Cleveland Cardboard Classics

A List of Must-Have Cards of the Rock and Roll Capital's Greatest Sports Stars

by Kevin Glew

The Cleveland sports curse has been reversed.

When LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers secured an NBA title on June 19, 2016, it ended a 52-year major professional sports championship drought for the city.

The dry spell had extended so long for the city's three major sports teams - Cavaliers (NBA), Browns (NFL), and Indians (MLB) - that Cleveland city officials reportedly had to phone their Pittsburgh counterparts to ask for advice on how to organize a championship parade.

Prior to the Cavs' triumph, the last Cleveland team to win a title was the Browns when they defeated the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship Game.

But it's their baseball team that has been the source of the most anguish. Though they have advanced to Game 7 in two World Series (1997, 2016), the Indians haven't won a title since 1948.

Some attribute this to "The Curse of Rocky Colavito," which was detailed in a 1994 book by Cleveland sportswriter Terry Pluto. The gist of the curse is that some believe the team has been doomed ever since the Indians traded slugger and fan favorite Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn on April 17, 1960.

"That was a very unpopular move at the time and it brought a lot of negative fan reaction," recalled Cleveland historian and card collector Kermit Pike.

But despite the torment the Indians, Browns, and the pre-LeBron Cavs have inflicted on fans, Cleveland teams have employed some of the greatest athletes in their respective sports. And with the National Sports Collectors Convention being held in Cleveland this year, it's a good time to examine some of the most desirable cards of sports legends that have starred in the city.

Here's a list of some of the best "Cleveland" sports cards (in chronological order by year):

1914 or 1915 Cracker Jack Shoeless Joe Jackson #103

Most, unfortunately, equate Joe Jackson with the "Black Sox Scandal," but he enjoyed his most productive major league seasons with the Cleveland Indians from 1910 to 1915. In parts of six campaigns with the Tribe, he hit a lofty .375 and batted .408 in 1911. He also topped the American League in hits in 1912 and 1913 and collected a league-leading 26 triples in 1912. On August 21, 1915, he was swapped to the Chicago White Sox where he continued to put up outstanding numbers before he was banned from Major League Baseball for accepting money to throw the 1919 World Series.

Jackson has earlier cards, but his 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack singles (#103) are his most coveted. Measuring 2-1/4" by 3", the 1914 card was available exclusively in Cracker Jack boxes, but the 1915 single could be pulled from boxes as well as from a factory set that was available through a mail-in offer. The fronts of both cards boast the same image of Jackson on a follow through of his swing against a red background. His name, team, and league are indicated across the bottom. The backs feature the card number, biographical information, and a company ad. The information on the back of the 1915 single is printed upside down and the text in the ad is different from that on the 1914 card.

Jackson

"I think a lot of collectors favor the 1914 set over the 1915 set, but either [Jackson] card has the same pose and they are just great looking cards," said Rob Dewolf, who resides in Westerville, Ohio, and has an extensive collection of vintage Indians cards. "You see a Cracker Jack card in high grade with that red background and it's just so striking."

Both cards were printed on relatively thin stock and inserted with the caramel snacks, so they were easily damaged and stained. The red background also sometimes bleeds into the white borders. The 1914 single is tougher to obtain in high grade. Of the 36 submitted, the sole PSA NM-MT 8 is the highest-graded example. 

Because the 1915 single could also be obtained through a mail-in offer as part of a set, they're often found in higher quality condition.

"You tend to be able to find the 1915 card without the caramel stains on it," said Joel Tschantz, who owns a large collection of PSA-graded cards of Cleveland sports stars. "It's a little bit easier to find but not by a lot. It still brings a pretty good penny. And to me, the 1915 card just looks better because you can usually find it without stains as it was probably part of a set that somebody ordered."

Of the 108, 1915 Jackson cards evaluated, there have been two PSA MINT 9s and 19 PSA 8s.

1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie #106

After beginning his major league career in Philadelphia, Lajoie signed with the Cleveland Bronchos in 1902. Over the next 13 seasons in Cleveland, he blossomed into a superstar and was so popular that they renamed the team the "Naps" in his honor. While with Cleveland, he captured four American League batting titles, topped the league in hits three times, and was recognized as one of the best defensive second basemen of his era. In all, he batted .339 and recorded 2,047 of his 3,243 big league hits with the Indians. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

Lajoie

Lajoie's 1933 Goudey card (#106) was printed after his playing career. Ambitious youngsters were stumped when they tried to find card #106 to complete their 240-card 1933 Goudey sets. Though Goudey never offered an explanation, it's widely believed that the company left this card out to trick collectors into buying more packs. After receiving complaints, Goudey directed collectors to write to the company if they were looking for the card, and in 1934, they produced a Lajoie card with the #106 on the back. This card showcased the 1934 Goudey front design but a 1933 back design, and it was mailed out to collectors who requested it. Unfortunately, when Goudey mailed this card, they often paper clipped it to a letter which damaged the card, but a good number of these have survived in nice condition.

"If you're an average collector and are wondering what Lajoie card you should have, I think the 1933 Goudey is what comes to people's minds," noted Dewolf. "When found, they're often in near-mint condition because of the way they were distributed."

There are nine PSA 9s, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5, and seven PSA 8s.

1938 Goudey Bob Feller #264, #288

Debuting with the Tribe in 1936 when he was only 17, "Rapid Robert" would develop into the greatest pitcher in Indians history. During his 18-year pitching tenure in Cleveland, the hard-throwing right-hander registered six 20-win seasons and led the American League in strikeouts seven times. Though he lost three years in his prime to military service, he still retired with 266 wins, a 3.25 ERA, and 279 complete games. Along the way, he hurled three no-hitters. For his efforts, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

FellerFeller

Generally considered Feller's rookie cards, his 1938 Goudey singles (#264, #288) showcase a photo of his head superimposed on a cartoon body. Both cards boast the same picture on the front, but the background on the second (#288) features words and etched cartoons. Both are often plagued by poor centering and toning. The PSA Population Report indicates that there are six PSA 8s of the first card (#264) and nine of the second (#288).

A PSA VG 3 of #264 sold for $510 on eBay in January 2018, while a same-grade example of #288 commanded $431 in a Love of the Game Auctions sale in March 2018.

1948 Leaf Satchel Paige #8

Negro Leagues great Satchel Paige wasn't given the opportunity to pitch in the major leagues until he was 42. Signed by Indians owner Bill Veeck in 1948, the ageless right-hander, who many rank as the greatest Negro Leagues pitcher, went 6-1 and posted a 2.48 ERA down the stretch to help the Tribe win the World Series. Debuting just over a year after Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League, Paige attracted more than 72,000 fans to his first home start on August 3, 1948. He would pitch one more season with the Indians in 1949 and record a 3.04 ERA in 31 appearances. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.

Paige's 1948 Leaf rookie (#8) is a short print and is one of the most difficult post-war star cards to track down.

Paige

Tschantz notes that 1948 Leaf cards are often badly centered and have poor registration.

"I have cards where the colors aren't aligned with the picture; for example, the color of a player's eyes might be slightly off to the side of where their actual eyes are [located on the card]," he said. "There are just so many things that can go wrong with any of those cards, and then the short prints on top of that are really difficult. Not to mention it's Satchel Paige's rookie - a rookie of an iconic player. All of those things just raise the degree of difficulty of that card."

The five PSA 8s represent the highest-graded examples. One PSA NM 7 fetched $84,000 in a Heritage Auctions sale in November 2017.

1948 Leaf Lou Boudreau #106

One of the best all-around shortstops in the majors in the 1940s, Boudreau was the face of the Indians for 13 seasons. A standout defender and productive hitter, who topped the American League in doubles three times, the heady infielder was named player/manager of the Tribe in 1942. The seven-time All-Star continued to excel in his new role, capturing an AL batting title in 1944 and piloting the Indians to a World Series title in his AL MVP Award-winning 1948 campaign. He finished his career with a .295 career batting average and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970.

"Maybe even more than Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau was the most revered guy from his era because he was a player/manager and he was also a Hall of Famer," said Tschantz. "For Cleveland fans from that era, that was really their guy."

Boudreau

Although he has earlier releases, his 1948 Leaf single (#106) is his most sought after. Included in the same series as the Paige, the Boudreau card boasts a head-and-shoulder image against a yellow background. This card is often plagued by poor registration, print spots in the yellow background, and bad centering.

Of the 352 submitted, there has been one PSA 9, one PSA 8.5, and 16 PSA 8s. One PSA 8 fetched $513 in a Memory Lane auction in January 2018.

1948 Leaf Larry Doby #138

Less than three months after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, Doby debuted with the Indians to become the first black player in American League history. In parts of 10 seasons with the Indians, the left-handed hitting outfielder was an All-Star seven times and batted .318 in the 1948 World Series. He also knocked in a career-high and American League-leading 126 runs for the Tribe's 1954 pennant-winning club. In all, in 13 big league seasons, he batted .283 with 253 home runs. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

Doby

"Larry Doby doesn't get the credit he deserves. He just came too soon after Jackie Robinson," said Tschantz. "He was the first black player in the American League and it was within that same year [that Robinson made history with the Dodgers], so very few people hold him in that same high esteem."

Doby's 1948 Leaf single (#138) is his most desirable rookie. Measuring 2-3/8" by 2-7/8", this card boasts a colorized photo of the trailblazer and is a short print. The Doby card, like many 1948 Leaf cards, is frequently hampered by poor registration and bad centering.

The six PSA 8s are the highest-graded specimens. One PSA 8 fetched $12,000 in a Heritage Auctions sale in February 2018.

1949 Bowman Early Wynn #110

This durable and intense right-hander began his big league career with the Washington Senators before being dealt to the Indians on December 14, 1948. In parts of 10 seasons in Cleveland, he had four, 20-win campaigns - including 23 victories in 36 starts for the 1954 pennant-winning squad. He also toed the rubber for the Chicago White Sox and finished his major league career with exactly 300 wins. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Wynn

Though Wynn had played parts of eight seasons with the Senators from 1939 to 1948, his 1949 Bowman single (#110) is generally deemed his rookie. Measuring 2-1/16" by 2-1/2", this card features a black-and-white photo of Wynn with color added to his cap and jersey. His cap is blue but blank, likely because he had just been dealt to the Indians. Like many cards from this set, it tends to suffer from poor registration and bad centering.

Of the 697 evaluated, the 10 PSA 9s are the top examples. One PSA 9 garnered $4,500 in a Robert Edward Auctions sale in October 2017.

1949 Bowman Bob Lemon #238

Pitching alongside Wynn in the Indians' rotation, Lemon was another of the Tribe's greatest hurlers. The Indians converted him from an outfielder/third baseman into a pitcher in 1946 and it proved to be one of the best decisions in franchise history. In one nine-season stretch from 1948 to 1956, Lemon registered 20 wins seven times, topped the American League in victories three times, and led the circuit in complete games five times. He spent his entire career with the Indians and finished with 207 wins and a 3.23 ERA. For his efforts, he was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Lemon

His rookie is in the same series as Wynn's and offers a head-and-shoulder image in which he appears to be smirking with a plug of tobacco in his left cheek. His card (#238) is regularly uncovered off-center. There are just three PSA 9s, two PSA 8.5s, and 27 PSA 8s. A PSA 8.5 garnered $2,400 in a Robert Edward Auctions sale in October 2017.

1950 Bowman Lou Groza #6

With his professional career extending from 1946 to 1967, Groza was an institution for the Browns in the most successful era in the team's history. From 1946 to 1959, he played on both sides of the ball, serving as an offensive tackle and a place kicker. Nicknamed "The Toe" for his distinctive kicking style, he topped the NFL in field goals six times and was selected to nine Pro Bowls. In all, he competed in 13 championship games, including four consecutive Browns' All-American Football Conference (AAFC) title contests from 1946 to 1949, and he was a place kicker on the Browns' last NFL title-winning squad. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.

Groza

Pike and Dewolf say Groza is probably talked about with more reverence in the Cleveland area today than legendary Browns quarterback Otto Graham (next on list).

"Groza lived locally here and the street that the Cleveland Browns' headquarters is on is called Lou Groza Boulevard. There's no Otto Graham Boulevard here in Cleveland. Plus, Groza was from Martins Ferry, Ohio, and went to Ohio State, so he had deeper connections [to the area], and I think he was a little bit more accessible," said Pike.

Measuring 2-1/16" by 2-1/2", Groza's Bowman rookie (#6), which pictures him in a kicking motion, is frequently hampered by poor centering. Of the 419 submitted, there have been two PSA 10s, five PSA 9s, and four PSA 8.5s. One PSA 9 sold for $3,495 on eBay in January 2018.

1950 Bowman Otto Graham #45

The most successful quarterback in Browns' history, Graham suited up for 10 seasons with the team from 1946 to 1955 and led the club to four AAFC titles and three NFL championships. A two-time NFL MVP, Graham was also named All-League in nine of his 10 professional campaigns. His defining performance came in the 1954 NFL Championship Game when he passed for three touchdowns and ran for three others to propel the Browns to a 56-10 romp over the Detroit Lions. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.

Graham

In Tschantz's opinion, "Graham is probably the greatest quarterback of all time," when you consider the number of championship games he played in and won throughout his career. "Besides Jim Brown," he adds, "I think Graham is the all-time Cleveland Brown."

Like Groza, Graham's rookie (#45) is also in the 1950 Bowman Football set. This card presents a fitting and memorable image of the legendary pivot poised to throw and is regularly hindered by poor centering and staining on its back. The centering issues are not surprising given that it appears to have been the last card on the right in the top row of the second print sheet, a position that generally leaves cards vulnerable to condition flaws such as miscuts.

There are nine PSA 9s, 13 PSA 8.5s, and 88 PSA 8s. One PSA 9 fetched $13,300 in a Heritage Auctions sale in August 2017.

1952 Bowman Large Paul Brown #14

After a successful collegiate coaching career at Ohio State, Paul Brown was hired to lead Cleveland's new professional AAFC franchise in 1945, and when he took over, the squad assumed his last name as their nickname (Browns). This trailblazing sideline boss implemented revolutionary game strategies and extensive scouting systems, and his Browns were a success from the get-go, winning four consecutive AAFC championships from 1946 to 1949.

When the club shifted to the NFL in 1950, they captured a championship in their first year. In fact, the Browns would advance to the NFL Championship Game in each of its first six NFL seasons and also emerge victorious in the 1954 and 1955 contests. In all, in his 17 seasons as head coach of the Browns, he posted a 158-48-8 record. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

Brown

"Paul Brown is certainly a football icon in Ohio," said Dewolf.

It wasn't until the 1952 Bowman Large and Small series that Brown made his mainstream cardboard debut. His Bowman Large single (#14) is his most sought after. This card measured 2-1/2" by 3-3/4" and was part of a 144-card series. This single is tough to find properly centered. Of the 241 submitted, there have been two PSA 9s, one PSA 8.5, and 20 PSA 8s.

1957 Topps Rocky Colavito #212

After socking 21 home runs in his rookie 1956 campaign, Colavito became a fan favorite and the centerpiece of the Indians' offense. He proceeded to sock 41 homers in 1958 and a league-leading 42 the following year. That same season he also became one of just 18 players to belt four home runs in a major league game. The All-Star outfielder twice finished in the top four in American League MVP voting with the Indians before his controversial trade to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn. After parts of six productive campaigns with the Tigers and Kansas City A's, he returned to the Indians in 1965 to belt 26 home runs and record an American League-leading 108 RBI. In all, Colavito smacked 374 home runs in his 14-season major league career.

"You have to have Rocky Colavito on this list because in the 1950s and the 1960s, he was the face of the Indians franchise," said Dewolf.

Colavito

Colavito's 1957 Topps rookie (#212) showcases him in a full-length throwing pose with his name as "Rocco" Colavito.

"If you're a Cleveland collector, you've got to have that card," said Tschantz. "He's not a Hall of Famer and it's not a very difficult card, but for the generation before mine, that was who everybody pointed to as their guy."

Colavito's rookie is often found poorly centered with little border on the right side. Of the 2,237 evaluated, there have been three PSA 10s and 38 PSA 9s. One PSA 10 sold for $7,387 in a Mile High Card Company auction in January 2016. 

1958 Topps Jim Brown #62

Arguably the greatest player in NFL history, Brown starred at Syracuse University before he was drafted by the Browns in the first round in 1957. The intimidating full back immediately made the jump to the professional ranks and rushed for 942 yards and earned league MVP honors in his first season. Brown would capture two more MVP awards (1958, 1965) and was a Pro Bowler in each of his nine seasons. He remains the only NFL running back to average more than 100 yards a game. The gridiron great is also one of a select few who transcended his sport to become a film star and, more importantly, a key member of the civil rights movement. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

"Back in the day, Jim Brown was just superman," said Pike, who owns the No. 2 Jim Brown Master Set on the PSA Set Registry. "In my mind, he revolutionized football and the attitudes of football players with his economic policies and philosophies and his political stands. He was really just a huge hero to me."

Brown

Brown's rookie, 1958 Topps (#62), is one of the most sought-after football cards of all time.

"It's just a great card. And not only is it his rookie, but the pose on it is excellent as well," said Dewolf. Additionally, "it's really tough to find centered," he says, so collectors looking for a higher grade may find that endeavor difficult.

Print spots and poor registration are two other flaws that are regularly found on this card.

Of the 3,186 submitted, the five PSA 9s are the highest-graded examples. One PSA 9 sold for a record-breaking $358,500 in a Heritage Auctions sale in November 2016.

1979 Topps Ozzie Newsome #308

Newsome was a standout tight end with the Browns from 1978 to 1990. During that tenure, he was selected to three Pro Bowls, was a First-Team All Pro in 1984, a four-time Second Team All-Pro, and earned a spot on the NFL's 1980s All-Decade Team. A true team leader and fan favorite, Newsome was also very active in the Cleveland community and was appointed to an executive role with the club after his playing career. When he was named general manager of the Baltimore Ravens in 2002, he became the first black general manager in NFL history. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

Newsome

The Newsome single (#308) is the toughest Hall of Famer rookie in the 1979 Topps Football set to find in top grade. A number of condition issues plague this card, including poor print quality, centering issues, and smudging.

Of the 1,155 submitted, there have been just two PSA 10s.

1991 Bowman Jim Thome #68

Thome clubbed 337 home runs in parts of 13 seasons with the Indians. During that tenure, the left-handed hitting slugger was also a three-time All-Star, a Silver Slugger Award winner, and was a key member of the 1995 and 1997 teams that advanced to the World Series. In 2002, he belted a career-high 52 home runs and topped the American League in slugging percentage (.677) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.122). After successful stretches with the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Minnesota Twins, he returned to the Indians in August 2011. In all, in 22 major league campaigns, he socked 612 home runs, which ranks eighth all-time. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018.

Thome

"If you're collecting Cleveland cards and you're spanning all generations of baseball, then you have to have a Jim Thome card," said Dewolf.

The 1991 Bowman set was the only mainstream 1991 issue to feature a Thome card (#68) in their regular series. So while this card is not expensive or rare, it's his most desirable rookie. Out of the 5,494 cards that have been graded by PSA to date, 2,522 of them are PSA 10s.

 2003 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Autograph Patch LeBron James #78 - #/99

"King James" is almost single-handedly responsible for ending the Cleveland sports curse. In leading the Cavaliers to a title in 2016, James now owns three championship rings and three Finals MVP Awards to go with his four regular season MVP Awards. He has also been part of two gold medal-winning U.S. teams at the Olympics, and in 2012, he became the second player (Michael Jordan was the first) to win an NBA MVP, NBA title, Finals MVP, and a gold medal in the same year. A 14-time All-Star, James has also been named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team five times.

James

His 2003 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Autograph Patch single (#78) is the centerpiece of a 78-card issue that's one of the most important hoops sets ever produced. Limited to 99 copies, the LeBron single offers an action shot of James in a white Cavs uniform at the top above a jersey patch and autograph. This card is printed on a thick premium stock that makes it difficult to preserve in flawless form. It rarely surfaces for sale because many are in private collections.

Of the six graded, there's one PSA 9 and five PSA 8s. To our knowledge, a PSA-graded example has not been sold at auction in recent years, but collectors can now expect to pay into six digits for a high-grade example.

For more information on trading cards featuring these Cleveland stars and more, please visit https://www.psacard.com/facts/.


Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of June 2018.