A Guide to the 10 Most Expensive Baseball Cards Ever Sold

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistMarch 31, 2017

The T206 Honus Wagner card is considered the Holy Grail by baseball-card collectors.
The T206 Honus Wagner card is considered the Holy Grail by baseball-card collectors.STAN HONDA/Getty Images

People with exorbitant financial means tend to spend large sums of money on silly things.

A market for memorabilia exists beyond the world of sports, but baseball cards have watched other fads—is Yu-Gi-Oh! still a thing?—come and go. Whether it's the thrill of the chase or feeling superior for possessing a rare collectible, quite a few have sold for more than an average house. 

Some cards can be plucked for 10 cents at a mall convention. These white whales, however, all warranted huge auction prices. Two even merited more than $1 million.

With help from Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), let's take a look at the most expensive cards ever sold.

10. Joe DiMaggio: 1938 Goudey ($288,000)

The list starts with the newest member. As noted by PSA's Joe Orlando, a 1938 Goudey Gum Company rookie card of Joe DiMaggio sold for $288,000 in late February:

It's also the only card flaunting a picture capable of inducing nightmares. The cartoonish depiction gives the New York Yankees star a look of someone ready to swing at something besides baseballs.

Joltin' Joe isn't the only Yankees legend with a valuable Goudey card; a 1933 Lou Gehrig one in perfect condition sold for $234,000. Pretty nice for a giveaway attached to penny chewing gum.

9. Hank Aaron: 1954 Topps ($358,000)

According to the Cardboard Convention, Topps released 59 different Hank Aaron cards during his 23-year career. None have tempted collectors more than his 1954 Milwaukee Braves rookie card, disseminating before the Hall of Famer smacked his 755 career home runs.

Three mint-condition copies have sold for over $300,000, led by a $358,000 winning bid in an auction last August. Yet the 1957 National League MVP still does not boast the decade's most expensive Topps card.

8. Joe Doyle: 1909-11 T206 ($414,750)

Well here's a name that doesn't belong. Accompanying an assortment of all-time greats, "Slow Joe Doyle" pitched just five seasons for the Yankees and Cincinnati Reds. Yet his T206 card sold for $414,750 in a 2012 auction.

Courtesy of Orlando, here's a look at the valued item:

As Grant Zahajko of MBA Seattle Auction House explained to Sports Collectors Digest's Tom Bartsch, the desired card incorrectly labeled the Yankees a National League team. That mistake created a rare collectible.

“Once the error was discovered they pulled the (printing) plate, chipped off the ‘National’ part, put the plate back on and continued making what experts believe was 99.9 percent of the run,” Zahajko said.

Who knew miscues could be so valuable?

7. Roberto Clemente: 1955 Topps ($478,000)

And now back to a typical collectible. Although his Hall of Fame career was cut short due to a tragic plane crash, Roberto Clemente still compiled 15 All-Star nods, 12 Gold Gloves and 3,000 hits.

Back in February 2016, the card netted $478,000 at a Heritage auction. There's no crazy backstory for this item. Heritage Director of Sports Collectibles Auctions Chris Ivy gave a straightforward explanation for its high demand to Beckett's Ryan Cracknell.

“This is a high-grade example of a very famous baseball card of one of the most legendary players to ever put on an MLB uniform,” Ivy said. “The record price realized for this card is a testament to just how cherished Clemente still is.”

6. Ty Cobb: 1909-11 T206 ($488,425)

The 1909-11 T206 set, manufactured as a promotional tool by the American Tobacco Company, continues to receive prominent placement. This time, the memorabilia market paid a premium for a Hall of Famer.

Nobody has ever topped Ty Cobb's .366 career batting average, a record that may last another century. Much like the fine attributes distinguishing a batting champion from a minor league who can't hit a breaking ball, every minuscule detail matters in the trading-card industry. 

The T206 set features four different Cobb cards. Yet none have sold as well as a mint-condition one with the bat off his shoulder, which fetched $488,425 in August. 

5. Babe Ruth: 1914 Baltimore News ($575,000)

Babe Ruth is the best baseball player ever, so it shouldn't be surprising to see him as the only legend to make the list twice.

Before hitting .342/.474/.690 with 714 home runs, a teenage Bambino pitched for the Baltimore Orioles, then a minor league team. Per Baseball-Reference.com, he earned a 2.39 ERA in 244.2 innings for the International League organization.

The rare 1914 Baltimore News card sold for $450,300 in a public auction, but according to Sports Collectors Daily's Rich Mueller, a private buyer bought one for $575,000 in 2012. Robert Edward Auctions provided a look at the blue rarity:

And that was for a card with a good-condition label.

4. Joe Jackson: 1909 American Caramel ($667,189)

If only the person who received a Shoeless Joe Jackson rookie card packaged with caramel candy could know how much it's worth today.

Last August, the highest-graded 1909 card sold for $667,189. PSA's records indicate just two cards of the kind with the near mint-mint 8 (NM-MT, out of 10) grade.

While the early-20th-century star will forever be associated with the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the .356/.423/.517 hitter would have retired as one of the greatest batters ever if not for MLB banning him.

3. Babe Ruth 1915-16 Sporting News: ($717,000)

The two most valuable cards of the greatest hitter to ever live both depict a slim Ruth during his pitching days. 

This 1915-16 Sporting News rookie card could one day join the $1 million club. PSA appraises a NM-MT 8 version—three of which they have tracked—at $1.25 million.

By comparison, the buyer who won it for $717,000 last August snatched a bargain. If any small piece of paper decorated by a picture of a baseball player warranted such an enormous price, it's a Ruth rookie card.

2. Mickey Mantle: 1952 Topps ($1,135,250)

Mickey Mantle is undoubtedly one of the game's most iconic legends, but what makes his rookie card a more valuable memento than those of Ruth and other Yankees greats?

As Mueller wrote on Bleacher Report in 2013, 1952 Topps sales were so bad that cards were dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. Over half-a-century later, Mantle's rookie card has morphed into a collectible gem.

One of these rarer cards, graded 8.5, sold for $1,135,250 last November. Here's a look, courtesy of Collectors.com, at what over $1 million can buy:

Per PSA, three 10-graded cards exist to potentially top this astronomical purchase down the road. According to SABR.org's Michael Haupert, Mantle never earned a yearly salary above $90,000 during his career.

1. Honus Wagner 1909-11 T206 ($3.12 Million)

Honus Wagner's 1909-11 T206 card may be more famous than the man himself.

Even those who don't know the greatest shortstop ever will recognize the fabled baseball card. Last year, it sold for $3.12 million, breaking the $2.8 million record set by another version—initially purchased by Bruce McNall and NHL legend Wayne Gretzky for $451,000—of the same item.

ESPN examined the card's mystique in the 30 for 30 short, "Holy Grail: The T206 Honus Wagner." Described as "Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket" by Keith Olberman, few are known to exist. Some say Wagner opposed the American Tobacco Company using his likeness to market cigarettes to children, but he might have shut down production because he wasn't paid.

Months after the documentary, memorabilia dealer Bill Mastro admitted to trimming the "Gretzky" Wagner card to bump its grade to 8. That may have made the recently sold card, a PSA 5 per Cracknell, the most pristine model available.

Altering the world's most valuable baseball card has seemingly only enhanced the worth of the other few remaining.

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