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MLB Power Rankings: The 45 Most Iconic Baseball Cards of All Time

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2011

MLB Power Rankings: The 45 Most Iconic Baseball Cards of All Time

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    For many young kids, at least when I was growing up, collecting baseball cards was as much a part of being a baseball fan as playing hooky to attend a game or tuning into Baseball Tonight.

    With the introduction of game-used cards and certified autographs, baseball card collecting has turned into more of an invest-style business than a fun hobby, as the days of going to the grocery store and buying a pack of cards with your allowance are a thing of the past.

    While the hobby has changed, there is still a good deal of history for former collectors to cling to, as a simple mention of the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card takes hobbyists back to a simpler time.

    So here is a look at the most iconic baseball cards of all time—while many of them are a shell of their former selves in terms of value, at one time or another they were all among the biggest thing in baseball card collecting.

    *Prices were taken from Beckett.com online price guide, and reflect high end book value for an ungraded card in average condition.

2001 Bowman Chrome #340 Albert Pujols RC AU/500

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    Value: $4,000

    We will begin with what is by far the newest card on this list and work our way backwards, and who better to represent the current era of baseball players than the unquestioned best hitter in the game today, Albert Pujols.

    His Bowman Chrome autographed rookie card has a print run of just 500, and it is the premier card to own of the past 20 years. As he continues to build on his legacy as one of the best to ever play this game, this card will continue to be atop many collectors' want lists.

1999 Upper Deck a Piece of History 500 Club #PH Babe Ruth

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    Value: $1,000

    While the jersey card began in 1997, as you will see with the next card on this list, it truly took off with Upper Deck's 500 Club set in 1999.

    The company began by purchasing a game-used Babe Ruth bat at auction for $23,000 and breaking it down into 550 card-sized pieces. They then took the idea further, and included bat cards from all 19 members of the 500 HR Club, with the Ruth still being the most sought after.

    In investing in the memorabilia, Upper Deck sales went through the roof because of these cards, and the hobby as collectors knew it was changed forever.

1997 Upper Deck Game Jersey #KG Ken Griffey Jr.

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    Value: $250

    This card marked the beginning of a vast overhaul to the baseball card hobby, as it was the first card to feature game used memorabilia on it, a trend that would spike in the years to come and turn into what makes the hobby tick these days.

    The card was of a three-card set randomly inserted into 1997 Upper Deck packs, with Tony Gwynn and Rey Ordonez rounding out the set. While it is certainly the most valuable jersey card on the market, it may well be the most significant.

1994 SP #15 Alex Rodriguez FOIL RC

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    Value: $80

    Taken with the first pick in the 1993 draft, Rodriguez had a rookie card in practically every product that was released in 1994, and he rewarded the card companies for their faith in him when he shot though the Mariners farm system and made his big league debut in 1994 with a 17-game cup-of-coffee.

    By 1996, he was a household name, and his SP rookie card skyrocketed in value. It was worth nearly $200 ungraded before his name was tarnished by steroid allegations, yet it is still by far the most valued rookie of what looks to still be a future Hall of Famer and the eventual home run king.

1993 SP #279 Derek Jeter FOIL RC

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    Value: $150

    There is no question that The Captain has been one of the most revered players in recent baseball history, and his 1993 rookie cards have always carried a good deal of value, from his basic Topps print run and on up.

    With him recently reaching the 3,000-hits milestone, his cards have seen a spike in value, and his SP is by far the most coveted Jeter rookie card on the market.

1992 Topps Traded #39T Nomar Garciaparra RC

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    Value: $15

    Although he would not appear on a regular issue card until 1995, Garciaparra was part of the 1992 Topps Traded set as a member of the USA team, a set that also featured the first card of Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek.

    With a rookie season that ended in a .306 BA, 30 HR, 98 RBI, 22 SB line and included a 30-game hitting streak, and three MVP-caliber seasons to follow that up, there was no name on the market hotter than Nomar from 1997-2000, and the card peaked at $120 dollars. It has since fallen back to earth, and is now worth just $3 more than the Varitek, but it certainly had its time.

1992 Bowman #461 Mike Piazza RC

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    Value: $20

    Because of the fact that he was a 62nd round pick back in 1988, trading card companies were not exactly lining up to get him into their sets and, because of that, the player who will go down as the greatest offensive catcher of all time only has one regular issue rookie card.

    A second rookie card was put out in Fleer's Update set during the season, but the Bowman rookie card is his only true rookie and because of that it was among the most sought after cards of the 1990s.

1991 Upper Deck #SP1 Michael Jordan

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    Value: $8

    Three years before he originally retired from basketball, back in 1991, Upper Deck snapped some pictures of Michael Jordan taking batting practice with the White Sox in what was just a fun visit to the ballpark for the basketball star.

    While he would go on to have a bevy of rookie cards in nearly every product line during the 1994 season, the 1991 Upper Deck SP1 card was the first true Michael Jordan baseball card and it was a huge deal when it first hit the market.

1990 Topps #414A Frank Thomas NNOF RC

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    Value: $700

    Take one of the greatest hitters of the 1990s, throw in a short-printed error version of their rookie card, and you have an awfully valuable card on your hands.

    Thomas is the rookie to own from the 1990 products, and Topps made the mistake of printing some of the Thomas cards without his name on the front of them. While it is unknown exactly how many of these error cards got out, the estimated print run is thought to be somewhere between 100-150.

1990 Score #697 Bo Jackson FB/BB

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    Value: 50 cents

    Jackson is quite possibly the most gifted athlete to ever put on a jersey of any sort, and while he was never a great baseball player, there was no denying the physical skills that he possessed.

    For the 1990 release, Score decided to incorporate more posed pictures of players as opposed to action shots, and what better way to showcase Jackson's unique skills than to include both baseball and football in his card. The resulting shot is a thing of legend and, while the card is not worth anything, it is a memorable one to say the least.

1989 Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey Jr. RC

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    Value: $40

    There is no question that no single baseball player had a greater impact on the card collection hobby than Ken Griffey Jr., as he was beyond a fan favorite and easily the most collected player of the 1990s.

    That said, his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card is the holy grail of modern era rookie cards, and while it has dropped in value since the days when it approached $200, it is will always have a place in the hobby. In what was Upper Deck's first year producing baseball cards, Griffey helped propel the product into a front line one, and take the hobby to the next level.

1989 Fleer #616 Bill Ripken "Rick Face" Error Variations

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    Value: $6, $8, $20, $25, $120

    There is little question as to who the most memorable son in the Ripken family was, but brother Bill Ripken managed to make a name for himself in the hobby with his 1989 Fleer release that showed him holding a bat that read "F*** Face" on the bottom of it, or what would later be referred to as "Rick Face" in Beckett.

    Fleer originally released the picture without realizing it, and that version is worth $20. After they caught the error, the quickly whited out the words as a temporary fix, but did not like the way that looked so only a handful of the whited out version are out there and that is the one worth $120.

    From there, they scribbled it out in white ($8), scribbled it out in black ($6), finally put a black box over it ($25) before printing was finished, making for five different versions of the card with various levels of scarcity, and giving the hobby its biggest error card to date.

1986 Topps Traded #11T Barry Bonds XRC

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    Value: $15

    Much like his career, Bonds' impact in the hobby ended on a sour note after years of being among the best there was. Strangely enough, his most sought after card actually changed during his career, which is a hobby rarity.

    Up until the time he began his assault on history around 2001, his 1987 Fleer rookie card was his most desirable. However, as he approached big-time records, fans instead turned their attention to his first actual card, produced in the 1986 Topps Traded set, and while it was not a true rookie card, it was easily the hottest Bonds card as his career peaked.

1985 Topps # 401 Mark McGwire OLY RC

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    Value: $20

    There is no doubt that his legacy has been tarnished, evidenced by the fact that 583 career home runs was only good for 23 percent of the Hall of Fame vote, but back in 1998 there was no one in professional sports bigger than Mark McGwire.

    While he did not debut until the 1987 season, he was featured in the 1985 Topps set as part of their inclusion of the Olympic team, and during the height of the 1998 home run race with Sammy Sosa, the card sold for hundreds of dollars.

1984 Fleer Update #U27 Roger Clemens XRC

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    Value: $120

    Before he joined McGwire in having a rookie card in the 1985 Topps set, Clemens was featured in the 1984 Fleer Update set in what is considered an XRC. At its peak, the card was worth over $400.

    His career has been tarnished by his ultra-public PED trial, and both his legacy and the card itself are not what they once were, but it was still huge during its time. The set also featured XRCs of Kirby Puckett, Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen among others, and was worth over $1,000 at one time.

1984 Donruss #248 Don Mattingly RC

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    Value: $25

    One thing is for sure, players from large markets tend to not only dominate the headlines, but they also dominate the baseball card hobby.

    "Donnie Baseball" was a terrific player during his time, and would no doubt have been a Hall of Famer if back problems had not cut his career short. When you add in the fact that he was playing in the Bronx, it is no wonder that his 1984 rookie cards, namely the Donruss version, were hot commodities during his prime years.

1982 Topps Traded #98T Cal Ripken Jr.

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    Value: $150

    Throughout his career, Ripken was beloved not only in Baltimore but league-wide, as his blue collar attitude endeared him to the masses. The fact that he could flat out play didn't hurt either.

    He has three rookie cards, with his Donruss and Fleer issues valued at $25 and his Topps version at $40. However, he also appeared in a far shorter-printed Topps Traded set, and while that card is not technically considered a rookie card for Ripken, it is far more valuable and, for all intents and purposes, is the Ripken card to own if you have to pick just one.

1980 Topps #482 Rickey Henderson RC

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    Value: $80

    In putting together one of the most impressive careers in baseball history, Henderson consistently represented one of the most collected players in the hobby, and his 1980 Topps rookie card is the crown jewel of any Henderson collection.

    While Donruss and Fleer came into existence in 1981, in 1980 Topps was the only company out there so there is only one Henderson rookie card to be had. That makes this card a must have for any Henderson fan, and it is the card that bridges the gap between the modern era and the old school era of baseball cards.

1975 Topps #228 George Brett RC

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    Value: $80

    Aside from Mike Schmidt, Brett may be the best third baseman to ever set foot on a baseball diamond, and he is as well liked throughout he baseball world as he was well respected for his all-out style of play.

    He also happens to be the biggest card in one of the greatest baseball card sets of all time, as the 1975 Topps set included rookie cards of not only Brett, but also Robin Yount, Jim Rice, Gary Carter, Fred Lynn, Keith Hernandez, as well as base cards of all the legends of the 1970s.

    What makes the card so sought after, is how hard it is to find one in good shape, as the colorful design of the cards tended to chip away on the corners very easily and show each and every ding.

1973 Topps #615 Mike Schmidt/Ron Cey RC

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    Value: $150

    Speaking of Mike Schmidt, his rookie card is not too shabby itself as far as being incredibly sought after, and the addition of former Dodgers All-Star Ron Cey on the card only adds to the value. Poor John Hilton though, sandwiched between two of the best third basemen of the era.

    Some collectors prefer the 1974 Topps Mike Schmidt, as it is his first full appearance on a baseball card, and that card is worth a respectable $20, but you can't beat a rookie card of the best third baseman of all time.

1969 Topps #260 Reggie Jackson RC

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    Value: $300

    Before the trendy glasses, before the trademark mustache, and long before he became "Mr. October," Jackson was just another rookie for the Oakland Athletics, as he is hardly distinguishable on his 1969 Topps rookie card.

    Whether or not it looks like him, the card is among the most wanted in all of the hobby, as it marks the first of one of baseball's most popular and at the same time most controversial players of all time.

1968 Topps #247 Johnny Bench RC

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    Value: $120

    The Big Red Machine dominated the 1970s, as perhaps the last truly dominant NL franchise, and at the heart of it all was catcher Johnny Bench who is still considered by many to be the best catcher in baseball history.

    Sadly, the same can't be said for the man he is paired up with on this card, as Tompkins pitched just 40 games in the big leagues, making five appearances in 1965 and then another 35 in 1971 before disappearing. Regardless, the presence of Bench far out weighs his ineptitude.

1968 Topps #177 Nolan Ryan/Jerry Koosman RC

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    Value: $500

    While the pairing of Mike Schmidt and Ron Cey was good, there may be no better rookie card combination in all of the baseball card world than this 1968 Topps card that features Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan.

    While Ryan is clearly the big ticket draw here, and the reason for the bulk of the card's value, Koosman was no slouch himself, and the duo combined for a whopping 546 wins and 8,270 strikeouts in 46 big league seasons. Not too shabby.

1967 Topps #581 Tom Seaver RC

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    Value: $600

    While Ryan and Koosman were great, there is little question who the best pitcher in Mets history is, as "Tom Terrific" was arguably the best pitcher of the 1970s, a decade dominated by some of the best pitchers to ever play the game.

    With 311 wins and a 105.3 career WAR that ranks fourth best all-time among pitchers, it is safe to say that picking up a Seaver rookie card would be a solid investment.

1963 Topps #537 Pete Rose RC

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    Value: $1,000

    As far as appearance goes, the 1963 Topps Rookie Stars cards were about as ugly as it gets, with floating heads of four of baseball's top up-and-comers floating in a red circle, pulled together with a bright yellow background.

    That said, the card itself is far and away the most valuable card of the 1960s, and despite the controversy attached to Rose he is still one of the most collected players in the hobby and that is clearly reflected in the value of his rookie card.

1962 Topps #1 Roger Maris

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    Value: $500

    These days, it is what is on the front of a card that makes it valuable, be it a jersey swatch, autograph, or some combination of the two. However, back in 1962, there was little doubt what made the Roger Maris card so sought after.

    With his 61 home runs in 1961, Maris broke the most hallowed record in all of baseball, falling a legend in Babe Ruth in the process, and that little 61 on the back of his card makes all the difference. Compare the value of this card to the 1961 Maris card ($250), and the 1960 Maris card ($100) and it is clear that the 1962 card is the one to have.

1960 Topps #148 Carl Yastrzemski RC

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    Value: $200

    Save Ted Williams, "Yaz" may be the most beloved player in Red Sox history, as he spent all 23 seasons of his Hall of Fame career in Boston.

    He is the last player in baseball to hit for the Triple Crown, doing so in 1967 when he hit .326 BA, 44 HR, 121 RBI at the height of what is considered the Golden Age of pitching. He played in the second most games all time, and he remains a legendary figure not only in Boston, but in all of baseball.

1959 Topps #514 Bob Gibson RC

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    Value: $300

    While the pink background and the cheesy smile leave a lot to be desired, who would not want to own the rookie card of the man who caused major league baseball to lower their mounds after his phenomenal 1968 season.

    With a line of 22-9, 1.12 ERA, 268 Ks, Gibson took home the NL Cy Young and the NL MVP that season, but he was far from a one-hit wonder as he won 164 games in the 1960s alone, and 251 for his career on his way to the Hall of Fame.

1957 Topps #328 Brooks Robinson RC

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    Value: $400

    With George Brett and Mike Schmidt already appearing on the list with their rookie cards, it is only right to give some love to the best defensive third baseman of all time and a fellow Hall of Famer, Brooks Robinson.

    While it was his game changing glove that earned him enshrinement, he was no slouch with the bat, with 268 home runs and 1,357 RBI in his 23-year career. He had his best season with the bat in 1964 when he went .317 BA, 28 HR, 118 RBI to take home AL MVP honors.

1957 Topps #35 Frank Robinson RC

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    Value: $300

    While he would later join Brooks Robinson on the Orioles, Frank Robinson began his career in Cincinnati where he put together 10 terrific seasons before being traded to the Orioles at the age of 30, which Reds GM Bill DeWitt justified by saying he was "an old 30."

    He would win the Triple Crown the following season, 1966, and help the Orioles to a World Series win. He in fact had 11 more seasons in him after the trade, as he ended his storied career with 586 home runs and 1,812 RBI.

1955 Topps #123 Sandy Koufax RC

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    Value: $1,200

    Ask 100 people who the most dominant pitcher in baseball history was, and you are bound to get a number of different answers. Among them will no doubt be Sandy Koufax, who earned Hall of Fame enshrinement despite playing just 10 full big league seasons.

    He retired in his prime at the age of 30 due to injuries, but the last four seasons of his career are widely regarded as the most dominant stretch in big league history, as he went 97-27, 1.86 ERA, 1,228 Ks over that stretch, winning three Triple Crowns, three NL Cy Young Awards and an NL MVP.

1955 Topps #164 Roberto Clemente RC

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    Value: $2,200

    Roberto Clemente had an amazing big league career, appearing in 12 All-Star games, winning 12 Gold Gloves and hitting .317 for his career with exactly 3,000 hits.

    However, his career ended tragically in a plane crash in the 1972 offseason, and in a display of just what he meant to the game, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame the following season in a special vote. His cards remain the most valuable of anyone from his era not named Mickey Mantle, and his rookie card is no exception.

1954 Bowman #66A Ted Williams

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    Value: $3,000

    After taking a backseat to Topps following the 1952 release, Bowman managed to secure an exclusive contract with Mickey Mantle that kept him out of the Topps release for 1954. The same agreement was reached by Topps with the Red Sox Ted Williams, as two of baseball's biggest stars were to appear exclusively in one product.

    However, Bowman accidentally released a card of Williams, and quickly pulled it off the line when they realized. That made the card short-printed, and added some controversy to it, and those two things always spell valuable.

1952 Topps #261 Willie Mays

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    Value: $3,000

    The 1952 Topps set is arguably the most coveted set of cards in baseball card collecting history, with commons going for as much as $100 dollars in decent condition. It was the first set in Topps history, with Bowman running the show since 1948.

    Because the Mays card appeared earlier in the set, it is not as rare as some of the higher numbered cards, which will help explain the price gap between this card and the next two on the list, but this is still a legendary card of one of the best to ever play.

1952 Topps #407 Eddie Mathews RC

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    Value: $10,000

    Note the large price jump, as mentioned, as the Mathews card falls far later in the set run. Also, the Mathews card is a rookie, while Mays' rookie landed the previous year in 1951 Bowman.

    While not the marquee card of the set, the Mathews rookie is a distant second to the next card on our list. Mathews is among the most underrated players in baseball history, and his career .271 BA, 512 HR, 1,453 line goes largely unnoticed to many baseball fans. This card, however, is among the cream of the crop and as well known as any in the hobby.

1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle

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    Value: $30,000

    For many collectors out there, this is THE card, the holy grail of all that is baseball card collecting, and rightfully so as it represents not only the rookie card of a baseball legend, but also a slice of Americana, and the baby-boom era.

    Topps began its company with a boom, much like Upper Deck would many years later with the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, and it seems as though to have that one highly sought after card can make all the difference for a fledgling company.

1951 Bowman #1 Whitey Ford RC

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    Value: $2,500

    This card is in a tough spot, sandwiched between the top two cards of two of the most loved players in baseball history. It holds its own, however, as it is actually valued the same as the Willie Mays rookie card from the same set.

    It could be attributed to the large market for everything Yankees, but there is no denying that Ford had a terrific career, winning 236 games in just 16 seasons, and fronting the staff of a Yankees team that won 11 AL pennants, and six World Series while he was with the team.

1951 Bowman #305 Willie Mays RC

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    Value: $2,500

    While the 1952 Topps set gets all the hype, the true rookie cards for Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle fell the previous season in the 1951 Bowman set.

    The 1952 card remains the most sought after for both players, but you could certainly count their true rookie card as a close second.

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC

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    Value: $8,000

    As stated in the Mays slide, this card takes a backseat to the 1952 Topps card, but it is still the rookie card of one of the greatest players of all time.

    One can only wonder how much more this card would be worth if Topps had never come along, and Bowman held a monopoly on the baseball card market on into the 1960s.

1949 Leaf #79 Jackie Robinson RC

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    Value: $2,000

    Jackie Robinson is the very definition of an icon, from his role breaking the color barrier in baseball to his Hall of Fame play on the field, and a list of most iconic cards would not be complete without his rookie card.

    The 1949 release marked the only season that Leaf made baseball cards until the hobby boom of the 1990s, and the square cards were certainly different, but the set was a success and is far more valuable than the Bowman set from the same year.

1949 Leaf #8 Satchel Paige SP RC

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    Value: $15,000

    This card is the gem of the 1949 set, as it not only features Negro League legend Satchel Paige on his first baseball card as a member of the Indians, but was also extremely short printed and only released in Canada, making it one of the rarest baseball cards ever.

    Compare this card to his 1949 Bowman rookie, which worth just $1,500, and it is clear that this is one of the hardest baseball cards to come by this side of Honus Wagner.

1933 Goudey #53 Babe Ruth RC

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    Value: $8,000

    The 1933 Goudey set marked the first release of baseball cards in congruence with bubble gum, as they had previously been packaged with cigarettes and cracker jacks.

    It also marked the first time Babe Ruth appeared on a card as a member of the Yankees, as he had one previous, ultra rare card from his time in the International league. It came in a number of different colored backgrounds, but regardless it was the first card of the greatest player in baseball history.

1933 Goudey #106 Nap Lajoie SP

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    Value: $25,000

    The 1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie card was the first true card made with collectors in mind. It was originally left out of the set, and was only made available to collectors who wrote in and requested it.

    It is assumed that the remaining cards were then destroyed making this card extremely rare, and the first real evidence of baseball cards being significant collector's items.

1914 Cracker Jack #103 Joe Jackson

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    Value: $20,000

    The Cracker Jack sets of 1914 and 1915 were just the second true set of baseball cards to be made after the infamous T206 set.

    Despite his ban from baseball, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson is still the most desirable card in the set, as he and Ty Cobb both have cards that top $10,000 in value. However, this marks the only cards that Jackson ever appeared on as he was not part of the T206 set, and was out of the league by the 1933 Goudey set.

1909 T206 #366 Honus Wagner

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    Value: $350,000

    Simply put, there is no other sports card that comes close to the level of the T206 Honus Wagner. After initially being placed in the set that was included in cigarette packs, Wagner asked that he be removed from the set as he did not condone smoking. His card was pulled after roughly 60-200 were made.

    There are only 57 of the card believed to be in existence today, with the most famous being the "Gretzky Wagner" which is in the best condition of the 57, and was once owned by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky who bought it at auction for $451,000 in 1991. It most recently sold for $2.8 million to Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick.

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