Sports trading cards can reach astronomical value if they're rare enough and in good enough condition. Often, these valuable cards will make headlines when they sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The incredible value and rarity of some these cards is thrown into stark relief when we realise that the most expensive of these pieces of cardboard has sold for as much as many American homes.
Trading cards are popular among both sports and gaming fans; Magic The Gathering cards, for example, have been known to fetch impressive prices at auction. The rare Black Lotus card, present only in Alpha and Beta sets of the game, was sold for over $27,000 in 2013. A rare Pokemeon trading card, 'Illustrator', went for $50,000 at auction last year too. But these prices don't quite match up to what sports fans have paid for rare, antique cards.
Baseball overwhelmingly controls the majority of this list, and it’s not hard to see why: It’s America’s longest running sport, and as such boasts some of the oldest cards on the planet, some even dating as far back as the 1800s. Of these old and incredibly valuable sports training cards, the following are the 20 most expensive ever sold.
20 Wayne Gretzky, Ice Hockey, 1979 O-Pee-Chee - $94,162
The most expensive hockey card ever sold was a Gem Mint condition of Wayne Gretzky, which fetched over $94,000 at an SCP Auction. It sold in 2011, and was given a BGS rating of 10, despite the wear-and-tear on the edges of the card. The same card of The Great One with a BGS 9.5 Gem went for $50,000 in 2008 on eBay.
19 Michael Jordan, Basketball, 1986-87 Fleer Rookie Card - $100,000
This rookie card of Michael Jordan nabbed $100,000 a couple of years back, becoming the second most valuable basketball card ever sold. It was only the third of 5,500 of the same cards that received a pristine 10 by Beckett Grading Services.
It was sold by Memory Lane Inc., and spokesperson Stephanie Evans said that, “It just goes to show that when you have something as rare as a Beckett 10 come available, the demand still warrants six figures.” A BGS 10 Jordan sold in 2009 for $82,000, too.
18 Albert G. Spalding, Baseball, 1888 G and B Chewing Gum Co. - $120,000
Definitely the oldest card on this list, Albert G. Spalding was a pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings who won the team 47 games in 1876. He later became the team’s president, and he apparently published the first baseball rulebook. This card set was the first to be included with a pack of gum, and the Wild West-era card sold for $120,000.
17 Ernie Banks, Baseball, 1954 Topps - $142,836
Ernie Banks was a popular post-WWII baseball player who played shortstop and first baseman for 19 seasons, from 1953 to 1971. This particular PSA 10 card was sold as part of the Dmitri Young Collection, and was one of six cards in the collection to sell for six figures. Altogether the collection fetched $2.4 million in 2012.
16 Pete Rose, Baseball, 1963 Topps - $157,366
This Pete Rose rookie card is the most valuable rookie card from the 1960s. Pete Rose is the game’s all-time hits leader, but despite that, he was excluded from the Hall of Fame because of being banned from the game after gambling on matches. Also featured on the card are Pedro Gonzalez, Ken McMullen, and Al Weis. This PSA 10 card was part of the Dmitri Young Collection.
15 Mickey Mantle, Baseball, 1951 Bowman SGC 96 - $162,000
This interesting cell-shaded card was part of Lionel Carter’s 50,000 card collection, a collection which sold in a single day for $1.6 million in 2007. The 89-year old Carter had been amassing the collection since 1935.
This Mickey Mantle rookie card sold for $162,000, three times what the same card had gone for in previous sales.
14 Joe Jackson, Baseball, 1910 Old Mill Tobacco T210 - $199,750
This exceptionally rare baseball card featured the image of minor leaguer “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. The outfielder was one of the hottest prospects in baseball at the age of 22, and this 1910 Old Mill Tobacco card sold at auction in 2011 for almost $200,000.
Jackson holds the third highest career batting average in MLB history, though he was banned from baseball in 1919 following the controversial Black Box scandal.
13 Joe Jackson, Baseball, 1914 Boston Garter - $204,000
The other Joe Jackson card on this list was printed four years after the 1910 Old Mill Tobacco. By this time, Jackson had made quite a name for himself as one of the league’s most talented hitters.
Unlike the minor league card, this one managed to crack the $200,000 mark.
12 Honus Wagner, Baseball, 1910 Standard Caramel - $218,550
Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner was a shortstop who played for 21 seasons from 1897 to 1917, almost entirely for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was one of the first five members to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936, receiving the second-highest vote behind Ty Cobb and tied with Babe Ruth.
Cobb himself called Wagner, “Maybe the greatest star ever to take the diamond,” and he is frequently regarded as the greatest shortstop of all time.
11 (Tie) George Mikan, Basketball, 1948 Bowman - $218,550
This PSA 10 mint card sold in 2009 for $218,550, making it the most expensive basketball card ever sold.
George Mikan was known as a gentle giant, and one of the best basketball players during his time. SCP Auctions bought the card on behalf of an anonymous client, and it was revealed that the card had been sold at least once before in the 1990s, for a considerably less at $32,000.
10 Bronko Nagurski, Football, 1935 National Chicle - $240,000
Bronko Nagurski played in the NFL for 9 years and became one of the league’s best players until he quit the sport to become a professional wrestler in 1938. He helped the Chicago Bears win two consecutive titles in 1932 and 1933. While this isn't a rookie card, it is one of few that’s still in circulation, helping to make it the most expensive football card ever sold.
9 Ty Cobb, Baseball, 1911 General Baking Co. - $272,980
Ty Cobb was a superstar of baseball. He was also a mentor, being the player/manager from 1921 to 1926 for the Detroit Tigers, with whom he played for 22 seasons. His career began in 1905, and this hand-drawn card from the General Baking Co. came very early in his career. This near-mint, PSA 8 card was part of a promotion made by Brunners Bread, and was sold in 2008 at a Goodwin & Company auction for over $270,000.
8 Lou Gehrig, Baseball, 1933 Goudey - $274,950
Lou Gehris is another one of baseball’s superstars. This 1933 card from Goudey was a PSA Gem Mint 10 that sold for almost $275,000 from Memory Lane Inc. The card sold for over 730% of what the SMR price guide estimated the value of a PSA 9 card to be, which was $33,000. Altogether, Memory Lane’s auction brought in over $2.7 million dollars in a single day!
7 Mickey Mantle, Baseball, 1952 Topps - $282,587
Mickey Mantle played for 18 years with the New York Yankees, and he helped lead them to 12 World Series appearances. Of the 1,000 plus 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards that have been graded by PSA, only three PSA 10 versions exist.
Even so, a PSA 9 version of the card sold at auction for $282,587 in 2008. There have reportedly been multiple million-dollar offers rejected for one of the PSA 10 cards, and speculators expect the card to go north of seven figures if one of them were to hit market.
6 Joe Doyle, Baseball, 1909-1911 ATC T206 - $329,000
The hands-over-head pose of this “Slow Joe” Doyle card is one of the rarest cards out there. Its circulation has virtually stopped, and there are only an estimated seven or less in existence. This card was an error card, claiming that Joe Doyle played for the New York Nationals, when in fact Larry Doyle did.
When American Tobacco Company found its printing mistake, they replaced N.Y. Nat’l with N.Y. Amer., thus driving up this version’s rarity and consequent value.
5 Hank Aaron, Baseball, 1954 Topps - $357,594
The second most valuable card of the Dmitri Young Collection depicts Henry “Hank” Aaron, one of baseball’s greats. This 1954 vintage rookie card sold in 2012 as part of the $2.4 million collection, and remains one of the most valuable rookie cards ever sold.
4 Eddie Plank, Baseball, 1909-1911 ATC T206 - $414,750
Eddie Plank was one of the premiere pitchers during his tenure with the Philadelphia Athletics, from 1901 to 1914. Issued by the American Tobacco Company over three years, the 1909-1911 T206 series is one of the most coveted sets in the hobby.
This card, worth over $400,000, belonged to the Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, and was part of a collection that he loaned to the Baseball Hall of Fame for display.
3 Roberto Clemente, Baseball, 1955 Topps - $432,690
This 1955 Roberto Clemente rookie card was the most expensive card sold as part of the Dmitri Young Collection in 2012. This particular card is the only one that has received a PSA 10 rating out of more than 2,860 submitted to PSA. It illustrates how much condition correlates with price: the same card with a PSA 8 is worth about $6,000.
2 Babe Ruth, Baseball, 1914 Baltimore News SGC - $517,000
It only makes sense that one of the most recognized players in baseball history would make this list. This 1914 rookie card is worth over half a million dollars, featuring Babe just after he signed to the Baltimore Orioles. Only 10 of these cards are believed to exist, and even though Sportscard Guaranty gave the card a low grade of 40/100, the card received 59 bids in a 2008 Robert Edwards Auction, closing at $517,000.
1 Honus Wagner, 1909-1911 ATC T206 - $2.8 million
The coveted Holy Grail of baseball cards is the American Tobacco Company’s T206 card of Honus Wagner. This card was pulled from circulation after 200 had made it to market because Wagner didn’t want to support tobacco use for his young fans. A PSA 8 version (highest surviving grade) of the card traded hands with hockey star Wayne Gretzky and others. The card was discovered to have trimmed edges, which would greatly reduce its value, but that didn’t stop Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendricks to purchase the card in a 2007 auction for $2.8 million.