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Starting a Vintage Baseball Card Collection

Updated: Jul 17


Likely prompted by a photo I shared on social media, I was contacted last week by a collector looking to jumpstart a low-cost, vintage collection of All-Time Greats. In sharing a few tips I realized this might be an excellent topic for my monthly Hobby News Daily column.


Along those lines, here are five tips that can help collectors new to the vintage market embark on a fun, rewarding, and cost-effective journey to the past. I know not all my tips will work for all collectors and collections, but hopefully all collectors will find at least a couple that prove useful.


TIP ONE: FIND A FOCUS


There is so much out there, and no collector will ever have it all. Thinking early about what it is you want to collect will help you prioritize where and how you spend your money. While it’s absolutely not a crime to pick up random cool cards with no rhyme or reason, the collector following this approach almost inevitably finds themselves in a position later on where they wish they’d followed a more of a plan.


Here are some common and enjoyable examples a vintage collector might focus on.


  • Collecting the career of a favorite player. Naturally, players like Ralph Kiner or Johnny Bench will prove far more affordable than Mickey Mantle or Honus Wagner! Once the player is selected, there can be further decisions around whether a basic Topps run, an “everything ever” approach, or something in between makes the most sense.

  • Collecting one card apiece for some category of players. Hall of Famers is a common choice here, but it’s smart to think through in advance how to handle the Hall’s members whose only contemporary cardboard is either extremely rare, extremely expensive, or non-existent. (For many of these players, the 1960 and 1961 Fleer Baseball Greats sets might be a reasonable alternative.) Another example here might be players whose numbers have been retired by your favorite team. This list will not only be much shorter and more accessible but probably also more meaningful.

  • Choosing a vintage set (or team set) to complete. Provided you’re my age or older, a common choice is “birth year.” Of course many, if not most, collectors entering the vintage market would hesitate to consider their birth year (e.g., 1998) set as vintage! One fun approach is to choose a year that’s meaningful in some other way to you personally or to your team. For example, a Mets fan might choose 1969 or even 1962. Another approach is to choose a set you simply love the look of (e.g., 1934-36 Diamond Stars or 1911 T205 Pittsburgh Pirates).

  • A “type collection” that might include one card from as many different sets/years/decades/etc as possible.


Obviously there are many, many more approaches you can take to your collection. One of the best ways to define your own focus is to talk to other collectors about what they collect and why. And while you’re at it, ask them about the biggest obstacles, challenges, and surprises they’ve bumped into. For example, a T205 collector might let you know that Kaiser Wilhelm will cost you more than most of the set’s Hall of Famers!


Before heading to our next tip, I want to emphasize that having a focus does not mean you can only collect one thing! For example, my vintage collecting “focus” is Hank Aaron, Dave Hoskins, Carl Hubbell, Brooklyn Dodgers team sets, T212 Obak Vernon/Los Angeles team sets, one card apiece of my “Top 100” players, and the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team!


TIP TWO: AVOID ROOKIE CARDS


While many vintage collectors focus exclusively on rookie cards, they are rarely the collectors looking to build cool collections on a shoestring budget. On the contrary, they either have a lot of money to spend on the Hobby or see themselves as investors/flippers hoping to “buy high, sell higher.” For the rest of us, a great way to score bang for our buck is to look at second-year cards, which often cost only a tenth what a rookie card would cost. (Mickey Mantle is a famous exception here!)


Besides, second year cards often look a lot cooler! Three examples of fantastic second-year cards are Dick Allen, Joe Morgan, and Thurman Munson. Personally, I consider all three to be works of art whereas each of the rookie cards is just meh.



And hey, third year cards can be fantastic too. Though I enjoy his rookie card, the 1959 Topps Frank Robinson is one of the best looking cards ever made. (In fairness, they’re both gorgeous!)




Now don’t get me wrong. If the rookie card is a “gotta have it” for you, then so be it. But if not, enjoy the massive savings along with the complete freedom to select whatever card you like best of a player, based on age, cost, how cool it looks, or other criteria.


TIP THREE: AVOID SHARP CORNERS


A high grade vintage card can be a sight to behold. There’s no doubt about it. At the same time, these beauties ain’t cheap. Looking to collect the 1933 Goudey Boston Braves? The card on the left just sold for $7.51; the one on the right just sold for $142.50.



Even beyond the gigantic cost savings, there is a lot to like about “well loved” cards that show their wear. This is definitely the case with my 1909-11 T212 Obak collection. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the sixteen cards below cost me what just ONE of them would have cost in VG-EX. Plus, when I handle these cards, I never have to worry about dinging a corner!



As with rookie cards, if you have a ton to spend or you’re looking to “buy high, sell higher,” these low grade beauties may be the exact opposite of what makes sense. But if you are simply looking to add and enjoy a lot of cool cards on a budget, off-condition cards may well be your life blood.


TIP FOUR: AVOID FAKES


There is probably nothing that ruin’s a collector’s day more than finally adding the card they’d dreamed about for months or just spent some serious cash on, only to find out it’s a fake.



The solution for many collectors is to “only buy graded.” Honestly, that’s decent advice, and I’m not going to talk anyone out of going that route. On the other hand, graded cards tend to cost more, take up more room in your shoebox, and strip away the tactile (and even olfactory!) pleasures century-old cardboard has to offer.


An alternative I recommend for the newer collector is to head to card shows. Any dealer with a table full of fakes will be identified and uprooted quickly. I don’t want to pretend there are zero fakes at card shows, but the truth is there are also plenty of fakes inside PSA and SGC slabs. Another benefit of card shows is you can hold the card in your hand prior to pulling the trigger. These days it is much easier to make fakes that look real than it is to make fakes that feel real.


Another way to avoid fakes is to connect with others in the Hobby. No experienced collector wants 20 direct messages from you each day asking, “Does this card look legit?” However, most collectors are very happy to share opinions and expertise if not bombarded. If you don’t know many vintage collectors yet, posting the card to social media is another way to go. Of course a risk is that someone swoops in and snatches the card you’re considering before you can return to eBay and “Buy it now!”


TIP FIVE: ENJOY THE RIDE!


Ultimately, this one is the most important tip of them all. If the Hobby causes you nothing but agony, stress, and outrage, you’re either doing it wrong or you chose the wrong hobby. Here are several ways I’ve upped my enjoyment of the Hobby over the years.


When a card arrives, yes, you can simply add it to the box or binder. On the other hand, here are some ways to enjoy the card even more.


  • Allow yourself to fully take it in. Stare at it for hours. Read the back. Learn even more about the player. Smell the card. Feel it. Smell it some more.


  • Take some deep dives. If the card has a photo, can you figure out when and where it was taken? If the card features artwork, can you track down a source photo? How many collectors have Jackie Robinson’s 1947-66 Exhibits card, yet have no idea the photograph features Jackie as a 1946 Montreal Royal?


  • Spread the news! Post the card to social media for all to see. Text your card collecting buds. Tell your non-collector buds. (Boring for them but still fun for you!) As I like to say, connecting is the new collecting!


  • Showcase it! Maybe it’s final home will still be a box or binder, but you can still give it some time on a shelf, in a case, or somewhere else where you can enjoy it even more. The photo I led off this article with is of a framed display on my wall that I walk by multiple times a day.


Another way to enjoy the ride is to set and celebrate lots of mini-goals along the way to your main goal. For example, if you’re collecting the 1969 Topps set, here are some small goals you might work toward:


  • Completing a team

  • Completing a binder page

  • Hitting a milestone like 25%, 50%, or 75% of the set

  • Finishing the All-Stars subset

  • Adding a new Hall of Famer


I know this will be too far out for some of you, but sometimes I hold an induction ceremony before placing a new card into a binder or display.


ME: “Today we are excited to welcome the T206 Bill Bergen catching variation into the binder. Though he was a terrible hitter, possibly the worst of all-time, Bill takes us to 20 out of 27 cards in the Dodger team set and at long last completes this 20-pocket sheet. Bill, do you have anything you’d like to say?”


WIFE: “Who are you talking to, Babe?”


ME: “Huh? Oh, um, sorry. I was just asking you how your day was!


The truth is, I could probably go on much longer, with this tip or with others I haven’t even mentioned. On the other hand, I’d much rather you learned a little from a lot of different collectors than a whole lot from just one. Put yourself out there, meet people, make friends, find fun accounts to follow, read voraciously, listen to Hobby podcasts, watch cool YouTubes, and do whatever else you can to absorb Hobby knowledge.


Just remember, the goal is not to collect what Collector X collects or what Influencer Y likes to hype. Rather, the goal is to find your own unique identity as a collector, pursuing the cards most meaningful and rewarding to you personally and feasible given the time, space, and money you can realistically dedicate.


Happy collecting, and be sure to tag @HobbyNewsDaily as you build your collection!

1 Comment


Excellent advice Jason! I've been collecting vintage on a budget since I was 12! To me, the key has always been to not get hung up on condition. I have things I don't like, but even then, for a really expensive card, I have to give on condition to have a chance at affording it. Rounded corners or a small crease don't affect the enjoyment of looking at and reading the card any. To that end, I've never understood the fascination of graded cards. In my experience, a graded card is almost always (much) more expensive than an ungraded card in the same condition. And as you say, I can't even enjoy the card as much because it's stran…


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