When people learn that I collect sports cards, one of the first questions that I hear is “Oh, I have some old baseball cards and football cards, are they worth anything?”
Are they worth anything? That can be a tough question to answer. How do you help someone not connected to the hobby understand all the variables? It depends on what products they are and what players are pictured. What do you mean by anything? $50? $10K? Big difference. There are parts of my sports card collection that are worth a lot to me for a variety of reasons, but they don’t necessarily have much monetary value.
In this post I want to spend a few minutes discussing what gives our cards value. If you’re outside the hobby, or new to collecting, I hope you will gain a basic understanding of why cards have value to many in the hobby. If you’re an avid collector, maybe this post will help you explain the idea of a collectible having value to someone else.
I’ll discuss both monetary value, and for many of us the more important aspect, sentimental value. If you really want to understand how much your cards are worth, you have to look beyond the monetary value to ask yourself another question. Why do you collect?
Show Me the Money!
Most of the time when people ask this question, they want to know how much money they could get by selling their cards. From a monetary perspective, at the end of the day our cards are only worth what someone else is willing to pay for them. There are several factors which drive monetary value, but in our hobby I think we can boil it down to four things that play the biggest role.
Player Popularity - The bigger the star, the more popular they are, the more value they have.
Product Popularity - Some products are more popular with collectors than others which drives demand.
Scarcity - the more rare it is, the higher value it is likely to have.
It’s important to understand that these things work in conjunction with each other to lead us to a card’s value. Vintage sets are popular, are full of the games legends, and have relative scarcity compared to modern cards. Vintage cards in great condition are even more scarce which leads to higher values. Cards produced during the trading card boom of the 80’s and 90’s have a huge supply. These “junk wax era” cards have lower values, even for the biggest stars of that era. 80’s and 90’s cards in poor condition have almost no monetary value.
In my opinion modern cards fall somewhere in the middle. Some products have artificial scarcity created by manufacturers “serial numbering” cards which are fundamentally the same except for a different background or border color. The modern product type with the most current value is autographed cards. The value of these autos can range from $1 to tens of thousands. The popularity of the player and scarcity of their autographed cards determine where they fall in that range.
For most collectors, checking completed eBay sales provide the most real time reflection of the monetary value of your cards. I use COMC.com to get a general feel for the current asking prices for some harder to find issues, and the Beckett online price guide can still be useful to get a frame of reference for hard to find cards with a limited market.
For some, monetary value is their primary concern and the main reason they have an interest in sportscards. But not everyone is concerned with turning cards into cash.
But Mike, There Is So Much More To Collecting Than Money!
Yes, yes there is. For simplicity, I’m going to wrap all these reasons for collecting into a pretty little package I call Sentimental Value. You can’t really calculate a price for sentimental value, but it is the reason some collectors won’t accept “the going rate” to sell parts of their collection. Some of these things may resonate with you, some may not, but they are all aspects of collecting sports cards which bring value outside of dollars and cents.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are connected to baseball and football cards. Whether it’s the time I spent sorting and organizing, or the hours I spent trading with friends and biking from store to store to see if they had packs from the newest set, collecting cards was a fundamental part of my childhood. Baseball cards were the thing that solidified friendships, and in some situations created my first opportunities to learn negotiation and conflict resolution skills. For others, it brings fond memories of spending time with their fathers or grandfathers. Reliving memories each time I look at the binders of cards from my youth brings me more value than I would ever get from selling them.
I love history, and for well over a century baseball has been connected to America’s story. For me, baseball cards document a piece of our history just like a political document, war artifact, or book manuscript would for others. When I hold a vintage card from the 1940s or 1950s, I’m holding a piece of history. 70 years ago kids held those cards. Essentially, they are photographic evidence of the players of the day. The card backs document their results, and recount interesting facts about their lives and careers.
The cards changed hands countless times over they years, each crease and rounded corner representing a new owner’s connection to the card. Each owner has their own story about how the card came into their possession, and each card means something different to them. Right now, I’m the current caretaker for those cards, and someday they’ll be passed on to someone else. Hopefully, my story and what they mean to me will be passed along with them. For over 70 years, the history of the game has been continuously documented each year through baseball cards. Hopefully that tradition will continue for years to come.
Cards also bring me enjoyment as a hobby. I have fun opening packs. Sorting, organizing, and displaying my little pieces of history is relaxing. Talking with my friends about how to buy and sell cards as a means to scratch my entrepreneurial itch is something I look forward to every week! I love having a hobby that pays for itself and essentially allows me to build a growing collection for free. It’s hard to put a price on the value that comes from enjoying one’s cards, but there is a definite value that comes purely from the enjoyment of the collecting process.
So where does that leave us? Were you able to determine if your cards worth anything? If it’s all about the money for you, eBay will give you your answer. But hopefully as you read through the article, you identified there was some additional value that you hadn’t realized before. Nobody is likely to pay you anything for that sentimental value, but maybe its enough to make it worth holding on to those childhood treasures a bit longer. Heck, if you’re like me, it might just inspire you get back into collecting again!