One of my fondest childhood memories was racing my bike down a mile long asphalt cliff called Felt Road to Frank's Pharmacy. There, Larry Gurka and I spent our paper route tip money on packs of baseball cards and bubble gum. I remember trading for a 1965 Topps #250. "Is he good?" I asked. Larry assured me he was. That satisfied me. The guy looked like a slugger and I trusted my older buddy. Today, that card is worth $75. It has little to do with rarity and age. A Max Alvis card from the very same pack has shown comparatively little appreciation. It's just that in antiques, people buy what they like. And they like Willie Mays.
The king of all baseball cards is a pristine 2.5" tall by 1 7/16" wide 1910 Honus Wagner tobacco card with a unique "Piedmont" back. The card's story begins with Honus himself. The Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop did not want his image linked to tobacco and successfully sued-stopping production of his card. As a result, only about forty-five are known today. Most have "Sweet Caporal" backs. According to the Maine Antique Digest, the "Piedmont" card exchanged hands in 1985 for $25,000. In 1991, it was hammered out at auction to Hockey Star, Wayne Gretsky and partner Bruce McNall, then owner of the Los Angeles Kings, for a whopping $451,000! McNall subsequently went bankrupt and Gretsky bought out his interest. Soon-after, Walmart, working with a publicity firm, reportedly paid Gretsky $500,000 and used the card in a successful promotion. The "Win the Word's Most Valuable Card" contest wound up on "Larry King Weekend." The winner; Patricia Gibbs, a 41 year old window clerk from Hollywood, Florida, was picked by Larry himself. To Patricia's joy, Honus had yet another home-run left in his bat. In September, 1996, the card sold again, this time for an incredible $640,500 at Christie's East in New York; a record for any sporting collectible.
The first baseball card was produced in 1887. For about 40 years they were not sold but given away with cigarettes, candy, Cracker Jack, and other products. Most are smaller than the today's 2.5" by 3.5" standard size cards. Elongated varieties were constructed with double and triple folds sometimes showing multiple players. Early stars of the "tobacco" era like Christy Mathewson, Napoleon Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb can bring hundreds and even thousands of dollars. From 1916 to 1932 card size increased and print quality decreased, affecting present value. They are still sought after because of their scarcity, and because stars like Babe Ruth played in that era. In 1933, the bubble gum type card pack similar to today's was introduced. However, due to the depression and W.W.II, production and quality continued to be sporadic. Comparatively rare pre-1950 cards, especially early tobacco cards, represent what I believe are the best investment in today's baseball card market.
Bowman introduced its first card set in 1948. Four years later Topps entered market with a bang, introducing in its 407 card set: team logos, great graphics, larger card size, and line statistics featuring players previous year and career performance. A mint 1952 Topps set, including the prized Mickey Mantle rookie card, could fetch half a million dollars in today's market. Collecting these later day cards is something we'll cover next Spring. For now, let's concentrate on the World Series. Some freckled face kid that looks like Larry Gurka is hoping the star on his card will be the next Willie Mays.