Yeah, we know. Buy stocks and mutual funds. Don’t invest in baseball cards. Believe me, our retirement savings are not locked up in cardboard and we’re not suggesting yours should be either.
But… there’s no denying that high quality vintage cards have been very solid performers over time. If only we’d bought a few ’52 Mantles when nice ones could be had for under $5,000, right? Heck, if I’d have followed my own advice in these pages a few times, I’d have a nice little nest egg. And besides, looking at dollar signs on a page representing the value of a company you don’t really know isn’t all that exciting, is it? Life is supposed to be fun.
So…if you’ve got a few bucks and you’ve always wanted to put some of it into baseball cards as an alternative investment or just want a nice collection to pass down to your baseball-loving kids, here are ten tips to help you make the right decisions.
- Determine your budget. $100? $500? $5,000? $50,000? $500,000? Your budget is obviously going to determine which cards you can chase and which ones you’ll just have to keep dreaming about. You can also set a monthly or yearly budget.
- Understand grading. If you’re investing in cards (or if you’re just collecting high quality star cards), buying authenticated/graded examples is highly recommended. Even if you’re against the concept, graded cards have become the best way to assess/assign value, are far more liquid and generally will help you sleep better at night. Study the grading standards that are in place on each grading company’s website. Read them thoroughly. Then read them again.
- Understand rookie cards. Generally, most of the ‘investing’ involves a player’s recognized rookie card(s). If you don’t know the year/brand of a Hall of Famer’s rookie card, do a little research. Searching eBay listings can help. If you prefer a book, Beckett’s Rookie Card Encyclopedia is a pretty good resource that actually covers all sports and literally provides the rookie cards for every player in every sport. That’s not to say non-rookie cards can’t be good investments. Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps card isn’t a rookie—but it is his first Topps card, is in somewhat short supply and comes with the great story of how hundreds of cases of 1952 Topps high numbers were dumped in the ocean as unsellable in the late 1950s. Pre-World War II Hall of Famers such as those in the T206 set, are also great to own.
- Research pricing. Here’s the old ‘knowledge is power’ adage. Knowing what cards have been selling for is important. Use the “sold” search function on eBay to see those that have changed hands recently. Subscribe to VintageCardPrices.com and you can see historic selling prices for just about any card through eBay and various auction houses, too. If you can buy the same card in the same grade selling for a good bit less than recent examples, you’re probably making a good decision.
- Use the population reports. When PSA opened its pop reports to everyone a few years ago, it provided a great benefit to collectors. Anyone can now see that while the ’52 Mantle is far more expensive than his true 1951 Bowman rookie card, it’s not THAT much rarer. You can also see that there are other 1952 Topps high number cards that are incredibly scarce in higher grades, but not nearly as expensive. There are a lot of different comparisons you can make to help your buying decision, whether it’s comparing a single player, cards in a specific set or multiple players. Buying a card of an iconic Hall of Famer that carries a small population in high grade is usually a good decision because demand will likely always be there.
- Buy the highest grade you can afford. High grade cards, especially those with low populations, generally appreciate more—and faster. It’s probably better to own a smaller number of cards in high grade than a bunch of cards in lower grades unless your primary motive is simply to collect.
- Eye appeal. Grading companies like PSA, SGC and Beckett have to have those grading standards mentioned above to maintain some sense of order. Yet there are lower grade cards that sometimes have a better look to them. Why? Because a card that just barely sneaks into the NM/MT 8 classification with its centering measurement might appear less attractive than a NM 7. Maybe the card that’s been rated 7 (or even 6) has the slightest touch of corner wear that the 8 doesn’t but is beautifully centered. If it’s also free of print spots, has great color and gloss and has a nicely centered back, it’s probably better looking, but will likely cost less than the 8. A lower grade card with significantly better eye appeal –especially when it comes to ultra-high-end cards like early Mantles—can be a better buy and easier to sell when you’re ready.
- Don’t discount second year cards or low population cards from later in a player’s career. We recently compared the prices and population of second year cards of the post-War Hall of Famers to see which seemed like the best buys. Second year cards will cost far less than rookie cards and while the demand may not be as high, you might be able to afford a higher grade example. As the prices for some rookie cards shoot out of sight, a player’s second or third card is a reasonable alternative.
- Think long term. There are exceptions, especially if you’re buying cards valued north of $20,000 or so, but for the most part, cards tend to appreciate at a fairly slow rate. The good news is that most high quality vintage cards of Hall of Famers are worth more than they were even 4-5 years ago. Many believe baseball cards are in their infancy as a respected collectible and recent trends showing the number of new and re-engaged collectors/investors has increased greatly is evidence of that, but don’t expect to double your money in a year or two.
- Buy what you like. If you make good decisions, the chances are you won’t have to worry about your cards being worth half of what they are now in a few years. Millions of people around the world collect baseball cards and I’ll venture to say the hobby isn’t going away anytime soon. World events are unpredictable, though. There’s always a slim chance the collectible market will spin downward. In the end, if you buy cards you appreciate owning regardless of what happens, you’ll feel much better.