With so many trading card sets being produced over the past 130 years, there is no reason for a collector to have to overpay for quality, vintage material with a girth of material on the market. For every set like 1909-11 T206 and 1952 Topps that increase in value as collectors pursue registry sets and key cards, there are others that remain under the radar, unappreciated, or even unknown to a large percentage of collectors. Presented here are ten sets – five that are well-known and five that should be known – featuring quality checklists, high production values, and reasonable prices that vintage collectors can enjoy for less than you might expect.
Carl Horner Cabinet Cards
There has long been a debate in the hobby as to whether cabinets – whose name is derived from the name used by large 19th century mounted photographs – are considered ‘cards’. While some – T3 Turkey Red, M110 Sporting Life, T5 Pinkerton, etc. – are included in the American Card Catalog, others such as Jones, Keyser, and Arras and the subject of this entry by Carl Horner.
Horner is regarded as one of the finest studio photographer of the first two decades of the 20th century, and from his Boston location he documented most of the key stars of the day including several Hall of Famers. A decade ago a large cache was sold by the now defunct Mastro Auctions in which strong prices were paid for the likes of Addie Joss and Tris Speaker, but only a few have been offered since, with several common players selling for under $1,000. As the images were used on many of the card sets of the era – including T206 – they should be more valuable than they are.
1909 T204 Ramly baseball set
While T204 Ramly contains arguably one of the most overpriced cards in the hobby – Walter Johnson – the rest of the set can be acquired very reasonably. One of the reasons is the square shape with black and white photography that seems out of shape among their rectangular shaped peers with vibrant artwork.
The second reason is the checklist’s noticeable lack of star power – no Cobb, no Wagner, no Young. It does, however, have the aforementioned Johnson who had not yet become the game’s greatest pitcher. There are some Hall of Famers present including the Cubs trio of Tinker to Evers to Chance. The set has two front variations – both in gold – with the less common being the square frame, as well as with blank backs and ‘T.T.T.’ advertising backs.
You can own some decent looking cards from this set for under $200.
1910 E103 Williams Caramel baseball set
The years between 1909 and 1911 are filled with a glut of caramel card sets as numerous manufacturers began to include trade cards to advertise their business. Among these were the 1910 E103 set produced by Williams Caramel, which has gone unappreciated and therefore remains reasonably priced. What makes the E103 set distinct is that each portrait sits on a blazing red background that provides a stark contrast.
The checklist manages to include three of the eras biggest stars who still are widely celebrated – Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wanger. In fact there are 11 Hall of Famers in the set – more than one-third of the checklist – including Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, and Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown. We found a few dozen on eBay with even (low grade) Mattys under $2,000.
1911 C55 Imperial Tobacco hockey set
When you consider the historical significance of the 1911 C55 Imperial Tobacco set the reasonable prices many of the cards can be acquired for might seem like a steal. While the market for pre-WW1 baseball cards has always been strong, and attention has been focused on the 1895 Mayo football set, the market for hockey cards of the era has not followed suit.
The set’s key card is legendary Canadiens goalie Georges Vezina, which has sold for record prices in high grade, but can still be fairly acquired in more collectible condition. 20 of the 45 cards in the set display members of the Hockey hall of Fame, including almost every early twentieth century hockey pioneer.
1911 T3 Turkey Red baseball set
Perhaps no set of the pre-WW1 era can rival the beauty of the lithography of the 1911 T3 Turkey Reds. While some of the images have been used in other contemporary sets – such as T206 – the cabinet size of the Turkey Reds allows a level of detail and ornamentation not possible in their smaller T-card cousins. Although they increased a price surge following PSA and SGC’s introduction of a cabinet-sized slab some years ago, the set remains relatively affordable.
The 100-card checklist includes 25 Hall of Famers, whose ratio is ideal for collectors who look for a high volume of star power. Key cards include Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and Cy Young, with an assortment of other legends such as Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, and Tris Speaker. A complete, high-grade set was broken up and sold for over $200,000 in 2013.
Numerous examples from the set are readily available, with cards graded a 6 or higher usually considered to be towards the higher end of the spectrum for this set. Despite the high price tag on high end examples, you can own very respectable cards from this set for less than the cost of some current box or relic card.
1921 American Caramel E121 Series of 80 cards
The years between 1915 Cracker Jack and 1933 Goudey have always been met with a lack of interest by collectors who are only familiar with more widely-known sets. However, those years captured the players of the roaring twenties who brought the game back from the 1919 Black Sox scandal, including the game’s most enduring name – Babe Ruth. 1921 E121 Series of 80 features an earlier pitching image of Ruth from his Red Sox days, but he is indicated as a member of the Yankees – this pose has always been desired by collectors, but the value is here when compared to the pricier earlier examples.
While ‘Series of 80’ is printed on the reverse, more examples are known, and the checklist features several legends including Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Roger Hornsby. Most are available for less than you might think. There are also other greats of the era including Dave Bancroft, Harry Heilmann, George Kelly, and Ross Youngs who are omitted from sets collectors are more familiar with.
1933 Goudey Baseball Set
Despite being one of the most widely-known and collected sets in the hobby, 1933 Goudey still seems as if a set where despite the love the cards still remain surprisingly valued. Yes there are 4 Babe Ruth cards that sell well, and a Nap Lajoie card issued in 1934 that is ‘impossible’ for most collectors, but the set as a whole remains reasonable. Mid-grade examples of Hall of Fame players that present well rarely approach the $1,000 mark, and high grade examples have survived in numbers plentiful enough that allow even those examples to be collected.
In addition to Ruth, his immortal teammate Lou Gehrig features on two cards, the third most valuable player in the set following Lajoie and Ruth. The secondary tier of Hall of Famers on the large checklist includes the likes of 500 home run club members Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx and ace pitchers Carl Hubbell and Lefty Grove.
1935 National Chicle Football Set
While appreciated by football collectors, 1935 National Chicle deserved to be counted among the most important and visually attractive sets issued between the World Wars. The 1930s marked a dramatic change in football as the National Football League had begun to be viewed as a viable entertainment competitor to collegiate football.
The 1935 set from National Chicle – which had also produced the Diamond Stars set issued between 1934 and ’36 – was the first mainstream set to feature professional players rather than collegiate all-stars. The keys to the 36-card set are Bronko Nagurski and coach Knute Rockne, which by no means are cheap cards, but cards featuring Hall of Famers Dutch Clark, Ken Strong, Cliff Battles, Turk Edwards, and Clarke Hinkle can all be acquired at a fairly reasonable level.
1953 Bowman Color Baseball Set
Between 1950 and ’52 Bowman produced three successive sets that featured artwork rather than photography, but when Topps produced its landmark 1952 set that was larger and photographic the cardboard equivalent of the cola wars had begun. In response, Bowman increased the size of their 1953 issue and moved towards photography – but not just any photography – brilliant, full color photographs with no obstructive text that – aside from a small border – nearly dominated the entire front of the card.
As Topps and Bowman battled for exclusive player contracts neither company could issue a comprehensive checklist, but they did manage to include Mickey Mantle with a spectacular image. Pee Wee Reese jumping to make a throw during Spring Training in Vero Beach remains one of the enduring card photos of the 1950s, and several other of the era’s great stars – such as Yogi Berra, Duke Snider, and Stan Musial – are included in the set at a price point much lower than the quality should dictate.
1953 Topps Baseball Set
1953 Topps may be the most attractive Topps base set of all time. In their third year of production the company borrowed a page from rival Bowman’s playbook to use artwork instead of photography. In the 60+ years since it remains the only yearly base set produced by Topps to employ this style. While most of the cards feature portrait artwork – including the likes of Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson – artists were allowed more freedom with the higher numbers, which allowed the creation of one of the most beloved cards of the 1950s – Willie Mays.
Topps reprinted the set in 1991 during the peak of baseball card production, exposing a whole new generation of collectors to 50s designs, and has frequently made use of the style with inserts and and the widely celebrated 2002 Topps Heritage set. As 1952 Topps continues to increase in value, the followup 1953 set is likely to follow suit. As of now, many crease-free cards from this set remain very affordable.
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