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Top 20 Most Collectible Athletes

Playing Monday morning quarterback with a 15-year-old list of the 20th century’s most collectible athletes. Is it right this time? A 21st century edition of the most sought-after athletes in the memorabilia market. Ruth tops the list, of course.

By Larry Canale

Once upon a time, there was a 100-year span known as the 20th century. In the final year of that century, I was in the final stretch of a six-year stint editing Tuff Stuff magazine, and my staff and I were about to finish off a 13-part series called “Countdown 2000.” It started in January 1999 and presented, month-by-month, the best of the 20th century in all sorts of sports collectibles categories.

We finished the series in January 2000 by anointing the 21 most collectible athletes of the 20th century. (It actually included 22 names, because our editors couldn’t break up the NBA tandem of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.)

Fast-forward 15 years, and I’m getting a truly rare opportunity to revisit, reassess and reconfigure a story published a decade-and-a-half ago. At the time, my staff and I figured that our list was set in stone. We found out pretty quickly, though, that things can change quickly. Scandals, abrupt ends to careers, “sure-fire” Hall of Famers who fizzled – all of these factors came into play as the 21st century unfolded.


So, as 2015 builds up a head of steam, I’m setting the record straight (at least for now). Let’s start with our original list:
1. Michael Jordan
2. Mickey Mantle
3. Babe Ruth
4. Ken Griffey Jr.
5. Ted Williams
6. Joe DiMaggio
7. Wayne Gretzky
8. Muhammad Ali
9. Mark McGwire
10. Dan Marino
11. Joe Montana
12. Kobe Bryant
13. Emmitt Smith
14. Cal Ripken Jr.
15. Larry Bird/Magic Johnson
16. Barry Sanders
17. Nolan Ryan
18. Dale Earnhardt Sr.
19. Brett Favre
20. Randy Moss
21. Shaquille O’Neal.

When I recently rediscovered the issue of Tuff Stuff bearing that list, I remembered the staff’s lengthy discussion (or argument) about the No. 1 spot. Should Michael Jordan really be at the top?

Maybe deep inside, we were trying to get a reaction (as editors tend to do!). Either way, I do know that when the staff discussed our list, Jordan was only a year past his retirement from the Chicago Bulls (never mind that he came back and played two more seasons with Washington), and he was easily the most recognizable and popular athlete of the 1990s.

Just as we’ve seen with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera over the past two years, there was tremendous emotion surrounding Jordan’s departure from the NBA, at age 34, after the 1997-98 season. He left with a 31.5 points-per-game scoring average, six championships and probably the all-time record for highlight reels. Collectors were rabidly buying anything and everything with a Jordan connection.

By now, 15 years removed from the emotions that prompted us to lean toward Jordan, I humbly offer the opinion (with no disrespect to my former colleagues) that we got it wrong. The right choice is Babe Ruth.

So that’s where I begin. My revised list factors in various market indicators, including auction results, along with anecdotal evidence and the way certain players on the original list are perceived these days.



He’s The Sultan of Swing, the slugger who changed the course of our National Pastime, the man who may be the most willing autograph signer ever and the guy who popularized the “sweet spot” on a baseball. Ruth was beloved by kids and adults, alike, and his legend grows as the decades pass. In recent years, the price of Ruth memorabilia has been as strong as his swing. At Heritage Auctions alone, we’ve seen a Ruth game-worn jersey reach $657,250, a game-used bat sell for $537,750 and a pristine signed baseball soar to $388,375 between 2009 and 2014. Ruth-signed baseballs typically go for $10,000-$20,000. But never mind the value of authentic Ruth items; his impact on baseball and his off-field image – smiling, ebullient, kid-friendly hero – combine to make him an evergreen collecting subject.
– (Position on 2000 list: 2nd)

I’ll slide Mantle ahead of Jordan, too, because of the massive mark he made on the sports collectibles hobby. In fact, there were three different eras where Mantle stirred collectors into action. The first was in the early 1950s when his presence in Topps’ landmark 1952 set (and Bowman’s 1951 set before it) sent young fans hustling to buy pack after pack of cards in hopes of pulling a Mantle. Likewise, Mantle’s presence on the autograph trail in the 1970s and 1980s added the ultimate star power to that burgeoning part of the sports memorabilia market. Everyone, it seems, wanted a Mantle signature, so every show appearance attracted legions. And finally, in 1995, his death gave the market a much-needed shot in the arm. The passing of “The Magnificent Yankee” inspired legions to return to the hobby, even if briefly, after souring on it during the baseball strike of 1994.
– (Position on 2000 list: 3rd)

As discussed above, No. 23 was a huge story over the last 15 years of the 20th century, and he certainly belongs in the argument for this list’s top spot. But ultimately, third is the right spot for the NBA’s most spectacular player ever. And really, placement beneath Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle is no shame.
– (Position on 2000 list: 1st)

Mickey Mantle would actually argue about Williams and DiMaggio being ranked lower than himself among collectible baseball stars. I know because Mantle did just that when I interviewed him in 1994. “Right now, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are the kings of the memorabilia business,” he said. “It’s not me. DiMaggio gets $400 for a [signed] baseball, and I get $100. So I wouldn’t call me ‘the king.’” It’s a valid point; Williams and DiMaggio are iconic, and perhaps among pure autograph collectors, they would rank higher. But I wouldn’t. Besides, Mantle’s impact on the baseball card industry was key in the hobby’s overall growth and evolution. And even in the area of signed baseballs, Mantle can command as much as or more than DiMaggio or Williams, depending on authentication, type and age of ball, condition and inscription.
– (Positions on 2000 list: 5th and 6th)


Here in early 2015, Ali may be our most popular living athlete. The market for fight-worn Ali memorabilia was already healthy in the late 20th century, thanks to events like the landmark Ali-only auction at Christie’s in 1997. It’s only become healthier since then as fans seek out the best Ali memorabilia. Two prime Ali items sold in 2014: the gloves he wore in knocking out Sonny Liston in 1964 sold for $836,500, while the gloves from his loss to Joe Frazier in 1971 brought $388,375.
– (Position on 2000 list: 8th)

Our reason for leaving Wagner off our original list? He played in an era before collecting became such a passion for legions of people, and also because the pool of vintage Wagner items is too small to make him as collectible as the names on our original list. But . . . like my journalism professor Dr. Russell Jandoli of St. Bonaventure once wrote on one of my papers: “Your argument’s vacuous, but you do have a way.” Considering the frenzy Wagner’s T206 card began creating in the hobby’s early days, he belongs.
– (Position on 2000 list: unranked)

Somehow, we had three quarterbacks on our 2000 list and – gasp! – none were named Unitas. The great Johnny U. was still alive at the time and still active on the autograph tour, although old injuries to his right hand made it difficult for him to hold a pen. (I saw him sign at a show in 2000 and noticed that he held his hand flat, unable to bend his fingers, and wedged a Sharpie between his thumb and forefinger while writing. His autograph still looked great – big and bold – but it took some effort.) Overall, his popularity was evident at every appearance. He represented a golden era of football, when the game burst into the mass market and landed on cards and collectibles that fed into fans’ appreciation of the game.
– (Position on 2000 list: unranked)

Even as the 20th century closed, Clemente collectibles were flying high. I recall scouring the 1999 National in Atlanta for Clemente sigs with noted high-end autograph dealer Kevin Keating, and he was telling me that Roberto-signed items – baseballs, photos, clippings, scraps of paper – had been rising in value. They haven’t stopped. And because the great Pirates right fielder lived such a short life (37 years), the pool of authentic Clemente autographs is limited.
– (Position on 2000 list: unranked)

He played second fiddle to Babe Ruth during the 1920s and ’30s, and he’s always be somewhat in his shadow. But make no mistake: Gehrig is a major draw in the memorabilia market. In fact, a game-worn 1927 Gehrig home Yankees jersey sold for $717,000 at Heritage Auctions in 2010, and three years later, a road jersey worn by Gehrig in 1927 and 1928 brought the identical price. Game-worn hats have sold for $190,000-$240,000 in recent years, and single-signed baseballs have landed in the $30,000-$50,000 range. Yes, The Iron Horse, who put up eye-popping numbers during his all-too-short lifetime, belongs on this list.
– (Position on 2000 list: unranked)

Perhaps baseball’s most underrated star, Aaron also was overlooked in the hobby for many years – even by our staff. Things started to change when the assault on his home run records began in the 1990s; a sort of sympathetic nostalgia blitz on the part of baby boomer fans coincided with the proliferation of autograph shows. By now, Aaron is a top-level star of the baseball memorabilia market. Consider the prices his game-worn jerseys have been drawing in recent years: $50,000-$170,000 (the latter price having been paid for a rookie-season jersey from 1954). His rookie card (1954 Topps), too, has been on the rise. It has been fetching $7,500-$15,000 in recent years, if graded in the 8/9 range.
– (Position on 2000 list: unranked)

All of those championship rings (five each), their “good guy” reputations, their Hall of Fame status and their leadership qualities put these QB legends back-to-back on my list. Somehow, Starr was on the outside looking in when we compiled the original list; consider that oversight rectified. Between his stellar career, Packer mystique and connection to Vince Lombardi, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and so many other Green Bay greats, Starr belongs. And Montana, the king of cool and a multiple Super Bowl hero, could land on either side of Starr.
– (Positions on 2000 list: Starr unranked, Montana 11th)


He was the face of his sport back then, a lightning rod who attracted collectors the way hockey nets attracted his shots. No wonder: He rewrote the NHL record book during a 23-season career that ended in 1998-99. So why did I drop him four spots? Well, it’s mainly sports-related; iconic players from baseball (Wagner, Clemente, Aaron) and football (Unitas) slip ahead of The Great One. But make no mistake: Gretzky is still the player most sought by hockey collectors.
– (Position on 2000 list: 7th)

The Orioles legend was still active back in 1999, when our list began to take shape. In fact, Ripken had just hit his 400th home run and was approaching his 3,000th hit. His public persona – a good guy, classy, humble – endeared him to collectors of baseball memorabilia, and still does.
– (Position on 2000 list: 14th)

These guys may have only one championship ring between them (Favre’s Super Bowl XXXI title), but man, they sure put up gaudy numbers and were fun to watch. They also played during an explosive time for football cards. So there was (and is) a lot of material out there to meet heavy demand. Back in 1999, Marino owned most of the key NFL passing records; Favre would ultimately pass him. The result is a boost for Brett and slight drop for Marino. In both cases, though, big numbers, long careers and loyal fan bases make them desirable targets for football memorabilia collectors.
– (Positions on 2000 list: Marino 10th, Favre 19th)


This legendary speedballer played 27 years, won 320 games, struck out a record 5,714 batters and earned Hall of Fame induction in 1999. As a result, Ryan was high on our list in 2000, and he remains so now. Collectors can dig into a healthy inventory of Ryan items, and they do. His game-worn jerseys command $3,000-$6,000 or, if from a specific game, much more (a no-hitter jersey recently fetched $45,000). Ryan-autographed baseballs can sell for a few hundred or, again, if from a specific game, a few thousand. And his rookie card, a 1968 Topps, comes from the glory days of the hobby.
– (Position on 2000 list: 17th)

While preparing our January 2000 issue, I wasn’t crazy about combining two entries into one slot on our list, even if it was Bird and Magic. It felt like cheating. But my staff persisted with their argument and I went along with it because, well, it gave us one extra name to play with. Now, though, I’m playing it straight, using individual slots for these hardwood luminaries. Both belong, and I don’t mind if you flip them. After all, Bird and Magic made it possible for Jordan to attract the audience he had during the NBA’s pivotal 1980s and into the ’90s. Remember that before Jordan’s iconic 1986-87 Fleer card was even an idea, collectors were scurrying after anything and everything bearing Bird’s and Magic’s names, including the 1981 Topps rookie card they cohabit with Julius Erving.
– (Position on 2000 list: 15th)


The only NASCAR driver on our list was Earnhardt, who tragically died 13 months after our issue came out. Richard Petty fans could make a strong case that The King should be on this list, too (and it would be hard to argue!). But Earnhardt was NASCAR’s big dog throughout the 1980s and ’90s, an era in which he won seven Winston Cup titles to tie Petty’s record. It was also an era that found racing memorabilia on the move. As we wrote back in 2000, Earnhardt sparked “NASCAR’s rise to national prominence as the sport’s most popular and collectible driver.”
– (Position on 2000 list: 18th)


A number of names on that original Tuff Stuff list didn’t make it this time. Some were tough to nuke, especially Emmitt Smith, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. But others were more easily dispatched. Mark McGwire, for example, was Babe Ruth incarnate in the late 1990s. His Bunyanesque feats (and build) drew throngs at ballparks, and collectors loved him. Big Mac’s rookie card, a 1985 Topps, became an especially hot ticket, routinely selling for around $200 ungraded. Alas, the great steroid scandal sunk McGwire’s reputation and collectibility. Pick up his rookie card for just a few bucks these days.

Randy Moss was an easy omission, too. Yes, he was a great player for a long time, but his controversial nature and his penchant for takin’ it easy at times (as it seemed to football watchers) made him less appealing to collectors.

Then there’s Ken Griffey Jr. Back during the 1999 season, he wasn’t yet 30, had led the AL in homers three straight seasons (with 56, 56 and 48) and had 100-plus RBI four years in a row. Because he’d been in the majors since the age of 19, the sky was the limit in terms of career numbers. He had all those Gold Gloves, too. No wonder his Upper Deck rookie became one of the hobby’s most iconic cards.

At age 30, Griffey left Seattle for Cincinnati, and the sky began to fall. His years with the Reds were injury-plagued and uneven, and things didn’t change much when he played for the White Sox and, at the end, the Mariners again. After the age of 30, he never drove in 100 runs again, and he reached 30 HRs only twice. He still wound up with 630 HRs, but the promise of those first 10 years eluded him – and collectors cooled off. Now you can find that Upper Deck rookie card for $50 (although slabbed 10 PSA specimens can climb past $2,000).

Barry Sanders’ career didn’t fizzle; it just ended too soon. The brilliant running back retired after the 1998 season at age 30, still pretty much at the top of his game. As great as his talents were, though, he played for a losing Lions team and had very little playoff exposure, which doesn’t help with collectibles market appeal.

I thought about adding many other names to my revised list. Besides Richard Petty, I thought John Elway is deserving. And what about Willie Mays? Wilt Chamberlain? Arnold Palmer? Jack Nicklaus? Tiger Woods?

The name sitting just outside the 21 here, though, is Bobby Orr. Gretzky was responsible for reeling in new hockey collectors in the 1980s and 1990s, but Orr was already a favorite in the vintage hockey card and memorabilia market. The Boston Bruins Hall of Famer revolutionized the game during his all-too-brief career (nine full seasons, three partials): He was that rare defenseman with scoring and playmaking ability from the blue line. His rookie card has been a prize for decades, and it continues to attract heavy bidding, drawing upward of $10,000 if graded 8 or 9. Game-worn items that have found their way into the market go even higher, as we saw when an Orr rookie-season jersey sold for $191,200 in 2010.

And what about Peyton Manning? Almost. I asked a former colleague, Jerry Shaver, what he thought about the Broncos’ current quarterback, and he pointed out that while Peyton was already popular in 1999, he was only two years removed from college. He hadn’t yet begun to become the collector magnet that he did later.

By now, having broken Favre’s all-time TD pass record, Manning is a top-of-the-market guy.

So 85 years from now, when SCD’s editors start compiling a list of the 21 most popular athletes of the 21st century, you can expect Manning to be in the mix. (I would think…)

Larry Canale is editor-in-chief of Antiques Roadshow Insider, former editor of Tuff Stuff and an author whose book credits include two collaborations with photographer Ozzie Sweet.