RALLY GUIDE TO SPORTS CARDS
03/14 – Words: Will Stern

GRADE

When it comes to high-end sports cards, the grade is the easiest benchmark reference. The two most popular grading companies (PSA & BGS) can drastically increase the value of a ‘raw’ (ungraded) card by assigning it with a condition grade and allow for apples-to-apples comparisons among comparable cards.

Both PSA and BGS use a scale that tops out at 10, based on a variety of factors such as the card’s surface, corners, centering, and edges. BGS includes these ‘subgrades’ on their slabs (the encased grading holder used by grading agencies).

PSA is known for its expertise in grading older cards, while BGS has become popular with modern-day examples. BGS also is more likely to offer in-between grades (like a 9.5).

Below is a 1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson Rookie Card graded PSA 8 and a 2009 Upper Deck Exquisite Steph Curry Autographed Rookie Card graded BGS 9.5. If you look closely at the Curry card, you can see the sub-grades broken down in each of the four categories.

There are plenty of other grading companies, both old and new, like SGC, HGA, and GMA, with each specializing in their own niches as well.

RARITY

Once a card is graded, companies like BGS and PSA will assign it with a unique certification number that allows users to explore a ‘population report’ for their given card. Depending on the unique features of a card, including print-run, condition sensitivity, and popularity, cards at each grade will generally share their grade distinction with a certain number of other examples.

With all else being equal, collectors often prize a card with fewer comparable examples at their grade (or those graded higher). For example, a PSA 10 card will be more intriguing to many sports card investors if it is 1 of 10 rather than 1 of 1,000.

PRINT-RUN

Though similar to rarity in terms of the importance of scarcity, print-run refers to the total production of a given card — graded or not. Often these limited-edition cards are sold at a premium and feature their serial number and total print-run engraved on the side of a card.

Most commonly, collectors see limited print-runs in rare parallels (special variants of base cards). Parallels mostly came onto the scene following the “Junk Wax Era,” a time when cards were over-produced and rendered near worthless as a result.

To recreate the element of scarcity, parallels were issued alongside the traditional base cards to create a tiered system of rarity within the set. Nowadays, companies will issue many different parallels (identified often by a glossy sheen or alternate color), with print-runs ranging anywhere from the thousands to just one elusive example. Sometimes parallels or limited print-run cards may include a signature or embedded game-worn jersey patch.

You can see the "3/5" numbering on the upper-left corner of this 2017 Panini National Treasure Patrick Mahomes Rookie Card, indicating it is serial No. 3 of a total print-run of 5.

PLAYER

Unlike the more quantitatively-minded categories above, the player on each card is a qualitative factor in determining the value of a card — though no less important. A crucial element to look for here is whether or not the card in question represents the rookie card of a specific player — which sometimes means there are multiple to choose from.

The relative importance of the player is affected most clearly by their talents. Were they a Hall of Famer? A fan favorite? A household name?

Last year Ken Goldin, the founder of Goldin Auctions posted a Twitter thread breaking down his opinion on the most collectible baseball players. Again, since this is a qualitative judgment, this is merely his thoughts on the topic, but is an interesting look at the way some insiders think about players and their impact on a card’s collectability.

SET

One of the most difficult areas to understand and value when it comes to sports cards is their set.

Some of the most famous sets often have one or more flagship cards that are so popular they create a sort of aura around the entire release.

For example, one of the most famous cards in history is the T206 Honus Wagner Card. The card itself draws its “Holy Grail” status from its limited print-run (Wagner objected to the set’s use of his likeness, which halted production of his card shortly after it began).

This has resulted in the entire T206 set rising due to its fame, particularly other Hall of Fame player cards like those of Ty Cobb and Cy Young.

Another set buoyed by a famous figurehead is the 1986 Fleer Basketball set which features the rookie card of Michael Jordan. The ’86 Fleer set came after a few years void of any mainstream basketball sets, which gave it the good fortune of issuing rookie cards for players like Jordan who debuted in previous years (Jordan played his first game in 1984).

Other rookie cards from the set include Dominique Wilkins (debuted in 1982), Charles Barkley (debuted in 1984), Hakeem Olajuwon (debuted in 1984), and Patrick Ewing (debuted in 1985).

These and other famous sets have fueled a desire for sealed boxes like the 1986 Fleer Basketball set, 1980 Topps Basketball set, 1971 Topps Football set, and the 1979 O-Pee-Chee Hockey set (more on that below).

ODD-BALLS

Some cards and sets enjoy an elevated status in the card collecting hobby due to extenuating factors that severely affect their supply, and when combined with some of the other categories discussed above, have since emerged as top tier assets.

The 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky Rookie Card is another “Holy Grail” in the hobby. It checks all the boxes in terms of the player — Gretzky is widely considered one of hockey’s greatest talents — but it is also his rookie card.

I place this card under the “Odd-balls” section because of its production. O-Pee-Chee had a contract with Topps to print nearly identical cards in Canada (Gretzky’s birthplace) and has taken on folklore status due to its notoriously low population of highly graded cards. Stories trace back to the set’s manufacturing, which relied on a largely manual process and dull slicing blades (making perfect edges and corners less likely). Further contributing to a lack of highly graded cards from the set were accompanying sticks of bubble gum (which could cause staining) and off-center printing.

As a result, at the time of writing only two examples of the 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky Rookie Card have been graded PSA 10 and the entire set has become a collectible in its own right as a result.

Other “Odd-balls” can be even stranger, like in the case of the 1961 Topps Dice Game Prototype set. Never meant to be released to the public, experts have surmised that the scarce number of “test singles” in the PSA population come directly from the Topps archives.

Supposedly these cards were an abandoned project to create a sort of dice game. Since only 18 cards from the set have ever been graded by PSA (included just two featuring Mickey Mantle), the set’s mystery and scarcity make up for their universally low grades in the eyes of many collectors.