Diamonds in the Rough: 6 Most Valuable Upper Deck Baseball Cards of the Junk Wax Era

Diamonds in the Rough: 6 Most Valuable Upper Deck Baseball Cards of the Junk Wax Era

 Upper Deck baseball cards defy the reputation of the Junk Wax Era by continuing to attract collectors and investors today.

Diamonds in the Rough: 6 Most Valuable Upper Deck Baseball Cards of the Junk Wax Era
Priscilla Thomas

Updated Oct 24, 2022

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Sports Cards

Sports Cards

Collectibles

Collectibles

Sports Memorabilia

Sports Memorabilia

Collectibles have emerged as a thriving asset class in the past few years, from Pokémon cards to vintage Star Wars toys attracting the attention of investors. Sports cards have been particularly interesting, which is hardly a surprise given how they're a good store value during economic downturns. But many collectors overlook possible gems because of when they were printed.

While vintage cards like the 1952 Mickey Mantle and the 1909 Honus Wagner bring in huge sales, there's plenty of potential in the more recent past—the Junk Wax Era. 

The Junk Wax Era of collecting

The Junk Wax Era covers the late 80s through the early 90s, though the exact years are debatable. It was a time of explosive interest in collecting, when companies were producing massive supplies of cards. That was great news for collectors then, but not so much for investors today.

The Junk Wax Era flooded the collectibles market with cheap, overprinted cards, but a few gems have managed to outshine the clutter.

The surviving cards from this era are plentiful, which does little for their monetary value. There are also many unopened packages, which are known as "wax packs" in the hobby (hence Junk Wax Era).

Of course, these cards aren't all junk. Some cards from this time are highly valued, and many of those come from the Upper Deck card company. They shook up the oversaturated trading card market with sturdier card stock, glossier finishes, holograms, and exciting inserts for collectors to hunt down. Some of these Upper Deck baseball cards are highly sought-after collectibles today.

We put together this list of the six most valuable Upper Deck baseball cards of the Junk Wax Era so you can track down the best assets for your portfolio.

The 6 most valuable Upper Deck baseball cards of the Junk Wax Era

1989 Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie Card

  • Average PSA 10 Value: $1,913
  • Highest sale price: $30,400 in July 2021 (autographed)
  • Supply: 90,554 graded by PSA 
  • Dimensions: 2.5 by 3.5 inches

Ken Griffey Jr. was a number one draft pick and dynasty player. His father was a great and still playing out his last few seasons when "The Kid" was drafted. Upper Deck hitched their wagon to Griffey Jr. by making his rookie card their number one.

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Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1989 Upper Deck #1 rookie card.

Source: psacard.com

And what a great choice by Upper Deck. Ken Griffey Jr. proved himself worthy of all the hype. With a four-decade career, Griffey was one of the greatest players to pick up a bat. A homerun machine who dominated on defense, The Kid made his mark with an array of records and career highlights.

In the midst of the junk wax era, this wasn’t Griffey's only rookie card—he had 25. The Upper Deck #1 is the most sought-after of the bunch, though. An autographed card sold for over $30,000 in July 2021. But with over 4,000 copies graded 10 by PSA alone, this card may take some time to regain those lofty prices.

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The value of a Ken Griffey, Jr. Upper Deck #1 card on Collectable, April 2022 to September 2022.

Source: collectable.com

If you're not ready to go all in on The Kid's rookie card, you can purchase shares in one of them on Collectable. The card is an SGC-graded 10 Pristine Gold—the highest SGC grade possible—and it has a market cap of $6,200 on the platform.

collectable
Collectable

4.4

Sports Cards

1990 Upper Deck Heroes #9 Reggie Jackson Autograph

  • Average PSA Value: $234
  • Highest sale price: $511 (PSA 7) in February 2021
  • Supply: 145 graded by PSA
  • Dimensions: 2.5 by 3.5 inches

The Baseball Heroes series would change everything for the hobby by introducing “the chase,” and this Reggie Jackson card was the first.

In 1990, just one year after their debut, Upper Deck magic was taking the trading card world by storm. Together with the recently retired Reggie Jackson, they came up with their next big idea: “Find the Reggie.”

 

Shortly before entering the Hall of Fame, Jackson signed and numbered the card fronts of 2,500 special edition inserts, adding his “Mr. October” nickname to every 50th card. The cards were then randomly inserted into packs for collectors to find. Kids and adults were soon tearing open wax packs Christmas morning style to chase down a copy.

The first known copy was found at a Chicago trade show by a man who purchased six packs for $6.25. The second pack he opened revealed the treasure. It was card #2 of 2,500. It was later revealed that #1 was never released.

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291/2500 of the Reggie Jackson chase cards from the 1990 Upper Deck baseball series.

Source: psacard.com

Lucky #2 told the Sun Sentinel he had an immediate offer on the card for $700, or $1,600 in today's money. It’s unclear if he took the offer, but if he did, he’s not regretting it now. In April 2021, a PSA 9-graded card sold for just $511, a tragically low price for such an industry-changing card.

If you’re looking for a card the world hasn’t woken up to yet, this could be it. They occasionally pop up on eBay and other auction markets. PSA-8s in 2021 have sold for as little as $2 and as much as $360, meaning a card purchased at a modest price could flip for much higher down the line. Or if you want to experience the chase yourself, you might be able to pick up a factory set for $30 to $60, or buy some 1990 High Series cases for around $650 each.

1991 Upper Deck #SP1 Michael Jordan baseball card

  • Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint value: $450
  • Supply: 16,359 graded by PSA
  • Highest sale price: $7,600 in February 2021
  • Dimensions: 2.5 by 3.5 inches

When you think of Michael Jordan, you probably don't think of baseball right away. But for one-and-a-half seasons in the early 90s, you could find Jordan on the field instead of the court.

1991 Upper Deck baseball cards featured an insert with Jordan looking surprised by his own hit. This card is often thought of as Jordan's baseball rookie card, but it actually came out two years before he officially joined the sport.

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Front and back of a 1991 Jordan Upper Deck card.

Source: nbcsports.com

The story goes that Jordan bragged about his skills and had them put to the test at batting practice with the Chicago White Sox. Most of the team thought he would strike out, but instead he hit the ball into the bleachers his first time at bat. Baseball or not, he was still Michael Jordan.

Upper Deck released an insert card of Jordan in full uniform, knocking the ball into space. The card has become a favorite piece of Jordan baseball memorabilia, even if it doesn't sell for nearly as much as his basketball momentos.

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

Source: psacard.com

After reaching an average of around $1,100 during the 2020 collecting frenzy, a PSA-10 graded Gem Mint could sell for about $450 on eBay today. That's a far cry from what a pair of vintage Air Jordans might go for, but there's always a chance that MJ hits another home run. 

1993 Upper Deck SP #279 Derek Jeter rookie card (foil)

  • Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $360,000
  • Highest sale price: $690,000 in March 2021
  • Supply: 20,560 graded by PSA
  • Dimensions: 2.5 by 3.5 inches

Derek Jeter is a modern day icon. During his 20-year career with the New York Yankees, he distinguished himself with his prowess in hitting, base-running, and fielding. He holds five World Series titles and was one of 33 batters to achieve over 3,000 hits, not to mention the leading shortstop in hits in MLB history.

Jeter's ranking by Hall of Fame career standards is higher than that of Mickey Mantle, and his 2020 Hall of Fame induction vote holds the record for second-highest approval rating, a testament to his fantastic career.

Drafted in 1992, Jeter was a much-anticipated addition to the Yankees lineup, and he's featured on one of the hobby's greatest rookie cards. Although his rookie season didn't begin until 1996, this SP rookie card is one of the most desirable cards of the 1993 Upper Deck baseball cards set.

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A set of 2 BGS 9.5 1993 SP Jeter rookie cards are available on Collectable.

Source: collectable.com

SP was one of Upper Deck's high-end products. They debuted in 1993 with higher-quality photos and limited print runs, setting them a cut above the standard collection of Upper Deck baseball cards. They also bore a foil surface, which made ones in Gem Mint condition a rarity.

The #279 Jeter rookie card was one of the first SP cards because, as the logo on the lower right confirms, he was one of the premier prospects of the game. The card is notoriously damage-prone, though. PSA says it's "one of the toughest modern-era rookie cards to find in Mint condition…The dark edges coupled with the foil coating give this issue problems, with many of these rookie cards exhibiting wear from the moment they're removed from a pack.”

With over 20,000 of these cards graded by PSA, only 21 qualify as Gem Mint, which explains their six-figure estimated value.

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The value of a BGS 9.5 1993 SP Jeter card on Rally.

Source: rallyd.com

Since March 2021, Rally has offered shares in a 1993 Upper Deck SP #279 graded BGS-9.5 . Its subgrades show 9.5 in edges and surface, a 9 in corners, and a 10 in centering. According to Rally, there is no higher-graded example in the BGS population.

Shares in a basket of two 1993 SP Jeter rookie cards are also available on Collectable. Both cards are BGS-graded 9.5, with 9.5 subgrades in centering, edges, and surface, and 9s in corners.

1994 Upper Deck #GM1 Mickey Mantle/Ken Griffey Jr. Dual Auto

  • Average PSA value: $4,723
  • Supply: 153 graded by PSA
  • Highest sale price: $29,500 in November 2021
  • Dimensions: 2.5 by 3.5 inches

What could be better than an autographed Upper Deck baseball card featuring a beloved Hall of Famer? A card of two beloved Hall of Famers with both of their autographs, of course.

The #GM1 Dual Auto was a chase insert in the 1994 Upper Deck baseball cards series. The card portrays Ken Griffey Jr. and Mickey Mantle bearing friendly smiles above their autographs.

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A PSA-graded 8 Dual Auto #GM1 card featuring both Griffey and Mantle's autographs.

Source: psacard.com

At first glance, it might seem like an unusual pairing—Mantle's career began in the 1950s, while Griffey started out in the late 80s. They didn't even play for the same team. But when you consider that these are two of the best-known, best-loved, and all-around best players of the game, you can see why people were eager to chase these cards through Upper Deck's packs.

Mantle and Griffey had 1,100 home runs combined without a steroid scandal between them. Their impressive careers left behind a slew of records for the players that followed them to strive toward and memories that fans of the game will hold dear forever.

Only 153 of the 1,000 dual autographed cards have been graded by PSA, and there are no 10-graded cards and just one 9-graded. Still, the card sells for thousands of dollars, with a PSA-8 bringing in nearly $30,000 in 2021. A lower-graded card can fetch four-figure prices, making it a potentially lucrative investment given the limited supply and fan appeal.   

1995 #225 Electric Diamond Gold Derek Jeter

  • Average PSA Value: $457
  • Supply: 38 graded by PSA
  • Highest sale price: $1,250 in May 2019
  • Dimensions: 2.5 by 3.5 inches

As one of the most celebrated prospects in the history of the New York Yankees, Jeter appeared on 325 different baseball cards between his draft in 1992 and his rookie season in 1996. Those years also coincided with the expansion of chase cards in the hobby, following in the footsteps of "Find the Reggie."

The Electric Diamond Gold Jeter is a parallel of Jeter's regular card in the 1995 Upper Deck baseball cards set. Parallels were inserted randomly into packs and looked mostly the same as their regular versions except for additional features to set them apart. In this case, the gold foil pennant distinguishes the card from the #225 Electric Diamond and the regular version.

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The $1,250 Jeter #225 Electric Diamond Gold card.

Source: psacard.com

The card isn't breaking anyone's bank these days, but the price range may suggest potential profit for some cardholders. In July 2019, a PSA-10 graded Gem Mint sold for around $128. In May 2020, a PSA-10 went for $770—a 501% increase in less than a year. While an increase like that is neither typical nor guaranteed, it may be worth holding onto a near-mint card just to see what it'll be worth.

Finding gems among the junk

The Junk Wax Era flooded the collectibles market with cheap, overprinted cards, but a few gems have managed to outshine the clutter. Upper Deck brought us premium experiences and introduced the hobby to the chase when the old guard was just doing more of the same. It's no surprise that many of the diamonds from this rough era carry the famous Upper Deck hologram.

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