The Top 10 Most Desirable Pre-War Baseball Cards
Desirable is a subjective word.
What is desirable for one person may not be that way for another.
So putting this list together wasn’t exactly easy because there are many great pre-War cards to choose from.
With pre-War legends like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Lou Gehrig…how do you pick the ten most desirable cards?
I finally had to just rely on what I know are considered the most valuable baseball cards of the era and most widely discussed among fellow collectors. It was a blast putting this list together.
A Brief History Of Pre-War Vintage Baseball Cards
Most collectors I talk to typically define “vintage” baseball cards as those that date from 1980 and earlier. In fact, I think that is the official standard that Beckett uses, if I’m not mistaken.
But while the cutoff date for vintage cards as a whole may vary depending on who you talk to, what doesn’t vary is the pre-War designation within the vintage card hobby. Pre-War cards are simply those that were printed prior to World War II. Simple enough.
These cards were issued with tobacco, candy and other products long before Topps printed its legendary 1952 set. After all, what better way to help promote your products than by issuing them with cards of legendary ball players of the day?
The design and artwork on pre-War cards make them some of the most beautiful cards in the hobby, in my opinion. It’s tough to pick out the top 10 most desirable pre-War cards for everyone but I think this list is a good start that will hit home with most collectors.
1909-11 T206 White Border Honus Wagner
The 1909 American Tobacco Company T206 Honus Wagner sits alone at the top of the list of most desirable cards in the hobby. It’s popularity is legendary making it the face of the baseball card hobby. The T206 set in which this card was issued was heavily printed so most of the cards are relatively easy to find even today. However, what makes this card so valuable was that they were pulled from production. No one is exactly sure why but it was either because Wagner didn’t like the American Tobacco Company using his image without royalties or he didn’t want to be part of promoting tobacco to children. Either way, far fewer of his cards were printed. And scarcity is a big driver of value in the hobby and often times can outshine a player’s popularity. After all, Wagner wasn’t even the most popular player of the day. That would be Ty Cobb. These cards sell for over $1 million even in poor condition.
1909-11 T206 Ty Cobb Tobacco (Ty Cobb Back)
If you study the T206 set you’ll quickly realize that it’s an absolute monster to put together. Why? Because these cards were printed with several variations in brand advertisements on the backs–16 different backs in total. The number of possible front to back combinations in this set is over 5,500. That’s how difficult this set is to finish. Ty Cobb appears on four different front designs in the set, one of which is the red portrait design you see here. But, if you can find the red portrait Ty Cobb design with the “Ty Cobb” back then you’ve got the most desired Ty Cobb card in the set. Even in low grade, there’s no doubt the card could fetch over $1 million in today’s market.
1916 (M101-5) Sporting News Babe Ruth Rookie Card
Babe Ruth dominates this top ten list. And why shouldn’t he? He’s the most popular player of all time. And his 1916 M101-5 and M101-4 Sporting News rookie cards are easily two of his most sought after cards. From a historical standpoint, the cards are neat because they show Ruth in his Red Sox uniform before he was traded to the Yankees. Sporting News released both of the sets in 1916 but it’s thought that the M101-4 set was actually printed a bit after the M101-5 set. The cards suffer from condition and centering issues but if you’re lucky enough to find one in high grade, it would likely be worth $1 million or more.
1916 (M101-4) Sporting News #151 Babe Ruth rookie card
Because the fronts of these cards are identical, it can be extremely difficult to tell if you have the M101-5 or M101-4 version. Their numbering doesn’t help either since they are both card #151 in their respective sets. Sometimes even looking at the back won’t help you since most variations aren’t unique to either set but if you see the Sporting News ad on the back you know you’ve got the M101-4 version. None of the M101-5 Ruths featured that ad. Usually you’ll have to rely on a professional grading company to distinguish between the two. With all the trouble of figuring out which version you’ve got you’d think that their values would fluctuate but actually they’re pretty much worth the same amount.
1914 Baltimore News #9 Babe Ruth
This card defines rare. There are currently only around ten copies of this “pre-rookie” Babe Ruth card known to exist. On it, Babe Ruth is pictured as a minor league player with the Baltimore Orioles before owner Jack Dunn had to sell his contract to the Red Sox that year due to financial problems. The borders of the card can be found in either blue or red and condition is usually poor. Even in low grade the card could fetch close to $1 million on the open market. You rarely see this card up for auction.
1909-11 T206 White Border Eddie Plank
Several players in the T206 set are featured in multiple poses and front variations–as was discussed in the case of Ty Cobb earlier. Eddie Plank was not one of those players. So this is his only card in the set. And Plank was not the most popular player of the day so what would make this one of the top five desired cards in the legendary T206 set? Scarcity again is key with this card. There isn’t a specific reason for the scarcity that can be unanimously agreed upon but most believe a poor printing plate led to many of the cards being destroyed before they circulated on the open market. Centering from top to bottom is usually terrible on this card but collectors still love this card. If you see this one come up for sale or auction just watch the astronomical prices that it receives.
1909-11 American Caramel E90-1 Joe Jackson Rookie Card
If price weren’t a factor, I’d probably say this and the other “Shoeless” Joe Jackson card on this list would be my favorite. There’s just something about the mystique of Jackson that makes him stand out. Since he was banned from baseball for his alleged participation in the Black Sox Scandal during the 1919 World Series he doesn’t appear on many cards. So here’s a case where you have both popularity and scarcity of a player coming in to play with their desirability. This is his rookie card and it’s the key to the American Caramel E90-1 set even though legends like Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner also appeared in it.
1909-11 T206 White Border Joe Doyle (N.Y. Natl.)
This is the mother of all “error cards” in the hobby. Joe Doyle may not have been the most popular player of the era but he did pitch for the New York Highlanders of the American League…not the National League. That’s what makes this card key. Some of his T206 cards were printed with “N.Y. Nat’l” along the bottom even though he pitched in the American League. Luckily for collectors some of those cards made it into circulation before the American Tobacco Company caught the error. Collectors love error cards because they’re usually very rare. Not always. But usually. And the Joe Doyle error card is one of the rarest of them all.
1933 Goudey #53 Babe Ruth
Visually, I think this is Babe Ruth’s best card. It may not be his most expensive but it has eye appeal nailed down. There are actually four different Babe Ruth cards in the 1933 Goudey set and this “Yellow Ruth”, #53, is arguably the most desirable of the four. He also appears in the same pose on a red background on card #149, a fully body pose on card #144, and an over the shoulder pose on card #181. The Yellow Ruth is tough one to find in high grade and its bright yellow background is more sensitive to showing wear and tear versus the red and green backgrounds of the other Ruth cards of this set. I’d take any one of the four, but this is my favorite of the bunch.
1910 T210 Old Mill Joe Jackson
I love the red borders on this card, they really make the black and white image of Joe Jackson pop. The T210 Old Mill set includes minor league ball players, most of which never made it as big league ball players. But Joe Jackson sure did so his minor league issue is highly desirable as a result. Lucky collectors who can find this card will hold an interesting part of history in their hands as Jackson is shown as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, the minor league affiliate of the of the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians). Not many of these exist so you’ll rarely see them surface.
1911 T3 Turkey Red Cabinets Ty Cobb
Many collectors will point to the Turkey Red Cabinets set as being one of the most visually appealing in the hobby. They measured 5¾ by 8 inches and the artwork on them is simply amazing. And these were some of the earliest “redemption” cards that the hobby ever saw. You didn’t receive these cards when you bought Turkey Red cigarettes, you had to send in 10 coupons to redeem them. The cards came with two reverse side variations, one with a tobacco ad and the other a checklist. Both are equally desirable.
I could talk about pre-War baseball cards for hours. There’s just something about these pieces of baseball history that make them a cornerstone of the sport’s history.
The legendary player images, the artwork, and the back variations all make for a special piece of collecting history. Collecting them isn’t easy and you’ll need some big bucks to be able to afford any one of them on this list.
And maybe these aren’t even the most desirable cards in your opinion, that’s what makes this hobby so great. There is unique appeal around any number of individual cards. It’s all up to the collector what’s desirable and what’s not. But for me, these ten are some of the best. And I’d be happy to own any one of them in any condition grade. With each one of them, you get a chance to hold some unique history in your hands.