For many new collectors, the decision on what to collect is driven by one qualification: familiarity. With stunning images of familiar players in each pack, modern cards can quickly turn a fan into a collector. Conversely, vintage cards feature players that have been retired for decades who collectors may or may not have ever watched play. Vintage collectors lament about the seemingly overwhelming number of cards currently produced. The most popular modern stars may have hundreds of different cards produced each year across dozens of sets. For new collectors, vintage’s one saving grace may be the smaller range of cards to collect, as star players from vintage era have at most only a handful of cards each year due to a much smaller quantity of different sets being produced. No matter how you collect, however, it is likely you will want to have both eras represented in some form in your collection. If you’re looking to diversify your collection across different eras of hobby history, it is easy to learn about and expand your collecting horizons to include both modern and vintage cards.
How is Vintage defined?
‘Vintage cards’ is truly a catch-all term for all varieties of cards produced before 1980. Vintage cards are further divided into two segments, Pre-War and Post-War. There is no universally accepted turning point where vintage ends, but the consensus among collectors is that ‘vintage’ does not extend past the mid-1980s at the latest. The vintage label could be applied to everything from 1887 Allen & Ginter tobacco cards to nearly the first 30 years of Topps sets. What these decades of cards all have in common is their simplicity. There are no chromium cards, no relic cards, and no parallels. Sometimes, that simplicity is mistaken as ‘plainness’ by new collectors.
Pre-War cards, being the oldest of cards, can be particularly daunting to new collectors. Many modern collectors are used to cards being packed with information. While the backs of many pre-war cards feature full statistical information and more facts such as birthday and height, they are lacking many of the key elements of modern cards. Aspect of trading cards we consider essential today such as player name, position, team, and the rookie logo on the front may be absent. Many early cards and the most renowned cigarette cards, have minimal information. Take, for example, the famous (and monstrous) T206 set. The front of T206 cards shows a player’s last name alongside the team’s location and league. Flipping the card over reveals no further information. The entire reverse of T206 cards are simply advertisements for the cigarette brand.
Research is definitely a prerequisite before jumping headfirst into building any type of vintage card collection. Time spent gaining knowledge of the set, player, and prices can go a long way when the decision to purchase a card is finally made. There is one more major aspect to consider that is not as prevalent as a concern compared to modern cards, and that is condition. Older vintage cards were produced before the secondary market for collectibles had truly taken shape, and were not always handled with the same care as modern cards. The vintage cards available on today’s secondary market are rarely pack fresh and will require careful inspection to evaluate their condition. To truly get the most out of vintage cards you must familiarize yourself to some degree with card grades and their parameters. You can skip having to judge raw cards’ condition for yourself if you stick to buying cards already evaluated and encapsulated by third party grading companies, although it still helps to know what condition each number on the grading scale signifies.
Another peculiarity of vintage cards is their sizing. Tobacco cards are the size of minis you might find in modern Topps Allen & Ginter releases, with the latter intended to replicate the former as a tribute to the hobby’s history. Vintage Goudey cards are almost square. In some cases, the cards are not even cardboard at all. Silks and B18 Felt Blankets are largely grouped with vintage cards and can often be found in a vintage card dealer’s display case. There are even 19th century postcards and trade cards depicting baseball players which can also be considered as vintage cards.
Topps, Upper Deck, and Panini are known today for producing cards, but trading cards were originally manufactured to accompany different products before spawning an industry of their own. Tobacco cards were included in packs of tobacco to keep packs stiff and help the cigarettes maintain their shape. The card’s popularity among children was soon recognized by another industry and cards were included with a number of food items, including crackerjacks and caramel candy. Cards would be forever ingrained in popular culture with a different candy: gum. The first major gum set to include cards was the Boston-based Goudey during the 1930s. Following Goudey’s lead, Philadelphia’s Gum Inc. issued their baseball card set ‘Play Ball.’ Gum Inc. was renamed to Bowman after World War II, and in 1951 Topps Chewing Gum would produce their first baseball card set.
In the Post-War era, company names recognizable to collectors today emerged. Topps and Bowman battled each other by putting increasing amounts of priority towards their baseball card sets. The two companies battled for player rights among themselves for decades, at times monopolizing the industry. Topps and Bowman also created football sets. Bowman created basketball cards only in 1948. Topps then created a basketball set for one year as well in 1957 before returning to the sport in 1961 and again stopping production in 1980. Hockey cards started being produced on a large scale by Parkhurst in 1951, Topps followed in 1954. Both continued hockey card production relatively thoroughly for a number of years, but hockey is recognized as a much smaller market, comparatively.
For the majority of this period, each company produced one set. Most players would have only one card unless they were also denoted on as a League Leader. For decades, this is how cards continued to be produced, without many changes. Each year, one set featuring one card was produced by one company. Topps long had a monopoly on the ability to produce baseball cards. The resolution of a six-year legal battle culminated in 1980 with the dissipation of Topps’ monopoly on baseball cards. The end of the monopoly is often used by collectors to mark the end of the vintage era.
Entering the Modern Era
Donruss and Fleer would begin producing baseball cards alongside Topps in 1981. The 1980s saw a steady rise in the popularity of sports cards before collecting popularity exploded by the end of the decade. Two different monthly magazines devoted to tracking the ever-changing values of cards were started in 1984. Sports cards were clearly beginning to enter the public consciousness in a way they never had before.
Upper Deck began producing sports cards in 1989 and immediately hit a home run. Card #1 in Upper Deck’s inaugural release, depicting then-rookie Ken Griffey Jr., is one of the most iconic cards of all-time. 1989 also saw the re-introduction of Bowman-branded cards, now being produced by Topps and focusing on younger players. As more sports card companies emerged in the 1990s, manufacturers looked to separate themselves from new competition by creating a number of sets beyond their main releases. These non-flagship sets were produced with quality in mind, and their price-point reflected that.
By the end of the 1990s, it was clear that card collecting had firmly entered a new era. High-priced packs could be opened to reveal shiny cards or autographs. Collectors opened packs hoping to find a serial-numbered card. The onslaught of cards being produced by an ever-increasing amount of manufacturers was inevitably leading to overproduction. The 1994 MLB Players strike had an adverse effect on baseball’s popularity and was an even greater detriment to collecting. While the home run chases and big bats of the Steroid Era would bring back some viewers, card collecting had stagnated overall.
With the exception of a notable handful of key rookie cards, most cards from the mid-80 to 90s are not particularly valued in the hobby due to overproduction. This time period is often referred to as the “Junk Wax Era” within the hobby. It is likely someone you know still has a large box in a closet or basement still filled with sealed packs and boxes from this time waiting to cash-in. Unless there are any notable basketball sets, unfortunately nearly all base cards from this era are not worth the ink that was used to print them.
Topps would soon have their monopoly reinstated and a large number of other card producers disappeared. Topps continued to produce a growing-number of sets under both the Topps and Bowman brand names. Upper Deck stopped producing baseball cards in 2010 after losing their license to use MLB logos and team names. In 2011, Panini decided to produce baseball cards to rival Topps. Despite being barred from being able to use official MLB team names or logos on their cards, Panini has rolled out more baseball card products of their own to compete with Topps over the past decade, including baseball versions of Prizm and Optic.
For nearly all of collecting history, the most valuable cards have been the oldest cards, most notably the famed T206 Honus Wagner. Along with other important examples such as the T206 Eddie Plank and 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, vintage cards had a firm hold on the high-end card market. Over-production and preservation of cards released since the 1980s made it very difficult to even sniff the price tag of vintage cards. As the modern hobby switched its focus to high-end and purposefully short-printed cards, this tiny supply forces prices to spike sharply. The high-end modern sports card market is especially dominated by rookie cards, so much so that rising rookie prices have in turn driven up prices for top players’ second-year cards.
The most valuable modern cards today are only the most limited. The current most valuable modern card, a 2009 Mike Trout Bowman Draft Picks Chrome Prospects Superfractor is a 1 of 1 parallel, unique with no other equivalent. Trout’s basketball counterpart is the LeBron James 2003-04 Exquisite Collection Rookie Parallel featuring both a jersey patch piece and an autograph is serial-number to only 23.
Grading is an increasingly important factor in today’s market for both vintage and modern cards. While it is easy to see why vintage cards are good candidates to be graded to both confirm their authenticity and preserve their condition for the future, a large number of modern cards are also sent to grading. The benefit of grading a modern card is that it offers heavy-duty protection to the card and provides confidence and a fair assessment to both the owner and any potential trading partners. Even modern cards carefully pulled from fresh packs are far from a guarantee to receive a Gem Mint grade.
There are certain aspects of a card’s conditions which influence a third-party grade that the card’s owner has no control over. Aspects such as the card’s centering or any corner or edge damage coming straight out of the pack are examples of this. Collectors can avoid any condition risks by buying cards that have already been third-party graded. Like it or not, for any ultra high-end card today to even have a chance at a record-setting price, it would need to be graded by a major third-party grading company. Many collectors can point out flaws in any company’s grading process, but graded cards are here to stay and will likely only become more prevalent in the hobby.
State of the Hobby
2020 was an incredible year for sports cards and showcased many new trends within the hobby. Baseball has for many decades been the belle of the ball, but basketball cards sold at record-pace to the many new collectors entering the hobby last year. Soccer cards finally got more of the attention they deserve, with their popularity within the hobby slowly catching up to the sport’s worldwide dominance. Outside of the sports world, Pokémon cards were championed by a number of celebrities.
The hobby is as diverse as it has ever been, both in terms of the cards being produced and in the population of collectors themselves. With everyone enjoying the hobby in their own way, it seems that there could be sustainable growth for this industry. There are many reasons to be hopeful for the future and confident we are not repeating the bubble of 30 years ago.
COMC looks forward to being a part of the hobby’s bright future with you.
About the Author:
Matthew is a COMC Customer Service team member and lifelong baseball card collector. In addition to collecting cards, he enjoys writing about their history and the current market as well as Flipping on COMC. His personal collection boasts cards of his hometown Boston Red Sox and vintage Boston Braves.