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Play Your Cards Right With Baseball Collectibles

  • Complete sets. Easy to collect before 1981, it's more difficult today due to the explosion of the number of sets. Older sets can still bring amazing values; a 1953 Bowman set sold at auction in 2007 for $94,800.
  • Unopened packs. New packs were once relatively cheap, but today, because of inserts in packs, they can cost as much as $100. Vintage unopened packs from the 1950s and earlier can still go for thousands of dollars.

But what determines why a card is valuable?

First and foremost, it's the player on the card and his current status. But condition and quantity of the card are also important.

What will fetch top price, due to its rarity, are old cards in good condition and newer cards in perfect condition (they're graded on a scale from poor to gem mint by independent organizations such as PSA/DNA Authentication Services ).

The T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco card, which was withdrawn from production, is currently the most valuable baseball card at $2.35 million. It's estimated that only 50 to 60 of these cards exist.

And modern card companies have taken scarcity to a new level for future collectors with limited-edition insert cards; sometimes only five or fewer are produced.

Batter Up

Leila Dunbar, director of the collectibles department at Sotheby's (BID - Get Report), has some valuable suggestions to avoid striking out in the field of other baseball collectibles.

"The bigger the moment, the pricier," Dunbar says -- Mark McGuire's record 70th home run ball sold for $3 million. Look for less dramatic items, too: a piece of paper that L.A. Dodger's pitcher Don Drysdale used as a pitching crib sheet in the 1965 World Series is worth about $1,500.

Accordingly, Dunbar adds that players are more valued dead than when alive. Billy Crystal paid $225,000 for a game-used Mickey Mantle glove, the value of which soared even higher after Mantle's death.

As Dunbar points out, the holy trinity of baseball collectibles are items from Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb. A1933 Babe Ruth All-Star Game jersey sold for $657,250; Lou Gehrig's game-worn jersey from his final appearance on April 30, 1939, sold for $389,500; Ty Cobb's 1928 signed Philadelphia Athletics jersey sold for $332,500.

Signatures from Hall of Famers who died before the advent of card shows are valuable because their autographs are rare. A signed Walter Johnson ball can bring $4,000; one signed by Christy Mathewson can sell for $15,000.

Do note, however, that today's players are prolific signers of anything and everything.

Steiner Sports Marketing, in fact, just sued Red Sox star David Ortiz for not fulfilling his contract to sign 13,000 items! It claimed he also provided at least four other companies with autographed baseball memorabilia.

If you love Ortiz or the Red Sox, these authenticated items may look great on a shelf, but I believe future appreciation is nonexistent.

Dunbar also points out that the older the item, the better. When collecting mementos of the past, look for early dates.

Lucky Strike trolley cards from the 1920s featuring players like Lloyd Warner can cost $4,000; World Series programs from the early 1920s and 1930s are worth about $3,000; those from the early 1900s are worth up to $20,000.

Finally, Dunbar advises to look for black baseball memorabilia. Negro League ballplayers' items are rapidly appreciating through signed baseballs, programs, pennants and equipment.

A ball signed by Josh Gibson -- one of the best players to have ever donned a baseball uniform -- can sell for as much as $7,000.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Malcolm Katt is owner of Millwood Gallery in Millwood, N.Y., which specializes in militaria collectibles. He also is co-author of the second edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting an eBay Business.
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