Collecting History – How Trading Cards Capture The Eras They Were Printed

By Anonymous COMC User

The best sets don’t just look cool, they completely capture their era. When you look at a 1985 Donruss baseball card, it’s like watching the original Ghostbusters– you feel like you’re back in the 1980s. You see cutting-edge 80s graphics that look dated today, 80s fashion and style, and best of all, the sublime 80s mixture of coolness and cheesiness.
Don’t take my word for it, check out the glorious masterpiece that is 1985 Donruss #651 Two for the Title.

Is this a baseball card or an 80s movie poster? It looks like the cover of the greatest VHS tape of all time. That’s how you capture an era; two iconic 80s stars, two phenomenal 80s mustaches, and total 80s graphics. The cheesy action movie title only makes it better! Plus, Winfield even has a giant lip of tobacco in his mouth. Sadly, like so many great things from the 80s, I bet you can’t get away with that today.

That’s the magic of these old cards, they capture history. Older trading cards show you the style of the time, the attitudes of the time, the humor of the time, the technology of the time, and our heroes of the time.

If you look at any basketball cards from the 1970s you’ll see long hair and afros. For a real treat though, check out the 1971-72 Topps Basketball cards. The colors and graffiti text beautifully capture the style of the time. It all ties together perfectly with 1971-72 Topps Basketball #130 Earl Monroe

First off, Earl looks resplendent. Perfectly cropped goatee and mini afro. He’s ready to hit the disco, and so is this card. Flip it over and what do you see? Another excellent relic of yesteryear that is the old sports card trivia question:
What is the nickname of Earl Monroe? Answer: Earl the Pearl

Sadly, NBA players don’t have awesome nicknames like that anymore. The times keep changing. The Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington DC, eventually changed their name, and replaced their awesome 70s jerseys with a cheesy Space Jam-looking jersey.

Such is life.
The only constant is change.

At least we can take a break from our sprint towards the future by stopping for a moment and appreciating vintage trading cards that remind us of how it used to be. If you really want to go back to the good old days, check out the 1958 Topps baseball cards. I love most every set of Topps baseball cards from the 1950s, except for the 1957 set (boring!), but for the purpose of this exercise, I’m going with the 1958 set.
This set introduces Sport Magazine ’58 All-Star Selection, which is a classic case of showing off graphics that were cutting-edge at the time but now seem dated. For what it’s worth, I still think that the 58 all-stars look awesome! I defy you to look at 1958 Topps #487 Mickey Mantle All-Star and tell me otherwise.

This has such a classic 1950s Americana vibe. I even enjoy the name, Sport Magazine, which was apparently the Sports Illustrated of the mid-40s and 50s before actual Sports Illustrated took over the market. Best of all the actual cards look even nicer than the all-star cards. Want to see a real beauty? Check out 1958 Topps #30 Hank Aaron:

First off, the colors are gorgeous, and I love the old Milwaukee Braves logo. By the way, why did they ever change that? Regardless, my favorite part of this set is that when you flip them over, they’re exploding with 1950s nostalgia.

You can’t find any better, punchier 1950s copy than, “Hank was the bat star of the ’57 series.” And, you can’t beat these graphics. Do you think baseball cards today can show a pot-bellied slob fan raising a beer and saying “Mein Hank?” Of course not!

Future sets may duplicate the delightful card-number-inside-of-a-smiley-face baseball wearing a sideways hat and there have been plenty of remakes that copied the 1958 Topps animation style. However, while you can copy their style, you’ll never be able to relive those glory days. That’s why these sets that capture the essence of an era are so special.

The COMC App Is Here!

COMC is excited to bring users the long-awaited COMC App! Enjoy all the benefits of COMC in the palm of your hand. Download now from the iOS App Store and Google Play Store!

COMC is giving away $1,500 at this years National Sports Collectors Convention! If you’re visiting the National, download the COMC App and visit us at Booth #325 to enter for a chance to win. Learn more below!

One App, 30 Million Trading Cards

Access all the benefits of COMC from anywhere! Use the new COMC app to buy, sell and manage your inventory on the go.

Download today in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store (Click Below)

“Note: If you have trouble signing in or using, the COMC App, please head over to the COMC website and reset your password.”

New Features!

We are excited to offer mobile users more ways to find your favorites! Enjoy app-exclusive features such as Recent Searches and Saved Searches! Recent searches will automatically appear on your search page. Save a specific search by utilizing the Heart icon then access it easily from your Saved search tab!

Check out your Recently Viewed cards directly on the App homepage! Quickly and easily browse cards that you have recently viewed with this dedicated section on our app.

Improved offer interface! Incoming and outgoing offers are clearly displayed and are easily monitored from our Offers page. Send offers and navigate deals!

Offer Notifications! Stay updated with all your incoming offers and respond instantly through the COMC App!

Third-Party Grading!

COMC is pleased to partner with some of the hobby’s premier third-party grading services to allow for grading submissions through our platform. Click to submit cards to any of our third-party grading partners, and our expert team will provide white-glove service as we prepare and submit the card to your desired grading service.

Inventory Manager!

Control your inventory from our centralized Inventory Manager page. Update the pricing of a card instantly, send to Auction or submit a card in your account to third-party grading from this page. Review all cards in your account and check the list price of your items against other copies for sale.

Win $100 in COMC Store Credit!

Do you want to win $100 in COMC Store Credit?! If you’re attending this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention don’t forget to stop by the COMC booth Wednesday through Sunday, and show us your downloaded COMC App! Show proof of download to a COMC staff member at Booth #325 and you could win! 3 random winners per day will win $100 in COMC Store Credit at the National Sports Collectors Convention.

One grand prize winner will also win this 2005-06 Ultimate Collection LeBron James #’d 304/750 graded a PSA 10 Gem Mint. All entries from Wednesday to Saturday are eligible to win this card! The winner will have the card directly transferred to their COMC account.

We hope you are as excited as we are about this latest evolution of the COMC Marketplace!

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PSA Grading Now Available on COMC!

COMC is thrilled to introduce our new partnership with PSA, the largest and most trusted third-party authentication and grading company in the world! With over 30 million raw cards available through our marketplace, COMC is expanding upon our streamlined grading experience for you to Buy, Sell, and Grade your Sports, Marvel, and TCG cards.

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We’re excited for our collectors to get started with PSA! The COMC Grading Team looks forward to providing an outstanding service to our customers and add more graded cards to your collection and the COMC Marketplace. PSA is a premier grading service with a leading track record in both grading quantity and quality of items graded! The PSA brand brings value, security and respected grading standards to your cards and the hobby overall.

PSA is the world’s largest trading card, autograph and memorabilia authentication and grading service with over 75 million collectibles certified since 1991. Since the post-pandemic hobby boom, PSA has graded approximately one million items per month since the start of 2022.

Charizard PSA 10

PSA may be best known for its sports card grading; however, they have also graded cards in over 12,000 different Non-Sport sets plus cards from an additional 6,000+ TCG sets. No matter your focus, PSA can provide your cherished cards with an additional layer of security and peace of mind.

PSA’s set registry provides collectors a chance to compete against each other, attempting to complete high-grade yearly sets or player collections. Each collection is different, collectors may chronicle their own collection and build a personal set registry. For example, the Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie Year Issues Set Registry is made up of 39 different cards from 1989. Including this 1989 Topps Traded #41T Rookie Card.

Ken Griffey Jr. Topps Traded
Jalen Hurts Select Prizm

We are confident COMC’s partnership with PSA will elevate the COMC experience and your collection! From the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner and 2019 Prizm Zion Williamson to the 1998 Illustrator Pikachu and 2020 Charizard cards. Sport, non-sport and TCG collectors have placed their faith in PSA for decades.

Upon arrival at PSA, all items are authenticated by their team. Cards are then graded using their standard 10-point grading scale and encapsulated in PSA’s sonically sealed, tamper-evident holder. As stated on PSA’s website, “The PSA holder features specially-formulated plastic and an innovative design that creates a much stronger weld. The result is a holder that is more difficult to chip, holds up better to drops, and more readily reveals tampering.” 

Pricing starts at $24.00 per card. For more information regarding service levels and pricing see the PSA Grading on COMC Information Page.

Please note that all items located in our Canadian office will require an additional 7 days of processing time for grading services.

We hope you share in our excitement as we expand our COMC’s features and item options! For more information regarding our grading services, please see our FAQ page.

Learn how to submit your cards for grading today by visiting our Tutorial Page

Click here to watch an instructional video on how to submit cards using our Direct to Grading service.

For other questions or general information, please visit our Support page, or contact our friendly Customer Service team by emailing or clicking the red Support button on the bottom-right corner of any page.

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The Undeniable Choice in Group Grading!

COMC is now your one-stop shop for Group Grading with our new Direct to Grading submission service! The streamlined Direct to Grading option will allow your cards to be submitted for third-party grading more quickly and features a hands-off ingestion process, meaning the cards will not be touched by the COMC team. This prioritized service level features our fastest turnaround time yet, with your cards being processed in just 1-week! We are very proud to offer this new submission level for fast and simple grading with CGC and all future grading companies! With the addition of Direct to Grading, COMC is now the obvious choice to submit, grade, & sell your cards!

The complete grading experience! Our expert team will provide white-glove care throughout the grading process. We offer unbeatable convenience, avoid the hassle of third-party submissions minimums and paperwork. COMC provides each submitted card with their own before and after high-resolution scans in both their raw and graded state, visible side by side.

Once your card returns from grading, all the benefits of the COMC marketplace will be available. With a few clicks, list for sale, submit to Auction, include it into your next shipment request or simply keep it stored in your account!

We’re thrilled for our collectors to get started—which you can do today by starting your submission in our Submission Wizard!

Cards submitted at our Direct to Grading service level:

  • Must be sent in penny sleeves and card savers (for standard-sized cards)
  • Toploaders (for thick cards over 130pt).
  • Manufacturer uncirculated cards with a factory seal will be submitted untouched and NOT opened

Properly submitted cards will be provided to our third-party grading partner untouched by the COMC Team. There are no minimum submission requirements to use this service, create your submission now!

Our fastest service level! The Direct to Grading service will populate your submitted cards into your COMC account in just 1 week! Once populated, you will be able to select your desired third-party grading company and grading level. Standard grading rates and estimated timeframes apply.

Take 50% off your Direct to Grading submission at The National! Don’t forget to take advantage of this great service at all our upcoming shows! COMC will be accepting Direct to Grading submissions at the upcoming Dallas Cards Show July 13th – 16th and at The National Sports Collectors Convention July 26th – 30th. For everyone attending The National Sports Collectors Convention you will receive 50% off your on-site Direct to Grading submission!

We hope you are as excited as we are about this new and seamless addition to COMC’s processing services! For more information regarding our grading services or general grading questions, please see our FAQ page.

For other questions or general information, please visit our Support page, or contact our friendly Customer Service team by emailing or clicking the red Support button on the bottom-right corner of any page.

Follow us on social media @checkoutmycards and the official COMC Blog for the latest updates!

Vintage vs Modern Cards

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.

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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.

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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.

Post-War Vintage

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.

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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.

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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.

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Today’s Cards

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.