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Cardboard Gold

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

Much like a stone skipping across the smooth waters of a pond, I flipped my 1960 Topps All Star card of Hank Aaron across the slick pavement of the tennis court. It made the crucial skip and careened up to a height of six inches above the ground forward to the chain link fence where it stopped, slid down, and came to a halt in a leaning position against the base of the fence.

A gasp went up from the crowd of kids around me. A gasp of disappointment because I had just won the pot of over 250 baseball cards scattered around the playing field with that toss. I plucked up my lucky Hank Aaron card first and tucked it away in my shirt pocket. Then I gathered up the rest of the cards and took the long walk home.

I had struck cardboard gold. The kid with the most cards wins they say, but I didn't feel like a winner. I felt I disappointed most of my friends by taking their prize possessions in a game of leaners. When I got home I put the cards into a shoe box along with my other previous winnings, taped it shut and tucked it into a corner of the attic. That was 1962 and I was twelve years old.

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Sports memorabilia treasures can be found in many forms. Shown are a variety of sports cards, a 1915 Spalding Baseball Guide and an autographed Sandy Koufax baseball.

In 1985 my mom came to visit and she brought along the two dusty shoe boxes full of old baseball cards that had been stashed away for 23 years. Imagine my surprise! Much to my amazement though I had an even bigger surprise yet to come as I sought out to learn their value. Many things came into play such as condition, volume, and unscrupulous dealers. What I will attempt in this article is to show you how to proceed when you find that box of cardboard gold.

First of all, even with all the hype of the last twenty years about baseball cards, many surprises are still found every day in attics, garages, and barns. In some older towns in middle America little drugstores have discovered cases of cards from the sixties unopened! You've heard that someone's trash being another's treasure? Well, believe it! You simply must know the product you're dealing with. If you've just been handed a box of cards or at a yard sale you bought a box of cards for $10.00, here are some steps to take to understand you're newly acquired treasure.

Appreciation. First take the cards out and look at them. See them for what they are, pieces of cardboard that have weathered the years and have passed through countless hands to finally come to rest on your coffee table. These cards have given some youngster a great deal of pleasure. The cards picture their heroes from baseball, football, hockey or basketball. For me, like an old wine, I take a whiff of the box to get an appreciation for the age of the cards inside. I look at the design of the card, the coloring, and the condition.

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Sorting first by type and then by number. Shown are 1959 and 1960 Topps baseball cards.

Sorting. Sorting should be done by type and then age. Lay the cards out and put them in stacks according to the type of card that they are. Usually they will be one of the four major sports or a non-sports card. Then pick a stack to work on and set the others aside. Now you want to put them into year categories. With most sports cards the back of the card will have stats from prior years of playing for that particular player. In most cases you add one year to the last year of stats and you have the year of the sports card. If you find an odd one in the group with no stats you can match up the design or the style of the back of the card to find the year. Many times the backs are the same color for the year. Once you have done this you'll note that each card has a number on the back. Put them in numerical order. Cards are issued in sets from 1 to however many are in the set.

Pricing. A few things come into play on pricing like availability of the card and condition, both of which I'll discuss later. As I found out when I first went out to price my cards, you will find honest dealers, dishonest dealers and those that simply don't know what they're talking about. I got offers of $200.00 up to $1000.00 for my cards. I couldn't understand why there was such a difference. Then I got smart and bought a price guide so I could see for myself. There are many guides available but I recommend Becket Monthly or Tuff Stuff. If you have a variety of sports in one box you may prefer Tuff stuff as they list all the sports in one publication as opposed to Becket having a magazine for each sport. Once home, you can take your stack of cards and card by card see the value. The price guides list cards by year and then card number. They usually list the more important cards of the set individually and the common cards separate. The prices are arrived at usually by dealers that submit buying and selling prices for cards nation wide. Availability plays heavy. For example cards pre 1980 were produced in smaller quantities than the 1990's and they in most cases are more desirable. In Los Angeles, Dodger cards are at a premium because so many collectors want them. Also a new player, someone on a hot streak, or a newly deceased player will cause price fluctuations. The cards are priced also by condition.

Condition. A $100.00 card can be worth from $10.00 to $150.00 based on condition. Most price guide list cards in Vg (very good) or NM (near mint). NM - Means a near perfect card. The card looks new and near perfect without going under closer examination. Cards in NM condition usually get the full book price. Cards in M (mint) condition are perfect in every way. Corners are sharp and the cards are well centered. They command up to 150% of book. EX (excellent) cards usually have some blunted corners or may be a little off center. VG cards may have wear but are still attractive. A small crease may show or a corner may be dinged but all in all it's a nice addition to a collectors set. If you have a card in lesser condition then this, like it may have a hole, a piece missing, or a stain, the card may be worth only 10-20 % of the book price.

Selling. Now that you know pretty closely what your finds are worth you must decide if you truly want to sell. Some cards are destined to increase in value like Mickey Mantle and Nolan Ryan. Others may reach a peak and you need to gauge when to sell. Strawberry cards were once a hot item and now you can't give them away.

Keep in mind that when you sell a card to a dealer that he or she needs to make a profit when they resell the card. Most dealers will pay up to 60% of the cards value in a good market. That allows them to sell the card at book price or a little below and make enough profit to hopefully cover their overhead. Card dealers can be found in the yellow pages under baseball cards, sports memorabilia, or collectibles. Many operate stores but you may also find them at conventions, weekly shows, and through newspaper ads. You might want to sell the cards to a collector yourself and get a larger percentage of profit. To do this you must advertise your name and number. A word of caution on newspaper ads whether buying or selling, be careful. Remember if a deal seems too good to be true it's probably not true. You can also get a resale license and sell at flea markets, swap meets, or trade shows yourself.

As for myself and my two boxes of cards, I found out early that there were unscrupulous people out there. The first place I went offered me $200.00 for all my cards. To me the memories alone were worth more than $200.00 so I passed. Then I answered an ad in a newspaper. The guy spent two hours of my time picking through the cards separating them into piles that he might or might not want. Finally he offered me $100.00 for one card! He said he'd like to buy more but didn't have the money. He educated me a little on the cards and to thank him I sold him the card, which I later found out, was worth $300.00, but I was learning. The dealer I went to next offered me $1000.00 for the whole lot, saying that most of the cards were commons and the condition was poor. I asked if he sold price guides and he said yes and that maybe he could go a little higher. I passed on the offer and bought a price guide.

For a full month I had a ball learning about my treasure. I realized nearly $5,000.00 in value for my cards and through trading doubles I bought new sets and broke them down to sell singles, and by 1986 I owned my own card shop called Fun Zone. The store was profitable, and a fun place for me and others that enjoyed cardboard gold.

Editor's note: Although this was written in 1990 much of the information is timeless. New arenas like Ebay Auctions for buying and selling, have opened a whole new set of doors for the lover of cardboard gold to go through. Young and old can play on the same field internationally.


  1. The author owned and operated a baseball, comic book, and collectables store called Fun Zone from 1986 to 1994 in Glendora Ca.

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