There are so many iconic vintage cards in the four major sports, it’s hard to keep the list at just 10. However, here are 10 – three baseball, three football, three basketball and one hockey – that really capture every collector’s imagination. (This list excludes the Honus Wagner T206, Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps, and Wayne Gretzky 1979 O-Pee-Chee because they were included in the Top 10 Selling Sports Cards of All Time.)
1. Babe Ruth 1914 Baltimore News Orioles
The rarest card of the most famous baseball player of all time tops the list. It’s the first card ever of “The Bambino,” when he was playing for one of his hometown minor league teams, the Baltimore Orioles of the International League. The card was released in red and blue fronts. PSA has only graded three of these Ruth cards in a 1, 2 and 4. That highest grade is valued at $925,000.
2. Eddie Plank 1909-11 T206 White Border
The Plank is the second-most famous and rarest card in the T206 baseball set behind the famed Wagner. There have been 26 examples of the card graded by PSA, with the highest grade an 8. It’s valued at $850,000. According to PSA, it isn’t exactly known why the card is so rare. The theory is the card suffered from a poor printing plate, so many of the cards were destroyed because they couldn’t pass quality control.
3. Napoleon Lajoie 1933 Goudey
Lajoie enjoyed a great, 20-year baseball career that wrapped up in 1916. This card was not included in the 1933 Goudey set. For collectors to complete their ’33 set, they had to acquire the card directly through Goudey the following year. The company sent some cards with paper clips affixed to them, leaving serious surface problems. There are 93 examples graded by PSA with nine cards being graded a 9.
4. Bronco Nagurski 1935 National Chicle
The Nagurski isn’t the most recognizable football card in the hobby, but it’s the most valuable. The fullback/linebacker/tackle, who played on both sides of the ball, was a force for nine seasons for the Chicago Bears. Nagurski’s rookie depicts him charging like a bull in his University of Minnesota uniform. The card is part of the high-number run from the National Chicle set. The highest PSA grade is a 9, valued at $750,000.
5. George Mikan 1948 Bowman
Mikan was the first true big man to be a force in the NBA. He was the centerpiece for the Minneapolis Lakers – which later moved to Los Angeles – when they won five championships in six years (1949-54). The rookie card of the 6-foot-10 center is often found off-center with toning along the edges. It’s tough to receive a high grade. PSA has graded one Mikan rookie a 10 and four as a 9.
6. Joe Namath 1965 Topps
This is the most iconic card of vintage football. “Broadway Joe” was a hit on and off the field, especially after predicting his New York Jets would upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III. The 1965 Topps set features large format cards, so the Namath is known to be tough to find in good condition because of handling issues. There are just five examples of PSA 9s, which can fetch over a quarter million dollars.
7. Jim Brown 1958 Topps
Arguably the best running back of all time in the NFL, Brown was the No. 6 overall selection in the 1957 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in seven seasons back when the NFL only played 12 regular-season games. It’s common for Brown’s rookie card to have print defects and it is susceptible to poor centering and reverse chipping, according to PSA.
8. Bill Russell 1957 Topps
It’s unfathomable to think Russell was a part of 11 NBA Championships in his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics. His rookie card, showing him defending an in-bounds pass, is one of the most important basketball cards ever produced. The card is extremely tough to find in good condition, and PSA has only graded it a 9 on three occasions.
9. Wilt Chamberlain 1961 Fleer
This Chamberlain card is his rookie despite it being his third season in the NBA. In the 1961-62 season, the Philadelphia Warriors’ big man averaged a mind-blowing 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game. High grades for this card are attainable. PSA has graded three as a 10, which has an estimated value of $85,000.
10. Bobby Orr 1966 Topps
Behind Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr is highly regarded as the best NHL player of all time. Orr tallied the most points (139) and assists (102) in a season (1971-72) by a defenseman. With the brown borders on the 1966 Topps set, they are susceptible to chipping. There has been just one PSA 9 ever logged.
Photos: Heritage Auctions, PSA