While the names of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb dominate the pre-war baseball card landscape, that pair of all-time greats has made room for a few other legends of the game. Among the players’ cards that have grown in popularity over the years is the iconic Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Jackson’s story hardly needs repeated at this point for longtime collectors or fans of the game. Simply put, he was one of baseball’s greatest hitters and by most reasonable measures, would be a Hall of Famer. He led the league in hits in 1912 and 1913 with the Cleveland Naps prior to later joining the Chicago White Sox. Ironically, his highest total in a season was in 1911 when he collected 233 hits but still fell short of the league lead in that category. Even Jackson’s career best .408 batting average in 1911 fell short in the race for the batting title (Ty Cobb led the league in both hits and average that season). He led the league in an assortment of other categories during this career, including doubles, triples, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases. By any definition, Jackson and his career .356 batting average would be enough for induction into Cooperstown’s shrine.
Of course, the 1919 World Series scandal to throw the World Series, to which Jackson (along with seven other players) was linked, resulted in an effective ban from the sport, making him ineligible from Hall of Fame consideration. That has led to a tug of war of sorts between purists and Jackson apologists, the latter believing he is worthy of induction, anyway. While that is another topic for discussion, one thing that cannot be debated is that interest in his baseball cards has always been high.
Part of the reason Jackson’s cards are so expensive is because the cards of anyone tied to the scandal are high. That includes lesser players that would not even come close to being a Hall of Famer. Another reason, of course, is Jackson’s playing ability. But yet another reason still is because Jackson has a small amount of cards to begin with. While Jackson played a handful of games in 1908 and 1909, his career effectively spanned only 11 seasons (1910 through 1920) and in the middle of his career, cards were not heavily being printed due to World War I. Add it all up and you have a relatively low number of cards for one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen.
In terms of value, Jackson’s T210 Old Mill minor league card is his most expensive issue. But it’s another card that I’ve had my eye on for some time that has continued to intrigue.
Jackson appears in the 1909-11 American Caramel set, one of the most popular E-Card releases of all time. Featuring a total of 121 cards (if you include the rare sunset variation of Dots Miller, which has been discovered in recent years), it includes a generous mix of big name players, including Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Tris Speaker, and more. Also found in the set is a staggering number of rarities rivaled by few other large mainstream sets. But without question, the gem of the release is the major league rookie card of Shoeless Joe.
Jackson’s American Caramel card is not his first issue but it is his major league rookie as his earlier Old Mill card depicts him as a minor leaguer. Of interest is that the card is not technically rare. Many other cards in the set were likely shortprinted as opposed to Jackson’s card, which was not. So while the card has always been expensive, that has likely helped to somewhat contain values on it. Low-grade cards, after all, traditionally could be bought for under $10,000. However, like nearly everything else from the pre-war era in the last couple of years, his card values have skyrocketed.
The card may not be terribly rare compared to the rest of the set but it is not produced all that often for sale. It is evident that the card is being enjoyed by collectors at the moment and stored away because while other non-shortprinted E90-1 cards are seen quite a bit, his card is not. But when it has been for sale recently, the prices have quickly exceeded the budgets of many collectors.
How much has the card risen? PSA’s Card Facts gives us a clear idea of this with its listing of recorded graded sales.
As recently as August 2020, an Authentic grade Jackson sold for $7,530 by Collect Auctions. That same card sold in REA’s auction less than a year later for $11,100. If you widen the date range, too, you can see plenty of examples of Jackson cards selling for significantly more. A nicer PSA 2(MK) Jackson E90-1 raised a healthy $17,041 in Mile High’s December 2018 auction. About 18 months later, Memory Lane’s auction in June 2020 saw the same card sell for $25,063. That number was shattered again in July 2021 with the card selling for $34,800 by REA. A couple of others in lower grades are currently on eBay for more than that.
Within the span of roughly 2 1/2 years, the price on the Jackson rookie has more than doubled.
Card prices doubling or even tripling might not be too bad if we’re talking a few hundred dollars. But at these prices, you’re talking about a card that may have barely been attainable for most collectors and has now quickly gotten out of reach.
It’s a complex situation, really. As stated, there are plenty of rarer cards in the set that should theoretically command, if nothing else, prices in the same ballpark. As I’ve written before, one of those is the Honus Wagner throwing variation, which has a fraction of the amount of cards graded by PSA as Jackson’s does. But on the other hand, Wagner has many other cards available to collectors and his E90-1 card is not a rookie issue. The Jackson card is somewhat similar to Ted Williams’ 1939 Play Ball rookie card, which has been on a similar ascent. It is not really a rare card but as a key pre-war rookie card, that has not stopped collectors from more than doubling its value in recent years. It differs from the Williams case, however, because the Williams card does not blow every other card in the set out of the water quite the way Jackson’s does (see Joe DiMaggio’s 1939 Play Ball card).
In the end, it’s demand, not necessarily rarity, that trumps all. And right now, Jackson’s rookie card is truly one that is red hot.