It’s a question we get quite often–and one that might involve a different answer depending on your criteria—and the amount of your disposable income. A list of the best old baseball card sets to own, though, is probably best put together with the average collector in mind. So if you’re dipping deeper into the hobby’s history, here are a few thoughts.
If you do happen to have the resources to chase valuable sets from long ago, we’d start with the T206, 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps. Each carries its own set of challenges but they are probably the most iconic 20th century sets.
The 1933 Goudey set includes four Babe Ruth cards and is the first major gum card set. The 1952 Topps set has, of course, the famous Mickey Mantle card (not to mention all of those classic high numbers). It’s place in history is secure by virtue of being the first major set ever created by a company that would become synonymous with baseball cards as one decade turned to the next.
If you’re not quite that ambitious or financially blessed, there are plenty of alternatives in the vintage marketplace, though. Here are a few of our picks that combine desirability, value and player selection.
Game Card sets: Table top card game sets were commonplace 100 years ago and on these sets, the cards used to play the games included images of players. The 1913 National Game and Tom Barker and 1914 Polo Grounds sets are two of the more common issues.
While they aren’t baseball cards in the traditional sense of having been distributed with tobacco, candy or gum, they have always been considered on their own merit because they showcase athletes of the day. Better news? They’re usually found in good condition because of their card stock and the fact that they were contained inside a box and rarely removed except when the game was played. Best news? You aren’t likely to find more affordable cards dating from the playing days of Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and even Joe Jackson. At just over 50 cards, completing a set is a reasonable goal.
Caramel Card sets: There are a lot of caramel card sets out there, most dating from the 1910s and 20s. Many are filled with stars, none have a huge number of cards to collect and many are readily available in the market. They’re also often times cheaper than their counterparts in the more popular tobacco sets.
It’s hard to top the 120-card 1922 American Caramel set for offering a true representation of the best players of the era but there are a few Babe Ruth variations and a lot of expensive cards. For a less daunting, more colorful (and star-studded) target, try a set like the 1910 Standard Caramel (E93). This set has just 30 cards with several Hall of Famers and is based on photographs rather than art. While high-grade examples won’t be cheap, lower and mid-grade examples make it a set you can take on with a reasonable expectation of completing, even if you can only afford a few cards at a time.
Premium sets: If you don’t have the cash or the patience to tackle a 1933 Goudey or 1934-36 Diamond Stars set, the Goudey and National Chicle premium sets from the 1930s provide incredible value. The oversized cards are great looking, were produced in fewer quantities and yet don’t cost nearly as much as their mainstream counterparts.
Smaller post-Deadball era sets with great aesthetics and a nice checklist: Number one on this list would be the 1941 Play Ball set. It represents the year of DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Ted Williams hitting .406 and both have cards here, each of which are not only great to look at but not as expensive as you might think.
The 1935 Goudey 4-in-1 set would also fit the bill and it includes the last mainstream card from Babe Ruth’s career.
The 1964 Topps Giants is another beauty that’s even less expensive. Virtually all of the big games of the era are represented with brilliant color photos with a nice set usually available for under $300. Don’t look for a huge return on your investment. Just enjoy owning it.
Classics: Ah, where to begin. If you prefer to stick with the standards there are options in the post-War era that stand out. The 1951 Bowman set has Mantle, Mays and Ford rookie cards and surprisingly, still seems somewhat undervalued. It won’t be cheap, but you’ll own an important set.
The 1953 Bowman set, with its pure photography is a beauty but the ’53 Topps “paintings” are great, too. Both will likely remain popular—and not as expensive as the 1952 Topps issue. If you can’t afford a high-grade pursuit, aim for cards with nice eye appeal in the 4,5 or 6 range.
The 1954 Topps set has a great group of rookies including Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. The 1956 Topps set is the last of the oversized horizontal designs and is well-liked by many collectors while the 1968 Topps offering has its detractors but it also has the rookie cards of Nolan Ryan (one of our ‘best single baseball cards to own‘) and Johnny Bench. In the 70s, the 1971 Topps set seems to be king thanks to its unique look. Don’t tackle this one if you’re a mint freak without a lot of cash but near mint examples are still attainable at pretty reasonable levels.
Another option, of course, is to simply become a ‘type’ collector and focus on owning at least one card from as many of the great sets as you can. Ultimately, no one can tell you the best baseball card sets to own. It’s your call and if you’ve got a personal favorite, let us know.