In the following slideshow, I have compiled a list of what many experts consider to be the top 20 most important cards in the hobby.
You will notice that the trading card list is heavily weighted towards vintage material. The list wasn’t weighted that way simply because I like vintage-era trading cards more or dislike modern-era cards in any way; it was weighted in that manner because I felt it was an accurate reflection of how hobbyists feel about the importance of each card.
This list, which originally appeared in my book, Collecting Sports Legends: The Ultimate Hobby Guide, is a mere sampling of the greatest of the many great cards available to the collector.
This is the most recognizable basketball card and the most important modern card from any sport in the entire hobby. It’s hard to believe that this NBA legend was actually cut from his high school team as a sophomore, but it’s true. Just a few years later, Michael Jordan would make the game-winning basket in the NCAA Finals for North Carolina. The legend of “Air” Jordan was just beginning.
Jordan won six NBA titles, eight scoring titles, five regular-season MVPs, six Finals MVPs, three All-Star Game MVPs and one Defensive Player of the Year award. In fact, Jordan was named to the All-Defensive First Team nine times, a record. This 14-time All-Star and former NBA Rookie of the Year (1985) scored 32,292 points and averaged 30.1 points per game in his career. While Jordan did make a brief comeback as a member of the Washington Wizards, he will always be remembered as the man who led the Chicago Bulls to glory.
This card, the most heavily counterfeited card in the hobby, is susceptible to chipping and edge wear due to the multi-colored borders.
This is the only recognized rookie card featuring The Say Hey Kid. Willie Mays was, perhaps, the greatest all-around player the game has ever seen. He could match Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron in power, field and throw like Roberto Clemente and run like Lou Brock. In 1951, Mays started off in a horrific slump, but broke out of it with a home run against fellow Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Mays finished the year with a .274 batting average, 20 home runs and 68 RBI, giving fans a glimpse of what was to come.
After being named NL Rookie of the Year, Mays would reach great heights as he became the first player to reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. Mays also made 24 All-Star Game appearances, a record that still stands today. Mays, a two-time NL MVP, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.
This card, along with the Mantle rookie, is one of two major keys to the set and is arguably tougher than The Mick’s rookie in high-grade.
This is a classic card of basketball’s first marquee player. George Mikan is more responsible than any player of his generation for making basketball a nationally recognized sport. On the face of this card, Mikan is pictured storming towards the basket with relentless fury. At 6’10”, 245 pounds, Mikan was the game’s first dominant big man, paving the way for legends like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. He led his team, the Minneapolis Lakers, to five championships in six years. It was the first time that the word “Dynasty” was used to describe a professional basketball team. Mikan averaged 23.1 points per game during his career, leading the league on three separate occasions. He retired as basketball’s career-scoring leader. Mikan was named to the first four NBA All-Star teams from 1950 to 1953.
After his playing days, Mikan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959 and came back to the game as the ABA’s first commissioner in 1967. This card measures approximately 21/16” by 2½” and, like most 1948 Bowmans, is often found off-center with toning along the edges, making it tough to locate in high-grade. The cards are also found hand-cut as some uncut sheets made their way into the hobby years ago.
This is the most valuable football card in the hobby. Bronko Nagurski, owner of one of the truly classic names in sports, was one of the charter members of the NFL Hall of Fame in 1963 and a force to be reckoned with on the field. Nagurski didn’t use deception or trickery to avoid defenders, he simply ran over them. Steve Owen, of the New York Giants, once said of Bronko, "The only way to stop Nagurski is to shoot him before he leaves the dressing room." Ernie Nevers, a Hall of Famer himself added, "Tackling Bronko is like tackling a freight train going downhill."
The image on this card shows Nagurski charging like a bull during a time when players wore very little padding. It’s not often that you feel sorry for the guy doing the tackling but, in this case, bringing down Nagurski must have been a dangerous job. As a member of the Chicago Bears (1930-1937), he helped lead his team to several division titles and two NFL championships. He also excelled as a defensive lineman during an era where players were accustomed to playing both sides of the ball. In 1993, the Football Writers Association of America created the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is awarded to the best defensive player in college football. As part of the tough high-number run in a terribly difficult set, this card remains the symbol of gridiron cardboard.
This is the only recognized rookie card of The Hammer. Even though his career home run mark of 755 has now been eclipsed by Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron remains a symbol of class, consistency and grace. In 1954, Aaron’s debut season, he hit a mere 13 home runs in 122 games. From that point on, Aaron hit no less than 20 homers in a season until 1975! His tremendous hand and wrist strength enabled him to turn on inside fastballs with incredible quickness. With all of his home runs, Aaron never struck out 100 times in a season and was an outstanding all-around player. During his career, he won three Gold Gloves, hit .305, amassed 3,771 hits, 2,297 RBI, scored 2,174 runs, stole 240 bases and won the NL MVP in 1957. Aaron made 24 All-Star appearances during his amazing career and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. This card is one of the true classics in the hobby. While not nearly as tough as some of the other vintage cards on the list, finding well-centered, high-end copies can be a challenge. This card is the heart and soul of the 1954 Topps set and the image is unforgettable.
This is the only recognized rookie card of the legendary Pittsburgh Pirate. Roberto Clemente did not post numbers like Hank Aaron or Willie Mays but he was clearly one of the best outfielders of his generation. His fiery approach on the field and his generous ways off the field made him a special individual. This true five-tool player finished his career with a .317 batting average, 240 home runs and exactly 3,000 hits. He would have finished with more but, during one of his charitable missions to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, the plane Clemente was on crashed before arrival. Before his career was over, Clemente would make 12 All-Star appearances and win 12 consecutive Gold Gloves (1961-1972). This card, along with the Killebrew and Koufax rookies in the same set, is a key and tougher to find in high-grade than either of them. Finding well-centered copies appears to be one of the biggest challenges for the advanced collector.
This is not only the key to the set but it is the most important regional card ever produced during an era that produced many of the hobby’s top regional issues. While it is certainly one of the toughest cards on the entire list and a true condition rarity, this issue is also very eye-appealing. These cards were inserted into packages of hot dogs, making it virtually impossible to locate high-end examples. In fact, most copies are found with very poor centering. The issue’s extremely narrow borders leave very little room for error. The few high-end copies that have been found are believed to have escaped from the factory, prior to insertion into the packages of greasy franks, avoiding the likely damage to follow. This card measures approximately 25/8" by 3¾". Ted Williams, a master with the bat and an exceptional military pilot, is featured on many of the most important cards in the hobby but, of all the great cards that picture this American hero, this is the most desirable.
This is the centerpiece to one of the most difficult sets ever manufactured. The T205 set is one of the more eye-appealing issues of the pre-war era, but the set offers a challenge even the most advanced collectors have often failed to take. The gold borders framing these gorgeous cards are extremely susceptible to chipping, revealing wear with the slightest touch. For those who seek high-grade material, the opportunities are few and far between. The cards can vary slightly in size but most examples measure somewhere in the 17/16" by 25/8" size range. In 1911, Ty Cobb had one of his best seasons. He set career highs in batting (.420), hits (248), doubles (47), triples (24), RBI (127), runs (147) and slugging average (.621). Cobb led the league in each of those categories as well as in stolen bases with 83. This is a fitting tribute ... an extremely tough card for an extremely tough competitor.
This card is considered a true classic in the hobby and, while not his rookie, it is Joe DiMaggio’s most popular card. The image is striking, showing Joltin’ Joe finishing that great swing. In 1941, DiMaggio’s swing never looked better as he established a new mark by hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. That same year, DiMaggio would also go on to win the AL MVP after finishing with a .357 batting average, 30 home runs and a league-leading 125 RBI, denying that sweet swinging lefty from Boston the award. It would be one of three MVP trophies for the Yankee legend. While DiMaggio’s hitting streak may be his most memorable moment and a showing of ultimate consistency, his entire career mirrored this accomplishment. In 13 seasons with the Yankees, he made 13 All-Star teams. DiMaggio drove in 100 or more runs in each of his seasons with a minimum of 500 at bats. In the two seasons that DiMaggio failed to reach 100 RBI, he drove in 95 and 97 respectively. He was as dependable as they come. This card, the key to the 1941 Play Ball set, is a symbolic treasure.
This is, arguably, the toughest post-war card in the hobby and it features one of the greatest stars from the Negro Leagues. Eventually, Satchel Paige would be given the chance to pitch in the Major Leagues but it was well after his prime. It would have been awesome to watch a prime Paige work his magic against the best in the league. In 1948, at the age of 42, Paige started seven games, winning six of them and sporting an ERA of 2.48. Just imagine what he could have done at the age of 32! Paige was so popular that more than 72,000 fans came out to see him in his first home start in Cleveland after winning his first game on the road in Philadelphia. This two-time All-Star and former Negro League star was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. This particular card, one of several scarce short prints in a terribly difficult set, suffers from poor print quality and focus. High-end copies are seldom found and, as of the date of this writing, no Leaf Paige has ever reached PSA Mint 9 status or better.
These two specimens are the most popular Gehrig cards in the hobby, with #37 considered a sportscard classic. In 1934, Gehrig hit .363 with 49 home runs and 165 RBI, a tremendous but typical season for the legendary slugger. He even slugged .706! Despite winning the elusive Triple Crown that same season, Gehrig only managed to finish fifth in the MVP voting. These two Gehrig cards provide the foundation to this extraordinary set. The #37 card, a hobby favorite, shows a smiling Gehrig against a yellow background. It is one of the most attractive cards in the hobby and more difficult than the #61 card in the same set. That card, showing Gehrig with his bat from the waist up, is also very eye-appealing. On the reverse of the #37 card, is a quote from Gehrig that reads, “I love the game of baseball and hope to be in there batting them out for many years to come, fortune has been kind to me …” Just a few years later, Gehrig would be stricken with ALS. In a showing of class and dignity, Gehrig would give a speech that will never be forgotten on July 4, 1939. A tearful but grateful Gehrig uttered, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Those words echo in eternity.
In most cases, inclusion in the HOF is a key when discussing the best of the best in card collecting. Here is one of the few exceptions. Shoeless Joe was banned from the game after the 1919 Black Sox scandal. It was alleged that Joe Jackson helped “throw” the World Series and accepted $5,000 to do so. He hit .375 in the series, driving in six runs and played flawless defense but, in the end, it didn’t matter. The ban stuck. Nevertheless, this man is treated as a Hall of Famer and the controversy has done nothing but help bring more attention to his collectibles. This particular card is, arguably, his most popular and attractive issue. Most high-end examples are of the 1915 variety since there was a redemption program available to the public. In 1914, no such program existed which meant there was only one way to acquire the cards, right from the box of sticky Cracker Jacks, caramel stains and all. Jackson, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, is pictured in full swing – a swing that helped him achieve a .356 career batting average.
This is the only recognized rookie card of The Mick. Mickey Mantle is, quite simply, the most widely collected figure in the hobby. He was the hero of choice during the 1950s and 1960s, inheriting centerfield from another Yankee legend – Joe DiMaggio. This humble country boy moved to the big city where he became the most celebrated player of his generation. In 1951, Mantle made his debut for the Yankees as a part-time player. He managed just 13 homers but many of those were of the tape measure variety, something Mantle was known for throughout his career. This 16-time All-Star was robbed of his blazing speed after suffering a few terrible injuries along the way, but he would go on to become the most powerful slugger in the game. While his 1952 Topps card receives a tremendous amount of fanfare, some collectors forget that this is his only true rookie. This incredibly important card is subject to numerous condition obstacles. As with most high-numbered cards in the set, this card often suffers from print lines, wax stains along the reverse and poor centering.
This legendary quartet represents the most important component to the ultra-popular 1933 Goudey set and it features the most destructive hitter who ever played the game. The Sultan of Swat is pictured on four different cards – #s 53, 144, 149 and 181. The #53 (or Yellow Ruth) is considered to be the toughest, closely followed by the #149 (or Red Ruth) that portrays the slugger in an identical pose. While the #144 (or Full Body Ruth) was double-printed and is more plentiful overall, it is actually harder to find in high-grade than the #181 (or Green Ruth). In fact, there is a subtle difference between the two versions of the double-printed #144 card, with one version exhibiting much better focus and clarity than the other. With the exception of the Napoleon Lajoie rarity, a card that wasn’t part of the original set, these four cards represent the core of this elite Goudey production. While this issue is not Babe Ruth’s most valuable or scarce, it is arguably his most important and it captures the mighty slugger near the tail end of his career.
This card is, quite simply, the most majestic entry on the entire list. At 5¾” by 8” in size, this amazing card is not only the biggest one on the list, it is also visually stunning. These enormous cards were actually distributed through a redemption program. Collectors could send in coupons in exchange for these cardboard titans. It took 10 Turkey Red Cigarette coupons or 25 Old Mill or Fez Cigarette coupons to claim one card. The set included many great ballplayers from the era such as Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Cy Young, but no card in the set is as desirable as the one featuring the most intense player in the game – Ty Cobb. The image, which is strikingly similar to the T206 Bat on Shoulder Cobb, is extremely vibrant. Cobb is shown glaring at the camera with bat in hand, a look that put fear into many pitchers during the early part of the 20th Century. The backs of these giants come two different ways, one with a tobacco advertisement and one with a checklist. Currently, there appears to be no difference in value between the two back variations.
This card, much like the T206 Honus Wagner, is one of the great rarities and it features one of the best players from the first half of the 20th Century. Napoleon Lajoie was a three-time batting champion, finishing with 3,242 total hits and a .338 average. He was also considered the best defensive second baseman of the era. The card, which has always been one of the true symbols of the hobby, was not included in the original 1933 Goudey set. Instead, in 1934, collectors had to acquire the card direct from the manufacturer in order to complete their set. The missing card was sent through the mail to the collectors who contacted the Goudey company. Many of the examples were mailed with a paper clip affixed to it, leaving impressions on the surface of the card. As a result, you will encounter some examples that exhibit “spider” wrinkles along the front or back of the card. That said, and considering the overall rarity of the card, there are some high-grade examples in the marketplace. This is best explained by the fact that the card was never subject to insertion into packs, avoiding some of the traditional handling.
This is the second most desirable card in the famed T206 set and the only pose of the HOF pitcher. To this day, there is no clear explanation for the rarity of this card, a card that is nearly as tough as the Honus Wagner from the same set. The most prevalent theory is that the card suffered from a poor printing plate, resulting in many of the cards being destroyed since they could not pass quality control. In addition, many of the known examples are found with poor centering from top to bottom. The centering can be so severe that it will cut into the text along the bottom. Eddie Plank, a master of off-speed pitches, was one of the greatest left-handed pitchers in the game. Plank amassed 327 career wins and he remained the all-time leader in wins for a left-hander until Warren Spahn eclipsed the mark about 50 years later in the early 1960’s. Plank won 20 or more games on eight separate occasions and he still owns the all-time record for most shutouts by a lefty with 69. What may be most impressive is the fact that Plank entered the league at the age of 26, a late start for someone with such great overall numbers. Plank was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946.
This is the rookie card of the greatest player who ever lived. It is one of his most difficult cards overall, making it one of the most important cards on this list. It pictures a young Ruth, firing the ball as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox before they traded him to the rival New York Yankees. Ruth was an outstanding pitcher. He compiled a 94-46 record (.671 winning percentage) with 107 complete games, 17 shutouts and a career ERA of 2.28. In the World Series, he was even more impressive. Ruth went 3-0 with an ERA under 1.00! After three full seasons on the mound, the Red Sox began to use Ruth as a part-time outfielder in 1918. The rest is history. After they sent Ruth to New York in 1920, little did they know that it would result in a World Series drought that lasted until 2004. This card, the key to the 200-card M101-5 set, is often found off-center and features a variety of advertising backs, although most existing copies exhibit blank backs.
This is, perhaps, the most recognizable sportscard in the entire hobby and the anchor of the most important post-war set in existence. Strangely enough, it is not Mickey Mantle’s official rookie card, but there is no question that it is the slugger’s most important card. Despite a couple of major finds of 1952 Topps cards during the last 25 years, this card has remained difficult to obtain in NM-MT or better condition as many of those “find” examples exhibit poor centering. There are actually two different versions of this double-printed card. The line surrounding the Yankee logo is a solid black on one version, while the other version has a line that is only partially filled. There is also a slight variance in color and focus between the two. Despite the minor difference in appearance, there is no difference in market value. Most of the high-grade examples found today were a product of either the large 1952 Topps find from the New England area during the 1980s or a few smaller finds from Canada over the last two decades. After slugging .530 in 1952, Mantle was well on his way to stardom. This would be the first of 16 All-Star selections for the Yankee Slugger, a man who made the #7 famous.
This is the Holy Grail of all trading cards. This card, which resides in one of the most popular sets of all time, features one of baseball’s greatest players and it remains the symbol of trading card collecting. This card is also one of the great rarities, though it is not the scarcest in the hobby. That said, this card has taken on a life of its own and no card has ever sold for anywhere close to the sale of the finest example known, the famous PSA NM-MT 8. Once owned by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall,that copy sold for an astonishing $2,800,000 in 2007, the only seven-figure price ever paid for a trading card as of this writing.
The reason behind the rarity has been debated for years. Was it a mere contract dispute? Was it a result of a stand taken by Wagner, not wanting to promote tobacco use to children since the cards were packed with cigarettes? No one knows for sure, but documentation from the era has surfaced supporting the theory that Wagner may have had his younger fans in mind. It is ironic since Wagner was an avid user of tobacco. He is actually pictured on a 1948 Leaf card holding an enormous wad of chew. No matter what theory you believe, the card was pulled from production early, leaving approximately 50 or so known copies in the hobby today. Keep in mind that most of the surviving Wagners have Sweet Caporal backs. Only a few exhibit Piedmont backs, which includes the finest example of them all.
Check out our list of Top 15 Sports Tickets for another great slideshow from PSA.