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What’s Worth More: New or Vintage Trading Cards?

Steve Shoup

Over the years, baseball trading cards, featuring the likes of Nolan Ryan, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey, Jr. and other world-class stars, have become one of the most popular pieces of sports memorabilia a sports fan can own. But, like anything you buy and come to own over the years, tastes and priorities change.

So, if you’re looking to sell your collection of trading cards, you might be in luck, depending on what you own. First, however, you need to determine what’s considered vintage, as these trading cards will definitely be worth a lot of money now and could increase even more in value over the years.

Not sure whether your collection features some prime, vintage trading cards or merely some nice-to-have collectibles? Below are some insights into trading cards and how you determine whether you have some prized trading cards in your possession.

History of Trading Cards

Trading cards have been in circulation for decades upon decades. At the turn of the 20th century, baseball trading cards were used — and quickly grew in popularity — to line cigarette packs as a means to boost sales.

Of course, the style and appearance of baseball cards have come a long way since then and grew in popularity from the 1930s to the 1950s, thanks in large part to the superstar players who appeared on them. Sometime later, they came to be associated with bubblegum, and dozens of companies started selling them, including Bowman, Leaf and Goudy. Then more and more companies got in on the trading card business.

In 1956, Topps quickly began to monopolize the trading card market after reaching an agreement with Bowman. Four years later, the Frank H. Fleer Co., began producing baseball cards of Ted Williams, while the Leaf Co., began producing a set of black-and-white baseball trading cards that included marbles rather than bubblegum. After three years, Fleer put out a limited set of baseball cards (with cookies), featuring players that weren’t yet under contract.

In 1981, after winning a lawsuit against Topps for their monopoly on the market, Fleer and Donruss started marketing MLB trading cards. Just two years later, rookie cards became all the rage and set the foundation for the card-collecting boom of the 1980s and 90s. With that boom came a rush to produce as many trading cards as possible. In 1988, Score (later known as Pinnacle) entered the fray when it began to sell its own set of MLB trading cards.

Eventually, Upper Deck received a license to market baseball cards, and the company grew in prominence after it put out its Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card. In 1994, MLB began increasing the number of licensed manufacturers, starting with Pacific. But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, interest in trading cards had waned considerably, leaving only two trading card producers in the market: Topps and Upper Deck.

The Value of Trading Cards: From Past to Present

The value of certain trading cards has soared in recent years. According to Forbes, the ROI for the top-10 trading cards is higher than the S&P 500’s gain over the past 10 years — and by a pretty wide margin. Of course, that’s not the case for all trading cards. While the 1990s was the prime era for MLB trading cards, their popularity has since died down significantly.

However, if you grew up in the 1980s and 90s, you likely were one of hundreds of thousands of card-collecting fans looking to save up enough money to visit the mall so you could add to your collection. You might even remember the number of trading card shops dedicated to die-hard baseball fans like you in your community.

And for those fortunate enough to get their hands on a treasured Hall of Fame rookie card before 1970, like a 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente, it was like holding a future $5,000 or more in hand. Of course, the value of trading cards depends on several factors, such as the:

  • Athlete featured
  • Years in which they played
  • Statistics they put up
  • Number of trading cards produced that year

Vintage cards, featuring baseball legends like Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, are obviously more valuable than cards featuring other less prominent players of yesteryear. But gone are the days when a 1986 Donruss Jose Canseco card went for $100. In fact, trading cards from the 1980s and 90s were so mass produced that they’re not worth much today.

But with the likes of Hall of Famers such as Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski; Joe Morgan and Pete Rose; and Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, fans of the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees likely still own a slew of valuable vintage trading cards featuring these and other team superstars.

Peak Times for Trading Cards

According to Royals Review, baseball card trading season begins near the end of January, and this year the release of the Topps Series 1 marked the beginning. So, if you’re looking to sell your cards any time soon, consider waiting until January to start unloading your card collection. You can sell or trade them online, at an auction, to a private collector or to a shop.

The Verdict

So, what’s worth more: new or vintage trading cards?

The answer is…it depends. As highlighted above, trading cards produced in the 1980s and 90s aren’t worth a lot these days, but that could certainly change. Meantime, trading cards from the 1950s and 60s weren’t as widely produced and some are limited-edition mementos, meaning they’re harder to find and worth more. Vintage cards are generally more valuable but not always.

The rookie cards of former superstar players are highly coveted and are generally more valuable than a trading card that was produced later in that player’s career. Autographed cards are obviously worth more than their non-autographed counterparts, and cards with relics, serial numbers or that came as an insert earn even more.



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