If you were a collector in the 1980s, the answer to, “What baseball cards are worth money?” was … what baseball cards aren’t worth money?!
But a lot has happened since those halcyon hobby heydays, and the general impression now is that those old baseball cards aren’t worth the pulp they’re printed on.
And we agree with that in a lot of ways — even did a quick study on the phenomenon of deflated card prices.
Still, the truth is that plenty of baseball cards are still highly desirable, and they sell for actual money (or PayPal bucks or BitCoin or whatever your digital currency of choice is).
Sure, you’re going to have trouble unloading your investment lot of Kurt Stillwell rookie cards, but that doesn’t mean every old card is a stinking pile of horse … um … cardboard.
When it comes to which baseball cards are still worth money deep into the 21st century, you can pretty much lump them into four categories.
(NOTE: This post contains affiliate links to eBay listings for the baseball cards discussed.)
Baseball Cards Issued Before 1981
This is somewhat of an arbitrary cutoff, but we know some things for sure …
- In 1981, Fleer and Donruss joined Topps in the baseball card market, and all three manufacturers produced sets of 600+ cards.
- None of those cards were produced in small quantities.
- With just a few exceptions, none of the hundreds of other sets produced between 1982 and about 1994 were produced in small quantities, either.
- You can find just about any card you want from 1981 forward on eBay for less than you would have paid 30 years ago.
So 1981 might rightly be considered the seed of the junk-wax era, even if things weren’t quite as out of control as they would later become.
There were far fewer different baseball cards available in 1980 than in 1981, and if you look at sold listings on eBay, you start to see some price hardening — several minor stars selling for $1 or more, as an example.
And if you walk that back to 1973, the last year Topps issued cards in series (until they did it again later on), you actually see some lower prices BUT you also see commons selling individually. That’s a pretty good indication there is a market for those cards.
The star prices, even for ungraded copies, step upward as you step backward through the years on eBay, too.
The bottom line is that most of the card rot started with the stuff issued during the junk years of the 1980s, and much of what came before retains a decent bit of value.
Baseball Cards of Hall of Famers
Back in the early-to-mid 1980s before speculation ran rampant in the hobby, we were most interested in making long-term investments.
In the vernacular of the day, that meant buying into the cards of players who we thought would be causing some sort of stir, preferably over and over, for decades to come.
That kind of long-lived popularity generally only comes through one route — enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And, while even the cards of Cooperstown denizens have felt the strain of massive supply over the last 30 years, the truth is there is always some sort of market for HOF cardboard.
While it’s true there are some downright bargains for Big Jim’s early-career issues, you’ll also find mass-produced specimens like 1984 Topps and 1986 Donruss bringing a buck or more on occasion.
High-Grade Baseball Cards
Even as card manufacturers were losing their minds with the number of sets and size of print runs they glutted down collector throats every year through the 1990s, another trend was emerging.
Not satisfied to take the local dealer’s word about the condition of the cards they bought and sold, collectors began to seek out less biased, third-party opinions.
Before long, this push for standardization led to the formation of several card grading companies. In the last 20 years or so, it has become common practice for just about every “big” card to be sent off for slabbing and grading by the likes of PSA and BGS.
And that trend eventually bled over into the lower-level cards, too.
So, not only does just about every 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan rookie card get graded these days, but you can find plenty of lesser lights slabbed and graded for your enjoyment.
You just haven’t lived until you’ve held a graded 1988 Donruss Geno Petralli in your hands!
Seriously, though, the reason folks send in even less desirable cards for grading is because they think they’ve found a condition rarity.
Ther are about a billion 1988 Fleer Edgar Martinez rookie cards out there, and you can usually find one for dollar or so. Dig up one that grades a PSA 10, though, and you might be looking at a $50+ hunk of cardboard.
And that’s just the beginning, because the older, more condition-sensitive, and/or scarce a card is to begin with, the higher the multiplier when you snag a nice one.
Baseball Cards with Limited Print Runs
In the beginning of the baseball card boom, demand wasn’t much of a problem. Heck, there were millions of boys (and girls) of all ages who decided we had to have one of everything.
That’s why the boom happened in the first place.
The real problem came when companies overestimated the ability of our hobby desires to keep up with their hyper-efficient production lines.
We tried hard for several years, but we eventually just drowned in all the cardboard.
The funny thing is, though, if you frequent blogs like this one or Twitter communities or local card shows today, you’ll see that there is still plenty of demand for baseball cards.
But collectors are smarter, more discriminating now.
We want to know that there isn’t an infinite supply of whatever cards we latch onto.
And so, we’re still happy to buy all sorts of different cards, provided there is some limit to their print runs.
That’s (partly) why we like the old stuff. There’s not all that much of it left.
And it’s why folks like the high-grade, slabbed stuff — there is demonstrably lesser of that than of the mid-grade or ungraded stuff (see the PSA Population report).
That phenomenon bleeds over into other issues, too. Specifically, those sets and cards that were issued in limited numbers — and have some proof behind that claim — tend to hold decent value over the years.
And all those special inserts that started with the 1990 Upper Deck Baseball Heroes Reggie Jackson autographs and continued with refractors and relic cards and buy-backs — most of those hold some value year after year.
Because we know (or believe, at least) that there aren’t kajillions of them sitting out there in a warehouse somewhere.
So there you have it … when it comes to what baseball cards are worth money today, it all comes down to supply and demand.
Isn’t that how it was supposed to work all along, anyway?