Taking the plunge into baseball card investing can appear challenging, on the surface. Tens of thousands of cards have been issued by hundreds of different manufacturers and brands. Only a small percentage of these issues hold investment potential. What segment or genre can novice investors invest in that has a high probability of a consistent return? The answer is pre-World War II baseball cards.
These are the earliest issues, often the scarcest and offering the most variety. They can be expensive and many are ultra rare. The number of collectors in the hunt is smaller than those chasing the more common post-War gum cards from manufacturers like Topps and Bowman. However, pre-war collectors are a dedicated bunch and there is no doubt owning some nice examples of players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Tris Speaker is rewarding indeed.
Below is a breakdown of the various types of pre-war cards.
Click on the title of each section to see those cards on eBay.
The pre-war era consists of cards that were manufactured, prior to 1945. Although cards were made before World War I, few investors recognize those years as a separate era. Some of baseball’s most famous cards were made during this time.
From an investment perspective, pre-war card issues present several, unique benefits. First, the number of cards that have survived to today that are in investment grade condition is a small fraction, compared to the supply of post-World War II cards. Second, a disproportionate percentage of Hall of Fame inductees played some or all their career during this time. This is partially due to the fact that there is a long waiting period, after a player retires, before he is eligible for induction voting. Investing with an eye towards hall of fame players and high-grade cards from major manufacturers is a recipe for consistent success.
There were many baseball card types during the pre-war era with a special emphasis on tobacco and candy issues. Gum cards didn't really become commonplace until Goudey brought them to the forefront in the 1930s. Below are several types that stand out above others.
T-Cards, or tobacco cards, have the reputation of containing some of the industry’s most valued baseball cards. T-Cards include a wide variety of baseball card sets made prior to World War I. They include Old Judge, T206, T201 Mecca Double Folders, Hassan Triple Folders, T205, T200 Fatima team cards (which feature greats of the day in team photos) and others. They were used as inserts into packs of cigarettes and chewing tobacco, a much more popular product during the first half of the last century.
Nearly all cards, in all grades, have done well over a rolling 10-year time horizon. Cards graded PSA 6 or higher and Hall of Fame players have outperformed the market. The T206 Eddie Plank doesn't get the respect of the famed Honus Wagner card, but it is just as difficult to find and perhaps a great choice for the investor with a little extra cash. Even common cards from this set, in any grade, would be wise to pick up at lower than average prices.
The 1914 and 1915 sets are of great interest to investors. The wider formats of the cards, relative to T and E-series issues gave the manufacturer more creativity in player poses. Cards graded PSA 6, or higher, have shown the most consistent return, especially those of Hall of Fame players like Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Joe Jackson and others.
Lower grade cards should not be overlooked, especially in the 1914 set which is much harder to find in higher grade. The '14 CJs were not available in set form, while the company did have a mail-in offer for the '15 issue.
While more speculative in nature, their lower price points provide the opportunity for investors to add a little more upside potential to their portfolios. Cracker Jack's iconic brand name may keep these cards on an upward swing. Taking into account the fact that we may have fewer serious adult collectors 20 or 30 years from now, sticking with higher grade Hall of Famers from the 1915 set would seem to be the more wise choice.
Goudey sets were produced from 1933 to 1941 and were numbered with either an “R” or “V” prefix. The 1933 and 1934 sets are widely known as the best sets made by Goudey if only because they were more traditional in nature, more widely distributed and as a whole, comprised a fairly accurate snapshot of the game's players, especially the 1933 set.
These sets harkens back to the T-series days, when set were stuffed with Hall of Fame inductees. Players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean and others command huge premiums at auction, especially for the highest grade issues. Hall of Fame players found in Goudey’s other sets also have consistent, investment demand.
E-series cards are often overlooked by the T-series. However, it would be a mistake for an investor to do the same. The "E" as designated by the American Card Catalog, refers primarily to cards issued with candy products such as American Caramel. Sets, including the E101, E95, and E121 have shown a propensity to increase more quickly, on a percentage basis, than more established sets like the T206. Many E cards are quite scarce, moreso than the traditional favorites such as those aforementioned tobacco and gum issues.
Key players include Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, John McGraw, and Walter Johnson, to name a few. The small size of these sets, especially compared to post-World War II issues, makes them very collectible and attainable as a set. In addition, they are often more reasonably priced and offer excellent possibilities for future growth.