Some of his cards from that era, Codere said, would sell today for $500 to $1,000. But of all those he left behind, the one he misses most is a 1963 card showing switch hitter Pete Rose, number 537 of the Topps series published that year. It’s a rookie card, meaning that it was published as Rose was about to enter the major leagues, an honour accorded to only a select few young players — one Rose lived up to with 4,256 career hits.
Never mind that Codere estimates its worth at more than $3,000. “It’s the only card from the 1960s Topps sets that I still need to complete the decade,” he said. With the Rose card, he would own every single card published by Topps from 1960 through 1969.
Despite — or because of — that grave early loss, he never lost his passion for sports cards. Today the 55-year-old information manager at Health Protection Scotland owns nearly 60,000. They range in value from a penny to $300 for a 1933 card published by Sport Kings showing Ty Cobb. Cobb is widely believed to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and the card shows the player in his Detroit Tigers’ uniform, with his biography and the name of the business underwriting the cards, the Goudey Gum Company, on the back.
Sports cards — which have the size and feel of playing cards and display photographs of baseball, basketball, cricket, hockey, football or American football players — have been around for more than a century. They originated, according to Baseball Almanac, in the 1870s when American tobacco companies began giving away baseball cards as extra incentive to buy their products. In the 1950s, when bubble gum companies started to print baseball cards, a collecting frenzy spread across all age groups and social strata in the United States.
Some collectors grow out of their obsession, but for others it becomes a life-long hunt for rare specimens to treasure, trade or tuck away as investments. According to Sports Collectors Digest, the hobby's oldest and largest publication, baseball card sales in the United States were worth $200m in 2009 — down from two decades ago, to some extent because the card craze has spread to other sports.
It’s also gone global.
In Britain, about 1.2m fans collect English Premier League cards each year, said Chris Rodman, group managing director of Topps Europe Ltd, a division of the US card publisher Topps. “This summer’s World Cup has already started to have a massive impact on the number of people buying our Match Attax trading cards,” he said, referring to a line of cards that features English Premier League football players such as Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney. “To date, Topps has sold over 3.5bn Premier League sticker cards.”
Meanwhile in Australia collectors go in for cricket, Australian football, and rugby cards depicting home-grown players. In India — one of sports cards’ newest frontiers — Topps recently introduced Indian Premier League cards featuring cricket players from around the world. Old but well-preserved cards showing American baseball greats Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth, as well as the rookie cards of household-name basketball stars, such as Michael Jordan (1986) and Kobe Bryant (1996), tend to be popular worldwide.
For many fans, a collection is a labour of love. “The hobby has been a family tradition, and a way for me to connect with my father,” said Pavle Djordjevic, a 25-year-old economics student in Serbia, who runs a blog for fellow enthusiasts. He has more than 15,000 football cards in his collection, many of which were once part of his father’s cache. “Collecting is about people, not about of a piece of paper.”
Those pieces of paper can be worth a great deal, though, with value growing over time. A new card showing an inexperienced player can be yours for less than a dollar, but rare vintage specimens go for vastly more. At a Sotheby’s auction in 1991, Canadian ice hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, in partnership with Bruce McNall, former owner of National Hockey League team the Los Angeles Kings, bought a 1909 card of baseball great Honus Wagner for $451,000. One of 40 of its kind still in existence, the card then changed hands a few times before fetching a record $2.8m when Ken Kendrick, owner of Major League Baseball team the Arizona Diamondbacks, bought it in a private sale in 2007 .
In general, the biggest-ticket collectibles are older cards that had a low print run, show the most famous athletes and are in mint or near-mint condition, irrespective of the sport. Autographed cards command an even greater premium.
What to look for
A good way to get in the game is to buy modern-day sports cards — issued in the last 15 years or so — of up-and-coming players, said Tom Bartsch, editor of Sports Collectors Digest.
“Collectors who are seeking future value should buy rookie cards of projected stars,” he said. “Buy the signed cards and limited-edition runs. Baseball and basketball are the key sports, where the biggest money is at.”
California-based Chris Carlin, senior marketing and social media manager at sports cards manufacturer The Upper Deck Company, signalled out a few cards on the market now that he thinks will increase in value over the next five to 10 years: rookie cards of baseball players Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka; cards showing American football players Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles; and cards showing ice hockey players Nathan MacKinnon, John Gibson, and Jonathan Huberdeau. As always, the physical condition of cards is key to their future value, so serious collectors use protective holders — known as toploaders — and card sleeves.
A quick way to ascertain a card’s value is by checking completed auctions on eBay for similar cards. Some collectors also use The Pit to both value and buy cards. It bills itself as a “sports stock exchange” and operates somewhat like one, displaying bid and ask prices for every card and allowing customers to hold cards in an account, like currency, to be used for future trading. For a shipping fee, buyers can take physical possession of their cards.
Where to buy
Card manufacturers such as Topps, Panini and Upper Deck constantly churn out brand-new cards and sell them on their websites or through a global network of retailers. For cards that have gained some value, collectors turn to traders like Beckett in the United States, Football Cards Direct in Britain, The Card Trader in Australia and Collectabillia in India. Online retailers usually offer a rich variety, as do card shows and conventions for those who prefer to lay eyes on the item first.
Collectors seeking cards that have already gained significant value turn to auction houses Bonhams, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s, as well as the specialist dealer Memory Lane Inc.
The bottom line
High-value cards notwithstanding, from an investment point of view, card collecting is at best a buy-and-hold game. Most collectors insist they’re in it for the pleasure — and so it should stay, Djordjevic said. “I don’t bother myself with value,” he said. “Collecting is about having fun, discovering odd sets and cards and helping others complete their personal collections.”
Card manufacturers tend to agree. “People who get in the industry to make a quick buck are in it for the wrong reasons,” Carlin said. “I hope fans collect because it’s an entertaining pastime. If they make a small profit, that’s a bonus. Temper your expectations with the fact you’re not going to get rich just by opening countless boxes.”