The sale of the T206 Honus Wagner for $1.2 million last week ignited another big barrage of publicity for the hobby. Interestingly enough, some of those bidding on the card--or at least expressing interest--were people who weren't really honest to goodness baseball card collectors.
Some were bidding on the card as an investment, knowing the history behind the sales of the Wagner cards over the years.
Prior to the most recent headlines, the record price attained by a 1916 Babe Ruth Sporting News rookie card also turned heads.
So where are some smart places to put your money if indeed we're seeing a sustained uptick in the value of vintage baseball cards?
1. Jackie Robinson rookie cards: Two themes shine through when it comes to vintage card values: the scarcity of the card and the importance of the player. While Robinson rookie cards don't rival the Wagner or Ruth rookie in terms of rarity, there's no disputing Robinson's legacy, which seems to grow with each passing year. Here's a key element: Robinson rookie cards are tough to find in high grade. Buy the best one you can afford. Don't overlook the 1949 Bowman, but we like the 1948 Leaf, which is generally considered his true rookie card. While the population of both cards is remarkably similar in most grades, there are only 40 PSA 8 Leaf Robinsons. SGC 88 or PSA 8, the average selling prices have been $5,000-7,000. That's very reasonable.
2. Second year Mickey Mantle cards: The 1951 Bowman and 1952 Topps Mantle cards in higher grades are beyond the reach of most collectors. If you can afford one, great. For long term growth, though, or just plain value, we like the 1953 Mantles. The '53s are hard to find in high grade. Still, you should be able to land a '7' for $2500-4500. The Bowman Color Mantle is one of the most beautiful cards ever produced, yet it can be had for less than $2,000 in near mint condition. Even '8's from PSA or SGC have been selling for $2600-4000. Prices on this card have actually gone down over the last several years.
The 1952 Bowman Mantle is another to consider. There's a huge disparity between 9's and 8's but at $3000-3400, a nice-looking 8 would seem to be a bargain. Of 1,863 graded, just over 100 8's and a couple of 8.5s are listed on PSA's population report.
If new investors are getting into the market, the deep pockets will chase the rookies but the trickle down could mean a current opportunity in the second year Mantle cards or even the '54-57 issues.
3. Later issue Babe Ruth cards: Even if the bottom completely falls out, you'll never regret owning Ruth cards. He'll forever be king of baseball. While the rookie era cards go for huge bucks, any hard to find Ruth card from the 1920s has to be looked at as a growth opportunity. There aren't many out there, though. A few to consider:
1920 W519 #5
1920 W520 #13
1921 Neilson's V61 #37
1921 Koester's Bread World Series Issue D383 #49
1921 Clark's Bread D-381-2 #4
1921 Oxford Confectionery E253 #15
1921-23 E220 National Caramel #90
1922 American Caramel E122 #57
4. Pre-1930s Hall of Famers: Anytime a Wagner sells, it puts a focus on the really old side of the hobby. The T206 Honus is the 'holy grail' because there aren't nearly enough of them to match demand. The story behind the card is part of what sells it, but that doesn't mean the coolness factor is any less for century-old cards that are slightly more attainable. It's hard to imagine making a mistake buying good quality cards of those players whose names are chiseled into baseball history: Think Christy Mathewson, other Wagner cards, Ty Cobb. Cy Young? Still affordable for some reason. What? 511 wins wasn't enough?
5. Joe Jackson cards: Even without Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe captivates baseball fans. Jackson's E90-1 card and his Old Mill rookie card are very expensive, but may still have room for growth if you've got the dough. If not, focus on the Cracker Jack, M101-5 or other issues. Fifty years from now, they'll still be talking about him and still buying his cards. He had no T206 and no other cards from his playing days you would consider easy to find.