10 of the Most Valuable Baseball Cards of All Time
Throughout history, the price tag on the most valuable baseball cards has gotten higher and higher. How do you know what baseball cards are worth money? Rarity plays a major role in determining each card’s valuation, but so does quality; the Professional Sport Authenticator uses a scale from 1-10 to rank card quality, with 10 being the highest “gem mint condition” rating. And while there’s a lot that goes into knowing how to value baseball cards, a particularly rare card — especially one with a bit of history or a recognizable player on it — that has been preserved and protected in near mint condition can fetch hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars at auction. Let’s look at how the most valuable baseball cards of all time break down across the decades.
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Most Valuable Baseball: 1900s
Joe Jackson, 1909 E90-1 American Caramel
Joe Jackson’s rookie card sold for $667,189 at auction in 2016. Nicknamed “Shoeless Joe”, Jackson played for the Philadelphia Athletics, the Cleveland Naps, and the Chicago White Sox during his 12-year career. After he and other members of the White Sox were accused of taking bribes to throw the 1919 World Series, Jackson was banned from Major League Baseball. His guilt is still widely contested to this day, but Jackson spent the end of his career under assumed names trying to escape controversy. The combination of scandal and his acclaim as one of the best baseball players of all time has boosted the value of many of Jackson’s rookie cards; his T210 Old Mill card sold for $492,000 in 2020.
Sherry Magee, 1909-1911 T206 Error Card
When a complete set of T206 cards was disassembled and sold at auction in September 2018, a card for a player named Sherry Magie brought in $660,000. That’s particularly interesting considering there’s no player named Sherry Magie — the card was printed in error with a misspelling of Sherry Magee, who played from 1904-1919 for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Boston Braves, and the Cincinnati Reds.
Most Valuable Baseball: 1910s
Honus Wagner, 1911 American Tobacco Company T206
In August 2021, this Honus Wagner classic broke all existing records to become the most expensive baseball card ever sold at $6.6 million. Wagner, a.k.a. The Flying Dutchman, played for the Louisville Colonels and the Pittsburgh Pirates between 1897 and 1917. His career record shows 3,420 hits and 723 stolen bases, and multiple years at the top of the National League charts in batting, runs batted in, and stolen bases. He was inducted into the first ever class of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. Although this was a particularly high quality card, stories have swirled about why it’s so rare to begin with — some say Wagner was against the use of tobacco and didn’t want to be associated with its sales, others say he wanted better compensation from the American Tobacco Company for the use of his image.
Most Valuable Baseball: 1930s
Babe Ruth, 1933 Goudey #53
This mint condition Babe Ruth 1933 Goudey #53 sold for $4.2 million at auction in summer 2021. It was originally printed as part of a 240-card set by the Goudey Gum Company. Although that set included four different Ruth cards — and Ruth had countless baseball cards printed with his likeness over the years — this 1933 printing followed his final World Series title in 1932 and has become an iconic image in baseball circles.
Babe Ruth was known by many names — The Great Bambino, The Sultan of Swat, and The Colossus of Clout among them. He was a member of the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame class in 1936, and was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century team. Although his career lasted from 1914-1935, Ruth’s record as the all-time home run champion stood until Hank Aaron surpassed him in 1974. Earlier Babe Ruth cards have also brought in huge sums over the years, like the 1916 Sporting News card, which sold for $717,000, and the 1914 Baltimore News card, which sold for $575,000.
Joe Dimaggio, 1939 Play Ball #26
Although some baseball card manufacturers are better known than others, the mystery that comes from obscurity can increase the value of a card. That was the case with Joe DiMaggio’s 1939 Play Ball card, which sold for $218,578 in July 2021. Many consider this version DiMaggio’s top rookie card, and it stands out because of the often serious player’s surprising smile. With nicknames like Joltin' Joe and The Yankee Clipper, DiMaggio was a beloved New York Yankee stalwart. He spent his entire career playing for theYankees, became an all-star 13 times over and a nine-time batting champion, not to mention his 56-game hitting streak in 1941.
Most Valuable Baseball: 1940s
Jackie Robinson, 1948 Leaf #79
A PSA 7 (ranked out of 10, with 10 being the highest quality) edition of the Jackie Robinson’s 1948 Leaf #79 card sold for $392,400 in March 2021. Robinson was a Hall of Famer during his career and an acclaimed athlete in multiple sports, but he was also a champion of social and racial justice; in 1947, he became the first African American Major League Baseball Player. The 1949 Most Valuable Player and six-time National League all-star played from 1947-1956, and was the last to wear the number 42 in Major League Baseball.
Most Valuable Baseball: 1950s
Mickey Mantle, 1952 Topps #311 PSA 9
This Mickey Mantle card sold for $5.2 million in 2021, in large part due to its high-quality (PSA 9) rating and its rarity — it’s assumed to be one of only 6 remaining versions of the card in the world. Mickey Mantle is a name known even to people outside the baseball world. He was considered the best switch hitter ever to play in Major League Baseball, and his career lasted from 1951 until injuries slowed his progress in 1968. By the time he left the big leagues he had racked up 536 home runs. Rookie cards are often the most valuable cards belonging to any given player, especially a household name. But this 1952 Topps card is actually more valuable than Mantle’s rookie card, a 1951 Bowman, because of the story of its production. Topps’ boss Sy Berger left the printing presses running in 1952, leading to a stockpile of more cards than he could sell that summer. In 1960, Berger dumped 500 cases of those overprinted cards — including the Mantle #311 — into the Hudson River.
Most Valuable Baseball: 1960s
Nolan Ryan and Jerry Koosman, 1968 Rookie Card #177
A rookie card featuring Mets pitchers Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan sold for $600,000 in August 2020. Both players set records and earned recognition during their careers, and very few high quality versions of this card remain today. Over the course of his 27-year career (from 1966-1993), Nolan pitched for the New York Mets, the California Angels, the Houston Astros, and the Texas Rangers. He holds the MLB record for striking out 5,714 batters. During his career from 1967-1985, Koosman pitched for the Mets, the Minnesota Twins, the Chicago White Sox, and the Philadelphia Phillies. He brought home 222 wins and was on the World Series-winning Miracle Mets team in 1969.
Most Valuable Baseball: 1970s
Even though the 1970s were a great period for baseball, there aren’t many highly valuable baseball cards on the charts from that decade. Experts see the ‘70s as the tail end of the vintage era of baseball cards, after which production (and collection) started to become highly commercialized endeavors that took on more mass appeal. If you’re willing to hunt for them, the 1970s did produce some valuable baseball cards; in gem mint condition, “The Wizard” Ozzie Smith’s 1979 Topps #116 rookie card has an estimated value of $115,000, and Yankees player Thurman Munson’s 1976 Topps #650 rookie cards can range from $1,400 to between $17,000 and $25,000 for an autographed version.
Most Valuable Baseball: 1980s
Ken Griffey Jr., 1989 Upper Deck #1
This 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. card sold for $23,100 in March 2021, but it was a fan favorite even from its original release. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, ungraded versions of the rookie card were being sold for as high as $100 each. But some regard Ken “The Kid” Griffey Jr. as one of the best baseball players of the 1990s, which lends some justification to the scramble for his rookie card. His 22-year career took him from the Seattle Mariners to the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, and he was a four-time American League home run leader and 13-time all-star.
Most Valuable Baseball: 1990s
The 1990s saw a major shift in baseball card collecting. The hobby’s popularity had exploded, and manufacturers took a mass production approach in the hopes of bringing in more revenue. Collectibles experts call the period from 1987-1994 the junk wax era, as printers scrambled to meet a huge increase in demand and put out as many as three times the baseball cards they were once issuing. Considering rarity and quality are such critical factors in baseball card valuations, it’s little surprise that flooding the market with product led to a decade of less desirable baseball cards. As card grading has become the norm, though, even Junk Wax era cards in gem mint condition are slowly starting to become more valuable; a 1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter Rookie Card sold for $180,000 in 2019.
Most Valuable Baseball: 2000s
Mike Trout, 2009 Bowman Draft BDPP89 Superfractor
The 2009 Bowman Draft BDPP89 Superfractor Mike Trout card sold for $3.9 million in August 2020. Still on the roster for the Los Angeles Angels, Trout is a nine-time All-Star, three-time American League Most Valuable Player, and eight-time Silver Slugger Award winner. Bowman only printed one copy of this iridescent gold Superfractor card, which made it incredibly valuable even before the active outfielder autographed it.