A History of Sports Cards From the Past to the Present

Though there’s been renewed interest in sports cards over the past few years, cards have a long and storied history that spans more than 150 years. These collectibles originated in the 19th century, when cigarette and candy companies started including baseball cards with their products in order to drive sales by capitalizing on the sport’s popularity. While it is often said that there are two eras of sports cards - vintage and modern - there are really five distinct eras with important differences and unique characteristics. The cutoff dates are not exact, but when looking at a specific card it is important to understand the approximate era it comes from.

Pre-World War II vintage (before 1941) - As baseball was the dominant sport in the U.S. for the bulk of the 20th century, baseball cards make up nearly all pre-WWII cards. These cards were less for collectors than they were methods of advertising the issuing company - such as the American Tobacco Company that issued the famous T206 series in 1909 - and often acted as protection for the cigarettes or gum, naturally leaving the cards in poor condition. Additionally, prior to the early 1930s, there simply were not that many cards made as complete sets were not produced every year. Therefore, it is unusual to find cards from the early part of the century, and even harder to find them in good condition, so even poorly graded issues can be relatively valuable. In the early 1930s, a production boom occurred, with the famous 1933 Goudey set leading the way, with a relatively high number of cards in good condition nearly ninety years later. For example, 12.4% of 1933 Goudey’s grade as a PSA 7 or better as opposed to 4.0% of 1909-11 T206s.

Post-World War II vintage (1945-1979) - After the war, the Leaf Candy Company, Bowman Gum Company and Topps Gum Company got into the sports card business, leading to a golden era of cards in the 1950s. By the mid-1950s Topps was the dominant force and the most iconic cards from the era are Topps baseball cards. This was when the Baby Boomer generation started collecting cards, as our parents and grandparents are so eager to retell us, and this nostalgia still drives a lot of the high-end market today. Stories abound of kids putting cards in their bicycle spokes or having their parents throw out what could have been a million-dollar collection. Because there was not an emphasis on keeping cards in good condition or any idea that they might be valuable in the future, there is a natural scarcity of cards in mint condition. This is also when you start to see more sports emerge with trading cards issued - for example, in 1948 Bowman released the first official basketball set - but baseball cards still make up a large majority of the notable cards from this era.

Junk Wax Era (1980-1996) - By the time the 1980s rolled around and the Boomers were adults with disposable incomes, certain cards from their childhood started to become incredibly valuable, which led to tremendous growth in the industry. More card companies, including Fleer, Donruss, Score and Upper Deck - entered the space and met increased demand with overproduction. Additionally, collectors now knew to keep cards in top condition and store them away for the future. As a result, very few cards from this era are valuable, and in most cases it’s only the ones in absolutely perfect condition that fetch high prices. There were simply too many produced and too many that still exist in excellent condition. So many people who grew up in the junk wax era still have their collections somewhere in a storage unit or at their parents’ house hoping that one day it will be valuable.

Modern Era (1997-2012) - As a result of the junk wax era, interest in the hobby declined and a lot of Gen Xers and Millennials stopped buying sports cards. We entered into a “Trading Card Winter” so to speak. Starting in 1997, companies responded by introducing “insert” cards with limited print runs, and eventually those cards - often with autographs and/or game-used memorabilia - became highly sought after. While vintage cards have a natural scarcity due to the lack of cards from those eras surviving in good condition, inserts offer an artificial scarcity because of their limited print runs. This drove demand for the rarest cards, some of which are now among the most valuable sports cards overall. It’s also during this era that basketball cards became the most sought after as baseball cards fell in stature, riding the growing popularity of the NBA and a relative decline in baseball fandom.

Parallels Era (2013-present) - That leads us to today, where basically the only cards worth pursuing are inserts and parallels (cards that are similar to base cards but with a different color or different design), with entire sets and boxes made up entirely of limited print runs, autographs and patch cards. For example, a box of 2020-21 Panini National Treasures Basketball Cards has 10 cards in the entire box and retails for $5,000 or more. In that box are 4 autograph cards, 4 memorabilia cards, 1 printing plate card and 1 base or base parallel card. There are now so many parallels and subsets and slight variations of cards that it is often difficult to narrow down the best rookie cards for certain players. Rising star quarterback Justin Herbert has so many that there’s a guide to the top-70! While the rarest 1 of 1 cards and prestigious rookie patch autograph cards can still command extremely high prices, there are some who believe this is the new junk wax era - an overabundance of “rare” cards means that no cards are actually rare. Additionally, because the players from this era are still active and playing, there is a lot of price fluctuation based on current player and team performance and cards from this era are certainly the most speculative.

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