Maybe you’ve looked at your bank account and decided the T206 Wagner or 1952 Topps Mantle are probably out of reach. Babe Ruth’s rookie just isn’t in the cards. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a want list of some of other iconic sports cards and start tracking them down. Some of these can get expensive but only if you insist on the absolute best condition.
All 15 cards on our list can be had in reasonably good shape for less than you might think.
1912 Hassan Triple Folders Ty Cobb Steals Third (Ty Cobb/Hughie Jennings) – OK, maybe this card doesn’t come immediately to mind when discussing the most popular cards ever made but it’s got one of the most iconic images of all-time right smack in the middle.
The classic Charles Conlon photo of a hard sliding Ty Cobb was used on several cards in the Triple Folder series but this one has a Cobb portrait card on one side of the perforation, too. It also has Hughie Jennings, another Hall of Famer who managed the Tigers and had a personality totally unlike Tyrus Raymond.
Pricing on these is pretty remarkable considering the fragility, the unique, almost museum-worthy quality of the issue and the greatness portrayed. Click the linked titles to see them for sale and auction on eBay.
1941 Play Ball Ted Williams – Not his rookie card, but from the year in which he won the Triple Crown and hit .406 makes it popular. A beautiful color pastel piece of art displaying the Splendid Splinter, pre-War style.
A VG-EX, crease-free example can still be had for several hundred dollars; not bad for a dated slice ob baseball history.
1949 Leaf Honus Wagner – Forever linked to tobacco because of the T206 card that was pulled from distribution in 1909, this card has experienced a bit of a renaissance as more collectors realize the irony: Honus was clearly not against putting a pinch from the pouch between his cheek and gums.
He was still coaching then so he’s pictured in that 1940s blue Pirates uniform, making it a legitimate card from his baseball career. Best of all, it’s plentiful and not expensive.
1969 Topps Mickey Mantle – If you can’t own his first card, you can certainly own his last. Mick’s spring training retirement means you get his entire career stat package on the back.
There’s an expensive white letter variation out there but be OK with the standard version for anywhere from $75 for a VG example to $300-$400 for one that’s closer to NM.
1974 Topps Hank Aaron #1 – Since Aaron was on the cusp of history when the season began, Topps went ahead and anointed him the “Home Run King”, using a completely different design for his card than the rest of the ‘74s and making him the first card in the set, then following with a career baseball card retrospective on cards #2-6.
The Aaron #1 is very unique, represents an incredible moment in history and you can own a nice example for under $100. There’s plenty to like here.
1982 Topps Cal Ripken Jr. – Yes, the Traded card from the end of year boxed set is not as plentiful and gives Cal his first Topps solo card, but the regular card he shares with two other Orioles prospects truly shows that back then he was just another guy trying to earn a spot in the lineup. It wouldn’t be long and he’d never leave.
It’s amazing how many autographed copies are out there but an unsigned, graded one in mint condition is still only $50-75.
1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. – Every kid who was growing up in the late 1980s and early 90s knows this card backward and forward. Every adult who was in the hobby at the time remembers the feeding frenzy over it as Junior’s Hall of Fame career dawned.
There are too many around for ordinary examples to be worth a fortune, but it represents Upper Deck’s arrival in the industry, Junior at his youthful best with everything in front of him and a crazy time in the hobby. You can own a NM/MT copy for $40-$50 or fork over a little extra dough with an eye on the future and buy a BGS 9.5 for under $300.
1961-62 Fleer Oscar Robertson – It’s funny to hear the current debate about whether LeBron or MJ is the best pro of all-time. You picture Oscar sitting on his couch saying “Hey, what about me?”
It’s been 40 years since The Big O laced up his shoes and while the game wasn’t as high-flying during his playing days, remember that he’s still the only player to average a triple double over the course of an entire season. Oscar was a huge deal back in the day. He’s also one of the few 1960s and early 70s greats who actually has a true rookie card.
The one you buy will likely be off-center since most of them were printed that way but an EX/MT example can still be had for around $400.
1970-71 Topps Pete Maravich – Pete’s rookie card still shows him in his LSU uniform, cleverly covered up by the placement of his arms and the basketball and it was in Baton Rouge where his legend was born. All it takes is a You Tube visit to understand his greatness if you weren’t around at the time. Pete was such a wizard on the court that he transcended into pop culture, something few athletes of the time can say.
1980-81 Topps Larry Bird/Magic Johnson – We’re not sure what Topps was thinking with their design but it worked out in this case. Putting two players who’d forever be linked on the same card now looks like a genius move.
At a few hundred dollars for a really nice graded version and less or so for one a bit lesser, it’s a great one to buy, hold and remember. Simply one of the most important sports cards ever made.
1966 Philadelphia Gum Dick Butkus -The toughest linebacker in the modern era of pro football, Butkus was talked about with a certain fear by anyone who’d ever run up against him. How big would he have become had the Bears won a Super Bowl?
A near mint 7 of the crew cut stylin’ Hall of Famer is $450-500 and you’ll never lack for buyers down the road if you decide to part with it.
1976 Topps Walter Payton – Strange how the Bears had two of the most memorable defensive and offensive players in NFL history in such a short time span. Ten years after the Butkus rookie card was issued, Walter arrived. Not hard to find, but still considered THE 1970s football card to own.
Because of that 9s and the rare 10s can fetch huge prices and 8s have even grown legs but a near mint 7 can still be had for under $300 and, of course, if you just want to own one, you can find one in slightly lower grade for much less.
1981 Topps Joe Montana -No one was really sure when this card was being printed whether Montana was the long-term answer at quarterback in San Francisco. How goofy goes that sound today?
There are enough of these on the market to keep the prices on pedestrian quality examples very reasonable. 10s are now in five-figure territory but a nice NM/MT 8 can be had for around $200. Come on, who doesn’t want a Montana rookie card?
1986 Topps Jerry Rice – If you have Montana, you sort of have to have Jerry too. The greatest wide receiver of all-time is in a set that drives mint freaks crazy because of the green borders that spotlight any imperfection. You can still buy a very nice NM/MT graded example for less than $100, however.
1979-80 Topps Wayne Gretzky – This card sits atop of any respectable hockey card collection simply because of the player’s stature in the game’s history. It’s less than 40 years old and plenty were made. The OPC version in higher grade is something average collectors can only dream of at this point with NM/MT, graded examples having gone wild, but the Topps isn’t quite as pricey.
The blue borders pose a problem for the condition conscious and that’s one reason why higher-grade examples aren’t as plentiful.
Costs to own The Great One have gone up lately but if you’re OK with a ‘7’ you can own one for less than you might think.