5 Ways to Invest in 1980s and Early 1990s Baseball Cards

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By Ryan Cracknell | Hobby Editor | Commentary

For the most part today, collecting baseball cards from the 1980s and early 1990s is done so for fun. It’s an era that’s great for nostalgia, but the hard truth is that the vast majority of cards produced during the era will never be worth much. It’s not a knock on the cards themselves. The Junk Wax Era gave us many classic cards and many great sets.

Places-Invest-1980s-1990s-Baseball-Cards

But there’s a difference between a memorable card and one that’s worth lots of money. But what if there was some investment potential in 1980s baseball cards and other cards from the era? Or maybe you love cards from that period but want something a little nicer and tougher to chase.

They’re out there.

’80s and ’90s Baseball Card Reality Check

Simply put, baseball cards released in the 1980s through about 1993 were produced in such large numbers that it was sustainable to maintain demand over the long-term. Lots of people were buying cards at the time so those massive print runs may have been justified. But many of those who were collecting at the time were either speculating or they eventually lost interest.

People leaving the hobby didn’t mean cards were disappearing. By the time the 1980s rolled around, the mantra around sports cards was that they could be worth something someday. So we cared for our cards. They were put in special boxes, pages and sleeves. Our moms didn’t throw our cards away. They tucked them away in the basement or the back of the closet with the idea that they’d be retrieved and cashed in like a bond.

The likelihood that those boxes of cards matured monetarily is slim. Even as a growing number of kids from the 1980s and ’90s are getting back into the hobby, the supply of the sports cards of their youth still outpaces demand.

But not all of the baseball cards from that period were printed by the millions. Some are legitimately rare. These cards can already be more costly but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily expensive or have room to grow.

Places to Invest in 1980s and Early 1990s Baseball Cards

There’s no guarantee that you’ll make money with these tips. And even if you do, it won’t be big-money. Rather, consider these tips on things that could make some gains in the years ahead as well as offer something a little tougher to chase from the era.

Minor League Cards

The massive print runs for sports cards are generally limited to big league sports cards. A lot of minor league cards, particularly those from the early to mid 1980s, were produced with the idea of local distribution. They may have been used as a stadium promotion or sold for a couple of dollars at the team store. Either way, unless you were at that particular ballpark, you didn’t have easy access to them.

Regional distribution also means smaller quantities. Some minor league cards are more plentiful than others, particularly if a big-name prospect played for the team. Also, some of these sets were reprinted, taking away that rarity aspect that makes a lot of them intriguing. But there are gems out there for both Hall of Famers and fan favorites.

1982 TCMA Hawaii Islanders Tony Gwynn

Top-Condition Graded Cards

A common piece of advice about investing in collectibles, whether it’s baseball cards, art, lunch boxes or anything else, is buy the best your budget allows. So when it comes to mainstream 1980s baseball cards, that might mean looking to the graded market. Targeting Gem Mint and Pristine cards from the era offers some intrigue.

Even if the population reports for these cards aren’t as limited as vintage cards — especially when there are still plenty of potential top-condition cards still out in the wild in abandoned collections — they go with the mantra of the best of the best.

By opting for high-end graded cards, it adds that hunt element as well that makes collecting fun, which is still important even if you’re looking at the potential to make a profit down the road. It’s easy for me to find a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. for $25 or less today. Finding a deal on a graded Gem Mint copy represents the hunt that I love.

1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr RC BGS 9-5

Topps Tiffany Cards

Topps Tiffany represents the more limited version of 1980s and early 1990s baseball cards. These factory sets were usually printed in much smaller quantities. On top of that, they’re better quality. So while you can find hundreds of 1985 Topps Mark McGwire Rookie Cards, just 5,000 of the Tiffany versions were produced.

Today, that sounds like a big number. For cards of the era, that’s tiny.

What Topps Tiffany offers is that sense of familiarity and nostalgia because they’re essentially the same cards that got many of us into collecting. But their rarity offers something more valuable and brings with it more potential for growth.

1986 Topps Traded Tiffany Bo Jackson

Test-Issue, Experimental and Special Release Sets

Card companies have a history of trying out new products and licenses through test releases. Often, these products are sent to select markets and printed in much smaller quantities. Now, as player collectors attempt to track down as much as they can of their favorites, these test issues can prove to be both difficult to find and expensive.

But they bring a couple of things that most 1980s and 1990s baseball cards don’t. The most obvious is rarity. Some of these test issues and special releases are also different in their look and feel from regular cards.

One such set from the era is 1988 Topps Cloth Baseball. A total of 121 cards from the 1988 Topps set were printed on fabric. The idea was that they’d work like a sponge when water was added. The set was scrapped but a limited number of cards still found their way to the secondary market. The checklist includes several stars as well as a cloth version of the 1988 Topps Tom Glavine Rookie Card.

1988 Topps Cloth Tom Glavine

Perhaps the most famous special release of the era is 1991 Topps Desert Shield Baseball. Basically a parallel to the regular 1991 Topps Baseball set, the cards were made as a thank you to American troops stationed in the Middle East or set to go there. A foil stamp is what differentiates these from the regular 1991 Topps set. Already produced in limited supplies, top-condition 1991 Topps Desert Shield Baseball cards are extremely rare today.

Sealed Boxes

Slowly but surely, sealed 1980s baseball card boxes are starting to dry up. And by slowly, I mean slowly. At this point, anything from 1986 and earlier is starting to see some appreciation in value — even 1986 Topps Baseball. We’re still far from a point where they’ll be worth significant amounts.

1986 Topps Baseball Box

The thing to consider with unopened boxes is that it’s the fact that they’re sealed that gives them value. Open them and you’re unlikely to recoup your costs beyond the fun that comes with getting cards of the greats from your youth and the chance to “eat” 30-year-old gum. Pro tip: don’t take it further than the thought stage. It’s gross.

Again, there are no guarantees when it comes to rising values and making money off of 1980s baseball cards. But these are a few areas where I see some growth potential. Those of us who grew up during this period have a little more money than our allowances back in the day. The new stuff can be nice, but so can the originals.

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Ryan Cracknell

A collector for much of his life, Ryan focuses primarily on building sets, Montreal Expos and interesting cards. He's also got one of the most comprehensive collections of John Jaha cards in existence (not that there are a lot of them). Got a question, story idea or want to get in touch? You can reach him by email and through Twitter @tradercracks.

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10 comments

  1. Jim 31 March, 2017 at 17:12

    What happen to this being a hobby. Cards should never be thought of as an investment. That is the reason people like me scaled back collecting. It’s sad that it seems today’s cards are not about the cards, but hit in packs and boxes that are not obviously produced for kids. Just one collectors opinion

    • Ryan Cracknell 2 April, 2017 at 03:31

      Different people collect for different reasons. Some strictly for fun, some to make money, some a bit of both. We’re also talking about cards that are 20 and 30-years old here, not the latest stuff. The dust has settled on these cards and many are returning to the hobby from this era and may want something more challenging or at least chase something that has stabilized in price. That doesn’t mean those same collectors don’t have to avoid busting boxes and such. This is a hobby that has so many sub-niches and channels there is room for all types.

  2. Craig 1 April, 2017 at 10:52

    Hey Ryan,

    I’ve been following your articles for a long time and I always think how great they are. The content, the depth, the ideas, the lists, all great work. Thank you. Keep them coming!

    I have a question. Does BGS still grade the Topps cloth issue?

  3. Steve 2 April, 2017 at 16:59

    Card collecting is a multi-billion dollar business that benifits the card makers and Rich Collectors. They control the collecting industry. trying to keep or collect, sell cards is really hard. I have two Mickey Mantle cards I know for a fact that if I were to grade them they would be a 9.5 or 10. But grading companies won’t allow that because then I will have one off these high grades and the big wig’s will have to share. They want to control the amount, quality and grades. This industry is tough, and getting a good card, you almost have to pay a big price. I’ve seen big dealers sell 80’s and 90’s for good prices. But you or I are told there too many of them. Why, because again these big card companies and collectors controll what you get and sell. Question? Why can’t you buy a hobby box? Because your not a registered authentic dealer. They get these boxes for cheap then charge you up to 200% mark up price. If your going to collect or sell be very carfull please. I’ve been ripoed off and told many things.

  4. Scott Hoppe 3 April, 2017 at 06:09

    New stuff is more or less gambling. At my local card show you can spend $20 and buy my entire collection from ten years ago that I spent hundreds on.I try to buy oddball tony gwynn cards so I dig thru a bunch of dime boxes

  5. Andrew Walker 9 July, 2017 at 21:33

    Very good reading and some wise advice regarding the 80’s and 90’s. We will keep an eye out for these and stuff them away unless other collectors decide they want them and if we have them we will sell them. We turn down a lot of mid to late 80’s and 90’s that people want to get rid of and that is most of the time what they are looking to off. Some of the cards people should be collecting from those ERA’s are players like Hall Of Fame Players. Example: Chipper Jones- he will be on the ballot this December and should make it in.

  6. scott 12 July, 2017 at 13:56

    Beyond the cards mentioned in the article, I think there are really only four modern/ junk wax cards that have the potential to really take off in all grades in vintage fashion…

    1. 1990 Topps Frank Thomas NNOF
    2. 1990 Topps George Bush USA1 (glossy or regular s card stock)
    3. 1987 Donruss Opening Day Barry Bonds Johnny Ray Error
    4. 1992 Score The Franchise Musial / Mantle / Yastrzemski Auto #’d/500

    All of these are truly scarce, and with the exception of the the Score auto, all were not contrived by the card companies as a gimmick to increase sales. The Thomas is already seeing PSA and BGS 3 & 4’s bring in $2K+ consistantly at auction, and all grades have steadily increased in the last couple of years. I foresee the 1990 Bush becoming unattainable as well in higher grade in th next 10 to 15 years as well. A Barry Bonds donruss OD error in a BGS 9.5 is currently selling for between $1,500 to $2,000. Considering, Bagwell and Pudge just made the hall, it is a matter of time before the all time home run champ, * or not, is inducted. When that happens, I think there is a good chance that card is going to take off. Lastly, I love the triple auto 1992 Score for three big reasons. First, it’s Mantle’s shortest printed auto certified/SN’d card. I’ve read that it has been estimated that 10 to 20% of all Mantle autographs, raw and slabbed, have been forged. Even the best experts can be fooled if the forgery, has been executed with virtual perfection. The back of this card differs from the non-auto’d versions and it has two more autos which makes this one of the very few ‘forgery proof’ examples to exist. Secondly, it was signed in gold ink which does not fade as compared to regular ink, especially the non light fast inks which were not of archival quality, that were used across the board in the 80’s/90’s/and early 2000’s. That means as the Mantle 1991 and 1992 Score cards (regular ink), 1994 Upper Deck fade away into the sunset, this card will still be around. And lastly, ‘in my opinion’, this was the first real big autographed chase card (sorry Upper Deck) that would help to usher in the premium Era a our hobby.

  7. Benjamin A Pfiester 20 March, 2019 at 00:28

    I’ve opened enough boxes of 1991 Donruss and Upper Deck to make them rare!

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