How to Collect Baseball Cards: A Guide for Beginners

© 2002
by Ted D. Smith

It is a rare baseball fan indeed who has never purchased a pack of baseball cards. But not every fan becomes a serious collector. If you have never started a collection but think you would like to get started in this fascinating hobby enjoyed by millions, this guide is written for you. (Whether you're a youngster or an adult.)

Baseball cards have been around almost as long as professional baseball itself. In the beginning, baseball cards were packaged as a "bonus" with other products such as tobacco, candy or gum in order to boost sales of those products. This was true of all the early cards issued, from 1869 through the 1930s.Home Run Baker Basball card circa 1912 The Library of Congress has a nice online display of older baseball cards that is worth viewing. During World War II the production of baseball cards came to a virtual halt due to a paper shortage during the war. Production was resumed in 1948 by Bowman Gum Company, beginning the modern era of card production.

Bowman produced cards through 1955, being joined by Topps in 1951. For many years, Topps was the only company to produce cards, and there was only one set produced by a given company in a year. In the 1980s there was a revival of interest in the hobby, as companies such as Fleer and Donruss got back into the business, and many adults joined in a hobby that had previously been thought of as a "kid thing". In 1989, a new company, Upper Deck, started operations, touching off the era of "premium" quality cards. Currently there are four companies licensed to produce cards of Major League players: Topps, Fleer, Donruss/Playoff, and Upper Deck. Each company produces a large number of different sets each year, ranging from basic to vintage to "super-premium". There is a card for just about any taste.

When most people begin collecting baseball cards, they simply go to their local store and pick up a pack of cards of whatever brand and set interests them. Eventually, however, a collector will begin to focus on particular goals for his or her collection. And with so many cards being produced these days, a collector has a LOT of options for focusing a collection, as well as many options as to where to buy cards.

Where to Buy Cards

Collectors can purchase cards in a variety of places:

  • The first place to look would be a local hobby shop. Hobby shops usually sell a variety of trading cards, including cards of other sports and non-sports cards as well. The owners of card shops are usually quite knowledgeable about collecting baseball cards, and can be good sources of advice as to how to build you collection. Hobby dealers usually have a good selection of older cards as well as the current releases. Also, hobby shops often have access to certain sets and cards that are not available through regular retail stores.
  • Baseball cards are also sold at some general retailers, such as department stores, pharmacies and grocers. These retailers sell packs from retail boxes that are specially marketed through general retailers, and are sometimes less expensive than those available in card shops. But they often have fewer cards per pack and are less likely to have desirable inserts and other special cards. Still, buying at general retail outlets can be an inexpensive way to build a collection.
  • An increasingly popular way to buy cards is through the Internet. Collectors can participate in auctions at online sites such as eBay. You may be buying from a dealer, or from another collector. There are some good deals to be had in online auctions if you bid carefully, but the downside is that since you don't know the person you are dealing with, you must be careful to check that they are a reliable seller before sending money. In addition to auctions, many card dealers have set up their own sites on the Internet where you can go to look for cards. These can be good places to look when you're trying to find specific cards. The cost of shipping adds greatly to the cost of buying online, so that must be taken into account when figuring whether you're really getting a "deal" or not. Still the selection of cards available online is much greater than at any local shop, so it can be an excellent place to look for that hard-to-find item.
  • One of the most enjoyable ways to build a collection is through trading with other collectors. If you have friends who also collect, it can be a lot of fun to get together and trade. If you don't have a group of friends who share your hobby, inquire at your local card shop to see if they have any kind of club or group that they allow to meet and trade cards. Failing that, if you start to trade on the Internet, you may be able to make friends with other collectors who share your interests and are willing to exchange cards on a regular basis.(KIDS: Never give out personal information to or arrange to meet personally with anyone you have met online without checking with your parents first.) One trading site that I highly recommend is Sportscardfun, which has an active group of good traders and a point system so you have some indication that the person you're dealing with has traded fairly in the past. There is a small membership fee, but it is well worth it to gain access to a great group of traders.

Types of Cards to Collect

Let's take a look at the variety of cards available to today's hobbyists. As mentioned, there are four companies currently licensed to make Major League baseball cards. Each of these companies comes out with a variety of different sets throughout the year each year. Each company usually has a regular set of cards that comes out early in the season (or even well before the season), and includes a large number of cards for many different players. Most companies also have a premium set that they produce every year, that carry a specific brand name such as Fleer Ultra and Topps Stadium Club. These usually cost a bit more and often feature high-quality action photography. Each company also produces a number of other sets each year. These can be low-cost sets such as Upper Deck Collectors Choice, premium or super-premium sets such as SpX (Upper Deck) or Topps Gold Label, "vintage" sets featuring cards that look like older cards such as Topps Heritage, or commemorative sets featuring old-time players like Fleer Greats of the Game. From time to time, sets may be issued which are actually reprints of an earlier set.

Within each set, collectors can find a variety of different kinds of cards. Each set released may feature some or all of the following types of cards:

  • Base Set: These are the basic cards that make up the set. The number of base cards can range from 500 or more in regular and some premium sets to fewer than 100 in the more expensive sets. In some instances, the base set may contain certain cards that are short printed, making them more of a challenge to collect.
  • Subsets: These are cards that are included as part of the base set, but which have a special characteristics. Examples of subsets would be the "Diamond Kings" in older Donruss sets, or the "League Leader" cards that Topps often includes in its basic set. Subsets are usually included in packs at the same rate as other cards in the basic set.
  • Parallel cards: Cards which have the same basic design as a base card, but have some variation in a design element that distinguishes it. For example, a company may issue a parallel set that features a different color border than the regular base card.
  • Inserts: Smaller sets of cards that are seeded into packs at scarcer levels than the regular card sets. Insert sets have a distinct design and usually number between 10-20 cards. Both parallels and inserts are inserted into packs at a specified ratio. A 1:24 ratio, for example, means that on average one of every 24 packs will contain a card from that insert set.
  • Memorabilia cards: A special type of insert card that is either autographed by the player or contains a piece of equipment used by the player in a Major League game, such as a piece of a bat, jersey or cap. These are usually the rarest cards, and are often highly prized by collectors.
  • Serially numbered cards: Parallels, inserts, memorabilia cards, and even subsets may be serially numbered, meaning that only a limited number of the cards were produced and each card is numbered sequentially. The serial number of the card is stamped onto the card itself. For example, some sets have all the rookie cards serially numbered, so that the first card is 1 of 500, the second is 2 of 500, etc.

In addition, cards sometimes have certain characteristics that make them more or less valuable to collectors. The first time a player appears in a major set, the card is considered to be his rookie card, which is usually the most valuable regular-issue card for that player. Short prints have been mentioned before; these are also often more valuable than basic cards. Errors are cards that were printed with some error on them. These may or may not be more valuable than a regular card, depending on whether (and how soon) the error was corrected and collector interest in the particular mistake. Of course, cards of star players are more valuable than cards of average players. Cards that are not of star or semi-star players and which do not have some other characteristic that sets them apart are called commons. Commons are the lowest-priced cards in a given set, and are of interest mainly to collectors who are collecting that specific player or are trying to build a complete set.

Building a Collection

With so many cards being produced each year, it is impossible to collect them all, so collectors eventually choose to focus on certain types of cards or themes in building their collection. Some collectors only collect cards of a particular favorite player or players. Some collect only cards of their favorite team. Some focus only on older or "vintage" baseball cards, which are harder to find and more expensive, but which are more certain to retain or increase their value, or focus on the more valuable memorabilia cards. Others enjoy the challenge of set-building, trying to collect all the cards of a particular set. Many collectors combine several of these approaches in building their collection. For example, I have certain players that I collect, but also like to collect complete sets, particularly certain insert sets. Whatever your interest and budget, there is a way to incorporate card collecting into your enjoyment of baseball.

Maintaining Your Collection

Once you've got a good-sized collection, you need to have a way to keep it organized and accessible. It does you no good to have all of, say, Alex Rodriguez' cards from the 2001 base sets if they are just thrown into a box with 1,000 other cards and you have no way of finding them short of browsing through the cards one-by-one. There are many tools you can use to protect, organize and and increase your enjoyment of your collection.

The first order of business is to protect your investment. Years ago, most cards were purchased by kids who took no particular effort to keep the cards from being damaged. This is why it is often so hard to find cards from the 50s and 60s in good condition. These days, most collectors (including young ones) recognize that their collection will be more enjoyable and stay more valuable if they take good care of it. The most basic protector for a card is a sleeve, a thin plastic pouch into which the card can be dropped and which protects the card from scratching and having the gloss rubbed off. Sleeves are quite inexpensive, so its OK to use them liberally. I generally put any card worth over $1.00 into a sleeve. Some collectors will put any card that's not a common into a sleeve. A top-loader is a somewhat more rigid plastic cover that provides some protection against bending and creasing. They are more expensive than sleeves, but still economical enough to use liberally. A screw-down or snap-case is a hard plastic casing that protects a card from most types of damage, but are still clear and suitable for display. As the name implies, small screws are used to hold the two pieces together in screw-downs. These are relatively expensive, so are reserved for only the most valuable cards.

You will also want to know how much your cards are worth. For this you need a price guide of some sort. The most popular guides are produced by Beckett. The annual Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide is the best source for prices of cards up through two years ago. It is reasonably priced (at $19.95 suggested retail) and is a must-have for the serious collector. Supplement that with a monthly guide, such as Beckett's Baseball Card Monthly or Sports Cards (from Krause Publications), and you should have all the pricing you will need. Online price guides are also available for a monthly fee.

Finally, you need a way to store and organize your cards. A shoe box will do, if you're on a budget, but there are nice boxes designed specifically for sports cards that can be obtained at your local hobby shop for very reasonable prices. These are your best option for storing the bulk of your collection. You can get boxes that are just the right size for top-loaders, or for unprotected and sleeve-enclosed cards. Boxes come in various sizes, but be careful about getting ones that are too big: they can be VERY heavy when full of cards. You can also put cards into special protector sheets (which usually have nine cards per page) and place them into three-ring binders. This is a more expensive option than using boxes, but makes the cards more accessible and is a great option for enjoying and showing off those "special" parts of your collection: a player collection, or that complete set you worked so hard to build. Once you have your cards physically organized, you may want to use your computer to keep track of them. There are several inexpensive shareware card tracking programs that do this. You can also use a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel®, or just keep your list as a simple text file.


Selling Your Cards

After you've purchased enough cards, you will eventually have some that don't fit into your collection. Then you may be interested in selling some of your collection. When selling or trading cards, the same places that you buy from will be the places where you are most likely to find a buyer for your unwanted cards. (With the exception of general retailers, who are not interested in accepting cards back once you have broken open a pack.) If you know other collectors locally, they should be your first choice for trading or selling. Local hobby shops are often in the market for cards to add to their inventory. You should be aware, though, that even though hobby shop owners are often collectors themselves, they are in business to make money- they depend on their shops as a source of income. Therefore, don't expect them to be willing to buy each and every card you want to sell, and don't expect them to be able to offer "book value", or even anything close to it, for your cards. They must be able to "mark up" the card by a significant amount in order to cover the overhead of their business and still turn a profit. So don't be insulted when a dealer doesn't want your extra cards or offers much less than the price you saw in the book.

As with buying cards, going online can be a great way to sell cards as well. Again, auction sites offer you a chance to sell to either a fellow collector or to a dealer, or you can contact a dealer through their online site. And don't forget the various trading boards that are available for you to trade cards for others you would rather have. The Internet vastly increases the market of potential buyers, so it will enhance your chances of selling your cards, but don't expect to always get full book value for them. Decide in advance what is the minimum you will accept for your card(s) and stick to that as a minimum bid or asking price, but be realistic in your expectations. Dealers online have the same need to buy low and sell high as your local hobby shop.

Finally... Enjoy!

Baseball card collecting is a great hobby for baseball fans. Collections can be a source of pride for people who have lots of resources to buy rare and valuable cards, but people on a tight budget can also afford to enjoy it by focusing on less-expensive sets and cards. It can be a great pastime for retirees, great fun for kids, and a really good shared activity for families or groups of friends. In short, baseball card collecting can be fun for anyone, so don't wait to get started.

If you have a question about card collecting, feel free to ask us! We're always glad to talk about one of our favorite hobbies!