Sports Cards: 10 Vintage MLB Cards on Collectors' Bucket Lists

Joel ReuterAugust 19, 2022

Sports Cards: 10 Vintage MLB Cards on Collectors' Bucket Lists

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    (Original Caption) 1951: Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees (L), poses with Willie Mays of the New York Giants (R) at Yankee Stadium prior to the World Series.
    Bettmann

    The modern baseball card market can be a volatile place, with value largely dependent on a player's age, health, current team and recent performance.

    On the other hand, the vintage card market is a much safer space in terms of fluctuating prices. The story is already written for players who suited up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and while there are still peaks and valleys in their card values, it's much easier to gauge.

    Certain cards will always be on any vintage collector's wish list, starting with the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle that helped reshape the hobby and launch the Topps brand into the flagship company it is today.

    Starting with that 1952 Topps set and ending in the mid-1970s, when most consider the vintage era to have ended, we've highlighted 10 cards that belong on any vintage baseball card enthusiast's collecting bucket list.

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311

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    Mickey Mantle, outfielder with the New York Yankees shows off his batting form, April 1961. (AP Photo)
    AP Photo

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    Topps has long been the flagship brand in baseball card collecting, and the company released its first full set in 1952.

    The checklist is filled with iconic cards, but none is bigger than the image of a 20-year-old Mickey Mantle. It's not technically considered a rookie card since Mantle was included in the 1951 Bowman set, but it's far and away the most sought-after card of the New York Yankees legend.

    There is currently a high-grade version up for auction that many consider to be the best known example of the card, and it is expected to fetch north of $10 million when the auction closes on Aug. 27.

    Over the course of an 18-year career spent entirely in pinstripes, Mantle slugged 536 home runs, racked up 110.2 WAR and won seven World Series rings as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.

1952 Topps Willie Mays #261

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    (Original Caption) American baseball player Willie Mays of the New York Giants holds his bat, here in this three-quarters length photo, 1954-08-18.
    Bettmann

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    Also found on the 1952 Topps checklist is the No. 1 Willie Mays card in the eyes of most collectors, though he too was featured in the 1951 Bowman set, so it's not a true rookie card.

    While it does not command quite the same price tag as its Mantle counterpart—due in part to the large New York market helping to drive value—the Mays card is plenty valuable in its own right.

    A PSA 6 copy sold for $42,552 on eBay on July 9, and even low-grade and ungraded versions regularly sell for several thousand dollars. Viewed by many as the most complete player in MLB history, Mays' popularity transcends regional markets, making this a staple on any vintage collector's want list.

    The superstar center fielder played 23 seasons and tallied 660 home runs, 1,909 RBI and 156.1 WAR, a total that trails only Babe Ruth (183.1), Walter Johnson (164.9), Cy Young (163.6) and Barry Bonds (162.8) on the all-time list.

1953 Topps Satchel Paige #220

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    Satchel Paige, the ageless right-handed pitching star, returns to major league baseball starting for the Browns in St. Louis, on July 19, 1951. Here he is seen warming up prior to a game against the Washington Senators. (AP Photo)
    AP Photo

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    The most famous pitcher in Negro League history, Satchel Paige did not make his MLB debut until two days after his 42nd birthday, spending parts of six seasons in the big leagues before calling it a career.

    As a result, there are very few card options available from his playing days.

    His only major releases are in the 1949 Bowman, 1949 Leaf and 1953 Topps sets, and while the first two are considered rookie cards, it's his one and only Topps card that is the No. 1 target of most vintage collectors.

    Pictured as a member of the St. Louis Browns—the team that would later become the Baltimore Orioles—Paige was 46 years old at the time and embarking on his final full season in the majors, posting a 3.53 ERA with 11 saves in 117.1 innings while pitching primarily in relief.

    A PSA 7 version sold for $4,350 on eBay on Aug. 16, and worn ungraded copies still go for a couple hundred dollars, as it's a card any collector would love to have in their collection, regardless of condition.

1954 Topps Hank Aaron #128

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    7/1959-Hank Aaron in a batting pose, wearing a Milwaukee Braves uniform.
    Bettmann

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    With 755 home runs and 2,297 RBI, Hank Aaron retired as the most prolific slugger in MLB history, and that RBI total still stands as the all-time record. He also racked up 3,771 hits, 25 All-Star appearances and 143.0 WAR in his 23-year career.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that his rookie card finds its way onto this list.

    Aaron made his MLB debut in 1954 shortly after his 20th birthday. The following season, he was an All-Star for the first time, and by 1957, he was NL MVP and one of the best players in the game.

    1954 Topps is among the best-looking baseball card sets ever, with brightly colored backgrounds and dual player photos featuring a large head shot and a smaller action shot. A PSA 5 copy sold for $6,750 on eBay on July 21, and an ungraded copy with the top right corner ripped off sold for over $800 a few days later. That should give you an indication of how in-demand the card is for vintage collectors.

1954 Topps Ernie Banks #94

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    3/1956- Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs. UPI color slide.
    Bettmann

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    Hank Aaron may be the headliner in the 1954 Topps set, but he's not the only legendary rookie card on the checklist, as it also features the debut cards of Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Al Kaline.

    Thanks to the large Chicago Cubs fanbase and his enduring popularity as one of the most beloved players in franchise history, Banks cards still hold as much value as any 1950s player, aside from the trio of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Aaron.

    A PSA 7 is the highest graded copy to sell on eBay in recent months, and it went for $7,800. While lower-grade versions can regularly be found for under $1,000, this is still a must-own card for any Cubs fan and any 1950s collector.

    Banks played 19 seasons in the big leagues, compiling 512 home runs, 1,636 RBI and 67.7 WAR while winning two NL MVP awards and making 14 All-Star appearances.

1955 Topps Roberto Clemente #164

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    1968:  Roberto Clemente #21 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photo circa 1968.  ( Photo by Louis Requena/ MLB via Getty Images)
    Photo by Louis Requena/ MLB via Getty Images

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    The legend of Roberto Clemente transcends his success on the baseball field, as it was his humanitarian efforts that helped make him one of the most revered athletes in professional sports history. His tragic death in a plane crash following the 1972 season happened en route to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

    His collector base stretches well beyond Pittsburgh Pirates fans to vintage collectors with a wide variety of rooting interests, and in turn, his rookie has become one of the most valuable cards of the 1950s.

    Topps went with a horizontal design for the first time in 1955 while utilizing the same bright background and dual image approach from the 1954 set.

    The Clemente rookie is the headliner on a checklist that also includes rookies of Sandy Koufax, Harmon Killebrew and longtime manager/coach Don Zimmer. A PSA 6 copy of the Clemente card sold for $10,211 on eBay on Aug. 8 after 71 bids.

1955 Topps Sandy Koufax #123

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    (Original Caption) Sandy Koufax of the Brooklyn Dodgers
    Bettmann

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    With a few notable exceptions, the baseball card collecting hobby is dominated by offensive stars, due in part to the volatility and inconsistency of most pitchers.

    Hall of Famers are an exception to an extent, but even some of them don't generate much interest beyond their rookie cards. However, there are a few pitchers who command top dollar, and Sandy Koufax is one of those guys.

    The fact that he played just 12 seasons and pitched for a major-market team helps drive his value, and he also had one of the greatest peaks in MLB history before his career was cut short by injury.

    His 1955 Topps rookie is one of just 29 total Topps flagship cards from his playing days, and that includes subsets like league leaders and World Series highlights. A PSA 7 copy of his rookie card sold on eBay on Aug. 15 for $8,200.

1960 Topps Carl Yastrzemski #148

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    circa 1965:  Full-length portrait of Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl 'Yaz' Yastrzemski in uniform, leaning on a baseball bat, 1960s.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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    Since the most sought-after Ted Williams cards come from prior to our 1952 cutoff, the focus for Boston Red Sox fans instead turns to fellow Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski.

    With 3,419 hits, 452 home runs, 1,844 RBI and 96.5 WAR over the course of a 23-year career spent entirely in Boston, Yaz is a franchise icon and his legendary status for one of baseball's highest-profile organizations makes his rookie card a top vintage target.

    The 1960 Topps set also has rookie cards of Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Jim Kaat, but Yastrzemski is without a doubt the headliner. The card's bright orange background and 1960 Rookie Star distinction make it clear it's his first card, and while he never played the position in the big leagues, he is listed as a second baseman.

    High-grade versions are a bit easier to find than some of the 1950s cards on this list, but they still command a premium. A PSA 8 copy sold on eBay for $2,729 on July 19.

1968 Topps Nolan Ryan #177

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    FLUSHING, NY - UNDATED:  Pitcher Nolan Ryan #30 of the New York Mets poses for a portrait circa 1966-71 at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images)
    Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

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    Growing up, this was my holy grail, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that my dad was a huge Nolan Ryan fan and he was still an active big leaguer unlike most of the others on this list who had long since retired.

    Decades later, it's still one of the most recognizable baseball cards of all time.

    It doesn't hurt that Ryan shares the dual rookie card with Jerry Koosman, who won 222 games and tallied 57.0 WAR over a 19-year career of his own, but there's little doubt it's the game's all-time strikeout leader who has fueled this card's value.

    A PSA 8 copy sold just a couple of days ago on eBay for $7,600. Of the 11,282 that have been submitted to PSA over the years, only one has come back with a PSA 10 grade, to go along with 67 PSA 9 grades.

    Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench's rookie card also appears in the 1968 Topps set.

1973 Topps Mike Schmidt #615

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - 1975:  Thirdbaseman Mike Schmidt, of the Philadelphia Phillies, poses for a portrait prior to a game in 1975 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by:  Diamond Images/Getty Images)
    Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

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    There are several valuable vintage rookie cards that were released later than the 1973 Topps set, including Dave Winfield (1974 Topps), George Brett and Robin Yount (1975 Topps), Andre Dawson (1977 Topps), Eddie Murray and Paul Molitor (1978 Topps), and Ozzie Smith (1979 Topps).

    However, all of those fall a notch below the 1973 Topps Mike Schmidt rookie card in terms of value, making this a logical cutoff for our rundown of vintage bucket-list cards.

    It's the most valuable card in the 1973 set by a wide margin, and rightfully so, as Schmidt is arguably the greatest third baseman in MLB history on the strength of 548 home runs, three MVP awards and 106.8 WAR in 18 seasons.

    There are centering issues with the 1973 Topps set and the Schmidt card in particular. As a result, only six of the 7,973 submitted to PSA have returned a PSA 10 grade. A PSA 9 sold two days ago on eBay for $8,100.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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