by Rich Mueller
What makes one type of sports memorabilia worth more than another? The simple answer is supply and demand. Another factor that's rarely considered, though, is value. Not value in the sense of what an item might bring on the open market, but value to the collector. Some items offer important qualities like scarcity and aesthetics that should be taken into account but often aren't.
The ongoing oversight by the vast majority makes those who collect these items pretty happy. Here then, in no particular order, is our list of ten underrated sports collectibles.
Vintage baseball card sets: Most collectors start with a certain number of cards for a set and try to complete it. Sometimes it's a childhood collection. Other times, the partial sets are part of a collection they've bought.
The market for set buyers is much smaller. Even high grade sets often sell for far less than they would if sold separately. If you're short on patience and looking for the best overall price, pre-1975 sets are the way to go.
Team Autographed Baseballs: Are we crazy or were team-signed baseballs once among the most coveted items in the hobby? Did publicity over fake autographs drive the market down or have collectors just re-focused? With rare exception, such as championship Yankee balls from the 1950s and earlier, team signed baseballs from the last 75 years are a relatively inexpensive way to add some serious display cred to your hobby room.
Regional/food issues: The era doesn't matter. Most regional sets, food sets, police sets and the like were printed in far less quantity than their bubble gum-issued brethren. You can build a HUGE collection of these sets from the last 40 years for just a few hundred dollars and the dealers are often happy to get rid of them. They often include players who aren't in the regular sets, too.
One problem? There's so little interest that dealers don't bring them to shows or even try to sell them on eBay. Keep searching, ask questions and don't worry about whether they'll go up in value. They probably won't but you'll have a nice collection of unique stuff.
Vintage sports publications: If you like your collectibles to be interactive, there's no substitute for the program or yearbook. They're pieces of memorabilia you can pick up and look at. Publication collectors are few and far between these days and that's your gain. World Series programs from the 1950s-70s are very inexpensive and now truly considered 'vintage'.
College football programs offer terrific artwork and are dirt cheap, even for big name schools. Old NBA programs are super scarce (try finding a 1960s or early 70s NBA Finals program). Even 1930s and 40s baseball scorecard/programs are great display pieces and fun to look at. Even old SPORT magazines have fantastic old photos and can be had for a couple of dollars.
Sporting News Supplements: Talk about scarce. The number of people who saved Sporting News or Sporting Life supplements that were produced in the early 20th century is very small. They're made of paper stock and very fragile. Yet many of the more common players can be had for less than $50 each in mid-grade and they're dated to the exact week the issue hit the newsstands. Talk about cool display items with a great story behind them. Wow.
Old wrappers and display boxes: Not many kids saved their baseball card wrappers in the 1930s, 50s or 60s either. They're colorful. Scarce, if you're talking pre-1970s, and a neat way to supplement your complete set.
Display boxes? Even harder to find since most drug and candy store workers tossed them out. Fantastic display items that bring back memories of five and ten-cent wax packs. Most wrappers run less than $50. Boxes from the 1960s are usually less than $250...a lot less sometimes.
Old basketball cards: Hockey cards have a huge following in Canada and parts of Europe. Basketball? Pretty limited. Toss out Michael Jordan's rookie card and maybe the one with Bird and Magic on it and most basketball cards just don't generate much excitement among collectors.
Prices are reasonable, especially on the sets, which tend to be smaller in size. The Topps tall boys of 1969 and 1970 are hobby classics. Considering how quickly hoops is becoming a worldwide game and basketball cards could even be poised to jump in value.
Vintage photos: Old photographs have gained a huge measure of respect among collectors, dealers and auction houses in the last five to ten years. However, there are plenty of photos that aren't considered all that valuable but are still unique and very cool to own.
Mammoth newspaper photo archives have made their way into the hobby and you can start a very nice collection of vintage sports photos for a very small investment. Pick exactly the type of photo of the sport/player/moment you like...and know there are very few others like it out there.
Press pins: You can't put them in an album. So what? Baseball press pins from World Series or All-Star games are among the most unique and colorful items in the hobby. They don't take up much room, they are very attractive and with the exception of the very oldest issues, are incredibly affordable. Most of the time, only a few hundred were made for members of the media covering the event.
Reprint sets: If you're not concerned with future investment potential but appreciate older card sets, consider reprints. I'll never own a T206 set. The 'big four' are out of my reach and the set is too big to tackle for a limited budget. I do have a few single cards.
I've had a T206 reprint set, produced by Larry Fritsch, for about 20 years. The card stock isn't the same. You'll never confuse them with the originals and they'll never be worth much. Yet the pictures and names are there, I get to see every player in the set and get to buy other cards I can afford and that's enough.