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Sports cards with the highest market value

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June 28, 2022
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Sports cards with the highest market value

When the pandemic shut down live games, fans appeared to have turned to trading cards to get their sports fix, sending the collectible card market soaring. According to eBay, the trading cards category, which includes sports, collectible card games, and other corners of pop culture including Pokémon, grew 142% domestically in 2020 over the year prior.

Just as in the late 1980s and early 1990s, investors are once again seeing the value in sports cards and are sinking big money into them. How much? In 2021, a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card sold for a record-breaking $6.606 million.

Not every trading card commands that kind of money. A card’s value comes from the importance of the player to the sport, the authenticity and scarcity of the card, and its condition. To determine authenticity and condition, collectors mainly use a 10-point grading scale developed by Professional Sport Authenticator, or PSA, to rate cards from 1, which is poor, all the way to 10, or “gem mint”—as perfect as it gets.

Midwest Cards ranked the top 25 sports cards with the highest market value, as calculated by PWCC. The dataset only covers cards from pre-2000 and only auction sales are included in the calculations. Besides the market value of each card, the dataset also includes each card’s five-year and 10-year return on investment. The market values were last updated on March 30, 2022.

While baseball dominates this list with 18 of the top 25 most valuable cards, other sports are gaining traction in the market. eBay found that the baseball card market grew by 73%, but other sport cards grew more, with hockey cards experiencing a 258% uptick, basketball growing by 373%, and soccer up by a whopping 1,586%.

Before you dig through your childhood stash of trading cards to try and cash in on the bull market, read on to see which cards made the list. Keep in mind that it can take decades for a trading card to realize its true value, as just three cards in the top 25 ranking are from 1980 or later.

Marshall Fogel poses with his 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card
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Matt Dirksen/Colorado Rockies // Getty Images

#25. 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 PSA 6

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $135,102
- 5-year ROI: 63%
- 10-year ROI: 674%

One of the greatest baseball players of all time, Mickey Mantle spent his entire 18-year career with the New York Yankees as an outfielder and later at first base. A switch-hitting slugger, he had a lifetime batting average of .298, with 2,415 hits and 536 home runs.

This card is part of Topps’ first full set of baseball cards, which hit the market with a splash in 1952. They were larger and had reprinted player autographs on the front and listed player stats on the back. The artwork, which used color-tinted photos, also helped these cards stand out, and no single Topps image stood out more than Mickey Mantle. This iconic Mantle has made it the quintessential card for collectors.

Members of the Topps 1963 Rookie All-Star Team
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#24. 1963 Topps 1963 Rookie Stars #537 PSA 9

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $141,931
- 5-year ROI: 84%
- 10-year ROI: 1,436%

This brightly colored 1963 card features four promising rookies: Pedro Gonzalez, Ken McMullen, Pete Rose, and Al Weis. But the standout of this card is Cincinnati Reds’ Pete Rose, who went on to be named the National League Rookie of the Year.

Nicknamed Charlie Hustle for his work ethic and hitting ability, Rose was part of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine that won back-to-back World Series titles in the 1970s. Although he’s one of the greatest players of all time, he’s not in the Baseball Hall of Fame after being rendered permanently ineligible due to allegations of gambling on baseball during his career as a player and manager.

This card is notable because it’s the only rookie card for Pete Rose, who even with his ban, is still recognized as one of the all-time greats.

Action shot of Lou Gehrig batting, 1931
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#23. 1934 Goudey Lou Gehrig #37 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $142,400
- 5-year ROI: 366%
- 10-year ROI: 814%

The 1934 Goudey set of baseball cards featured two of New York Yankee legend Lou Gehrig, #37 and #61. The #37 is a favorite among collectors, with its bright yellow background and smiling portrait. Its scarcity also makes it popular—only 32 known PSA 8 cards exist, and one recently sold for $132,000.

1934 was one of Gehrig’s banner years as a player. He won the Triple Crown, batting .363 with 49 home runs and 165 RBIs, and continued a consecutive game-playing streak that would end in 1939, at 2,130 games. Gehrig’s career was tragically ended by the neuromuscular disease that carries his name today.

A view of a Wayne Gretzky card
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Tommaso Boddi // Getty Images

#22. 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky #18 PSA 9

See the card here.

- Category: Hockey
- Market value: $150,379
- 5-year ROI: 411%
- 10-year ROI: 3,019%

On the back of Wayne Gretzky’s 1979 rookie card, it says, “Wayne is considered the best prospect to turn professional since Guy Lafleur.” That may have been an understatement.

The greatest hockey player of all time, Gretzky won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, has over 60 NHL records, and won a trophy case full of individual awards during his 20 seasons.

There are two versions of this card, Topps and O-Pee-Chee—the latter was printed and distributed in Canada. It’s not only a great memento of this legend’s first season as a pro, it’s hard to find this card in good condition. Chipped blue borders, printing flaws, and rough-cut edges are common flaws. Still, one of these cards recently sold for $160,736.

Mickey Mantle batting during game
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#21. 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle (Gray Back) #135 PSA 9

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $152,951
- 5-year ROI: 221%
- 10-year ROI: 1,565%

Mickey Mantle’s 1956 Topps card ended up memorializing one of Mantle’s great seasons, during which he won the Triple Crown, his first American League MVP award, and his fourth World Series ring.

This card is considered one of the best in Topps’ 1956 set. There are two versions of this horizontal card, one with a white back and one with a gray back. The white version is rarer, but the gray back is more popular visually. Only 38 of the gray backs have been graded at PSA 9.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar drives to the basket during an NBA game
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Focus On Sport // Getty Images

#20. 1969 Topps Lew Alcindor #25 PSA 9

See the card here.

- Category: Basketball
- Market value: $156,992
- 5-year ROI: 213%
- 10-year ROI: 2,606%

Before he was known as Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lew Alcindor joined the NBA in 1969. This rookie card is the only recognized card of his first season in the pros.

Abdul-Jabbar won Rookie of the Year this year with the Milwaukee Bucks, and he went on to achieve legendary status for his skyhook shot. Not only did he win six NBA titles, both with the Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, but he was also named the league MVP a record-breaking six times.

It can be difficult to find this large card in good quality, as it wears quickly, tends not to be well-centered, and easily shows print defects. Still, one sold for $344,400 in 2021.

Jackie Robinson baseball card displayed
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Craig F. Walker // Getty Images

#19. 1952 Topps Jackie Robinson #312 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $168,432
- 5-year ROI: 724%
- 10-year ROI: 1,780%

Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson was in the last half of his career when Topps printed its 1952 set. Robinson, a tremendous player who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, led the league with an on-base percentage of .440 and went to his fourth MLB All-Star Game during this season.

This portrait of Robinson set on a red background is considered to be one of his best-looking cards. It was part of the sixth run of the 1952 series, which started with #311 Mickey Mantle and ended with #407 Ed Mathews. Topps made a big gamble on this set and printed far more cards than the public demanded. The overstock ended up being dumped into the Hudson River.

Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and Lakers' Head Coach Del Harris
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Steve Grayson // Getty Images

#18. 1996 Topps Chrome Refractor Kobe Bryant #138 PSA 10

See the card here.

- Category: Basketball
- Market value: $177,920
- 5-year ROI: 1,112%
- 10-year ROI: 4,706%

This card marks Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant’s rookie season when he was drafted straight out of high school into the NBA. During his 20-year career with the Lakers, he won five NBA championships, went to 18 All-Star Games, and became the Lakers’ all-time top scorer. He also won two Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. He and his daughter Gianna died tragically in a helicopter crash in 2020.

Although there are 287 PSA 9-graded Bryant rookie cards, only 63 PSA 10 cards have been authenticated. It recently sold for $134,400 at auction.

Babe Ruth pitching during a game
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#17. 1933 Goudey Sport Kings Babe Ruth #2 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $195,386
- 5-year ROI: 331%
- 10-year ROI: 632%

Although this is a baseball card, it’s part of a set of kings from all sorts of sports. This card of the king of baseball is part of one of the most desirable sets of trading cards in history. It features 48 cards of legends from a number of sports, including football, basketball, hockey, golf, swimming, and even dogsled racing. Naturally, Babe was an easy choice for this set, having already established himself as the Sultan of Swat, hitting a massive 60 home runs in one season, a record that would stand for decades.

While cards from this set are highly desirable among collectors, this card often has issues with condition, particularly with color bleeding, border toning, and poor centering.

Bill Russell goes for a lay-up
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Hy Peskin Archive // Getty Images

#16. 1957 Topps Bill Russell #77 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Basketball
- Market value: $206,134
- 5-year ROI: 621%
- 10-year ROI: 2,805%

In 1957, Bill Russell took the court as an NBA player; this card is the only recognized card for his rookie year.

In a 13-year career with the Boston Celtics, Russell won 11 NBA titles—more than anyone else in NBA history. His defensive skills made him a threat on the boards, averaging 22.5 rebounds per game.

This card is a key part of Topps’ first set of basketball cards and is one of the most valuable cards in the basketball card market. The run had many printing issues, so it’s difficult to find a high-grade version of Russell’s card.

Willie Mays of the Giants crossing home plate
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#15. 1951 Bowman Willie Mays #305 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $243,520
- 5-year ROI: 240%
- 10-year ROI: 2,599%

The Say Hey Kid’s rookie MLB card is highly coveted. Produced by Bowman, it’s a horizontal card with prized artwork of Mays at-bat. That year, he made “The Throw,” a 330-foot liner from right-center field to get Dodger Billy Cox out at home. He went on to be named Rookie of the Year, the start of a Hall of Fame career.

Only 77 of these PSA 8 cards have been authenticated, so finding one may be a challenge.

Willie Mays at Giants' spring training
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#14. 1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $246,000
- 5-year ROI: 557%
- 10-year ROI: 2,458%

Topps’ first Willie Mays card came out for his second MLB season with the New York and San Francisco Giants. Mays ended up playing only 34 games this season, as he spent most of it and the next season serving in the military. Still, he racked up 30 hits and four home runs in his shortened year.

This card is part of Topps’ legendary 1952 set of 407 cards. Imperfections on this card include diamond cuts that take the portrait off-center, so finding a version higher than PSA 8 is incredibly rare.

The Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer Rookie Card
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VALERIE MACON // Getty Images

#13. 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan #57 PSA 10

See the card here.

- Category: Basketball
- Market value: $264,040
- 5-year ROI: 1,080%
- 10-year ROI: 3,329%

It’s only fitting that the man considered the GOAT of basketball also has the most popular trading card in all of basketball. Michael Jordan’s rookie card shows him in mid-air while on his way to the net for a slam dunk. The red, white, and blue border makes this card stand out, but it also contributes to some of the grading issues owners face, as it’s prone to chipping and wear.

Jordan’s 10-part documentary “The Last Dance” fueled more interest in his cards. A PSA 10 recently fetched $288,000 at auction.

A "Sandy" Koufax rookie baseball card displayed
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Craig F. Walker // Getty Images

#12. 1955 Topps Sandy Koufax #123 PSA 9

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $280,460
- 5-year ROI: 65%
- 10-year ROI: 1,464%

Legendary Dodger Sandy Koufax was the first pitcher in baseball history to earn multiple Cy Young awards. The greatest pitcher of his era, he racked up 165 wins to 87 losses in his 12-year career and had a career ERA of 2.76. Along with three Cy Young awards, he won three World Series titles and was twice named the Player of the Year.

Koufax was included in Topps’ beloved 1955 set as a rookie. The horizontal card features both a portrait as well as a full-length picture of Koufax on a yellow background, which is prone to showing print defects. The reverse includes baseball trivia, which was a fun feature of this set.

Babe Ruth running after hitting a home run
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#11. 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #181 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $288,379
- 5-year ROI: 404%
- 10-year ROI: 1,647%

Babe Ruth was featured on not one, but four cards in this 1933 Goudey set of 240 cards. #181 is known as “Green Ruth,” as it features a portrait of Ruth on a green background. The reverse contains biographical information, including a note that early in his career, Ruth was also one of the best pitchers in the American League.

This is a fairly scarce find, with only 32 PSA grade 8 cards in existence.

Wilt Chamberlain shoots the ball
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Joe Rosenthal/San Francisco Chronicle // Getty Images

#10. 1961 Fleer Wilt Chamberlain #8 PSA 9

See the card here.

- Category: Basketball
- Market value: $308,000
- 5-year ROI: 763%
- 10-year ROI: 3,517%

Wilt Chamberlain didn’t just dominate the court with his 7’1” frame, he dominated the game as well. The only NBA player to ever score 100 points in a game, Chamberlain racked up 31,419 points and seven NBA Scoring Champion titles in his 15-year career. He was also a fierce rebounder, topping the league standings 11 times.

Chamberlain’s 1961 Fleer card is recognized as his rookie card, though it was issued after he won NBA Rookie of the Year due to the lack of consistent publishing in basketball cards. The 1961 Fleer set was the first released after Topps’ 1957 set. The lack of vintage basketball cards makes them more valuable today, even though this card can have quality issues due to centering.

Dave Crichton holds a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card
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Colin McConnell // Getty Images

#9. 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 PSA 7

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $316,667
- 5-year ROI: 94%
- 10-year ROI: 1,007%

The poster child of baseball cards, Topps’ 1952 Mickey Mantle card was part of the “high-number” series in this set, which also featured Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Roy Campanella. The Mantle card was one of three that were double-printed, which collectors now refer to as Type 1 and Type 2.

The two cards have some printing differences: Type 1 has two printing flaws on the front that aren’t in Type 2. The other noticeable difference is on the card’s flip side. The card number is in a baseball, and on Type 1 cards, the ball stitching points to the right. It’s the opposite direction for Type 2 cards.

Babe Ruth running during a game
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Keystone-France // Getty Images

#8. 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #144 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $374,912
- 5-year ROI: 439%
- 10-year ROI: 2,126%

Another of the four Babe Ruth cards in the 1933 Goudey set, #144 is known as “Full Body Ruth,” as it depicts him swinging a bat in an on-deck circle. Compared to the other three cards in this set, this one was double-printed, so more of them exist. That said, it’s a more valuable card because it’s more difficult to find a high-grade version. One version also has a sharper focus than the other.

A PSA 8 #144 recently sold for $436.736.40.

Baseball card outside the baseball suite at Hotel Commonwealth
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Matthew Healey // Getty Images

#7. 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #149 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $401,295
- 5-year ROI: 179%
- 10-year ROI: 1,235%

Of the 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth cards, #149, the “Red Ruth,” is the one collectors seek out. Nicknamed for its red background, “Red Ruth” has the same pose of Ruth holding a bat as #53 in the series (“Yellow Ruth”).

Scarcity has given the “Red Ruth” an enormous market value. PSA has graded only 20 of these cards at level 8, the highest grading it’s given to this particular card. In 2021, it sold at auction for over $500,000.

Derek Jeter bats during a game at Yankee Stadium
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Rich Pilling // Getty Images

#6. 1993 SP Derek Jeter (FOIL) #279 PSA 10

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $415,210
- 5-year ROI: 1,069%
- 10-year ROI: 1,976%

One of the few modern-era baseball cards to make this list, Derek Jeter’s rookie card is popular with traders. A fan favorite, Jeter lived out his dream of becoming a New York Yankee shortstop and delivered incredible baseball: Rookie of the Year, Five World Series rings, five Golden Gloves, and five Silver Sluggers. He became a Hall of Famer in his first year of eligibility,

This SP Jeter rookie card is the one collectors go after—and it’s one of the toughest to find in mint condition. Its silver foil surface scratches easily and its black border shows wear very quickly. Just 21 of these cards have earned PSA’s highest grading, which makes them valuable indeed.

Leo Duroche with Jackie Robinson at their spring training camp
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#5. 1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson #79 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $428,000
- 5-year ROI: 524%
- 10-year ROI: 5,011%

It’s not surprising that one of the most important men in the history of baseball would have one of the most sought-after cards. The 1948 Leaf card is the true rookie card for Robinson, who endured extreme racism from fans and teammates and still showed impressive play that earned him Rookie of the Year. His 11-year career included a World Series ring, an MVP title, and a Batting Title.

Robinson’s rookie card is highly prized, not just for its historical value, but also because it’s difficult to find in good condition. Unlike his 1952 card, this card is not as attractive—the yellow background can be dull, and the black print can contain defects; however, the card has enduring historical value that will ensure its place of honor among collectors.

Mickey Mantle at bat during spring training
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Transcendental Graphics // Getty Images

#4. 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle #253 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $434,860
- 5-year ROI: 141%
- 10-year ROI: 2,080%

Bowman had the honors of releasing Mickey Mantle’s true rookie card in this 324-card set featuring fellow Yankee Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto. Mantle’s card is one of just 39 cards with a horizontal orientation and features a close-up at-bat.

Mantle’s rookie season didn’t end well—he sustained a severe knee injury during the World Series—but a grade 8 rookie card is doing very well on the market. With just over 50 of these cards graded, they can easily command prices well into the six-figures.

Hank Aaron poses in uniform
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#3. 1954 Topps Hank Aaron #128 PSA 9

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $487,500
- 5-year ROI: 63%
- 10-year ROI: 2,358%

One of baseball’s hardest hitters, Hammerin’ Hank had the distinction of breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974, when he hit homer #715. At the end of his 23-year career, he had amassed 755 home runs and 2,297 RBIs, still an MLB record. He also still holds the record for total bases with 6,856.

It’s no wonder then that Aaron’s rookie card would have tremendous value among collectors. To get the value of this Mint 9 card, graders look for a bright orange background and a vividly colored mascot. Centering and chipping on the reverse side are other common defects found on this card.

Larry Bird one on one with Julius Erving
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#2. 1980 Topps Bird/Erving/Johnson #16 PSA 10

See the card here.

- Category: Basketball
- Market value: $718,188
- 5-year ROI: 1,218%
- 10-year ROI: 8,287%

This card has a lot of unique things going for it. First off, it features NBA superstars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson both in their rookie seasons and NBA scoring leader Julius Erving all on the same card. Its unusual design is another selling point with collectors: It’s a horizontal card, and each player is on a separate panel that can be torn off.

Finding the three panels still in one unit is rare. PSA has graded only 22 of these cards as mint condition since many of them have print defects.

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card
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Matt Dirksen/Colorado Rockies // Getty Images

#1. 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 PSA 8

See the card here.

- Category: Baseball
- Market value: $1,900,500
- 5-year ROI: 238%
- 10-year ROI: 2,390%

The fact the poster child of baseball cards makes this list three times for three different grades shows just how important this trading card is to collectors. While nearly perfect, this card can have some flaws like printing errors, slight wax stains, tiny frays at the corners, or the printing can be slightly off-center. PSA has graded just 35 of them at this level.

Finding this card in Near Mint to Mint condition takes some luck—or deep pockets. In 2021, a PSA 8 Mantle sold for a world record $1,605,150 at auction.

This story originally appeared on Midwest Cards and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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