I used to collect hockey cards. I never really had enough money to own any card that was worth a lot. I managed to finish a full set once: The NHL 1996-97 Upper Deck series. It’s not worth much, but there’s a Joe Thornton rookie card in there. It’s worth about 60 bucks now. It’s not much, but if I hold on to it for another… fifty years or so, it might allow my descendants to buy a couch or something.
Rookie cards are famously worth more than other sad, regular cards. If the player goes on to have a hall of fame career, the card gains in value. If the card is rare, even better. If it’s old, that’s also great. And if you happen to have all three conditions reunited, then the card becomes more than a collector’s item. It’s a priceless artifact that serious hobbyist might spend a lifetime chasing.
Just for fun – since there’s no way any of us at the website could afford any of these – we decided to look at the 25 most expensive rookie cards on the market. I say “on the market”, but cards like these only rarely go on sale. When they do, they are often the centerpiece of the auction, and can fetch insane sums of money. Thorough searches on auction sites and in news archives have led us to this list. We hope we have not missed any other expensive rookie cards, but as websites on the subject are fragmented at best, there’s always a chance one might have slipped by.
So keep reading, and keep dreaming! Unless you’re extremely, almost indecently rich. Then you can consider this a shopping list.
25 Larry Bird/Julius Erving/Magic Johnson ($125,200)
Usually, if more than one player is pictured on a rookie card, it could theoretically lower its value, since the star could be surrounded by players who did not match their status. In the 1980-81 season, Topps was lucky enough to produce a rookie card which featured three players who would go on to legendary careers: Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Magic Johnson. For a few years, the price of the card had plateaued at 74,000 dollars. In September of this year, an eBay auction got much more than that: $125,200, to be exact.
24 Jim Brown ($358,500)
Jim Brown was a very talented fullback. How talented, you ask? In 2002, The Sporting News named him the greatest professional football player ever. Of course, an athlete of that stature would have a pretty valuable rookie card.
What’s crazy is that it is not even the most valuable football card out there.
He is still the only player to average more than 100 rushing yards per game over his entire career. Add that to his great career as an actor (have you seen him in Mars Attack?), and that should make him everybody’s favourite player.
23 Joe Namath ($265,000)
Most people know Joe Namath because he propelled the New York Jets to what is arguably their most famous win, all the way back at Super Bowl III. I prefer to think of Joe Namath as the punchline of a Bill Murray joke in Ghostbusters 2. What’s really important to us is that his 1965 rookie card is now worth 265,000 dollars as of a February 2018 auction, which is way, way up from its previous high of 95,000 bucks just a few years earlier.
22 Wayne Gretzky ($465,000)
Wayne Gretzky is not only the most famous hockey player of all time, he also owns the most records out of anyone else to ever play the game. His 1979 O-Pee-Chee rookie cards holds a record of its own, being the most valuable hockey card ever produced. At an auction in 2016, it sold for $465,000. Though Gretzky started playing one year earlier in the World Hockey Association, before it was absorbed by the NHL, no cards were produced during his time there.
21 Michael Jordan ($100,000)
Michael Jordan is probably the best basketball player of all time, and yet, his rookie card cannot even fetch more than $100,000. Why?
The problem is that there are still a lot of those cards available in the world.
Like, thousands and thousands. Therefore, to be worth anything, the card needs to be in pristine condition. The one that sold for 100 grands was graded a perfect 10 by the Beckett Grading Service. If it’s graded a 9, which is still pretty good, it rarely gets more than 5,000 dollars, which is still a good price when you think about it.
20 Pete Maravich ($130,000)
Pistol Pete Maravich was a brilliant basketball player whose career was cut short because of knees problems. Even more tragically, Maravich passed away at the age of 40, due to a rare congenital heart condition. Because of his short time on the court, there isn’t a whole lot of memorabilia attached to his name, and whatever’s available usually fetches a high price. His rookie card is no exception: It sold for over 130,000 dollars, making it one of the most expensive basketball cards, period.
19 Ernie Banks ($142,836)
One of the most revered sports figures in Chicago’s history, Ernie Banks played his entire career with the Cubs. Though he officially started in 1953, his rookie card appeared the next year. The 1954 Topps card is a rare find, especially in perfect condition: due to less-than-ideal printing technology of the time, it is often off-centered, and printing defects can often be seen on the white background. One card was graded a 10 and sold for 142,836 dollars in 2012. It has not changed owner since.
18 Pete Rose ($157,366)
Pete Rose is not in the baseball Hall of Fame, but he did make it into the WWE version in 2004. His ineligibility to the real Hall of Fame has not hurt his popularity with fans, to the point where his memorabilia is still very much in-demand. As for his rookie card, Rose shares it with three other players. This would usually hinder the card’s value, but Pete Rose is enough of a big name to carry it on his back. That’s why his 1963 card sold for 157,366 bucks in 2012.
17 Mickey Mantle ($750,000)
Mickey Mantle is one of the most famous names in baseball history, and the price of his collectible cards matches the man’s fame. His actual rookie card from 1951 is now worth 750,000 dollars. I say “actual”, because another card released the following year is actually rarer and worth even more. It recently sold for $2.8 millions. Most of the copies of that one were dumped in the ocean by the card company when surplus sets did not sell that year. Three copies of that one are known to exist at mint condition. They have not been sold but were evaluated at nearly 10 million dollars each.
16 Shoeless Joe Jackson ($667,000)
This is one of the oldest rookie cards on our list, which means it is understandably in rougher shape than the other ones. The best graded copy was an 8, and went for 667,000 dollars at an auction.
Even a copy graded at 1 can get some decent money, routinely selling above 10,000 dollars.
For reference, a card graded at that level is almost falling apart, might have water damage on it, and is generally looking like it could crumble if someone looks at it too hard.
15 George Mikan ($403,664)
George Mikan’s rookie card, from the 1948 Bowman set, is a valuable collectible. Unlike many cards on this list, it doesn’t change hands often. The last time a near perfect copy of the card was sold, it was in 2015; the final price of the sale was 403,664 dollars, though it is now estimated that the card could fetch close to a million bucks. The auction got a lot of media coverage, since this is the most valuable basketball card in the hobby. This is due to the fact that George Mikan is one of the early giants of the sports, being so freakishly dominant that the rules of the games changed to accommodate him.
14 Hank Aaron ($358,500)
The former king of home runs had his first card produced in 1954, the first of over 200 cards that would bear his likeness in his career. He was known for his hitting abilities, but he was so much more than that. For example, he played in 24 all-star games during his career. His rookie card is not so rare, but finding a good copy is hard. A lot of those produced were off-centre, and only one has ever been graded a perfect 10. That one is still worth 358,500 dollars.
13 Roberto Clemente ($478,000)
Roberto Clemente was a special player, on and off the field. He was one of the best players of his generation, finishing his career with exactly 3000 hits. There is no doubt that he would have hit more, had his life not been cut short: His plane crashed on its way to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972. He was a popular player, so it’s no surprise that his 1955 rookie card is worth so much, selling for a cool 478,000 dollars in 2016.
12 Babe Ruth ($717,000)
Is there a more well-known baseball player than Babe Ruth? His rookie card, from his first professional season in Boston, is worth 717,000 dollars.
It is hard enough to find, but there’s a way you could up the challenge.
Should you feel like it, there’s also a card from the previous year, where he is depicted playing for Baltimore, which was at the time a minor league team. That one hasn’t been sold in a long time, but is valued anywhere between $500,000 and one million dollars.
11 Connor McDavid ($55,655)
The most recent card on the list, McDavid’s Upper Deck rookie card, which includes a patch from one of his jerseys as well as his autograph, sold for $55,655 in 2018, up from $18,000 the year before.
A rookie card this expensive is a rarity for a player who’s not even 5 years into his career.
It’s probably going to be worth a lot more before it is over. At this point, many hobbyists are seeing McDavid’s card as an investment, hoping that his career is going to continue on its trajectory for the foreseeable future.
10 Honus Wagner($3,120,000)
Though the man was already a veteran by 1909, this is supposedly the first card to bear the likeness of Honus Wagner, making it his “rookie card” by the definition of some hobbyists. This card also happens to be one of the most famous in the world. It was once owned by Wayne Gretzky himself. The card owes its value to its rarity, having been pulled out of production at Wagner’s demand. It is now worth more than 3.1 million dollars, way up from the $1300 the original owners sold it for in the 70s.
9 Nolan Ryan ($612,359)
Having played a video game bearing the guy’s name in the 90s, it’s weird to think that Nolan Ryan’s rookie card would be old enough to be worth as much as $612,359. His career spanned an insane 27 years, which is off the charts when you think of all the baseball pitchers who had to retire or miss games because of injuries to their pitching arm. Nolan Ryan shares his rookie card with Jerry Koosman, another pitcher, who went on to have a solid career of his own.
8 Sandy Koufax ($215,100)
See what I was talking about with pitchers and injuries? Sandy Koufax, despite being the most dominant pitcher of his time, Sandy Koufax had to retire at the age of 30 due to arthritis in his pitching arm. It seems like it only made his legend grow. Winning three Cy Young awards and pitching four no hitters over his short career, he has been called the best left-handed pitcher in history. His rookie card sold for 215,100 dollars in 2016, at the same auction where Babe Ruth’s rookie card went for $717,000.
7 Bronko Nagurski ($750,000)
Bronko Nagurski was not only a great football player, leading the Chicago Bears to multiple NFL championships. He was also a great professional wrestler, a sport which he practiced in the off-season, being the Bo Jackson of his era.
He even won the NWA World Championship from Lou Thesz on one occasion!
His rookie card, produced a few years after he officially started playing in the NFL, is the most valuable football card ever sold. It’s now worth 750,000 dollars.
6 Ty Cobb ($1,000,000)
The allegedly cranky player was already five years into his career by the time he appeared on a baseball card in 1911. An auction in 2015 fetched 272,000 dollars. One year later, the same card sold for an even million dollars. The card is valuable not only because of Ty Cobb’s legendary career, but also because of its rarity. Only 22 copies have been evaluated, making it even rarer than the Honus Wagner card. Notably, both cards are from the same set. Ty Cobb was apparently a slick businessman; his card advertises his own tobacco brand on the back.
5 Lou Gehrig ($274,950)
Researching for this article made me realize that card collectors are super complicated people.
There’s an earlier Lou Gehrig card which is not considered “rookie” because it is unnumbered.
It is thus seen more as a promotional article instead of an actual card from a set. It’s still valuable but not as much at the one pictured here. This one, from 1933, was manufactured by the Goudey company and sold for nearly 274,950 dollars. Though his career was already well underway, it is the earliest and most valuable Lou Gehrig card around.
4 Bobby Orr ($115,000)
Information is hazy on Orr’s 1966 Topps rookie card. The highest auction I can find puts it at 45,000 dollars. However, PSA once rated one of his card a 9, and though it has never been sold, there has been offers of up to 115,000 dollars made on it. This is notably the best rated rookie card of arguably the best defenseman in the history of the NHL. If a 10 was ever to be found, the value could be astronomical.
3 Lew Alcindor ($501,900)
Before he was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lew Alcindor was one of the hottest prospects of 1969 in the NBA. He was the rookie of the year, but he was also an all-star for 19 of his 20 seasons in the league. After six championships, he finally retired and instead played small roles in different movies. His rookie card depicts him with the Milwaukee Bucks, and went for $240,000 in 2017, before more than doubling in price less than a year later. The sky is the limit for this one.
2 Slow Joe Doyle ($550,000)
Another baseball card from 1909, this one features Joe Doyle, who is not that big of a name compared to the other ones from the same series. This is his first card ever printed, and it’s worth 550,000 dollars. Why? Because the first print mentions him playing for the wrong New York team. The card was thus taken out of circulation pretty quickly, to be replaced by one with the correct info, which is also rare worth significantly less. The flawed version, due to its rarity, is the one you want.
1 Stan Musial ($360,000)
One of baseball’s greatest hitters, Musial started playing during the same year as Yogi Berra. Both cards are valuable, but Musial’s is worth a lot more. The only gem mint copy ever found was put up for auction in 2017 and managed to get a price of 360,000 dollars. It’s a simple card, which is just a portray of the man, without any marking or identifier on the front. A rarity for a player from that era, Musial has two recognized rookie cards. Even though the other one is tougher to find, this one is considered more valuable.