If you had money to invest 30 years ago, you could have put it in any number of places, depending on your willingness to take on a risk or two. The stock market. Real estate. Precious metals. You may have been the subject of much derision if you had opted to put at least some of it in baseball cards, but it wouldn’t have been a bad idea, as long as it wasn’t 1989 Donruss. In fact, if you had enough money back then to buy what were considered the hobby’s most expensive cardboard, you’d probably be living a very comfortable retirement today.
On Wednesday, I ran across a list of the 20 most valuable baseball cards as put together by Sports Collectors Digest in the summer of 1989. The market wasn’t nearly as fluid then. There were only a limited number of big auctions. Many sales were private and went unreported. The online world didn’t exist yet. Grading companies were a few years away, too, so the dollar figures that were attached to the list are a little hard to compare to today’s values. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to look at–and provides ample evidence that the hobby’s best cards have skyrocketed over the last 30 years.
Tops on the list was, of course, the T206 Wagner which was listed at $95,000 (about $194,000 today). These days, even the worst Wagner cards sell for more than double that and the best of the best are now worth into the millions.
Aside from the dollar amounts, though, it’s interesting to compare what collectors and investors valued back then compared to now. Set collecting and owning rare and/or popular cards was still foremost in most hobbyists’ minds, rather than ‘investment potential’ or condition. That should be fairly obvious by looking at the list.
The list of the 20 most valuable cards in 1989 is vastly different than one you’d piece together now. Some cards and players have simply gotten hot in the 21st century like Babe Ruth’s rookie cards who are nowhere to be found. There was no mention of Joe Jackson (let’s call that the ‘Eight Men Out’ effect). The Leaf Satchel Paige didn’t make the cut either.
Despite the latter omission, collectors back then were still paying strong for scarcity. Three T207s made the list. Today, none of them would. SCD ranked three 1951 Topps Current All-Stars in the top 10. The Stanky, Konstanty and Roberts were rare then and are still rare now, but the number of collectors chasing that set is small today because so few exist.
Grading has played a huge role in the value of certain cards, especially rookies. There were only two post-War cards on that SCD list from 1989: Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps card (valued at $6,500 back then—around $12,000 today, which would barely get you a Poor example) and his 1951 Bowman rookie card ($4,800 then—a little under $10,000 in today’s dollars, which would indicate it’s still really undervalued in 2018). Today, numerous iconic vintage Topps rookie cards in mint condition, graded, would sell for more than any card on the 1989 list except the Wagner.
Interestingly, SCD valued the 1932 U.S. Caramel Fred Lindstrom at $18,000. It’s one of the hobby’s ultimate white whales. In fact, you can count the known examples on a couple of fingers. If one were to hit the market today, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it sell for $2 million or more but those that exist are simply never sold and the set is considered complete at 31 cards rather than 32.
Number 3 on the list was the Joe Doyle “NY Nat’l” variation, valued at $15,000. On the rare occasion one is sold these days, it’ll take more than ten times that amount to even be in the game.
The 1989 top 20 included all four 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth cards, all valued at between $2,800 and $3,300 at the time. Those prices were likely for higher end examples. Even factoring inflation, the profit margin for anyone buying Goudey Ruths in 1989 and selling today would be at least double, perhaps much, much more depending on how the result of a grading submission.
The list of the most valuable cards today would be a little more complicated but it’s pretty clear the interest level from those who can afford such things has never been higher.
1989 List of Most Valuable Baseball Cards
- T206 Honus Wagner $95,000
- 1932 U.S. Caramel Fred Lindstrom $18,000
- T206 Joe Doyle variation $15,000
- 1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie $15,000
- T206 Eddie Plank $9,000
- T206 Sherry “Magie” error $8,000
- 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle $6,500
- 1951 Topps Current All Stars Eddie Stanky $5,500
- 1951 Topps Current All Stars Jim Konstanty $5,500
- 1951 Topps Current All Stars Robin Roberts $5,500
- 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle $4,800
- 1911 T3 Turkey Red Ty Cobb $3,500
- 1933 Goudey #181 Babe Ruth $3,300
- 1933 Goudey #53 Babe Ruth $3,100
- 1933 Goudey #149 Babe Ruth $3,100
- 1933 Goudey #144 Babe Ruth $2,800
- 1912 T207 Irving Lewis $2,800
- 1912 T207 Louis Lowdermilk $2,800
- 1912 T207 Ward Miller $2,800
- 1911 T205 Ty Cobb $2,500