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Investment Ideas: Non-Mainstream Autograph Cards

Updated on March 11, 2014

Ballpark Franks Yogi Berra Autograph

Certified by the company already
Certified by the company already

Hall Of Fame Autographs

See this Yogi Berra Autograph card at left. I bought is for $5.00.

That’s right, $5.00

Guess what? It’s already certified by the company that sold it. In the price guide, it’s valued at $15.00.

What, $15.00? Why? I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that there are a bunch of autographs like this, issued by non-mainstream companies, of some of the greatest baseball players in history, and they cost under $10.00 each. I’m not a huge autograph geek. I have a few of my beloved 1986 Mets on various items but it was never my thing to chase down autographs throughout my youth. However, how do you pass up a certified Yogi Berra Autograph at $5.00

I didn’t. In fact, I bought both of them the seller had.

Yogi Berra Donruss Autograph Card - Look Familiar?

Mainstream Autograph Card valued at $60
Mainstream Autograph Card valued at $60

Valuing a Card

Earlier this month, at the baseball card show on Staten Island, one of the dealers had several of these non-mainstream autographs. He had Brooks Robinson, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Buck Leonard, Jim Palmer, the two Yogi Berra autos and a few others. None of them were over $10.00 because they don’t have a high value in the price guide.

I have to admit that I can’t figure out why. How does a Topps, Donruss or Upper Deck card with a Yogi Berra Autograph on it have a value of $40 to $120 but a Ballpark Franks card with the same certified Yogi Berra autograph only carries a value of $15.00. Am I paying for a Yankees logo (which the non-mainstream auto is missing) or am I paying for a Yogi Berra autograph? Look closely - these two cards even used the same picture!!

Pittsburgh Icon

One of Pittsburgh's greats
One of Pittsburgh's greats

Mainstream vs. Non-Mainstream

There ARE differences between a card you get from a mainstream card company and a card you receive from a non-mainstream company. The big difference is that the Major League Team logo is missing. As most of these non-mainstream autograph cards come from sets in the 1990s, the only explanation is that these smaller companies did not want to pay for the licenses to use the logos. In today's market, major league baseball tightly restricts who it allows to buy licenses to show their logos, in the 90's anybody that could pay, got the license. Is this a huge problem?


Some of these cards definitely show players in completely nondescript uniforms and if you didn't know better you may not be able to identify the associated team but many players didn't actually move teams very often, especially the players of the 60's since there was no free agency. So the card at left shows Willie Stargell. Willie was only a Pirate - there is no mistaking that this is a Pittsburgh Pirate card. Would a Pirates fan balk at paying $10-$15 for this card (and yes I just went on eBay and found it in that range - imagine that)?

While the mainstream cards all comes from nationally distributed products from the major card companies, non-mainstream cards come from regionally diverse smaller companies that may offer them as premiums (such as the Ballpark Franks Yogi Berra at the top of the article). So these cards aren't necessarily easy to find.

1992 Front Row Buck Leonard Autograph

Negro-League Legend - elected to the HOF in 1972
Negro-League Legend - elected to the HOF in 1972

Front Row Collector's Club

Front Row was a small card company in the early 1990s. They did sets for basketball and minor league baseball but they also produced a series of small 5-card sets for various baseball legends. These sets came with a Certificate of Authenticity that included a serial number for the set. There were 25,000 sets produced for each player (all with a serial numbered certificate) and the players autographed the first card from the first 5,000 sets. These sets were only offered the Front Row Collector's Club members. So, for those of you reading this, you're thinking 5,000 is a lot of cards and that explains why they aren't valued very high, right?

Well, yes and no.

It's true that 5,000 is a lot of autographed cards but even with that number, these cards aren't the easiest of cards to find. The mainstream card companies sometimes limit the number of autographs but there can still be quite a few for each card. Not only that, the demand for these players, all Hall of Famers, is huge. Five thousand Ernie Banks autographed cards sounds like a lot but would go quickly in Chicago for example.

Food Issues - 1993 and 1994 Nabisco

So these sets start cropping up in the early 1990s. Food manufacturers used autographed cards as incentives for buying their products. The first set of this kind is the 1993 Nabisco All-Star Autographs set. These cards were redeemable by mailing in two proofs of purchase from Nabisco products and $5. Customers could request one of the following: Brooks Robinson, Catfish Hunter, Don Drysdale, Ernie Banks, Phil Neikro, and Willie Stargell. It is very, very important to note here that the Don Drysdale Autograph is his ONLY on-card autograph issue as he passed away in 1993. He does not have any other mainstream or non-mainstream on-card autograph cards. As such, this card is a bit more expensive but can still be found at affordable prices in the $20-$40 range. Several other players have since passed away as well - Catfish Hunter and Willie Stargell. There is a follow-up set in 1994 that includes: Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson and Duke Snider (who has also passed away).

1993 Nabisco Catfish Hunter Autograph and COA

1994 Nabisco Duke Snider Autograph and COA

1995 Jimmy Dean Al Kaline Auto

Food Issues - Jimmy Dean

Other food manufacturers such as Jimmy Dean, Tombstone Pizza, and Ball Park Franks
soon followed with their own autographed card mail in offers.

1995 Jimmy Dean All Time Greats: For two proofs-of-purchase from Jimmy Dean's breakfast product line, plus $7.00, the collector received one autographed card featuring Billy Williams, Al Kaline, or Jim "Catfish" Hunter. Again, these are all Hall of Famers.

1995 Tombstone Pizza Bob Gibson Autograph

Food Issues - Tombstone Pizza

1995 Tombstone Pizza: This 30-card standard-size set features 15 of the hottest players each from the National and the American Leagues. One card was packaged in each Tombstone Pizza. Six thousand classic player cards, autographed by Johnny Bench, George Brett or Bob Gibson, were randomly packed.

1995 Ball Park Franks Frank Robinson Autograph

One of the best players... EVER..
One of the best players... EVER..

Food Issues - Ballpark Franks

1995 Ballpark Franks: Tthese autograph cards were produced for Ball Park Franks by Collector's Edge. Collectors could receive the two cards through a mail-in offer for 8 UPC codes from any Ball Park product; for 4 UPC codes and $2.50; or for 2 UPC codes and $5.00. There are only two cards in this set featuring Yogi Berra and Frank Robinson

1999 Hillshire Farms Harmon Killebrew Autograph

Food Issues - Hillshire Farms

1999 Hillshire Farms Home Run Heroes: Available through a wrapper redemption offer from Hillshire Meats, these four cards feature autographs of retired Hall of Famers: Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks and Willie Stargell. . The back has biographical information and career stats. These cards came with a certificate of authenticity.

Next Steps: Do Some Research

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are other oddball autograph cards of retired superstars, mostly Hall-of-Famers from the 1990s. Look for these at shows as they should not be expensive to find. Trying to get these players now, as they all sign at major shows now, costs far more than these cards they signed back in the 1990s. If you are an autograph collector, this is probably the most affordable way to pick up autographs of this caliber of player. Every player used in these sets was a Hall-of-Famer and almost all of these autographs should be found in the $20 or less range (in some cases much less).

Be on the lookout for autographs that look shaky. In my experience, since these players were signing quite a few at a time, near the end, the autographs got shaky. Brooks Robinson in particular has a shaky autograph at times, though at other times, it looks great.

Let us know what you find out there - there are many other autograph cards from the 1990s!!


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