There are important parallels between card collecting and coin collecting that warrant attention for anyone interested in baseball coins. Devoting some preliminary thought to these overlapping concepts and exploring which ones you may already enjoy or be drawn to can help in deciding how far down the rabbit hole you’d like to go, so to speak, with baseball coins as a subset of your hobby.
Vintage (Pre-1980) Cards Are Analogous to Classic (Pre-1965, Pre-1933) Numismatics
Just like 1980 is the demarcation point between “vintage” and “modern” baseball cards, there is a clear dividing line between “classic” U.S. coins and what collectors consider contemporary issues. 1964 is an important cut-off date, because this was the last year that 90% silver coins were minted for regular circulation; similarly, 1932 was the last year that gold coins were widely distributed to the American public for commercial use. (There were gold coins struck in 1933, but these were quickly subject to government confiscation. Only 11 are known to have escaped the melting pot.) Just as vintage baseball cards are an especially lucrative market unto themselves, classic U.S. coins similarly hold preferential status among coin collectors.
Moreover, in the same way that card companies often celebrate important anniversaries by issuing reprints of past card series or adopting vintage designs for modern base sets, today’s government mints regularly borrow classic coin designs for their contemporary gold and silver bullion coin (investment coin) programs. As an example, both the obverse and reverse designs of the popular “Buffalo” nickel (the five-cent coin minted from 1913-1938) were repurposed for a 2001 silver dollar commemorative as well as a 24-karat gold coin produced annually since 2006. In fact, a whole host of annually-issued coin designs originate from a commemorative occasion: The Washington quarter, for instance, was introduced in 1932 to honor the first president’s 200th birthday, and has remained in regular production ever since.
Cards With Short-Print (SP) Devices Correspond to Coin Varieties
Sports card collectors are oftentimes interested in short-print varieties of popular cards, mainly because these cards are invariably produced in lower quantities than their regular-issue counterparts. The same is true for special coin varieties, such as coins targeted toward certain geographic regions or specific markets. The regional targeting exists in card collecting, too: the Spanish-language versions of Pacific brand cards, and O-Pee-Chee cards with French text for the Canadian market, come to mind. The promotional Denny’s Upper Deck hologram cards from the ’90s might correspond to, say, the Chinese Lunar Calendar versions of Australian, British, and Canadian bullion coins that cater to markets in Southeast Asia.
Versions of a coin produced for regional collectors or as part of a limited edition may bear a “privy mark,” or a small insignia distinguishing it from its garden-variety counterpart. (Think of the Desert Shield or Opening Day SPs of Topps base cards, or even the Target, Walmart, and Toys-R-Us store-only editions that vary by border design.) Like SP cards, special coin varieties usually have far more limited mintage figures than the standard types, oftentimes rendering them coveted targets for specialty collectors.
There May Be Several Different Varieties of the Same Design
For collectors with an eye for design continuity and a compulsion for completion (the author included), there are an array of special variation devices that enrich the hobby for interested collectors. These most frequently come in the form of cards with different border colors (Topps and Bowman are especially active in this regard) and cards with different finishes (i.e. refractors, X-fractors, etc.) that otherwise share their design with a base card.
This technique of generating greater collecting opportunities also occurs in the modern coin market, where you increasingly see the same coin design issued in several different finishes. For example, a standard-issue modern silver coin may also be offered in proof, reverse proof, colorized, gilded, or enhanced finishes. (You may recall from my previous article that proofs combine frosted relief with mirror-like backgrounds, like in the second image from the left above; reverse proofs—third image from the left—switch the two contrasting effects.) Further, in the same way that Topps has issued Topps Micro, Topps Mini, and Allen & Ginter’s Mini cards, many coin designs also come in fractional sizes (1/10 oz, ¼ oz, ½ oz) relative to the standard 1-ounce coin.
This similarity obviously flows from the parallel notion of “base sets.” In the same way that you can buy the complete, factory-direct base set for a given year and brand of sports cards, government mints typically offer annual “mint sets,” which include one coin of each denomination (often proofs) for a given year from that country.
Collectors Choose Cards and Coins Based on Theme
For most any collector, regardless of the chosen medium, the first and foremost consideration is how to arrange a collection. What central theme are you building around?
Lots of card collections center around rookie cards. Similarly, many coin collections target first-year-of-issue coin designs. Among several other collecting M.O.s, both coins and collectible sports cards present the opportunity to collect by a guiding motif: For cards, this entails focusing on a specific team, player, or era; for coins, this means choosing a specific design, country of origin, or time period to pursue.
There’s an equally mind-boggling number of different coins out there as there are cards, so it makes sense that most collectors in both camps appreciate some narrowing of focus. Collectors are simply more likely to jump into a field if it has clearly defined boundaries—beginnings and ends.
In this regard, both hobbies offer the option to collect by series or subset. Perhaps you only want to focus on completing sets of Topps Gold Label cards by “Series” number, or Flair Showcase cards by the different “Row” numbers.
The corollary for coins takes the form of collectible subseries that are released either as one-year sets of multiple related coin designs or as series that run over several years with changing designs. Some use one new design each year; others may offer four or five unique designs under the same series banner in a single year, as has been done with the State Quarters and America the Beautiful Quarters. The U.S. Mint’s First Spouse series of 44 gold coins and the recurring 12-coin Chinese Lunar Calendar series from the Perth Mint (Australia) are two more good examples of the subseries model, though it’s worth noting that the latter has been vastly more successful than the former.
Similar Demand Dynamics Govern Card and Coin Prices
When it comes to coins, rarity is only one component of market price. The far more important factor is demand. The same is true of baseball cards: Collector demand for a popular issue and its availability on the market almost always trump pure rarity in price discovery. In practice, how scarce a coin or card is on the market relative to how much collectors want it is the calculus by which fair prices are determined.
The distinction between availability and rarity is an important one. Some cards are exceedingly rare, with serial numbers that stop at just 99 or 75 or even less, but are actually quite easy to find for sale. Consequently, these cards’ market value is far lower than the minuscule serial numbers might suggest. On the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of baseball cards and coins that may have had high production numbers, but are largely being held in private collections due to their popularity and therefore infrequently surface for sale. Low availability plus strong demand is the true formula for a high market price.
The Kelley Blue Book of car prices provides a good illustration of this principle: The listed price is only a benchmark, as the number of cars of a particular make and model for sale in a given market or region fundamentally influences the actual price paid above or below this listing value.
The Importance of Condition and Third-Party Grading/Certification Services
This is perhaps the first, and most important, lesson that any collector can learn. All surviving examples of a collectible are decidedly not created equal. The older a coin or card is, the more signs of age and wear collectors will tolerate in an acceptable example, but the same idea applies: the better the condition, the higher the value relative to others of the same type.
You don’t have to search long for the surest sign that condition scarcity and the availability factor mentioned above have a huge influence on what a collector will pay for something: it’s why many sellers are keen to reference the population report data—like “POP 4″—from a third-party grader (TPG) to give an idea of how many total examples have received a particular grade. (The shorthand “top pop” is reserved for a coin/card that has received the highest grade to-date among all the certified examples for the same type. There could, of course, be an as yet ungraded example somewhere that’s as good or finer.)
The parent companies of the same two major firms that certify or authenticate coins, Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), are also involved in independently grading cards under the subsidiaries Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA) and Sportscard Guaranty Corporation (SGC), respectively. (BGS, Beckett’s grading service, has no counterpart in the coin industry that’s owned by the same company.)
Although many collectors like to crack the card or coin out of its third-party grading holder (commonly called a “slab” or “slabbed coin”) once it has been absorbed into their collection, certification is still an indispensable service that helps collectors ascertain an item’s condition sight unseen—a practice underpinning the massive online market for collectibles as well as the wholesale side of the business. Yes, graders can occasionally make a mistake or a subjective judgment like any human being does. Nonetheless, without reputable third-party certification and encapsulation services, it can at times become perilous trying to figure out a questionable coin or card’s condition from photographs alone. Even in face-to-face sales or trades, it’s useful to know exactly what you’ve got.
In addition to sharing the central tenet of condition determining a collectible’s value, both hobbies call for a similar reliance upon consumer supplies for preserving, storing, and displaying one’s collection. Though coins are undeniably more durable than cards due to their metallic composition, they are still subject to environmental influences on their surfaces, their coloration (known as toning), and their overall appearance. You will hardly ever find a high-end coin in any collection worth its salt that is simply raw and left utterly unprotected. Even nicely toned coins ought to be kept free from further tarnish or wear. Undoubtedly, both cards and coins are best kept in, at minimum, plastic sleeves. 2 in. x 2 in. plastic “flips” (pictured) are frequently used to store individual coins, just as plastic “penny sleeves” or nine-pocket pages serve this purpose for cards.
The General Nostalgia for History and American Culture
Although it may occasionally be lost among the many reasons that collectible sports cards are appealing, there’s no question that baseball cards are little cardboard works of art, and are vehicles of our country’s unique cultural history. The same principle is clearly present when studying American coinage.
Admittedly, coin collecting spans the full expanse of countries and cultures around the world in a way that baseball cards generally do not, but even if we limit our scope to just U.S. coins, the body of cultural artifacts included is astounding. Coins, like baseball cards, embody certain artistic considerations in their designs, and thereby place themselves within their time period of origin. The functional use of year-dates to mark when a card or coin was produced has a similar historicizing effect, creating a lineage—and a tangible record—for all successive generations of collectors to discover and appreciate.
In some philosophical sense, collectors of all kinds are amateur anthropologists who are deriving meaning from a particular form of human expression. (Perhaps that’s a bit “out there,” but as hippy-dippy, pie-in-the-sky as the statement sounds, it’ll probably leave an impression on the next person who responds to your hobby with a puzzled look!)
A Vibrant Community of Exonumia Collectors Exists
Even if the reader is totally unfamiliar with the term “exonumia,” they more than likely have actually encountered an abundance of sports collectibles which best fit into this broad category of “tangentially related stuff.” In the field of numismatics (coin collecting), exonumia (literally, “outside of coins”) refers to all manner of money-like items that are collectible, but are not properly coins or legal tender.
This generally includes medals issued by governments or special organizations, commercial tokens like those used for public transit or game arcades, forms of play money, special badges or ribbons, and an almost limitless number of similar things. Essentially, if the issuance of an item resembling money (like a bus token) can be studied and cataloged, it’s exonumia and someone is collecting it.
To wit, there are plenty of industry-specific exonumic collectibles within the sphere of baseball cards. In this context, baseball exonumia may refer to any traceable, collectible baseball-related items that are not baseball cards. (Later, I’ll apply this concept to baseball coins specifically.) For instance, I like to collect any magazine issues I come across with Ken Griffey Jr. gracing the cover, but would of course classify these outside of my Griffey card collection proper. Baseball stickers, pins, pennants, postcards, programs, figurines, and even those long-distance phone cards from the ‘90s would fall under the same label.
Anything that is or becomes expressly collectible would qualify, but implied in the exo- portion of exonumia is the requirement that it be outside the definition of traditional memorabilia. The connection must be somehow indirect. Baseball exonumia would cover everything that isn’t game-used artifacts, autographs, and sports cards. Think: not the mounted plaque and framed photograph from the World Series, but the ticket stub from the game; not the pair of boxing gloves autographed by the champ, but the fight card from the title bout. Bobbleheads, lawn gnomes (the deGrom deGnome!), lunchboxes, and commemorative glassware or china would all be fair examples. As only a modest exonumia collector, I can hardly do this segment of the hobby justice here, because it’s so deep and filled with different areas of potential concentration.
Given all of these shared characteristics between numismatics and card collecting, it makes sense that there have been many attempts over the last 50 years or so to fuse the two together.