an EX-MT card might exhibit multiple of the following defects:

  • Visible surface wear or slight scuffing/scratching
  • More severe fraying of corners
  • Notched or dented edges
  • Wax or gum stains on the back of the card
  • Loss of original surface gloss
  • Border discoloration (off-white instead of white borders, e.g.)
  • 80-20 (or better) front centering, and at least 90-10 centering on the back (that is, all borders still visible)
  • Slightly blurry image(s)

Excellent (EX)

Though “Excellent” may sound, well, excellent, the truth is, cards in this grade are often fairly easy to spot as something less than pristine.

Among the defects that might plague an Excellent card are:

  • Slight rounding of corners
  • Readily visible surface wear
  • More pronounced printing defects
  • Notched, chipped, and/or dented edges
  • Border discoloration (off-white instead of white borders, e.g.)
  • Stains on the card back
  • Heavier loss of original gloss
  • Front centering as poor as 85-15, with the back at 90-10 or better

Very Good-to-Excellent (VG-EX)

Like EX-MT, “Very Good-to-Excellent” encompassed a fairly wide range of card conditions in generations past. Generally speaking, VG-EX cards were in pretty rough condition but were whole — no missing pieces, holes, rips, etc.

Today, naturally, VG-EX has a much more specific meaning, and represents a still pleasing general condition.

Though cards in VG-EX can look nice overall — they present good visual appeal — they usually exhibit multiple of the following defects:

  • Visibly rounded corners
  • Moderate surface scuffing or scratches
  • A preponderance of “flat” surfaces, though with some original gloss remaining
  • Slight edge wear
  • Off-white borders (or other discolorations)
  • Stains on the card back
  • Somewhat blurry photo(s)
  • Light creasing (usually just one for this grade)
  • 85-15 centering on front; 90-10 on back (or better in both cases)

Very Good (VG)

Even more visibly flawed than VG-EX specimens, a card in Very Good condition may exhibit:

  • Rounded corners, with some “fuzz”
  • Slight stains on the card front
  • More severe stains on card back
  • Discolored borders
  • Worn edges
  • Blurry image(s)
  • Heavier creasing
  • Most original gloss lost
  • 90-10 centering (or better) on front and back

Good

A Good card is really not all that good when it comes to conditioning. To wit, though a Good card is generally still intact and may display OK, it usually exhibits multiple defects:

  • Rounded and frayed corners
  • Damaged edges
  • Multiple creases
  • Complete loss of gloss
  • Advanced surface wear
  • Heavy discoloration
  • Stains on front and back
  • Centering as bad as 90-10 front and back
  • Surface chipping

Fair (FR)

A decent rule of thumb is that a Fair rating is about as bad as a card can get without actually having pieces missing. That is, in order to receive a “Fair” grade, a card must be fully intact, but it will exhibit multiple defects, including:

  • Heavily rounded and eroded corners
  • At least one (and maybe multiple) heavy crease
  • Heavy discoloration, to the point of having dirty borders
  • Stains front and back
  • Heavy surface wear- scuffing, scratches, chipping, snow, etc.
  • Blurry photo(s)
  • Centering of 90-10 or better, front and back

Poor (PR)

A Poor card really is about as bad as it gets, usually exhibiting the same problems of a Fair card, but to a greater degree. In addition, a Poor card may actually have pieces missing, the result of a tear, holes, chewing, etc.

A summary of some of the defects you might in a Poor baseball card:

  • Heavily rounded and eroded corners
  • Heavy creases
  • Extreme discoloration, including soiled surfaces or borders
  • Stains front and back
  • Heavy surface wear- scuffing, scratches, chipping, snow, etc.
  • Blurry photo(s)
  • Centering of 90-10 or worse, front and/or back
  • Rips, tears, water damage, missing pieces, holes, and other physical defects

Worse than Poor

For our purposes, there will probably seldom be a need to assign or even consider grades lower than Poor. You should be aware, though, that some grading companies can decline to assign a grade to a card that is even worse than Poor — as in the case where half a card is submitted for grading, thought that’s an extreme example.

In those instances, the company can send the card back ungraded OR they may opt to simply authenticate the card, verifying that it’s the real deal and slapping it in a slab with a sticker to that effect, but not applying a concrete grade.

What’s Next?

If you’ve stuck with this long, long post to this point, then your head is probably swimming, and your vision might be blurry — like you’re looking at a VG-EX card.

But, hopefully you’ve learned a little bit about how to grade a baseball card, or at least gained a bit more appreciation for how involved the entire process is.

Either way, it’s important to understand that this is just one take on what can be a daunting endeavor and also that there will almost always be some subjectivity involved in grading sports cards. Give the same card to two graders, and you’re likely to end up with two different grades, or at least two different sets of subgrade criteria that lead them to the same final grade.

Heck, even if you yourself grade the same card twice in a row, you’re likely to come to slightly different conclusions, or spot different defects, both times.

Keep practicing, though, and, over time, you’ll develop a consistent eye for grading cards, and THAT will serve you well no matter what your hobby goals.

Because, if you don’t really know what you’re buying and selling, how can you hope to land on a fair price either way?