There’s a reason why collecting trading cards is not only a hobby for sports enthusiasts, but often as not considered an investment. There are slews of are cards that have appreciated in value, giving kids who bought packs of cards for a dollar or less treasures that are worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars—that is if they were among the lucky or shrewd enough collectors to hold onto their cards and keep them in pristine condition. For everyone did responsibly preserve cards from the 1970s and earlier, there are many, many more collectors who threaded them through the spokes of their bicycle wheels, taped them to their walls, or threw away their collections before they became big business.
The flip side of classic cards appreciating in value is those cards that have plummeted in value. In particular, there was a transitional period from around the late 1970s to the mid 1990s when the community of collectors swelled, and the number of cards produced and sold nationally exploded. Cards of top talents of the day rose to prominence, commanding high valuations in pricing guides and hobby shops. However, as the reality set in that more modern collectors with better collecting equipment were holding ono their cards, a number of once valuable issues settled back to reality and started selling for far lower prices.
In the ebb and flow of collecting, companies have responded with more premium editions and limited releases, including inserting serial numbered legitimately limited editions, autographed cards, and cards featuring patches from game worn jerseys into sets. Thus, there are legitimately valuable cards coming out again, which may well be worthy long-term investments.
This article takes a look at fifteen trading cards that are worth a fortune, and fifteen that have plummeted in value.
30 Fortune: Mickey Mantle, 1952 Topps
Few pieces of memorabilia can compete with the Mickey Mantle rookie card when it comes to notoriety or sheer dollar value. Sure, it’s a classic card, attached to an all time great, which itself might make the card fetch into the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars at auction. There’s additional lore attached to this early Topps release, though.
As reported by Bleacher Report, Topps thought it had overproduced relative to demand, and shipped cases upon cases of its 1952 release a trash barge.
Thus arose a true scarcity, and the legend of one of the most iconic cards in history. Nowadays, particularly in great condition, the card can easily command a price in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
29 Plummeted: Mark McGwire, 1985 Topps
There was a period when Mark McGwire captured the imagination of the United States. Accordingly, the value of his baseball cards soared, particularly in that period when card collecting was riding high in the 90s.
If the value of McGwire’s rookie card soared on account of perfect storm, so too did it collapse. After it became clear he wasn't playing clean, he became less of a folk hero, and more of controversial figure. Meanwhile, the mass production and mass preservation of baseball cards from this era reared its head. A perfectly preserved McGwire rookie card can still draw hundreds of dollars, but it’s easy enough for a collector to get a less than pristine copy for well under a hundred bucks.
28 Fortune: Michael Jordan, 1986-87 Fleer
As one would predict, the official rookie card for the arguably the greatest basketball player who ever lived does command a premium. Indeed, Jordan’s card comes from the iconic 1986-87 Fleer set—the first officially licensed, nationally distributed NBA cards after a five year gap, which thus allowed it to include rookie releases for anyone who debuted from 1982 to 1986.
The Jordan card is particularly iconic, though, and in near mint condition can draw into the tens of thousands of dollars at auction.
27 Plummeted: Johnny Manziel, 2014 Topps
There was a time in the early 2010s when Johnny Manziel was looked at as one of the top prospects in all of football. So, when he got his first official card release, it sparked excitement in even jaded collectors, who clamored to get a hold of his rookie cards as longer term investments.
Manziel’s personal life has caused all sorts of complications for his career on the field.
As a result, the buzz around his career and his collectibles has fizzled. Where there was once a huge demand for his cards, they’re now difficult to move for any meaningful amount.
26 Fortune: Nolan Ryan, 1968 Topps
For his talent, longevity, and popularity, Nolan Ryan is one of the biggest legends in baseball history. For having debuted in the 1960s, he’s from a generation ahead of many serious collectors, making a mint condition copy of his rookie card difficult to find and very valuable.
Ryan rookie cards in very good condition can cost a collector in the thousands of dollars. According to Old Sports Cards the one known PSA 10 Gem Mint copy sold for over $600,000 at auction.
25 Plummeted: Alexandre Daigle, 1993-94 Upper Deck
When Alexandre Daigle was drafted by the Ottawa Senators, there were allegations floating around that the Senators had purposefully tanked the preceding season in order to position themselves draft the hottest prospect in hockey. Accordingly, upon Daigle’s debut in the pros, his rookie card was a hot commodity, and particularly the premium release from Upper Deck.
Unfortunately, Daigle would never live up to expectations, and though he was a competent enough player to stretch out his days in the NHL for over a decade, he was never a star. Just as his fame and popularity fizzled, so too did his card values, and it’s tough going trying to sell his rookie card for more than five dollars these days.
24 Fortune: Joe Namath, 1965 Topps
On occasion, there’s a perfect storm of an all time legend who debuted before cards were typically well preserved, and has a rookie card that was is particularly difficult to find in good condition.
The 1965 Topps NFL release came out on oversized cards that don’t fit typical protective cases or even sheets.
Such is the case for Joe Namath’s rookie card. The New York Jets All Star, and the Most Valuable Player from the third ever Super Bowl has a card befitting his iconic legacy. It’s one of the most sought after football cards in the world, and in pristine condition can draw valuations up to the six figure mark.
23 Plummeted: Jose Canseco, 1986 Donruss
There was a time with Jose Canseco’s rookie card looked like the standard bearer for its era. Canseco was popular and wildly successful, and in a popular era for collecting, his Donruss rookie card shot up in value upwards of $100, with every indication it would appreciate over time.
Not only did Canseco’s rookie card come out at the dawn of cards being over produced and more conscientiously preserved, but his career also fizzled in its latter stretch. Worse, he became linked to various substances, tarnishing his legacy. His rookie card’s value has plummeted, generally cited at around a $20 valuation these days.
22 Fortune: Wayne Gretzky, 1979 O-Pee-Chee
Wayne Gretzky is one of the definitive icons of professional hockey. With four Stanley Cups on his resume, and nine regular season MVP superlatives, his record is beyond reproach. He also projected a positive image in embracing his status as a role model and speaking up against fighting in hockey.
Fittingly, Gretzky’s rookie card is among the most sought after pieces of hockey memorabilia there is. In mint condition, his 1979 O-Pee-Chee release can draw well into five figures at auction.
21 Plummeted: Michael Jordan, 1994 Upper Deck
One of the most desirable novelty cards of the early 1990s was Michael Jordan’s baseball rookie card. Sure, any Jordan card at all will draw at least a few bucks from avid collectors, but here was fans’ opportunity to get ahead on Jordan’s next sports enterprise. His basketball rookie cards became the stuff of hobby legend. If his baseball prospects turned out similarly, might they curry similar favor as long term investments?
Jordan’s baseball career wound up shorter and largely forgettable beyond the historical footnote of it being his endeavor off the basketball court in his break between championship efforts.
The once sought after novelty cards are no longer desirable to card vendors, and someone trying to sell one would be lucky to get ten bucks for it.
20 Fortune: Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, and Larry Bird, 1980-81 Topps
Cards depicting multiple players generally don’t draw as high of a value as those focused on a single athlete. A perfect storm hit for the 1980-81 Topps card featuring Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving, though. Not only is the card Johnson’s recognized rookie card—it’s also Bird’s. Add onto two all time great rookie cards another legend in Dr. J, and you have a card that immediately demands respect.
On top of the players depicted and its rookie card status, this set of Topps cards included perforations between each player that all but invited collectors to tear them apart and only keep their favorite players. The result is a particularly difficult card to find full in tact and in great condition.
19 Plummeted: Ben McDonald, 1990 Donruss
Ben McDonald was the first overall draft pick in 1986, and seemed to hold the promise of becoming an al time great pitcher. Pair that buzz with baseball cards reaching a peak in popularity—particularly among investment minded collectors—and you had one of the greatest treasures of the hobby for a fleeting period of time.
McDonald’s actual baseball career was more forgettable, as he never made good on his superstar promise. With a less than exceptional career and a large number of well preserved copies of his rookie card to go around, it’s an essentially worthless card nowadays.
18 Fortune: George Mikan, 1948 Bowman
While George Mikan may not be a household name these days, in the nascent days of the NBA, he was generally considered the greatest basketball player in the world. Accordingly, his rookie card is a valuable one.
The 1948 Bowman set that includes Mikan’s rookie issue is also the first licensed, nationally distributed NBA card set, adding a little extra appeal.
The set is now 70 years old, making it especially difficult to find any card from it—let alone its crown jewel—in pristine shape. So it is that even a middling copy can fetch thousands of dollars, and one in true mint condition can get up to six figures at auction.
17 Plummeted: Ken Griffey Jr., 1989 Upper Deck
Like so many players who came of age and moved up into the majors and the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ken Griffey Jr. was a superstar prospect whose rookie cards commanded a premium from collectors eager to see its value appreciate overtime. Even though Griffey was a legitimate star, the relative ease of accessing his cards has seen them lose clout over time.
While a pristine copy of Griffey’s rookie card can still solicit bids in the hundreds of dollars at auction, collectors can obtain a more run of the mill edition in the neighborhood of a $10 price tag.
16 Fortune: Jim Brown, 1958 Topps
Jim Brown was a truly legendary fullback in the NFL who picked up Most Valuable Player honors three times before he retired early, at the age of 30, to pursue acting. His legend lives on among football fans, and particularly card collectors.
According to the PSA website, Brown’s rookie cards are hard to find without print defects, making a clean and well preserved copy a true treasure of the hobby. It can cost well into six figures when such a copy of the card surfaces.
15 Plummeted: Anfernee Hardaway, 1993-94 Fleer Ultra
There was a time when Anfernee Hardaway looked like the future of the NBA. Paired with star center Shaquille O’Neal on the Orlando Magic, Hardaway had offensive prowess that drew comparisons to Michael Jordan, and playmaking ability and size that made some fans liken him to Magic Johnson.
Unfortunately, injuries derailed Hardaway’s success, and the partnership with O’Neal only lasted so long before the big man went to Los Angeles.
While Hardaway had a respectable career, he never arrived as the superstar or champion so many prognosticated.
Accordingly, his once highly sought rookie card has become just another rookie card of a minor star, accessible for around ten bucks.
14 Fortune: Derek Jeter, 1993 SP
There are so many young prospects in sports who command attention early on based on their potential, and fizzle once they’ve been tested by more than a few seasons in the pros. Derek Jeter is that rare rookie who made good on his promise. He was not only a perennial All Star, but ultimately led the Yankees to five World Series championships.
Jeter’s rookie card from SP is a beauty, but has notorious condition issues related to its foil coating. A perfect copy of this card can command around a $50,000 asking price today.
13 Plummeted: J.D. Drew, 1998 Leaf
J.D. Drew is a sad case of an All Star caliber player whose stock with fans—and particularly baseball card collectors—slipped because of too lofty expectations.
His professional career started with a sense of deferred pleasure and disappointment when contract negotiations derailed his first season.
From there, he went to a career that was very good—just not great to the level pundits had predicted for him.
The market, predictably, started out hot for Drew’s rookie cards. Today, fans can pick up his 1998 Leaf release in very good condition for under twenty bucks.
12 Fortune: Patrick Roy, 1986-87 Topps
Patrick Roy is widely regarded as one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history, and has gone on to reinforce his pro hockey legacy with a successful coaching career. While hockey cards have never quite inspired the high dollar values attached to other major sports, Roy’s rookie card from Topps is a fine example of an edition that has stood the test of time and holds its own. In pristine condition, the card can draw up to three hundred dollar bids at auction.
11 Plummeted: Jeff Bagwell, 1992 Fleer Rookie Sensation
Jeff Bagwell debuted as a star in MLB, and would go on to a fine career. However, for those collectors who gathered his rookie cards as investments, that gambit will probably never pay off. Bagwell’s cards got a bump commensurate with not only his early buzz, but because the baseball card hobby was booming during that time. That spark has mostly fizzled now, though, and a premium release like his 1992 Fleer Rookie Sensation card—particularly in less than pristine shape—is now accessible for under the ten dollar mark.
10 Fortune: Jerry West, 1961-62 Fleer
Jerry West isn’t just an all time NBA great—he’s a figure so iconic that his silhouette remains in the official NBA logo.
The Lakers star went on to distinguished career as an executive that kept him in the limelight long after his playing career was done.
With an aesthetically pleasing release from before collectors were all that fastidious about protecting their cards, well preserved copies of West’s 1961-62 Fleer rookie card can draw easily into five figure valuations at auction.
9 Plummeted: JaMarcus Russell, 2007 Bowman Chrome
When he was the first pick in the NFL Draft, JaMarcus Russell seemed to have 'next big thing' written all over him. However, his career would never deliver on that promise and Russell wound up a bust who only played three seasons.
As is the case for so many hot prospects, collectors flocked to Russell’s early releases out of fandom and an eye toward the cards appreciating down the road. Little did they know that his rookie cards would max out their potential early in his first season. To make matters worse, super premium releases highlighted by autographs and pieces of jersey being inserted in cards were gathering steam at this time. Thus even relatively premium brand like Bowman Chrome’s standard issue rookie cards wouldn’t hold up as well preceding years’ releases.
8 Fortune: Bronko Nagurski, 1935 National Chicle
Bronko Nagurski was a member of the inaugural class of the NFL Hall of Fame, and lives on as a legend of his sport. Having started up in 1935, it’s fitting too that his rookie card would be difficult to track down, especially in any sort of well preserved state.
The Nagurski rookie card is generally considered the highest valued card in football, with mint copies valued, according to Old Sports Cards, as high as $750,000 if a collector with deep pockets can even find one.
7 Plummeted: Grant Hill, 1994-95 Topps Finest Refractor
Upon his debut in the NBA, Grant Hill had all manner of buzz surrounding him. His first six seasons in the NBA, playing with the Detroit Pistons, largely delivered on that promise.
While he didn’t bring Detroit into striking distance of a championship, he was nonetheless a versatile player and prolific scorer.
Injuries would derail Hill’s budding career. While he kept at it in the prose or a deceptively long time—a total of 18 seasons—a part of why it was easy to miss the tail end of his career was that he spent the latter two thirds of it a shell of the promising star he’d once been. Accordingly, Hill’s top rookie cards suffered in value as his career stretched on, taking him from the upper echelon of the hobby to just aother guy.
6 Fortune: Albert Pujols, 2001 Bowman Chrome Autographed Refractor
Albert Pujols is a modern baseball great. Not only did he generate excitement upon his move up to the pros, but he delivered on his potential as a three-time National League MVP and perennial All Star during his prime playing for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Pujols’s rookie cards are worth some money, but truest treasure or him are his most exclusive and premium inserts. A rare Bowman Chrome Autographed Refractor from his rookie season can easily demand five figure bids at auction.
5 Plummeted: Alex Rodriguez, 1995 SP
Alex Rodriguez was a popular star of baseball with a decorated career that stretched over two decades and included three American League MVP awards and a World Series Championship. From a hobby perspective, however, collectors who went wild over his rookie card were a victim of poor timing.
By 1995, the bloom was off the rose when it came to gathering and fiercely protecting cards as investments.
Mass production and the biggest population ever of collectors carefully preserving their cards added up to top cards losing value over years when it was clear there was no shortage of top editions. Even for a great player like Rodriguez, copies of this once coveted rookie card are pretty accessible around the five dollar mark.
4 Fortune: Mario Lemieux, 1985 Topps
After being selected first in the 1984 NHL Draft, Mario Lemieux made good on his considerable promise with a long and decorated career. While injuries limited his accomplishments (and his chances of breaking some of Gretzky's records), he nonetheless remained a respected star across two decades.
Lemieux emerged in the right era, and in the right sport such that there isn’t a huge surplus of these cards around, particularly in tip-top condition. Thus a mint copy of it can solicit bids in the five figure range at auction.
3 Plummeted: Bo Jackson, 1990 Score
Bo Jackson emerged as one of most famous figures in sort in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the unusual distinction playing professional baseball and professional football concurrently. Combine his versatile athleticism with his big personality, and he became a bit of pop culture phenomenon and darling of card collectors of the day.
Jackson never emerged as an all time great in either of the sports he pursued, though, and interest in his cards fizzled. His black and white 1990 Score baseball card is probably his most famous release, but particularly in less than pristine shape, it’s not unreasonable for today’s collector to buy a copy for around a dollar.
2 Fortune: Pete Maravich, 1970 Topps
Pete Maravich was an early legend of the NBA, particularly famous for tricks of ball handling and passing that were well ahead of their time. Paired with genuine skill on the court that made him not only a highlight reel player, but a legitimate all time great, he earned his spot as a favorite among basketball fans and card collectors.
Maravich’s rookie card is particularly difficult to find in pristine shape because of the oversized format Topps used that year.
A mint condition copy can fetch close to $5,000 at auction.
1 Plummeted: Brien Taylor, 1992 Topps Gold
Brien Taylor was supposed to be a big deal for the sport of baseball. He was the first pick in the 1991 Draft and looked bound for glory with the New York Yankees. However, Taylor’s legacy took a turn when he got into a fight off the field and injured his shoulder. A once bright prospect never actually wound up playing a single game of Major League ball.
Taylor seemed like a sure enough thing to be featured in the 1992 Topps Gold release, including particularly rare autographed copies of the card inserted into packs. It threatened to become one of the hottest baseball cards the hobby had ever seen. However, given Taylor’s fall from grace, even a well preserved copy of Taylor’s 1992 Topps Gold card can’t sell for much more than ten bucks.