When they are little, most children have some sort of hobby or interest they follow religiously. Often times, this hobby revolves around collecting things. Coins, stamps, trading cards, action figures – you name it and someone likely collected it growing up. Of course, collecting things doesn’t end after childhood. We’ve all seen the shows about hoarders on various networks. Who knew collecting half-eaten tins of cat food and rotting fruit wasn’t an actual hobby? On a serious note, even in adulthood such things as coins, stamps, cars and autographs continue to attract a following and command substantial money today.
Perhaps one of the most popular hobbies / collectables is built around sports cards. You can buy new packs of them almost anywhere. Popular sports include hockey, football, basketball and baseball. The cards you buy today may have little to no value, but holding onto them increases the chances (no matter how slim) that one day you could have a very rare and desirable card on your hands. Most of the valuable cards, however, are usually in the hands of collectors. The only chance to get your hands on one is if the owner or estate decides to have an auction. If not, any other valuable sports cards are usually tucked away in pawn shops or buried in attics, boxed up long ago and destined to either be thrown out or uncovered accidentally one day.
The following looks at the top 10 most expensive sports cards which have been auctioned and purchased over the past years. At one time, these cards were near valueless pieces of paper. Some were included as a way to make a pack of cigarettes studier while advertising the brand. Other cards were released by confectionary companies, as a prize or a way to advertise the company and its products. Over time, candy and gum companies like Topps and O-Pee-Chee came to dominate the market which continues strong to this day.
T10. Honus Wagner, 1910 (Standard Caramel) – $218,550
Johannes Wagner was a shortstop who played Major League Baseball between 1897 and 1917. Nicknamed ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ Wagner won eight batting titles, and led the league in slugging percentage six times and stolen bases five times. Arguably one of the greatest shortstops ever, Wagner was also in the first group of players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He spent the vast majority of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates batting up a .329 career average, over 3,400 hits, 101 homeruns and over 1700 RBIs. Distributed with candy, this card likely ended up in the hands of many sticky children who were all hopped up on sugar. This likely didn’t help many of the cards’ conditions which helped elevate the price of surviving examples.
T10. George Mikan, 1948 (Bowman) – $218,550
George Mikan gives us the only basketball player so far to make the top 10 list for most expensive sports cards. Mikan was a 6’10” center who made a name for himself playing for the Chicago American Gears and Minneapolis Lakers of the NBL – and later BAA and NBA. Mikan was so influential and dominant in the sport that he caused several rules changes to occur which exist to this day. These changes included outlawing goal-keeping, widening the foul lane and introducing a shot clock. He won 7 league titles and 5 league scoring titles over his career. His card is often considered the “Honus Wagner” of basketball cards because of its rarity thanks to being printed in a very scarce second run of Bowman cards.
9. Bronko Nagurski, 1935 (National Chicle) – $240,000
Born in Canada in 1908, Bronko Nagurski rose to athletic fame as a fullback for the Chicago Bears in the 1930s. He also made a career as a professional wrestler and even returned to the Bears in 1943 for one season to help fill the roster while men were away fighting in the war. Three-time NFL champion and four-time All-Pro, Nagurski was a force on the field in his day, playing on both sides of the ball. The National Chicle gum company reported that their yearly sets would include 240 cards. In 1935, only 36 cards were released. The card for Nagurski showed the Chicago Bear in his Minnesota (college) jersey but indicated on the back he was a member of the Bears. The small variety of cards and mismatched photo make this particular card very desirable and expensive.
8. Ty Cobb, 1911 (General Baking Co.) – $272,980
Tyrus Cobb was an MLB outfielder who played every season but one with the Detroit Tigers. His impressive statistics speak for themselves. He was a 12-time AL batting champion, four-time RBI champion and six-time stolen-base champion. In addition, between 1905 and 1928, he produced a career batting average of .367, had nearly 4200 hits, 117 homeruns and over 1900 RBIs. The 1911 card came with Brunner’s Bread from the General Baking Company. It is one of the rarest baseball cards and is made even rarer by the fact Cobb appears to be smiling – something he wasn’t often seen doing on baseball cards.
7. Lou Gehrig, 1933 (Goudey) – $274,950
Lou Gehrig was a first baseman who played for the New York Yankees between 1923 and 1939. Widely associated with the disease that killed him – ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease– Gehrig was a seven-time All Star and six-time World Series Champion. He had a career batting average of .340, hit 493 home runs and almost 2000 RBIs. A two-time MVP, Gehrig was also the first player to have his number retired. One of the most popular players of all time, Gehrig’s cards are very popular among collectors. In 2011, a mint condition 1933 Goudey card from the collection of Charles Merkel sold for an impressive $274,950.
6. Mickey Mantle, 1952 (Topps) – $282,000
Center fielder and first baseman of the New York Yankees from 1951 to 1968, Mickey Mantle is another MLB great and considered by many to be the greatest switch-hitter of all time. A Triple Crown winner in 1956, Mantle was named MVP of the American League three times and All Star sixteen times over his career. He holds too many records to list here but had a career batting average of .298 with 536 home runs, over 2400 hits and 1509 RBIs. At the same auction which saw Gehrig’s Goudey card sell, a 1952 Topps Mantle rated at PSA-9 fetched $282,000. This suggests that the three known PSA-10 1952 mantle cards known to exist would fetch considerably more should they come up for sale.
5. Joe Doyle, 1909-1911 (American Tobacco Co.) – $329,000
Judd Doyle was a pitcher who played for the New York Highlanders and Cincinnati Reds between 1906 and 1910. Nicknamed ‘Slow Joe,’ Doyle was noted for often taking a long time between pitches. He had a mixed career with 22 wins and 21 losses and an ERA of 2.85. So why does this card command such money? Turns out when the cards were being printed, in order to stop any confusion with National League pitcher Larry Doyle, ATC added the abbreviation “Nat’l” – only to the wrong card. Before they caught on a small number of Joe Doyle cards got onto the market with the mistake which made them very valuable. Today, it is believed that less than 10 of these cards exist.
4. Henry “Hank” Aaron, 1954 (Topps) – $357,594
Hank Aaron, now long retired from the game, played outfield for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers from 1954 to 1976. An All Star from 1955 to 1975, Aaron was a dominant force in MLB and holds a number of records including RBIs, extra base hits and total bases. He holds a career batting average of .305 with 3,771 hits, 755 home runs and 2,297 RBIs.
Former MLB player Dmitri Young spent much of his childhood and teenage years building a collection of top quality rookie cards. In 2012 a large number of these cards were auctioned off. Given Young’s collection was composed of only high quality top-graded cards, many collectors were attracted to the sale. It was during this auction that Aaron’s 1954 Topps rookie card sold for an impressive $357,594.
3. Roberto Clemente, 1955 (Topps) – $432,690
From 1955 to 1972 right fielder Roberto Clemente played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest Latin players in MLB history. Over his career he had a .317 batting average, 3000 hits, 240 home runs and 1305 RBIs. Among various career highs and records, Clemente won two World Series Championships, four national League batting titles and was the first Latino player to receive the NL MVP Award.
Clemente’s 1955 rookie card comes in at #3 on this list. Like Hank Aaron’s rookie Topps card, Clemente’s card was also part of the Dimitri Young collection which was auctioned off in 2012. With a top-of-the-line PSA-10 grade, it is unsurprising that this card commanded such a price when it eventually sold.
2. Babe Ruth, 1914 (Baltimore News) $575,000
George Herman Ruth needs no real introduction here. Nicknamed the Sultan of Swat, Ruth set a number of records that he seemingly topped almost every year after. He hit an astounding 714 career homeruns and batted .300 or higher in 17 seasons. The 1914 Baltimore News card features Ruth as a rookie with the International League Baltimore Orioles. Two years later he was sold to the Boston Red Sox, beginning his meteoric rise to fame. It is believed there are only 10 of these cards in existence, making it one of the rarest and most sought after on the market. The card was issued in red-white, blue-white and black-white coloring with the first two color combinations appearing to be the most ‘common.’ Selling for $199,500 in 2007, the same card nearly tripled in value when it was sold privately five years later. Up until 2008, the most this type of card commanded at auction was $517,000.
1. Honus Wagner, 1909-1911 (American Tobacco Co.) – $2.8 million
The Flying Dutchman holds the honor of having the most expensive sports card of all time – and by a wide margin we might add. Wagner’s 1909-1911 ATC card is a very rare specimen with only 57 copies known to exist. Why so rare? It turns out that Wagner was a non-smoker and never gave his permission for his image to be used by the ATC. He was so against his image being associated with tobacco that he demanded the card stop being sold altogether. The ATC, having produced a couple hundred cards at most, halted production thus making this specific card rare early on. In 2007, a mint condition Wagner ATC card sold for $2.8 million. Even a poor condition card commanded $262,000 in 2010 and others have been noted to bring in million dollar bids.