Though introduced to the public in the mid-1860s—not long after the game’s inception and soon after the popularization of photography—baseball cards were not mass-produced until the 1880s. That's when tobacco brands such as Old Judge and Gypsy Queen inserted cards inside their products featuring illustrations of players, mainly to keep the flimsy packaging intact. Baseball cards became a hit with fans, especially children, who got a bonus piece of chewing gum inside packs starting in the early 1930s.
But it was not until the 1980s that baseball card values skyrocketed, thanks to the public's deep interest in nostalgia and the explosion of the popularity of “rookie cards”—cards featuring players in their first Major League Baseball season.
Now considered investments by high-end collectors, rare cards in supreme condition have sold for millions. In 1991, an industry standard for card grading and authenticating was established by Professional Sports Authenticator, a sports memorabilia company. Other companies also rate cards based on condition, including Beckett Grading Services (BGS) and Sportscard Guaranty Company (SGC).
For more than 70 years, the major card company player was Topps, which was licensed by MLB and the MLB Players' Association to produce official baseball cards. In August 2021, Topps was designated to be replaced by Fanatics, which will produce officially licensed MLB cards beginning in 2026.
From Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Honus Wagner to Los Angeles Angels standout Mike Trout, here are nine iconic cards of star players that were sold or auctioned for significant sums:
1. Honus Wagner | Card Sold For: $6,606,000
Star power: Known as "The Flying Dutchman," Wagner had 3,420 hits and 723 stolen bases in his career with the Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1897-1917. He led the National League in batting eight times and runs batted in and stolen bases five times each. In 1936, he was a member of the first Baseball Hall of Fame class.
Iconic card: 1911 American Tobacco Company T206, which sold for $6.606 million in August 2021.
Legend has it that Wagner was a teetotaler who abhorred the use of his likeness to sell tobacco. Others maintain Wagner demanded more compensation from the company for using his likeness, and thus the production of the card was limited. Whatever the reason for its rarity, the Wagner T206 card remains the most famous baseball card.
2. Mickey Mantle | Card Sold For: $5.2 Million
Star power: A tremendous all-around player before an injury-filled decline, Mantle—who played from 1951-1968—is regarded as the best switch-hitter in MLB history. If he were not hurt so often, he may have threatened Ruth's all-time record for home runs. Mantle finished his MLB career with 536 homers.
Iconic card: 1952 Topps #311, which sold for $5.2 million in 2021.
It may be the most legendary trading card in sports, and it’s not even Mantle’s rookie card. That honor goes to his 1951 Bowman card. But the 1952 Topps Mantle has one thing that card doesn't: A fabulous backstory.
In 1952, Topps owner Sy Berger let the printing presses run for some of his company's cards. But the late-summer release cooled collectors on the cards, and cases of the product went unsold. In 1960, Berger had as many as 500 cases of the cards—including Mantle's now-valuable card—dumped into the Hudson River.
3. Babe Ruth | Card Sold For: $4,212,000
Star power: Known as "The Great Bambino," "The Sultan of Swat," "The Colossus of Clout" or simply "The Babe," Ruth was the game’s first global star. Like Wagner, he was selected to MLB’s All-Century team and a member of the first Hall of Fame class in 1936. Ruth, who played from 1914-1935, was the longtime MLB all-time home run champion until he was surpassed by Hank Aaron (1974) and Barry Bonds (2004).
Iconic card: 1933 Goudey #53, which sold for $4,212,000 in a July 2021 auction.
In 1933, a year after his final World Series title, the Goudey Gum Company produced a 240-card set, including four Ruth cards. But card No. 53, with Ruth cast against a bright yellow background, remains the standard. This iconic card was graded in mint condition by Professional Sports Authenticator.
4. Mike Trout | Card Sold For: $3.9 Million
Star power: Widely regarded as the game's best active player, the future Hall of Famer was an all-star in nine of his first 11 seasons. The Los Angeles Angels' outfielder has three American League MVP awards.
Iconic card: 2009 Bowman Draft BDPP89 Superfractor, which sold for $3.9 million in August 2020.
Topps—which produces Bowman cards—began creating “parallel” cards in 1992, short-printed versions of base cards that are rarer and more valuable. The Superfractor version of Trout’s Bowman Draft autographed rookie card—a shimmery gold edition that was limited to just one copy—set the record for highest card sale until it was eclipsed several times in 2020 and 2021.
5. Nolan Ryan | Card Sold For: $600,000
Star power: One of the game's more feared power pitchers, Ryan struck out an MLB-record 5,714 batters, nearly 1,000 more than the No. 2 man on the list, Randy Johnson. He was an ironman, pitching for four teams over a 27-year career from 1966-93 before retiring at age 46.
Iconic card: 1968 Topps Rookie Card #177 (with fellow Mets pitcher Jerry Koosman), which sold for $600,000 in August 2020.
Some may argue about Ryan's lack of team success. He played for only one World Series champion, the 1969 New York Mets. But he set numerous records. Koosman—who got top billing on the card—was a good player in his own right. He finished his career with 222 wins. Few of these cards have been found in excellent condition.
6. Jackie Robinson | Card Sold For: $392,400
Star power: Robinson, a Hall of Famer, broke the MLB color barrier in 1947, becoming a social justice icon in the process. A remarkable all-around athlete, he starred in four sports (baseball, basketball football and track) at UCLA. Robinson, who played from 1947-1956, was a six-time National League all-star and named Most Valuable Player in 1949. His jersey No. 42 has been retired by all MLB teams.
Iconic Card: 1948 Leaf #79, which sold for $392,400 in March 2021.
The iconic 1948 card—the most desirable in a set filled with early cards of greats such stars as Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn and DiMaggio—was rated a PSA 7. A 10 rating, "gem mint condition," is the highest PSA rating.
7. Joe DiMaggio | Card Sold For: $218,578
Star power: Joltin' Joe's MLB-record 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is one of the sport's more amazing marks. A 13-time all-star and nine-time batting champion, DiMaggio was a pop-culture icon who married Marilyn Monroe and was immortalized in song in 1941 by the Les Brown Orchestra with lyrics by Alan Courtney and Ben Homer.
Iconic Card: 1939 Play Ball #26, which sold for $218,578 in July 2021.
One of several DiMaggio cards from obscure manufacturers, the 1939 Play Ball card is considered his top rookie card. The normally stoic star smiles on the Play Ball Card. Other high-quality versions of his 1936 World Wide Gum and 1938 Goudey cards may command even more than this card.
8. Rickey Henderson | Card Sold For: $180,100
Star power: Known as "The Man of Steal," Henderson—who starred for the Oakland A's and New York Yankees over the course of his 25-year career—is considered the best leadoff hitter in MLB history. He is the all-time leader in stolen bases and runs (2,295). Henderson's 1,406 career steals are nearly 500 more than the No. 2 player on the list, Lou Brock.
Iconic card: 1980 Topps #482, which sold for $180,100 in February 2021.
From the 1950s through the early 1980s, Topps made cards that often deteriorated quickly and thus lost their value to card collectors. As a result, a mint-condition Henderson rookie card by Topps became nearly impossible to find. According to Professional Sports Authenticator, the grading service for sports memorabilia, more than 23,000 copies of the card have been graded. Only 25, 0.1 percent of those made, have earned a mint condition designation.
9. Ken Griffey Jr. | Card Sold For: $23,100
Star power: "The Kid" combined a rare blend of skill and athleticism to become a fan favorite, especially with his first team, the Seattle Mariners. A first-ballot Hall-of-Famer with 99.3 percent of the votes, Griffey—who retired after the 2010 season—was a 13-time all-star and led the American League in home runs four times. He finished his career with 630 home runs.
Iconic card: 1989 Upper Deck #1, $23,100 in March 2021.
Griffey's 1989 Upper Deck rookie card was an instant sensation. Ungraded copies sold for more than $100 soon after the set's release. Griffey went on to justify that lofty price by becoming perhaps the best player of the 1990s.