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How to Determine a Baseball Cards Value

Updated on April 20, 2013

Baseball Cards Value - Roger Clemens Rookie Card

A Baseball Cards Value is not what's Listed in the Price Guide!

Figuring out a baseball cards value is not a simple task.   If you’re not an avid collector, and a box of cards from your youth has been sitting in the attic for years, you may be tempted to go out and buy the latest Beckett price guide with the hopes of cashing in.  While knowling the high book value of your cards is a good first step, it’s important to recognize the values listed in the price guide rarely reflect the real prices your cards are likely to command.  A guide is a guide, nothing more.  Your baseball cards value is heavily dependent on a few factors, including (but not limited to): 

1.        The age of the card.

2.        The type of card (insert, main set, memorabilia, autograph, etc…)

3.        The scarcity of the card or set as a whole.

4.        The player represented on the card.

5.        The year of the card relative to the player’s career.

6.        The grade or condition of the card.

In the next few sections I will review each of these in greater detail, giving you the information you’ll need to successfully sell your baseball card collection!

Really old baseball card

Old baseball caramels card.
Old baseball caramels card.

The Age of the Card

As a general rule, the older the card, the more it's likely to be worth, regardless of the player portrayed on it.   This is especially true for cards issued from any maker prior to (and including) the year 1980.  Most price guides you purchase at the newsstand (Beckett’s in particular) will not list the full range of cards in any given set to save printing space (nor will they list all sets).   If you don’t have a star player that you recognize, you will want to look at the book value for a “common card” in whatever the set is.  Common baseball card values will have a high and low book value lower than their star counterparts in the rest of the list.   By following the common card values in a particular set back in time, you will see an increase in value the older the cards get, except in a few rare instances.

The type of Card Influences the Baseball Cards Value as well

Contrary to what you might or might not know, there are number of different types of baseball cards.  When most people think of baseball cards, the image of a 2.5 inch by 3.5 inch flat cardboard card with a picture on one side and statistics on the reverse comes to mind.   While this is the most traditional format, there have been many alternate sizes, colors and even styles within the set (known as insert cards and insert card sets).   Some insert cards have limited print runs, with the number embossed somewhere on the card.  These alternates and inserts cards, as a general rule, will command a premium over the standard cards in the set. 

Other types of insert cards include memorabilia cards, where a part of a player’s uniform, bat, glove, etc… is pressed into the card.  These cards are thicker than their counterparts and command a premium value.  Similarly, autographed cards come in different flavors, from flat cards to cut versions. 

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine the exact set an insert card is from, and may require some searching on the internet.

Scarcity and a Baseball Cards Value

 Any collectible item (or common item for that matter) is governed by the laws of supply and demand.   One of the principle factors that influences demand is scarcity, and typically, the more scarce the card is, the more valuable it is, provided there is demand for the card.   Here are a couple great examples of how scarcity plays a role in the market price of a given card:

1.        The T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco card.  Most card collectors have heard of this card, as it’s reputed to be the most valuable of all cards.  It has two things going for it – it’s scarce (I believe only 50 to 100 or so are known to exist), and one of the all time greatest baseball players is represented on it.  Wagner was not a fan of smoking, and had his card pulled very early in production, which is what made the card so difficult to obtain.


2.       1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card.  Although this card should be worth a great deal (and it is) due to the player and rookie status, it’s actually not worth as much as it could be.  This is because the card is not scarce – in fact, it’s abundant, not only due to the number of cards manufactured as part of the 1952 set, but because the individual card was a ‘double print’, meaning twice as many were produced relative to other cards in the set.

In each example, the scarcity of the card is principle is influencing the baseball cards value.

The Player Represented on the Card

Star players command high book values, and these values tend to increase over time, or at least remain constant for a player who has completed their career.   A players status as a star is often, but not always influenced by their statistics – as some players (particularly those in the 30’s through 50’s) have garnered a following for other reasons such as on field antics, or a particularly significant event (such as Bobby Thompsons home run).

The status of recent starts is somewhat different.  Often, a player will have one or two great seasons and the prices will rise quickly on all cards representative of the player.  However, any number of changes in that player’s career (such as injury or a significant drop off in performance) will send the price of the card downward very fast.  A couple of good examples of a baseball cards value skyrocketing in both directions are Dontrelle Willis and Steve Avery cards.

The Year of the Card Relative to the Players First Year

In general the older the card is relative to the players career, the more valuable it is. The so-called 'rookie cards', or the first card issued for any given player is usually the most valuable. In more modern sets, the rookie card won't just be the standard card in the set. There will likely be limited prints (usually cards of a different color with a stamped limited print run), autographs, and even memoribilia cards. As stated earlier, a baseball cards value is higher for these special insert cards relative to the normal cards.

A Good Card in Bad Condition

This baseball cards value is low, despite it being a premier player.
This baseball cards value is low, despite it being a premier player.

Assessing the Baseball Cards Condition

Lastly, you will need to learn a thing or two about condition grading baseball cards.

The top condition for any card is listed as 'mint condition' - or essentially perfect, with no defects.  In my opinion, there is no such thing as ‘mint condition’.  No matter how well you have taken care of the card, someone can use a high power magnifier to find something, anything wrong with it, even if it’s not readily visible to the naked eye.    Mint condition has largely given way to 'near mint condition (or NR-MT in most price guides), as this fact has been somewhat recognized by the collecting community at large.   The most important point to be aware of, is that as the condition declines, so does the baseball cards value.

There are entire pages devoted to determining the condition of sports cards, and I suggest you reference those resources to learn the science of grading.  Additionally, cards can be professionally graded, for a price.

So where do I go from here?

If you come across an excessively large collection, I would recommend taking it to a reputable local dealer to have it assessed. Most local card shops will give value estimates for free or at a discount if the shop purchases the collection.

If you want to handle the sale yourself, you will of course need to determine baseball cards value. Go out and purchase a baseball card price guide (a Beckett's or equivalent) and find the card in the guide. The guide will list a high book value and a low book value for cards in near mint condition for recent cards, and for lower grades for older cards. The high book value is a reference to the average 'sell' price, and the low book value is representative of a typical dealer 'buy' price. Both prices are a fairly inaccurate representation of what the card will sell for in the real world, but it will give you a ballpark reference.

Next, follow the steps to determine the cards condition. Your grade doesn't have to be perfect, just good enough for a point of reference.

The final step is to perform an Ebay search for the card and look at the most recent completed auctions.  Make sure to look at the subjective grades that are listed in the auctions headline.  This is the quickest and simplest way to determine a baseball cards value in the real world. Make sure to ignore the cards that have been professionally graded (professionally graded cards are another topic altogether). Once you have a good idea of what the going price is, you can make an intellegent decision as to how to sell!


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