Baseball Card Collecting: High End Cards vs. Set Building

topps baseball cardsBy: William Earl Robinson

Two years ago I was at the national sports card convention in Chicago, Illinois and I was riding the train over to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs take on the Dodgers. While on that train I sat next to a gentleman who was extolling the virtues of having a high end only collection. He was adamant that his collection was superior to anything anyone else had because at any moment he could easily liquidate his collection and that he had a bevy of flashy high end cards. He pitied the poor masses who collected sets, and thought that anything less than buying high end cards was a complete waste of time and money.

At first I was taken aback at what I felt was a very rude sentiment. I mean I myself had a collection that not only consisted of high end cards but also had a fair amount of sets that I had pain stakingly put together over years of love and effort. While admittedly this collection of mine takes up a fair amount of space and I have spent a lot of money over the years to put together these sets but surely all that time and money was not spent in vain. So I decided to put this question up recently to my baseball card discussion group and what I found was not pleasant.

Most people agreed with the gentleman on the train. They themselves thought that the best investment was to buy only high end cards and the main arguments they used to make their case was the fact that a collection of high end cards doesn’t take up that much space and that they could in fact easily liquidate their collection if the need be. The only arguments that I could make in my favor was that they wouldn’t experience the joy of “cracking wax”, that they wouldn’t have year after year of cards to look through as a catalog of the history of baseball, and that they wouldn’t have the joy of finding that one card to complete their set.

Then I decided to do some research into whether or not their point was accurate or whether in fact the safe money is only in high end. Now this is not taking into account the newer cards as I don’t have enough information yet to develop a good market analysis over the last 25 years. However, I will discuss the newer card market at the end of this article. To do my analysis I took an old Beckett as this is the only market value that I have from 25 years ago, and I compared it to a current Beckett publication. Now because of copyright I cannot include the actual values of the cards in this article. I then took the best rookies from each set, the supposed High end cards, and compared their value from 25 years ago to that from today. I then did the same thing for the sets. Below you will find charts with that analysis.

Year (card in italics) Change in value of high end card from 1990 – 2015 Change in value of set
1990 (Frank Thomas) 1.55 increase -5.00
1989 (Randy Johnson) 1.65 increase -5.00
1988 (Tom Glavine) 2.20 increase -5.00
1987 (Barry Bonds) 6.75 increase -15.00
1986 (Cecil Fielder) -3.00 -17.00
1985 (Mark Mcgwire) No change -50.00
1984 (Don Mattingly) -5.00 -55.00
1983 (Tony Gwynn) 8.00 increase -35.00
1982 (Cal Ripken Jr.) 10.00 increase -15.00
1981 (Tim Raines) -4.50 -65.00
1980 (Rickey Henderson) -35.00 -45.00
1979 (Ozzie Smith) 20 increase 20 increase
1978 ( Paul Molitor) 5.00 increase -25.00
1977 ( Andre Dawson) -22.00 -75.00
1976 (Dennis Eckersley) 20.00 increase -100.00
1975 (George Brett) -20.00 -50.00
1974 (Dave Winfield) 8.00 increase -50.00
1973 (Mike Schmidt) -225.00 -250.00
1972 (Carlton Fisk) -35.00 No change
1971 (Steve Garvey) -50.00 +800.00
1970 (Thurman Munson) +20.00 +300.00
1969 (Reggie Jackson) -125.00 +900.00
1968(Nolan Ryan) -600.00 +400.00
1967 (Tom Seaver) -400.00 +800.00
1966 (Jim Palmer) -125.00 +250.00
1965 (Steve Carlton) -150.00 +2200.00
1964 (Phil Niekro) -70.00 +900.00
1963 (Pete Rose) +350.00 +1800.00
1962 (Lou Brock) -15.00 +3800.00
1961 (Juan Marichal) No change +2000.00
1960 (Carl Yaz) -150.00 +1400.00
1959 (Bob Gibson) -25.00 +4000.00
1958 (Roger Maris) +200.00 +4000.00
1957 (Brooks Robinson) +50.00 +3000.00
1956 (Luis Aparicio) +30.00 +2000.00
1955 (Roberto Clemente) +1,150.00 +2400.00
1954 (Hank Aaron) +450.00 +750.00
1953 (Mickey Mantle) +1200.00 +2500.00
1952 (Mickey Mantle) +23000.00 +23,000.00


mickey mantle

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle

As you can see from the table above you can note some general trends. Sets prior to 1972 are a very good investment as they always increase in value. After that they in general sets are not. Star cards though continue to be a variable investment. They may rise and fall according more so to the market than even the sets themselves. This is very much dependent on the player themselves but unless your name is Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, or Roberto Clemente you are not guaranteed to increase in value. So honestly I think that both he and I may have been correct. However, I have learned a lot from doing this analysis. It is probably the best idea from an investment perspective to buy the high end cards after 1972 and then to try and build sets prior to 1972. Unless you are buying the previously stated players which is always a good idea.

That being said there is something to buying for the value of the love of collecting and so it’s important to take that into perspective. Many of my friends and colleagues are quick to point out that this is not a business and that they buy cards not for the money but for the love of the game. My advice is that even though this is a good idea you have to take the investment side of this hobby into account, and therefore my advice is that the best cards for your money are the high end cards after 1972 and prior to that to build sets as much as able.

As far as newer cards are concerned I grow more and more discontent with modern sets. You buy hobby box after hobby box and in each one you rarely get the value back out of it that you have spent to acquire it. There is little sense in building sets and buying hobby boxes anymore. From a financial perspective it makes so much more sense to just buy the cards you want out of the set and go from there. I can’t tell you how many times I have opened a hobby box to only get back maybe 10 percent of the value that I spent on that box. This must change if the hobby is going to continue. People will not continue to blindly purchase the “new shiny” only to find out that the cards they have bought have next to no value. Sets themselves of modern cards feel very stagnant and so their value is only in the cataloging of the history of baseball. They need to package more value into each box or else nobody is going to buy hobby boxes anymore and the hobby will die.