Few things provide a better return on investment than sports cards. Baseball and hockey cards that are often bought for a buck or two can end up being worth millions of dollars if a player has a great career or gets inducted into the Hall of Fame. And when players reach legendary status in their respective sport, the value of a collectible trading card can really skyrocket. This is true of star athletes still playing today. Hockey player Sidney Crosby’s rookie card, issued by card company Upper Deck in 2005, originally sold for less than $2, but is selling today for $400. That’s a huge profit for anyone who has the card lying around in an old shoe box. So with value for money in mind, here are 10 of the most valuable sports cards ever sold.
10. Wayne Gretzky Rookie Card – $94,162
The Great One, as Wayne Gretzky is known, entered professional hockey in 1979. His rookie trading card, manufactured by company O-Pee-Chee, sold at auction in 2011 for $94,162. What’s impressive about that price is that the card purchased was not considered to be in mint condition, as it was frayed around two of its corners. Still, fans seem willing to shell out big bucks for the card of Wayne Gretzky, who is widely viewed as the greatest hockey player to ever lace up a pair of skates. A similar Wayne Gretzky rookie card that was in even worse shape sold on eBay in 2008 for $50,000.
9. Michael Jordan Rookie Card – $100,000
From the greatest hockey player ever to the greatest basketball player, Michael Jordan’s rookie trading card, issued by manufacturer Fleer in 1986, was bought by a private collector in 2012 for $100,000. The card sold was one of only three copies graded as being in mint condition by Beckett Grading Services, which had analyzed more than 5,500 Michael Jordan rookie cards still in circulation. Cards with poor centering, miscut edges, printing spots, rough edges, or general wear and tear will not receive a top grade from Beckett Grading Services.
8. George Mikan 1948 Basketball Card – $218,550
It’s hard to believe that any basketball player, past or present, could surpass Michael Jordan in any category. But the George Mikan 1948 basketball card is the most valuable among any player in the sport. This is because George Mikan played in the National Basketball League (NBL), the Baksetball Association of America (BAA) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) during his career and was known as “Mr. Basketball.” George Mikan was also one of the game’s first big men, standing at 6’10” and weighing 245 pounds. And George Mikan was ambidextrous, meaning he could shoot equally well with his left or right hand. For all these unique qualities, the 1948 card, manufactured by company Bowman, is the most valuable the sport of basketball has ever seen.
7. Bronko Nagurski 1935 Football Card – $240,000
The only card featuring a football player on this list goes to Bronko Nagurski, who played for the Chicago Bears in the 1930s. A legendary fullback, Bronko Nagurski was known to level players and referees during his career. He also helped the Chicago Bears to two NFL Championships during his time with the team—in 1930 and again in 1937. While the 1935 card manufactured by National Chicle isn’t the rookie card of Bronko Nagurski, it’s one of the few surviving trading cards of football players in the 1930s, and that makes it very valuable. Of course, it does not hurt that Bronko Nagurski would go on to become the NWA Wrestling Champion after his football career ended—making him a legend in two sports.
6. Ty Cobb 1911 Baseball Card – $272,980
One of the first baseball stars, and a legendary outfielder, Ty Cobb played 22 seasons of professional baseball—most of them with the Detroit Tigers. He finished his career with the Philadelphia Athletics, and is regarded as one of the most dynamic players ever in the sport of baseball. He was so good that he worked as both a player and manager for the Detroit Tigers from 1921 to 1926. Cobb’s career began in 1905, but the first trading card featuring him was not issued until 1911 by the General Baking Company. So rare is this card that it fetched $272,980 at auction.
5. Lou Gehrig 1933 Baseball Card – $274,950
Known as much for the disease that is named after him as for his baseball career, Lou Gehrig’s 1933 baseball card, issued by manufacturer Goudey, is one of the most sought after by die-hard baseball fans. A legend of baseball who won six World Series’ with the New York Yankees in the 1920s and 1930s, and a tragic figure who died too young from an incurable degenerative disease, this Lou Gehrig card is one of the fastest-appreciating cards in the marketplace today. The value of the card continues to escalate, and many collectors forecast that it could one day become the top selling baseball card of all time.
4. Mickey Mantle 1952 Baseball Card – $282,000
The trading card of yet another baseball legend, Mickey Mantle entered the pros in 1951, and his first rookie card was issued that year by company Bowman. However, the 1952 Topps baseball card was the first one of Mickey Mantle ever produced by that company, and it remains the most valuable to this day. What sets the Topps card above is the fact that several crates of the cards ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean following a freak accident. Given the rarity of the 1952 Topps card that features Mickey Mantle, it remains a top seller among serious collectors and has been sold for as much as $282,000.
3. Roberto Clemente Rookie Card – $432,690
Roberto Clemente was a right fielder and a homerun machine for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 until his untimely death in 1972. During his career, Clemente scored 3,000 hits and led the Pirates to a 1971 World Series title—which turned out to be the last full baseball season of his career. Roberto Clemente died tragically in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, while delivering aid supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. His untimely death at age 38, combined with a legendary career, has made Roberto Clemente baseball cards extremely valuable. In May 2012, a 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente rookie card sold at auction for $432,690—proving that Clemente is still remembered fondly to this day.
2. Babe Ruth 1914 Baseball Card – $517,000
Probably the biggest baseball legend ever, Babe Ruth is remembered as the original Yankee slugger. Nicknamed the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth was the original homerun king. However, he began his career as in the minors with the Baltimore Orioles, not the New York Yankee. Also, Babe Ruth started his illustrious career as a pitcher and was known more for his fastball than as a hitter. All of these facts are collected and visible in the 1914 baseball card issued by The Baltimore News. And for these reasons, the card is one of the most valuable and sought-after around—fetching $517,000 from a private collector.
1. Honus Wagner 1909-11 Baseball Card – $2.8 million
Considered the Holy Grail of sports cards, the Honus Wagner T206 tobacco card is the most valuable ever, selling at $2.8 million. Honus Wagner was a great baseball player and coach, and is viewed by historians as one of the true greats of the sport. His career as a player began in 1897 and ended 20 years later. In 1933, he would become the coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he would stay until his retirement in 1951. The legendary T206 baseball card, issued by the American Tobacco Company, is the most expensive sports card ever sold because of the fact that it is so rare and hard to find. As of 2013, only 57 of the cards are thought to be left in existence. Given its age, rarity and Honus Wagner’s status among baseball purists, it is doubtful that any card will surpass it in terms of price.