Swing for the Fences: The Best Baseball Cards to Buy in 2023

Swing for the Fences: The Best Baseball Cards to Buy in 2023

Topps is the #1 brand of MLB baseball cards, and these packs and players might just be home run investments.

Swing for the Fences: The Best Baseball Cards to Buy in 2023
Priscilla Thomas

Updated Jan 30, 2023

Darry Port

Updated Jan 30, 2023

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Sports Cards

Sports Cards

Balanced Investing

Balanced Investing

Collectibles

Collectibles

“Can I borrow a smoke?”

Baseball cards were originally used to promote cigarette packs but quickly became promotional material for magazines, department stores, and anyone else willing to answer the call of "your ad here." Who knew that slapping the face of your favorite baseball player on the back of a business card would work so well?

Over time, fans started collecting their favorites until it became such a popular hobby that a whole industry was built up around it. Today, collecting these little pieces of cardboard has become a billion-dollar industry, with top cards like the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle fetching  $12.6 million.

Even during the off-season, baseball card collectors everywhere are itching to rip open those packs and discover a rookie card gem that could lead to a seven-figure payday.

In fact, most MLB stars made their first appearances on Bowman cards. And these very Bowman cards often end up being their most valuable rookie cards.

But if you’re new to collecting baseball cards, then the sheer amount of brands and cards available might be confusing. Donruss, Upper Deck, Topps, Bowman, Panini, Fleer, the options seem endless. Here’s the TL;DR on baseball card brands and the best baseball cards to buy right now.

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What’s the best baseball card brand?

The two biggest companies in the sports card industry are Panini and Topps. Upper Deck and Fleer are smaller players, while Donruss is owned by Panini and Bowman by Topps. The Big Two each have monopolies in different sports due to their exclusive contracts with leagues or players' associations.

Panini is the largest sports card brand in the world right now, with a monopoly on basketball, football, and (to a lesser extent) soccer trading cards. Topps, on the other hand, used to be the leading sports card producer until other players started entering the market. These days Topps only has a monopoly on baseball cards through their exclusive licensing agreement with the MLB. In practice, this means that only Topps can use team names and logos on their cards.

Bowman is one of the best Topps packs, featuring prospects and rookies rather than veterans. In fact, most MLB stars made their first appearances on Bowman cards. And these very Bowman cards often end up being their most valuable rookie cards. So if you’re looking to snatch up a top prospect before they make it big, check out Bowman and its sub-brands like Bowman Chrome, Bowman Draft Picks and Prospects, and Bowman Originals.

Do note that even though Topps dominates baseball, that doesn't mean that other companies can’t make baseball cards. The only thing is, their cards are unlicensed. And as amazing as they may be, most collectors avoid them for that simple reason.

But this current state of affairs won’t hold for long. This year, the sports merchandise company Fanatics acquired the exclusive rights to produce sports cards from the NBA, NFL, and MLB. That is a triple blow to the current incumbents, with the Fanatics deals going into effect as soon as the current Topps and Panini deals expire (between 2023 and 2026).

So, while this article only features Topps cards, heads up that in a couple of years, you’ll be buying Fanatics boxes.

How do you value baseball cards?

Baseball card prices can range widely, from a couple of bucks to nearly $10 million. These are the most important criteria to figure out what the best baseball cards are worth. 

Player 

It almost goes without saying, but baseball cards featuring famous players fetch higher prices than unknowns. But fame itself is merely a byproduct of achievements. To that end, one of the best predictors of the most valuable baseball cards is whether a player has been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This is why Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner cards are among the most valuable in the world.

Outside of that top honor, collectors also hunt for players who have won awards like the Most Valuable Player (MVP), Gold Glove, Cy Young, and Silver Slugger. Finally, keep in mind that a rookie card can often end up being a player’s most valuable card, especially if that player made their mark on baseball history.  So if by some miracle you got your hands on a future Hall of Famer’s rookie card, then you’re set.

Rarity

This is simple economics: the lower a baseball card’s supply, the higher its value (assuming there’s demand). A variety of factors affect the rarity of a baseball card, including the year of manufacture, versions available, and whether it had a short print run or very few copies have survived over time.

Vintage pre and post-war cards like the 1909-1911 T206 White Border Ty Cobb Back are in high demand precisely because they are so hard to find. Additionally, the backstories behind certain cards can also make them iconic in their own right. Take, for example, the 1869 Peck & Snyder Cincinnati Red Stockings, which is considered by many to be the first true baseball card.

Chart tracking T206 Ty Cobb baseball card via rallyrd.com.

Grade

A card’s value is in large part determined by its condition, perhaps more so than its rarity. That’s not always the case, with a half-torn (but rare) Honus Wagner card still selling for $475,960 at auction a few months ago. But in general, the rating of a card will give you a good sense of its value. The Professional Sports Authenticator grading scale is the most universally accepted metric for measuring a trading card's condition.

You can mail your trading cards to companies like Beckett and PSA to authenticate and grade trading them from 1 to 10. A higher grade equals a more valuable card, with the corners, edges, print quality, and other factors being taken into consideration.

The next big thing

Does Adley Rutschman deserve the hype?

Best baseball cards to buy right now

Whoever thinks that collecting baseball cards is just a kid’s hobby is sorely mistaken. On the contrary, rare baseball cards in decent condition can command 1000x premiums (and above) at live auctions and online marketplaces (e.g., eBay). Let’s take a look at some of the best vintage and modern baseball cards below.

Trending: 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks & Prospects Mike Trout Auto Refractor

  • Valuation: $11K–$58K
  • Highest sales price: $105,780 (2021)
  • Supply: 74 
  • Dimensions: 2 ½ in. by 3 ¾ in.

2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Autograph-Refractor.

Mike Trout is one of the best players on the field today. The nine-time Silver Slugger won two MVP Awards and an American League Rookie of the Year award before the age of 25. He was named AL Rookie of the Year in 2012 by unanimous vote. His accomplishments and awards lead many to regard him as a future Hall of Famer, which makes his rookie cards very attractive to collectors.

Some of his cards are already hitting seven-figure sales. His 2009 Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects #BDPP89 Superfractor sold for $3.9 million in 2020. The sale smashed the record for most valuable baseball card at the time, beating the then-highest sale of a Honus Wagner T206 White Border card at $3.1 million. The Wagner soon reclaimed its title, but the 2009 Bowman Draft Trout remains a big deal in the baseball card world. Considering its previous sale was for $400,000 in 2018, the astronomical 875% increase over just two years has only bolstered the value of his other trading cards.

While the Bowman Superfractor is a one-of-a-kind card, the Draft Picks & Prospects set includes a variety of other Refractor parallels with larger print runs. Trout's 2009 Bowman Chrome #BDPP89 Autograph-Refractor card is numbered out of 500, giving collectors plenty more chances to pull one from a pack or snag one at auction. But a larger supply isn't hurting the value of this card—a Gem Mint 10 version sold in August 2022 for $30,000 on eBay. Not bad for a newbie. 

The Mona Lisa: 1909-11 T206 White Border Honus Wagner

  • Valuation: $1.75 million–$9 million
  • Highest sales price: $7.25 million (2022)
  • Supply: 50-75
  • Dimensions: 1 7/16 in. by 2 ⅝ in.

 T206 White Border Honus Wagner baseball card.

Until recently, the T206 White Border Honus Wagner was unchallenged as the most valuable sports card in the world. This throwback to the tobacco era of baseball cards held and reclaimed the record several times, with a 2022 high sale of $7.25 million. Even after the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle started competing for the top spot, the Wagner has remained one of the most desirable and iconic cards in the hobby.

No one knows exactly why the Wagner has held such allure and sway in the baseball card hobby. But it has a few good things going for it, like the card having a limited run and The Flying Dutchman being among the first inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The card is also surrounded by mythology and exciting backstories that have fueled the fervor of collectors for over a century. There's the story that the card's limited print run is because Wagner banned the  American Tobacco Company from using his image because he didn’t want children to have to buy cigarette packs to get his card.

Some historians believe it was actually because he wanted better compensation than ATC was offering, but the anti-smoking stance charmed the baseball card world. Even back in the day, the card was the most expensive of the 524 cards in the ATC set—the most expensive baseball card in the world by 1933, when it was listed at $50 ($1,125 in 2023 dollars) in the American Card Catalog.

There are also the legends attached to individual cards, like the Gretzky Wagner, the Jumbo Wagner, and the Nuns' Wagner. The Gretzky Wagner was briefly owned by Wayne Gretzky but still bears the name, even though it's gone on to have an exciting story all its own. The card was rated a 10 by PSA—the highest quality example of a T206 White Border card in existence. But shortly after Gretzky bought the card, rumors about its authenticity resurfaced.

The card turned out to be altered, with trimmed edges to make it appear better preserved than it actually was, and the vendor responsible was investigated by the FBI before serving 20 months in federal prison for fraud.

Chart tracking T206 White Border Honus Wagner price via rallyrd.com.


The Nuns' Wagner, on the other hand, is a legitimate collectible with a quieter legacy. The original was purchased in 1936 by a collector in New Jersey, who held the card in his private collection until he passed away in 2010. His will left the card to the convent his sister had belonged to, The School Sisters of Notre Dame, and they auctioned the card for $220,000. Six years later, the card sold again—this time for $3.12 million.

The most sought-after card in baseball history obviously inspires hefty price tags, but don't let that scare you. The Nuns' Wagner is available on Rally, a fractionalized collectibles investing platform. They let you buy shares in this Honus T206 and hundreds of other collectibles.

Top prospect: 2019 Bowman Chrome Draft Adley Rutschman Auto 1st RC

  • Valuation: $950–$5K
  • Highest sales price: $1,225
  • Supply: N/A
  • Dimensions: 2 ½ in. by 3 ¾ in.

2019 Bowman Chrome Draft Adley Rutschman Auto 1st RC.

Adley Rutschman has been on the radar of baseball fans and card collectors since he was in high school. He was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft, but he chose to attend Oregon State University and play college baseball for the Beavers instead. He was awarded College World Series Most Outstanding Player and Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year during his time there.

When the 2019 draft came, Rutschman was first overall pick by the Baltimore Orioles, and he signed with them for $8.1 million—the highest signing bonus in MLB draft history at the time.

After being named the top pick in the 2019 Draft, Adley Rutschman went on to play 123 games with 6 teams, hitting 0.285/0.397/0.502 with 23 home runs. Not to mention, he was selected to play in the All-Star Futures Game. The dumpster fire of 2020 interrupted his minor league career, but he got back on track and moved up to the major leagues in May 2022.

He spent his rookie year smashing records, from Cal Ripken Jr.'s Baltimore rookie doubles record to Javy Lopez's record for most doubles hit by a catcher for the Orioles. His defensive runs saved tally placed him 2nd to New York Yankees' Jose Trevino for the season. While Julio Rodriguez took AL Rookie of the Year for 2022, Rutschman was a highly favored contender that many sports analysts saw as the top choice.

Rutschman's cards are still highly affordable, while collectors hang back to see if he continues to live up to the hype. The Bowman Chrome Draft Rutschman rookie card has all the makings of a baseball diamond, with the signature Bowman quality and chromatic finish that make these cards stand out. The image of Rutschman at bat is an ideal action shot for the young catcher, and his autograph boosts the value of this card.

Sales on eBay in 2022 ranged from $455 to $1,008, so this card may be an attainable investment piece that increases in value down the line.

The Holy Grail: 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle

  • Valuation: $25K–$4.25M
  • Highest sales price: $12.6 million (2022)
  • Supply: 1,877
  • Dimensions: 2 ½ in. by 3 ½ in.

The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311.
Source: psacard.com

If the T206 Wagner is the Mona Lisa of the baseball card hobby, the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is the Holy Grail. It's not only one of the most iconic cards in the baseball collecting world, but it also has a devoted following and an epic backstory that has kept it on collectors' wishlists for decades.

The Mick was a beloved member of the New York Yankees in his time, winning MVP three times during his career and capturing the hearts of fans and spectators during baseball's Golden Age. Fast forward 30 years, and the U.S. was in the throes of a nostalgic boom and at the outset of one of greatest periods for investors in the history of the stock market. People who had grown up adoring Mickey Mantle now had the disposable income to commemorate their youth with collectibles, like the picture perfect 1952 Topps #311.

It was more than nostalgia that made the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle the most sought after card in the hobby. The 1952 series was the first set of cards that Topps Chewing Gum printed. The kid-friendly rebrand of trading cards had Topps put together a bold new design that improved on older baseball card styles. The stylish redesign has become a classic, but the bold colors and illustrated close-ups were a hit even then.

Unfortunately, the rollout of the new Topps cards was a little too ambitious. Each year's cards were released in four stages, with the most popular players issued last. The final series had the shortest print runs, and it started with #311—the Mick. But the series had to compete with football cards coming out right before its release, which left hundreds of boxes of stock sitting in the Topps warehouse.

 After years of trying to move the leftover cards, and even offering 10-for-a-penny deals, the inventory was literally dumped off the coast of New Jersey. Only a handful of boxes survived the liquidation, making this card as rare as it is legendary. No wonder one of them set the record for most valuable sports card with a $12.6 million sale in 2022. 

The Great Bambino: 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53

  • Valuation: $8K–$4.2M
  • Highest sales price: $4,212,000 (2021)
  • Supply: 1,147
  • Dimensions: 2 ⅜ in. by 2 ⅞ in.

A 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53 card, AKA the Yellow Ruth.
Source: psacard.com

Babe Ruth was considered one of the greatest players in the game, and his records are still pursued by athletes today. The original GOAT inspired generations of fans and ballplayers, making his cards must-have pieces for anyone serious about collecting baseball cards.

Babe Ruth's rookie cards have sold for millions, despite how difficult it is to find high-quality versions of them. They're also much less visually appealing than the 1933 Goudey cards. The rookie card features a grainy black-and-white image of Ruth awkwardly tossing a ball toward the camera.

The Goudeys, on the other hand, are full-color illustrations on bright backgrounds that capture the Sultan of Swat's one-of-a-kind expressions. There are four Babe Ruth cards in the 1933 Goudey set, but #53—the Yellow Ruth—is the most sought-after card of the quartet. It's considered the hardest to find, though all are highly valued.

In July 2021, a Yellow Ruth sold at auction for $4.2 million. The card was part of a collection with multiple highly prized collectibles, including a Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle that brought in $2.2 million. There were two other Ruth cards in the collection—a Goudey #181, also called the Green Ruth for its green backdrop, that sold for $1.27 million, and a Sporting News Babe Ruth rookie card that went for $1.4 million. 

With staggering prices like this, investing in a Babe Ruth card may seem intimidating. Luckily, you can buy fractional shares in a 1933 Goudey #144—the Full Body Ruth—on Collectable. For just a few dollars, you can invest in the card and earn money if it grows in value. You'll also earn a portion of the profits if the asset is sold.

Chart tracking the value of a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #144 on Collectable.

In January 2023, a 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth pre-rookie card held by Collectable was acquired for $8.83 million—a 47% premium above its IPO price. 

The Rookie: 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle

  • Valuation: $9K–$750K
  • Highest sales price: $3,192,000 (2021)
  • Supply: 2,551
  • Dimensions: 2 1/16 in. by 3 ⅛ in.

A 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle #253 rookie card.
Source: psacard.com

While the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is one of the most recognized cards in the hobby, the Mick's official rookie card from the year prior is still a valued collectible. That's not surprising—our baseball card study found that 72% of the top 200 cards on PWCC Marketplace  are rookie cards.

Just like the famed 1952 card, Mickey Mantle's 1951 rookie card comes with a compelling story. It's more centered on the player himself rather than the card, but it still adds value to the collectible. While Mickey Mantle has gone down in history as one of the greats, his starting year with the Yankees was a rough one. His rookie year found him playing the field on a reserve team in Kansas City instead of rounding the bases in Yankee Stadium.

Mantle's passion was baseball, but he was a gifted young athlete who earned a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. Football almost ended his baseball career before it began—a kick to the shin resulted in a serious bone infection that could have led to amputation if he hadn't been treated promptly.

Once recovered, Mantle luckily caught the eye of a scout while playing semi-pro baseball in Kansas. The scout was there to see one of Mantle's teammates, but he signed the Mick instead when he watched him knock out three home runs, including one from each side of the plate. Unfortunately, he started his professional career with a 0–22 slump on the Yankees' farm team.

Feeling discouraged, Mantle called his father and told him he was thinking about quitting baseball and returning home to Oklahoma before the season ended. His father showed up the next day to offer Mickey a ride to his new life of working beside him in the zinc and lead mines. It was exactly what he needed to snap out of his slump. He finished the season batting a 0.360 and returned to the New York Yankees for the 1951 season.

The 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle rookie card features young Mickey in his Yankees uniform, while the treetops and telephone pole in the background evoke the open sky of his Oklahoma roots. The 1951 Bowman set was produced before Topps acquired the company in 1956. From 1948 to 1952, Bowman was the leading producer of baseball cards until Topps entered the arena. This makes cards from the 1951 set even more valuable collectibles as pieces of Bowman's heyday.

PSA 8 versions of this card sold for nearly half a million dollars in 2022, with one PSA 9 selling for $3.19 million.  

The All-Star: 1909-11 T206 White Border Ty Cobb

  • Valuation: $1,200–$220K
  • Highest sales price: $156,000 (2021)
  • Supply: 5,611
  • Dimensions: 1 7/16 in. by 2 ⅝ in.

A 1909-11 T206 White Border Ty Cobb Old Mill Green Portrait card.
Source: psacard.com

While the T206 White Border seems synonymous with Honus Wagner, there were many talented and sought-after players in the 524-card set. None was more impressive than Ty Cobb.

Ty Cobb was a five-tool baseball player who shone in the baseball diamond from 1905 to 1928. His main position was centerfielder for the Detroit Tigers and he won 12 American League batting titles during his career—nine of them in consecutive years.

Cobb’s other career achievements include an American League MVP in 1911, Triple Crown Winner in 1909, four-time American League RBI leader, and six-time American League stolen base leader. He set a mind-blowing 90 MLB records during his career, some of which—like highest career batting average and most career batting titles—he still holds as of the end of the 2022 season.

It's no surprise that when the first class of Baseball Hall of Fame inductees were selected in 1936, Cobb earned the most votes of the five chosen players. As Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel said, “I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb. No one even close to him. He was the greatest all time ballplayer. That guy was superhuman, amazing.”

Ty Cobb has four T206 White Border cards. Because the cards were distributed via cigarette packs, the different cards feature advertisements for tobacco companies. The card fronts are also distinct—there's a Red Portrait, Bat on Shoulder, Bat off Shoulder, and a Green Portrait. Each variation has a different level of scarcity and desirability in the hobby. The Green Portrait front is considered the most challenging to find, and the Ty Cobb back—featuring a proclamation that reads "Ty Cobb, King of the Smoking Tobacco World"—is the most wanted back.

A Green Portrait Ty Cobb card rated PSA 7 sold for $49,000 in 2020, and one rated PSA 2 went for $8,460 in 2022, showing that desire for these cards is still strong. If you're looking for a piece of baseball history to add to your collection, this could be the right card for you.

The MVP: 1952 Topps Willie Mays

  • Valuation: $3K–$400K
  • Highest sales price: $478,000 (2016)
  • Supply: 2,755
  • Dimensions: 2 ½ in. by 3 ½ in.

The 1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 card.
Source: psacard.com

When the lists are made ranking the best to ever play the game, the top two slots are usually reserved for Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Starting his Hall of Fame career in the majors in 1951 means this superstar's rookie year lined up almost perfectly with the kitchen-table-founding of Topps. Both Willie Mays and Topps would go on to change everything in their industries and this card is a once-in-a-lifetime marker of what was to come.

Willie Mays was Rookie of the Year in 1951 after hitting 20 home runs and helping the Giants go on to win their first pennant in almost 15 years. He spent the next two years fighting the Korean War before coming back in 1954 and showing he hadn't lost a step. That year he hit 41 home runs and won MVP of the National League after helping his team win the World Series. 

The 1952 Topps Willie Mays has sold for $180,000 to $240,000 in 2022, and you can purchase shares of a PSA 8 version of the card on Collectable. Their card has a market cap of $174,398 and has been valued at as much as $505,000 since 2021.

Chart tracking the value of a 1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 card on Collectable.

With this being just the beginning of his 24-year-career, it shouldn't be surprising that this card, in top condition, will buy you a house. When compared to Mickey Mantle's card from the same year though, we have to wonder if this card hasn't gotten all the appreciation it deserves. Maybe that's because there was actually one card before this one that also deserves a mention—the 1951 Bowman Willie Mays.

Label: 1951 Bowman Willie Mays

  • Valuation: $3K–$800K
  • Highest sales price: $338,000 (2021)
  • Supply: 2,180
  • Dimensions: 2 ½ in. by 3 ¾ in.

This isn't the first time on this list we've told this story. Just like the famed Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle card overshadowing the lesser-known 1951 Bowman rookie card, Willie Mays's actual rookie card is this Bowman from the year before.

The 1951 Bowman rookie card represents the true start of a career that would see Willie Mays go on to be a 24-time All-Star and be named Player of the Decade by Sporting News in 1970. And it's a career that almost didn't happen.

This home run hitter for the ages had to be coaxed out of the minors by the Giants because he didn't feel ready to face major league pitchers. But Mays proved to be the one whose skills needed to be feared whether at bat or in the outfield, leading him to be the sole inductee in the 1979 Baseball Hall of Fame.

Some PSA 8 versions of this card have sold at auction for six figures in 2022, with a high price of $338,000. Only a handful of PSA 9 cards have been brought to auction, selling for between $65,000 and $93,000 from 2007 through 2009. Seeing how prices have skyrocketed in recent years, it's likely that the higher-graded cards could give these other all-star investments a run for their money in the future.

Are baseball cards a good investment in 2023?

With baseball season in full swing (pun intended), now is the perfect time to invest in some collectible cards. If you're looking for the most valuable cards, you'll want to focus on those featuring famous players from throughout MLB history. However, rarity and grade can also play a role in determining a card's value.

The 1909-11 T206 White Border Honus Wagner is famously the most sought-after card in the world, while more contemporary examples like the 2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Auto Refractor and 2019 Bowman Chrome Draft Adley Rutschman Auto 1st RC are two of the hottest cards right now.

No matter what kind of baseball fan you are, there's sure to be a card out there for you. And if you're looking to invest in the sports card market, platforms like Collectable and Rally offer great options for buying and selling these coveted pieces of sports memorabilia.

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