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Sports Cards: From Attics to Auctions

Updated: Apr 3

By James Li Apr, 3. 2024

The evolution of card collecting began in the early 1900s with the advent of baseball card production. Before it was a massive industry, sports cards were simply made to advertise the product that they came with. For example, baseball cards in the 1940’s came wrapped around tobacco and gum. This often caused the cards to be poorly preserved,  leading to them being highly valued today due to their rarity.

However, it was not until the 1950's when the sports card industry truly expanded. Sy Berger, a Topps executive Sy Berger, and graphic artist Woody Gelman worked together to design a set of cards meant to encourage the sale of Topps bubble gum. 

The Topps pack of gum came equipped with baseball cards, adorned with colorful face shots of players, facts and statistics about their playing careers, logos and autographs from the players. Their appeal caused the baseball card industry to explode, especially with kids. Children scrambled to obtain their favorite players, opening packs and trading with their friends in order to cultivate the best possible collection. C cards in mint condition are hard to come by from this era, thus increasing their value. the value of the cards. 

From the 1950’s to 1970’s, Topps was the dominant force in the card collecting industry,. bBut in the 1980’s, a monopoly lawsuit led to other companies such as Upper Deck, Fleer, Donruss and Score entering the scene. This time also saw an increase in the “collecting” hobby, as card collecting games such as Magic the Gathering and Pokemon exploded in popularity. In an attempt to corner the market, card collecting companies oversaturated the amount of cards in production., and Aas collectors began to lose interest, the price of cards from this time fell. 

“As a child, I participated in card collecting games, such as Pokemon cards and other sports cards. While this hobby has not stuck with me, I can understand the allure that draws collectors into the industry,.” Senior Sunay Patel said. 

Nowadays card collecting has evolved again, as many collectors buy the cards not for the face of the player on them, but for the value of the cards themselves. Collectors work on flipping cards—buying and selling them in order to gain the most money out of these transactions. The rarest cards can be sold for upwards of a million dollars, providing life-changing money to the seller. 

“While never collecting baseball cards myself, it is quite fascinating to see how something which seems like such a childlike hobby can evolve to become so popular and  net large profits for the individuals involved,.” Senior Ved Rao said.

Some of the most expensive baseball cards include the Goudey Gum Company Babe Ruth, Topps Mickey Mantle and American Tobacco Company Honus Wagner cards. The Babe Ruth card was released in 1933 as, part of a 240 card set, following his final World Series title. Ruth was the MLB’s first superstar, and this card was sold for $4,212,000 in 2021. The Mickey Mantle card was released in 1952. Mantle had a storied MLB career, albeit cut short by injuries that led to his decline, and his  card was sold for $5,200,000 in 2021. The most expensive baseball trading card of all time would be the Honus Wagner card, sold at $6,606,000 in August 2021. The production of this card was halted, due to either Wagner’s abhorrence of the sale of tobacco with his card, or because he wanted a larger cut from the company for capitalizing on his fame. 

With the inception of new technology in the 21st century, the card collecting industry continues to grow, as can be seen by the recent large sales mentioned above. Online sites such as eBay have allowed for markets to flourish, ushering in more economic opportunity. Another aspect is Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), which authenticates and grades collectible items such as autographs, memorabilia, trading card games, and of course, baseball cards. PSA provides assurance to buyers that the products that they are buying or investing in are legitimate, and encourages individuals to invest in products, as they are given a guarantee that they receive their money's worth. 

What started as a simple hobby for young children has evolved into a large national industry that has the ability to change lives and fortunes. As digitalization continues to grow, it remains unclear whether the industry will be positively or negatively impacted. One thing remains certain–, card collecting will always have its die-hard hobbyists willing to fork over millions for their favorite players. 


About the contributors

James Li

staff writer

James Li is a senior at Leland High School and is a Staff Writer for the Charger Account. When not working, he enjoys bowling, running, and playing video games.

Daniel Choi


Daniel Choi is a junior at Leland High School and an artist for The Charger Account. During his free time, he enjoys watching shows, taking walks, and sleeping.

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