Stern was the warning to neophytes at card shows where old-timers were signing in the 1980s and 90s: “Get an autograph on a baseball. A picture. A program. DO NOT have him sign his rookie card!” The reason? Some non-written rule about a signature–even a real one–lessening the value of the card itself. So card-focused was the hobby’s old guard at the time that an autograph was thought to somehow undermine the quality.
And while some rookie card collectors prefer their cardboard without a player’s signature–even a Hall of Famer’s–the old rules seem to be dying. While signed baseballs, photos and other memorabilia remain popular, autographed rookie cards, especially those of the game’s deceased and iconic living players, are drawing a lot of interest.
Earlier this month, a 1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio rookie card signed during those days where the practice was generally discouraged, sold for nearly $5,000.
Getting Vintage Cards Signed
Today, players have autographed “pre-rookie” cards in packs. There were literally thousands of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo signed rookie cards in the market before they had even set foot in Wrigley Field as members of the Chicago Cubs. Those “prospect” cards are signed not long after a player is drafted by an MLB team and the signed cards of high profile players sell for strong prices very quickly.
Putting signed cards in packs is strictly a modern concept, however. If you want Rickey Henderson’s autograph on a rookie card, you’ll have to do it in person, find a private signing or find it via eBay. Having a trading card signed is often less expensive at a show than a baseball or jersey and collectors visiting shows where Hall of Fame players are signing or sending them to a memorabilia company’s signing session.
However, some former athletes’ representatives are now charging a premium for an autograph signed on a rookie card. The price for getting NHL legend Bobby Orr to sign a rookie card at the spring Expo in Toronto was about $650 U.S.
Collectors prefer their autographs on trading cards to be done with a Sharpie or similar pen. Ball point may have been the preferred years ago and cards signed prior to the common use of the Sharpie are still desirable if the ink remains strong.
Signed 1952 Topps Mantle Soars
Mickey Mantle is the most collected player of all-time and while he did sign some of his famous 1952 Topps and 1951 Bowman cards, his autograph appearances coincided with the era in which getting such valuable cards autographed was discouraged. One of only 11 signed ’52 Topps Mantles on PSA’s Population Report–with an autograph grade of 9 (mint)– sold for an astonishing $97,200 early in 2017. While it’s technically not his “rookie card” it is his first Topps card and has long been given unofficial rookie card status by collectors.
Forbes.com reported that prices for all vintage signed Mantle cards had virtually doubled in less than a year with fans and collectors zeroing in on his highest quality autographs on cards from his playing days. PSA noted a couple of recent signed rookie card sales in this video.
Importance of Condition
Like any MLB trading card, condition is important for autographed cards. A vintage card with a Hall of Fame signature doesn’t have to be perfect but a signed, graded card that also carries a high grade for the autograph (you don’t have to have the card graded but it’s an option) will have a better chance of selling for a good price.
You can see graded and authenticated autographed rookie cards by clicking here.