by Mike Stack
Baseball cards have been printed for over 100 years. Millions have been produced but only a handful have gained iconic status. Which cards would make up a top ten list is subjective and depends on what criteria is used. But you’d have trouble arguing that there are some that should be on every collector’s want list.
It’s a top ten list of the best baseball cards to own, ranked not by value but rather importance to the hobby as a whole (click the title of each to see them on eBay):
10. 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. The Griffey card is known by every kid who was under the age of 14 in 1989. It’s plentiful, but important because of Junior–and because it made Upper Deck a player in the card market. Upper Deck put its trust in Griffey to elevate the company as a serious competitor. He did his part, Upper Deck took off and the #1 card in the company’s first set was a key factor in their rise to prominence.
It is more the meaning behind the card than its actual value that puts it on the list. It ranks tenth all time.
9. The 1914 Cracker Jack Ty Cobb is a key card to own because it represents a Hall of Fame player at the height of his career in a popular and difficult set that brought baseball cards out of tobacco products and into America’s food products. The Cracker Jack Cobb is valuable and key card to any discussion of baseball nostalgia.
Cracker Jack produced another set in 1915, but that one was available as a mail-in and isn’t as rare as this one. This one card could make your collection, but be prepared to shell out big bucks.
8. The 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan rookie occupies the eighth spot on the list. Nolan Ryan achieved exalted status towards the end of his career when he pitched his sixth and seventh no hitters for the Texas Rangers.
For f several years this was the most commonly sold card on the market and achieved a much higher value than its scarcity warranted. Ryan gave a renewed boost to the rookie card trade in the early 1990s and kept the hobby alive as modern cards became a glut of overproduced mediocrity. Today, it’s among the vintage cards that has not only held its value, but continues to climb despite being readily available on eBay.
7. The 1954 Bowman Ted Williams is both rare and a highly attractive card of the player many regard as the greatest hitter of all time. It was short printed over a contract issue and clearly one of the cards all major collectors should strive to own.
During the 1970s and ’80s, this card was thought to be ultra scarce and while it’s still not an easy one to locate, you won’t have a problem landing one if you’ve got several hundred dollars or more to spend, depending on condition.
6. The 1934 Goudey Lou Gehrig ranks sixth on the list. There are actually two Lou Gehrig cards in this set, one which carries Gehrig’s endorsement–testimony to the popularity of the Iron Horse during this era. It is card number 37 and thanks to the brilliant colors and terrific artwork of a smiling Gehrig during the height of his career, it is the more appealing of the two.
5. Fifth on our list is the 1938 Goudey Heads Up Joe DiMaggio. It’s a little strange looking thanks to Goudey’s desire to get a little crazy with the art, but it is considered the rookie card of one of the games greatest icons. When looking for a card of the Yankee Clipper, this is the one to own.
4. The 1963 Topps Pete Rose rookie was the hottest card on the market for several years. As Rose continued his inevitable march to break Ty Cobb’s record for most career hits, the Rose rookie was bought and sold in large quantities. It was so popular it became one of the most highly counterfeited cards and helped lead to the creation of sports card grading and authenticating companies.
3. The 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #144 is our third most important card. There are a total of four cards of the Bambino in this famous set. Card #144 is the consensus best looking card of the four and most highly sought after.
Vintage Babe Ruth cards have been one of the steadiest investments of all and it’s good advice to buy the best you can afford.
2. The most valuable card of all time is second on our list. The T206 tobacco card of Honus Wagner is the Holy Grail—a card familiar even to those who aren’t collectors because of the news generated by every sale. Only its lack of availability to the common collector keeps it from the top spot. Put it on your want list and hope you win the lottery.
1. The number one card of all time achieves its lofty status because it is the only card that has withstood the test of time. The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is the best for several reasons. It is a rare card from the 1952 high number series. It is considered a rookie card, even though Mantle first appeared in 1951 Bowman and although it’s expensive, it’s status as an American collectible icon is secure.
The ’52 Mantle just has an air about it. Blessed with terrific eye appeal, it represents Topps marriage with Mantle as the two ushered in the golden era of baseball cards. It is simply the best card to own of the player with the highest star quality in the modern history of baseball. Other players may have been better than Mantle but none achieved the status he did, especially in the baseball card market which grew exponentially on the backs of people who saw him play.
Mike Stack is a freelance writer with 25 years of hobby experience as a dealer and collector.