The Air Out There: Michael Jordan's Baseball Career and the Card That Started It All

The Air Out There: Michael Jordan's Baseball Career and the Card That Started It All

Michael Jordan is known for his basketball skills, but the Jordan Upper Deck baseball card might be the memento your portfolio needs.

The Air Out There: Michael Jordan's Baseball Career and the Card That Started It All
Priscilla Thomas

Published Sep 20, 2022Updated Sep 20, 2022

Sports Cards

Sports Cards

Collectibles

Collectibles

Sports Memorabilia

Sports Memorabilia

For 36 years, Michael Jordan has been part of the conversation. But which conversation likely depends on how old you are. If you watched him play, you've probably said or heard that he's the best basketball player to ever lace up. If you haven’t seen him play, he might just be that guy your parents bring up every time you talk about LeBron. Or maybe for you, the name Jordan just makes you think of luxury sneakers.

However you think of him, his talent and impact are undeniable. No wonder his shoes and sports cards can easily fetch five figures.

Between overproduction and the ongoing frenzy around collectibles, the card is a victim of increasing demand, causing an increase in supply.

Like many sports cards investments, all kinds of Number 23 sports memorabilia rose in value as interest in collectibles renewed during the pandemic. Jordan got an extra publicity boost from the popularity of The Last Dance docuseries. As a result, even cards from his brief stint as a so-so baseball player became hot commodities

Let's look at one of the best quality and most in-demand of those cards: the 1991 Michael Jordan Upper Deck baseball card.

Why did Michael Jordan play baseball?

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Michael Jordan winding up for a throw in his Barons uniform circa 1994.

Source: mlb.com

When people hear the name Michael Jordan, mediocre is not what comes to mind. But that’s what he was for a moment in the 90s. In the prime of his career, at just 29 years old and with three back-to-back championships under his belt, Michael Jordan shocked the world by quitting basketball.

Jordan’s father, who was tragically murdered in 1993, loved baseball and had been a semi-pro player in his youth. To honor his father and to prove he was more than just the greatest basketball player to ever live, he decided to give baseball a go.

His detour was brief, and he never made it out of Double-A. But despite the confusion of his fans and the 'Negative Nellies' of sports media, many see Jordan's 13-month career as evidence of his athletic abilities and mental strength.

Michael Jordan baseball statistics

Team

Birmingham Barons (Double-A affiliate of Chicago White Sox)

Seasons

1

Games played

297

At-bats

436

Batting average

0.202

Stolen bases

30

Hits

88

Runs

46

Home runs

3

Some believe that Jordan would've made it to the major leagues if he had stuck with baseball. Instead, he returned to basketball and won even more championships, shaping the game, sneaker culture, and memes for generations to come.

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Michael Jordan in a 1987 McDonald's anti-drug PSA.

Source: ABC

As sensational as Jordan's adventure in baseball was, the story of Jordan's most expensive baseball card starts before he shocked the NBA with his departure.

What is the most expensive Michael Jordan baseball card?

The Michael Jordan Upper Deck baseball card ranks as the best-designed and most expensive Jordan baseball card. It came out in 1991—almost two years before he officially signed to a team. While a few PSA 10-graded cards went for thousands in February 2021, their price for Gem Mints in September 2022 is about $450.

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Front and back of a 1991 Jordan Upper Deck card.

Source: nbcsports.com

Card stats:

  • Year released: 1991
  • Brand: Upper Deck
  • Highest sale price: $7,600 in February 2021
  • Supply: 16,126 (graded by PSA)

Compared to Jordan's basketball cards, this piece of sports history doesn't seem to be worth much. After all, a 1986 Fleer MJ rookie card sold for $228,000 through PWCC Marketplace in June 2022. But Jordan's baseball card has a few valuable qualities that could make it a worthwhile investment: a great story, an attractive design, and Michael freaking Jordan.

pwcc
PWCC

Collectibles

A swing and a slam dunk

A player like Jordan sometimes needs to have his ego checked. At least, that's what Jerry Krause learned about Number 23. The problem was that he’s good at everything. Luckily, Krause also figured out that if he wanted Jordan's very best, he had to tell him he couldn't do it.

So one day, when Krause grew tired of Jordan bragging about his hitting prowess, he took the basketball phenom out to hit against a real Double-A pitcher, telling him he’d never get a ball to the outfield.

Jordan hit the ball into the bleachers. Twice.

Photos of Jordan decked out in White Sox finery made their way to trading cards shortly after batting practice was over, but none of those cards were as well-designed and desirable as the ones by Upper Deck.

Picture perfect

While other Michael Jordan baseball cards used unlicensed photos, the UD card was the first licensed Jordan baseball card. And its design was more stylish and appealing than the competitors, keeping with Upper Deck's mission to be the coolest new kid on the sports trading card block.

Only two years old, Upper Deck wanted to stand apart from its more established competitors like Topps by offering unique and exciting sports cards. Their MJ card featured Jordan just after one of his swings connected with the ball and launched it into—you guessed it—the upper deck.

Since Jordan had yet to leave the Chicago Bulls and sign to a baseball team, the card was included as an insert. If you missed the sports card craze of the 90s, inserts were like Easter eggs in trading card packs. These surprise treats are widely accepted as a major reason for the hobby's success in what's now called the "junk wax era."

While inserts were a great way to drive interest and sales, the competition to be the most successful sports card company led to overproduction. Ultimately, the card makers began putting out so many inserts that the bubble finally burst.

Sneakers vs. Trading Cards

Sneakers vs. Trading Cards

Are you buying AirJordans or MJ cards?

What is Jordan's Upper Deck baseball card worth?

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Auction prices for the Upper Deck Jordan card from July 1992 to July 2022.

Source: psacard.com

Much like how Jordan defied the odds for decades on the court, his junk wax era insert is now defying the odds in gaining the attention of sports card collectors.

After reaching an average of around $1,100 at the peak of the lockdown collecting boom, a PSA-10 graded Gem Mint still fetches about $450 on eBay.

However, between overproduction and the ongoing frenzy around collectibles, the card is a victim of increasing demand, causing an increase in supply. Even though it's long out of print, the circulating supply of Jordan's Upper Deck card has ballooned in recent years. 

Ups and downs

When it was first released, people went wild over the insert set. You could purchase a pack for $1.29 at the time, but prices shot up right away, and Jordan cards were selling for $35—about $76 adjusted for 2022 inflation. But then, just like the rest of the market in the mid-90s, they crashed back down.

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Price chart of a signed game-worn Jordan jersey from 1984-85 listed on Collectable.

Source: collectable.com

It wasn’t until the pandemic and, later, after the airing of The Last Dance sent everyone searching through their collections (or eBay) that the Jordan cards began garnering real attention. Alongside better known assets like Air Jordans or MJ's vintage jerseys, which are so highly valued that they're popular fractionalized investments on platforms like Collectable, Jordan baseball cards resurfaced. Collectors then started getting them appraised, and prices for high-grade cards began to move up.

collectable
Collectable

3.7

Collectibles

A dime a dozen

The card wasn’t exactly rare to begin with. Despite being labeled Short Print (#SP1), there were thousands and thousands of them out there. The company initially announced a distribution that came out to only one coveted #SP1 for every 120 packs. But, between junk wax over-printing and the 10–25 thousand given as favors to select dealers, the scarcity vanished. As with many valuable items, the easier they became to get, the more their appeal and value wore off.

For decades, the inserts floated around the hobby for a few bucks apiece, with people knowing there were still an untold number of packs that might contain more of them. But even when it wasn't carrying much value, the oddity of a basketball star and cultural icon on a baseball card has always made it stand out as something worth having in a collection.

The future of Upper Deck's Jordan card

There are over 1,960 PSA 10 Gem Mint Upper Deck Jordans in the hobby—not accounting for cards rated by Beckett or SGC or ungraded cards. And this number is only increasing at a time when casual collectors are losing interest. That doesn’t bode well for the short-term price of this card, in any condition.

Of course, as the card drops in value, fewer people will send them in for grading, and eventually, it should hit a price equilibrium.

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Chart tracking 1985 Michael Jordan Game-Worn Jordan 1 price from Dec. 2011 to Feb. 2022.

Source: Rallyrd.com

rallyrd
Rally

5.0

Collectibles

And let’s not forget, this is Michael Jordan. Sneakerheads who aren’t old enough to have seen the man pick up a ball are spending thousands of dollars on shoes with his logo and namesake. What if those collectors move on to picking up some of his cards? That could make a severe dent in those 1,960 Gem Mints.

While investing has no guarantees, and there are plenty of reasons this Jordan baseball card could cause more short-term pain, it has now captured the hearts of collectors twice in 30 years. What happens from here is anyone's guess, but how can you bet against a Michael Jordan comeback?