Now, some of these may seem obvious, and some of these may seem from far out in left field (pun intended) at first. But, it’s important for you to know that each of these cards has a story behind them. Specifically, the story of the players they depict and how they came to be some of the rarest gems in the collectible card world.
Admittedly, I’m not a huge baseball fan at heart, even though I come from New York and the biggest baseball culture in the world. However, I must say that I was rather inspired by the stories that these five cards told. I think you will be too!
Let’s play ball!
6. Mickey Mantle Topps RC #311 (1952)
Back in the 50s (and through the 60s), Mickey Mantle (aka “The Mick” and “The Commerce Comet”) was more than just a man to young kids and die-hard Yankee fans. To them, he was a baseball god, and he has the stats and numbers to back it up. Since the first time he stepped up to the plate as a New York Yankee back in 1951, “The Mick” was an instant phenom that changed the face of major league baseball forever. So, it should come as no surprise that his original 1952 Topps RC card is one of the rarest and most iconic in the sports card collecting world.
While it’s true that this 1952 gem isn’t considered the rarest or most valuable compared to the others on this list, Mantle’s card is nothing short of a treasure, especially for those old-school Yankee fans. Why? Well, besides the reasons mentioned earlier, this particular card was actually one of the first-ever distributed by the Topps card company. Topps officially started printing cards in 1952 and card collectors are always chasing down the ‘first-ever’ versions of everything.
Although there are an estimated 1,500 or so in existence, this 1952 Topps RC Mickey Mantle card has seen figures close to $2.5 million (at auction).
5. Joe Jackson American Caramel E90-1 (1909)
Featuring one of the most talented and controversial baseball players in the history of the MLB, this American Caramel Joe Jackson card is a rare treasure for fans and collectors alike. This is due to not only the limited amount in existence (around 90 or so) but the heart-breaking story of the player it depicts. You may remember his name from the Academy Award Nominated film, Field of Dreams. Joe Jackson (aka “Shoeless Joe Jackson”) was known for his natural hitting ability and overall athleticism during his time playing in the MLB from 1908 - 1920.
Unfortunately, he is also known for his alleged role in the infamous White Sox World Series scandal, where Joe and other members of the team were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds after evidence came out they were paid $5,000 each to underperform in those games. The details are still a bit muddy, but even though he confessed, and a grand jury still found him to be innocent, Jackson was banned from playing baseball or even being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1920. To this day, it’s believed that Jackson would have gone down as one of the greatest ballplayers in MLB history had things not gone the way they did.
Still and all, Shoeless Joe remains a popular figure in baseball lore, which is why his 1909 American Caramel rookie card was sold for just over $667,000 (at auction).
4. Babe Ruth Sporting News #151 (1916)
The Babe (aka “The Bambino”) is probably one of the most famous and recognizable ballplayers in the history of not only baseball but sports itself. In fact, there have been several movies made over the decades about Babe Ruth’s legendary career and talent, which is still held in baseball lore to this day. And that’s why his original 1916 Sporting News rookie card is right up there with the rarest and most valuable cards ever printed. Even in death, The Babe is still an MVP among sports fans and avid card collectors.
While Ruth spent most of his career with the Yankees, this card shows him at a young 19-20-year-old playing in his rookie season with the Boston Red Sox. Rookie cards are probably the most sought after, plus ANY memorabilia with Babe’s Ruth’s name on it brings heavy value. Even baseballs that have been chewed up and spat out by giant dogs (for all you Sandlot fans out there). All those things considered, it’s easy to see why this particular card has such a high value for collectors today.
With only around 20 or so in existence, this rare 1916 Sporting News Babe Ruth rookie card has been valued at about $1 million (at auction).
3. Honus Wagner American Tobacco Company (1909 -1911)
Often referred to as The Holy Grail by many different collectors and listicle writers (like myself), this Honus Wagner American Tobacco (ATC) classic consistently earns a top spot on every rare baseball card list, and for good reason. The card depicts a long-time shortstop, turned manager, who earned his stripes with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1900s. Wagner (aka The Flying Dutchman) played 17 seasons with the Pirates and spent another 18 coaching them. During his playing career in Pittsburgh, from 1900-1917, Wagner was the recipient of many awards and even became a World Series champion in 1909. From stolen bases, to RBIs, and batting championships, Wagner earned multiple awards in the game’s key categories during his time playing with the Pirates.
Although Honus Wagner isn’t a household name today, he still holds a special place in the hearts of baseball aficionados and avid card collectors. If you were a Pirates fan or in Pittsburgh during the early days of the 20th century, chances are Honus Wagner would have been one of your idols. His career as both a player and coach has remained a bright spot in Pirates and MLB history. With anywhere from 50 to 75 printings of his original 1909 card in existence, Wagner is a hot commodity and is arguably one of the most sought after rare baseball cards out there.
Since it’s super rare, you can imagine that it’s super valuable as well. How valuable? Well, one of the original versions of this card made it to an auction block back in 2018 and was sold for a whopping $3.12 million dollars! Talk about dropping the gavel!
2. Ty Cobb Back American Tobacco Company (1909 -1911)
Dubbed “The Lucky 7” back in 2016, because a family in a rural town discovered seven of these cards hiding in a brown paper bag in their attic while they were cleaning it out, this original Ty Cobb Back card is probably the most valuable on this list (on many other lists). Before the stunning discovery in 2016, there were only about 15 of these cards known to be in existence. Since then, this ultra-rare card has seen some big bucks come its way at several auctions.
First distributed way back 1909 or so by the American Tobacco Company (ATC), this card features one of baseball’s most legendary sluggers. Ty Cobb (aka “The Georgia Peach”) was best known for his hard-hitting (batting) and running ability. In fact, when this card was first printed, Cobb had already won quite a few awards in his years playing for the Detroit Tigers. These awards include the Triple Crown, AL MVP, AL Batting Champion, AL Home Run Leader, and many more.
So, think about it, at the time when this card was first distributed, Ty Cobb was already in his prime and had achieved so much after only being in the major leagues for 4 years. And that’s what people think about when they see this card. There are now only about 23 of these cards known to be in existence and given its rarity and the player it depicts, this original Ty Cobb Back American Tobacco Company card has sold for $3 million (at auction).
1. Joe Doyle American Tobacco Company (1909)
Even though this card isn’t the most valuable on this list, it’s still one of the ultra-rarest ever printed. Joe Doyle was a pitcher for the New York Highlanders and the Cincinnati Reds from 1906 - 1910. That means he only played professional baseball for a total of four years. While Doyle was a solid player and pitcher, he never really did anything earth-shattering in the MLB like the players listed above. So, what makes this particular card rarer than the other cards on this list and many others? Well, for a few reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that there were very few printings of this card when it was first distributed back in 1909.
Another reason is that there are currently less than 10 or so in existence, which is expected since there weren’t very many in the first place. By now, you’re probably wondering why there were so few, and that’s the perfect segue to the last and most important point. This card is known as an ‘error card’. That’s right. This Joe Doyle American Tobacco Card was misprinted with an N.Y. NAT’L (National League) label at the bottom. Now, for those who don’t know, the former New York Highlanders team was a part of the AL (American League) from 1903 -1912. They were later renamed The New York Yankees in 1913.
At the time, there were two baseball teams in New York, the Highlanders, and the Giants. The Highlanders played in the AL (American League), while the Giants played in the NL (National League). So, Doyle’s card was incorrectly labeled with a NAT’L next to his name, instead of an AL, which was the league his then New York Highlanders team played in. The misprint/mistake was noticed soon after the cards were distributed and ATC immediately ordered a reprint.
We’ll never know the true number of cards that were made and sent out before ATC noticed the mistake, but anyone who was smart enough to hang on to theirs is sitting on nearly $500,000 today. All because of a simple mistake. Again, this price isn’t the highest compared to the other cards I’ve listed above, but remember, it is by far the rarest, and that’s what this listicle is all about!
I hope you enjoyed learning about the history behind these rare cards as much as I did. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Also, if you’re the kind of sports card collector I was talking about earlier, you might be interested in our Team Sorting Break Mats as well!
And, don’t forget to check out our blog page every now and then for more fun listicles. Like I said in the introduction, I’d like for this to be the start of a short sports card series. So, keep an eye out for rare football, basketball, or hockey card listicles in the near future.
Until we meet again,
Vince the Prince