As a pre-war collector, I’ve bought my share of ugly cards. I’m not enamored with them, really. And, like most, I’d like to have cards in the best condition possible. But unless you’ve got unlimited resources, if you’re a collector of early cards, sacrificing a little on condition sort of goes with the territory.
After all, these cards are, in some cases, 100 years old or more. They’ve survived wars, back pockets of young collectors, bicycle spokes, and the garbage can. Some of these cards have been through an awful lot and it shows.
So collectors of these old cards often have to sacrifice on condition. That’s especially true these days with values shooting through the roof. And as a set collector, I’ve had my share of ugly cards in my collection for the sake of filling a binder space. My philosophy is generally to accept a card in any condition and upgrade if it bothers me enough.
A card I bought recently, though, takes the cake. And it has me wondering where the boundaries lie.
Set Collecting and a W515 Strip Card Precursor
At any given time, I’m working on a couple dozen sets. I’ve got high-priority ones nearing completion, such as the 1912 T207 set or the 1909-11 American Caramel set. And I’ve got sets that I’m barely working on, only buying cards when I find abundantly good bargains. My priority is baseball but I’ve got sets in all sorts of sports. Some, like the 1923 W515 strip card set lie in the middle of my priority scale.
Why I’m pursuing this set isn’t exactly clear. It’s not a pretty set, by any means. I don’t mind strip card sets but they aren’t a focal point for me. And as a strip card set, it’s not a high-profile set for many collectors. I also didn’t come into an abundance of these cards where working on a set might otherwise make sense. Likely, it began in a similar fashion to many of my other sets. I bought a card, bought a few more, and, well, here we are. That is seemingly how many of my set pursuits start.
Fortunately, there are only 60 cards in the set. There are smaller sets, sure. But 60 cards is manageable and none are so rare that it makes completion impossible. Prices have gone up so completing a set these days is a lot more expensive than it was even a few years ago. But there are no ridiculously expensive cards in the five figures category or anything.
So, even as I’m barely buying them, I’ve managed to secure more than half of it already. The problem is that, as I’ve bought up more of the commons, some of the larger cards remain. The set includes several of Hall of Famers that have suddenly gotten more expensive but the real keys are two Babe Ruth cards and a Ty Cobb card.
Shown here is one of the two Ruth cards. If you watch a certain TV show, it might look familiar to you even if you’re not too into the set. A PSA 10 example of the card was on the show Pawn Stars with the owner offering it for sale. Those and the Cobb card are the ‘Big Three’ of sorts.
Buying A Really Ugly Ty Cobb
Things weren’t so bad when these cards were much cheaper. Once only a few hundred dollars, these days, finding either of the Ruth cards for much under $1,000 is difficult. Cobb’s card isn’t quite as expensive but it has gone up in value and finding anything decent that’s not low-grade is still a few hundred dollars at least.
Now, I had not planned on purchasing any of those three cards anytime soon. I’ve got other pressing set needs an even non-set single cards I am anxious to add to my collection are higher priorities. But then I saw a ridiculously low-grade Cobb card for sale.
So, when I say ‘low-grade,’ I don’t mean missing a corner. I don’t mean heavily creased. I don’t mean a card that was written all over or dropped into a bowl of soup. In this case, I mean approximately 2/3 of a card that has been cut, torn, and taped. This one is not for the faint of heart.
The card, of course, is an ugly one to begin with. Along with Cobb’s hideous W512 strip card, it competes for one of his ugliest cards even in good condition. The drawing is crude and looks little like Cobb. The red ink used for his lips given his card (like many other strip cards) a clown-like appeal.
Even though I’ve got hundreds of strip cards and have gotten pretty good at spotting fakes, I typically don’t buy expensive strip cards that are raw. But this one wasn’t expensive, really. I ended up buying the card for about $70 and knocking out one of the set’s biggest cards for under $100 was too appealing to pass up. Getting ‘any’ Cobb for under $100 these days is not something that happens too often — even in really rotten condition.
How ‘Rotten’ is Too Rotten?
As the card arrived in the mail and I carefully slid it into a binder page, I compared it to the others I’ve got in the set. And while I undoubtedly have other low-grade cards in it, none are nearly this ugly.
I started thinking, where is the line in terms of what can still be considered a card? Can a card literally be missing half the cardboard and still qualify? What if a card is cut in half? Or a card that is entirely skinned on the back? I suppose that depends on the collector.
A grading company would probably not touch this specific card for any number of reasons — too much cardboard missing or too fragile are the ones that come to mind. And if a grading company won’t touch it, is it still really a card?
This Cobb is not great looking and many collectors would avoid ever buying a card like this. And if it wasn’t for a set pursuit, I would be in that category.
Where’s the line? I don’t suppose there is a line because it’s different things for different folks — and that’s the fun of collecting. For this collector, though, it fills a rather large hole in a set so you won’t find me complaining.