It is not unusual to hear the 1950s spoken of as the “golden age” for baseball card collecting. Three successful teams in New York, a bubble-gum war between two companies vying for the allowance money of kids, players who would define baseball immortality, and other factors all combine to provide this era with the well-earned title.
Of course, to speak of something as “golden” brings to mind the idea of richness. Value. Worth.
As a collector, dealer and card shop owner I have long hated the question, “What’s it worth?” This is especially an onerous question when it comes from a ten-year old. My passion is for these new collectors (and old collectors as well) to enjoy the hobby for its own sake. To be glad to have an item simply because you want to have it in the collection you are building. IF the item has some perceived value, then that is an extra benefit. But if you have it because you want it, then it does not matter what dollar figure is attached to the item.
So, my usual answer is that the item is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for the privilege of obtaining it. Perhaps it is not too big a surprise, but I get more parents grinning when I say that than any other sentence I speak. Oh, to be sure, some give me dirty looks because they think it is all about “investment,” but the vast majority understand and agree regarding what collecting is about at its core.
That being said, you have to be a realist.
Without the idea of perceived value, this hobby would not have exploded in the 1980s, busted in the late 90s, and slowly built its way back up over the last decade or so. The sexiness of busting open a pack of cards for $5, $10, $30 or more and pulling a card that is “worth” a couple hundred is a strong allure, indeed. It drives the sales of new product which, in turn, help local card shops stay open for those collectors who are desperately seeking those lat three 1962 Salada Tea coins for their set or whatever.
Consider the topic at hand as an example. When listing the 15 most valuable baseball cards of the 50s it might be easy for a person to just go to a price guide (after all, there are really only a couple that are used broadly) and list out the 15 cards with the highest dollar value ascribed to them. That leaves out some important factors, however, which have a direct impact on the question’s answer.
One such factor is the availability of the cards used to provide an answer. There are several cards which would qualify based on their price guide listings, but they are cards that were not broadly available when they were released, and even more restricted in their availability today. Even some nationally issued, post war baseball issues were never easy to obtain even in their “day.” The 1951 Topps Major League All-Stars card of Robin Roberts was a short print, and its price guide listing of $15,000 would certainly place it high on a list of valuable cards. But the scarcity of the card actually restricts the number of collectors who are legitimately seeking to add it to their collection (or portfolio), thus making it a card with a high price guide value and limited appeal. That limited appeal makes the designation of “most valuable” questionable at the least.
One of the reasons for the Roberts’ card scarcity is the probability that the card was likely never released to the public in gum packs. It was probably obtained directly from the company and, therefore, exists in extremely limited numbers. Other cards that also carry high “book values” are actually kept on the fringes of a collecting definition of “most valuable” because they also were not made widely available. Such regional issues like Stahl Meyer, Wilson Franks, and Felin’s Franks have some great price guide listings, but we are keeping them outside our definition of value because so few collectors were ever able to obtain them.
The same criteria follows for some Topps issues that were either early forms of insert cards or released only on a regional basis. I would place the 1956 Topps Hocus Focus cards and 1959 Topps Venezuelan cards in this category.
As you can tell, we are trying to make the answer of “most valuable” be decided by a variety of factors. Broad availability is a necessary component. The opinion of a national pricing guide service should be considered. We live in a day when cards are collected as both “raw” and “graded,” and so that comes into play. Finally, as I try to convince the young ones, the value of things is determined by what people are willing to pay, and so the modern phenomenon of sports cards auctions also has information to add to this discussion.
So, what are the 15 most valuable baseball cards of the 1950s by the standards we have established? We do have a list for you, and here is how we came about putting it together.
First, we did go through the most often used price guide(s) to establish a list of the Top 30 dollar values ascribed to cards from the years 1950 through 1959. As we did this we weeded out the cards from regional issues or cards that were not broadly accessible to the collectors of that era, such as the 1954 Bowman Ted Williams which was pulled from production early that spring because of contractual issues. We did this for both raw card values and the values of cards which had been graded “Mint”, but not Gem Mint. In other words, we listed the cards that carried the equivalent of a PSA 9.
Using that list of 30 cards, we then checked what these cards had sold for at auction in recent history. After all, an item is only worth what someone is willing to pay to obtain it, right? The functions of eBay and auction monitoring web sites were very helpful at this juncture.
Once this step was complete we trimmed what we had to a a list of 25 cards with the highest total of raw and graded prices, added the most recent “sale” information that was available, and then averaged out the raw, graded and realized dollar values of the cards on the list. For example, the 1955 Topps card of Roberto Clemente (#164) has a raw price guide value of $2,200. A graded card with a “9” carries a priced worth of $55,000, but the most recently sold item went for $34,409. Thus, those three values were averaged and the “value” of the card was determined at $30,536.
Simple, right? Right.
Regardless of the formula used or time needed to form the list, it was an interesting exercise to help determine the 15 most valuable baseball cards of the 1950s. Not everyone will care that the graded cards were included in the figured value, but those sales do drive value and eventually affect the raw cards. And, though the most valuable card was not a surprise when it came up as the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 (despite the fact that it is known to be a double-printed card), some of the other cards on the list may surprise you.
In fact, not everyone on the list is a Hall of Fame player as the 1952 card of Andy Pafko made the cut. Of course, his card is card #1 in the iconic 1952 Topps set and high grade examples are rare. When one considers lower grade Pafkos, the result would be different. The 1951 Bowman rookie card of Whitey Ford may have benefited from the #1 card position as well. As long-time collectors know, the top card was often subject to rubber band marks and other wear from sitting atop a childhood stack of cards.
Here’s the list:
#1 – 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle (figured value of $254,196)
#2 – 1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC (figured value of $156,050)
#3 – 1952 Topps #1 Andy Pafko (figured value of $69,442)*
#4 – 1951 Bowman #305 Willie Mays RC (figured value of $61,092)
#5 – 1953 Topps #82 Mickey Mantle (figured value of $59,423)
#6 – 1952 Topps #407 Eddie Mathews RC (figured value of $53,912)*
#7 – 1953 Topps #244 Willie Mays (figured value of $35,173)*
#8 – 1955 Topps #164 Roberto Clemente RC (figured value of $30,536)
#9 – 1954 Bowman #65 Mickey Mantle (figured value of $29,147)
#10 – 1951 Bowman #1 Whitey Ford RC (figured value of $28,919)
#11 – 1954 Topps #128 Hank Aaron RC (figured value of $28,608)
#12 – 1955 Topps #123 Sandy Koufax RC (figured value of $26,671)
#13 – 1954 Topps #94 Ernie Banks RC (figured value of $25,146)
#14 – 1952 Topps #261 Willie Mays (figured value of $18,117)
#15 – 1952 Bowman #218 Willie Mays (figured value of $17,391)
* In a few instances the best graded card sold was an “8.” However, the placement of the card on the list would not have changed even factoring in a doubling of the card’s value by taking it to a “9,” and so the list remained intact.