I’ve been a hobbyist for the better part of two decades. Although I’m mainly motivated by my love of sports, I also enjoy history, and have a sensibility for art and eye appeal. Collecting sports memorabilia (mostly baseball and basketball cards) marries all three of these interests, giving me a lifelong hobby and newfound community that shares my penchant for collecting.
About two years ago, I began writing for a company that sells coins and bullion. Before long, I found many of those same factors that drew me to collecting baseball cards were also present in the coin business. Beyond the striking parallels, it occurred to me that there must be some crossover between the two industries.
In a series of posts where I look into what a genuine baseball coin is, exactly, Sports Collectors Daily has kindly allowed me to share my observations and the conclusions I reached about whether or not sports-related coins—in their myriad variety, as we will see—should interest traditional hobbyists.
U.S. Mint Baseball Coins
The most obvious entry point for this discussion begins with one of last year’s most intriguing releases (sports-themed or otherwise) from the U.S. Mint, the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins.
Even with the considerable expansion of the United States’ commemorative coin program (1892-1954; 1983-present) over the last third of a century, this was only the fourth time the U.S. Mint had ever struck a baseball-themed commemorative. It followed the 1992 and 1995 Olympic commemoratives—when baseball was, however briefly, still an Olympic event—and the 1997 Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary silver dollar commemorative. (The Jackie Robinson commemorative is among my favorite modern coins of any kind for its dynamic design). There are several on eBay now.
Many coin-like tokens circulated as promotional items long before the national pastime made its way onto legal tender. But believe it or not, the 1992 U.S. Mint set of Olympic commemoratives celebrating the 25th modern Olympiad in Barcelona, Spain was baseball’s first foray onto our nation’s coinage, coinciding with its debut as an official medal sport in the Olympics.
Said differently, it took the mint a mere 123 years from the time the first professional baseball game was played, and a full century after establishing the commemorative program through which such a coin could be commissioned, to recognize the “old ball game” on the country’s money. Then again, the U.S. Mint has never been noted for its attention to expediency.
The 1992 Olympic set consisted of three coins that featured three different sports: a half dollar (gymnastics); a gold half eagle, or five-dollar piece (track & field); and a silver dollar (baseball). The silver dollar, a denomination always of particular interest to traditional coin collectors for being the largest-sized coin (38.1 mm) offered by the Mint, used a design of a pitcher firing the ball toward the plate that unofficially bears a striking resemblance to the legendary Nolan Ryan. (It was common parlance for card collectors to literally refer to them as “Nolan Ryan dollars,” though erroneously so.) The ’92 XXV Olympiad set was also notable for depicting athletes dynamically in motion where previous Olympic commemoratives had used much more symbolic designs featuring torches or the stadiums where the games were held.
The 1992 Olympics Baseball silver dollar, like all U.S. silver commemoratives, was offered in two varieties: “Uncirculated,” the kind with brilliant surfaces like any Mint State coin; and “Proof,” a coin which is specially minted with polished dies, a process that renders its backgrounds (fields) mirror-like and its raised devices (bas-relief) lightly “frosted.” The resulting contrast is beautiful, and is probably what draws more collectors to favor the proof versions of collectible coins over their Brilliant Uncirculated counterparts, as evidenced by mintage (production) totals.
U.S. commemoratives are struck only in quantities to meet demand, with maximum mintage limits that generally far exceed the actual distribution numbers. For nearly any given commemorative issue, proofs far outsell coins of the same design with the more familiar uncirculated finish. (The ’95 Olympics Baseball half dollar honoring the 1996 Atlanta games is one exception, likely due to so many of the uncirculated coins being distributed in Young Collectors booklets for children.) Ironically enough, this means that proof varieties—of modern commems, at least—are oftentimes more readily available on the secondary market, bringing their prices into closer parity with (or even below) the uncirculated versions that are now more scarce.
High-grade examples of the ’92 “Nolan Ryan” silver dollars, for instance, have Red Book values of $37 for the Uncirculated coin and $38 for the Proof. It’s a razor-thin spread even with nearly three times more of the latter minted than the former. That’s also up $12 and $10 (respectively) from listed prices in 2007, when an ounce of silver cost almost precisely what it does today. I point that out only to show that the price appreciation hasn’t been due at all to their melt value rising.
In their original government packaging, these coins go for $25-$30 and $32-36 on eBay in uncirculated and proof, respectively. Near-perfect examples (the numismatic equivalent of a Mint-9 card) certified by one of the major grading companies typically carry an $8-$10 premium above those in OGP. The chart below includes specifications for every baseball-themed coin the U.S. Mint has ever issued.
|Year||Mintmark*||Denomination||Mintage||Book Value ($)|
*Indicates branch mint where the issue was struck: Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or West Point
**Book values unavailable until 2016, so original sales prices from the mint are used instead
The Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coins
This time around, the Mint astutely borrowed from a recent innovation by La Monnaie de Paris (the Paris Mint) that was used for a World Cup soccer commemorative: Like the soccer commems, the Hall of Fame (hereafter HOF) coins featured a curved design, with a concave obverse and a convex reverse, to imitate the shape of a ball. The same technique has also been used for astronomy-themed coins produced by the Royal Australian Mint.
There are, in fact, several awesome commemorative coins from around the world that celebrate major events in soccer, hockey, and other Olympic sports. For the most part, however, we’ll be limiting our discussion here only to baseball coins.
The novel HOF coins were a boon for the mint; where past baseball commemoratives had fallen short in stirring sufficient collector interest (although the Jackie Robinson coins have sustained a loyal following), the curved coins succeeded beyond all expectations. In fact, the Mint reached its maximum mintage limits for the gold and silver versions of the HOF commemorative within a matter of weeks. For context, in most cases commemorative issues never reach their maximum allotment. After the silver dollars reached their maximum combined mintage (400,000), the two gold coins were even allowed to exceed the maximum mintage allotted (50,000) between the two versions due to such strong demand.
Thanks to robust demand and fairly limited availability, these coins subsequently doubled in value on the secondary market over the course of just a few months. The Mint, in cooperation with the major third-party grading services, PCGS (the parent company of PSA) and NGC (the parent company of SGC), rolled out a brilliant marketing plan for the coin’s release, scheduling it close to the beginning of the baseball season. This allowed NGC and PCGS to offer clever “Opening Day” and “First Pitch” special designations for coins that were graded within thirty days of the initial release, as well as offer special label inserts with autographs from various Hall of Famers.
Though I unfortunately missed the Baltimore Coin Expo where these curved HOF commems made their debut, I was nonetheless thrilled to have purchased uncirculated and proof versions of both the silver dollar and copper-nickel half dollar HOF coins at their introductory prices from the U.S. Mint. These coins are indeed beautiful to behold, and Mint artists Don Everhart and Cassie McFarland deserve the lion’s share of the credit for deftly executing the novel curved design. Each version sells for around $60 in mint packaging on eBay, with the aforementioned premium placed on graded examples. You’ll find active auctions here and here.
Be sure to check back for the next segment where I explore some of the concepts that directly overlap between the two hobbies of card collecting and coin collecting. Later, we’ll look at the wide variety of collectible “baseball coins” in existence—a phenomenon that readers of a certain age will probably recall popping up here and there primarily in the 1960s.
It’s fairly likely that there were “commemorative” banknotes floating around in the late 19th century which featured baseball teams and popular players of the Deadball Era to promote local banks, but none of these were federally issued notes. If any readers have (or find!) information about baseball appearing on old paper money, I encourage you to share it in the comments section or email the author at [email protected]