By Larry Canale
The Baseball Hall of Fame just made the 1981 and 1982 baseball card sets from Topps, Fleer and Donruss a little more exciting. When the Today’s Game Era Committee voted Lee Smith and Harold Baines into Cooperstown, it also provided a lift—not a huge one, but a lift nonetheless—to card sets that needed it.The 1981 and ’82 sets from the three major manufacturers always paled in comparison to the HOFer-packed sets Topps put out in the 1970s and earlier.
The election of Smith wasn’t a major surprise. The relief pitcher’s ERA (3.03) and WHIP (1.26) were a bit high for a closer, but he ranks third on the career saves list with 478. In fact, when he retired in 1997, he was the all-time leader. (Later, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman surpassed his total.)
Smith is a budget-friendly add to your collection. His 1982 Topps rookie card can sell for $100 to $150 if in 10 grade. His Donruss and Fleer cards from the same year are $50 to $75. That said, you can find ungraded but nice-condition examples for far less—under $20. Smith-signed baseballs also are a deal, if not a steal: less than $50 and sometimes even under $25.
While Smith’s career saves figure made him a sensible Hall selection, Baines’ election raised eyebrows. Detractors point out that he was a very, very good hitter but wasn’t at the level of the likes of Aaron, Ruth, Williams, DiMaggio, Mantle and so many others.
Consider that Baines didn’t reach the magic 3,000-hit level (he was close, with 2,866), he didn’t hit .300 (lifetime average: .289), and he didn’t reach 500 home runs—or even 400 (he had 384 HRs, with a season high of 29). He drove in 100 runs only three times, and he never scored 100 runs in a season (career high: 89), and didn’t steal bases (34 career total). Furthermore, he never won a World Series, and never won a Gold Glove. In fact, he was a designated hitter most of his career (1,643 games at DH, vs. 1,061 as an outfielder).
But Baines’s reputation as a steady and productive hitter over a long stretch—he played 22 years, batting over .300 eight times—was enough to get him into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. If that’s surprising to some writers and fans, it’s perhaps more surprising to collectors. This is a rare case where a newly anointed Hall of Famer catches the memorabilia market flat-footed. Consider:
• Baines’ 1981 Fleer rookie card sold for as little as 39 cents last month. That example was ungraded but in top condition, judging by the seller’s photos.
• His 1981 Topps card sold for as little as $1—again, ungraded but clean (probably in the 8- to 9-grade range).
• His first Donruss card, from 1982, sold for as little as 99 cents (yet again ungraded but unblemished and sharp-cornered).
Even in top condition, and even with an autograph added (and authenticated by PSA/ DNA), Baines rookie cards aren’t breaking the bank. A PSA 10-graded, autographed Topps rookie card of Baines, for example, sold for $80, while a PSA 10 signed Fleer rookie sold for $87.
Unsigned, PSA 10 Fleer rookies of Baines were selling for $40 to $60, and a PSA 10 example of Baines’ Donruss card sold right after the HOF announced for $29 in a Buy It Now deal.
ROBERTO ON THE RISE
The lead item on our Top 10 chart is a knockout: a Gem-Mint, PSA 10-graded specimen of Roberto Clemente’s 1956 Topps card that sold for $175,000. Clemente’s 1955 and 1956 especially have been steadily rising over the decades, driven by a constantly growing appreciation for the legendary right-fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clemente’s untimely death in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission —bringing supplies to hurricane-ravaged Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve of 1972—is a moment baseball fans of the era won’t ever forget.
A few months later, he became a Hall of Famer after a special election. The Hall’s voting committee waived the normal five-year waiting period.
Clemente had finished the 1972 regular season by lashing a line-drive double off Jon Matlack. The hit—a trademark Clemente gapper—gave him an even 3,000 for his career. Sadly, he would never add to the total.
Back in 1956, Topps issued the Clemente card you see pictured here. It features a head shot along with a small action photo of the leaping outfielder making an over-the-head grab.
Clearly, this isn’t one you can pick up on the cheap, as the $175,000 sale shows. And keep in mind that in 2015, a 1956 Clemente graded PSA 10 brought $310,000 at Heritage.
In PSA 9 condition, the card is selling well into five-figure prices. One example on eBay in May 2018 brought $23,177; in 2017, we saw another PSA 9 example sell for “only” $14,060 on eBay, while another at a Heritage Auctions sale fetched $26,400.
Interestingly, if you go back to 2006, you’ll find the sale of a PSA 9 Clemente rookie that went for the stunningly low price of $3,421 at SCP Auctions.
Clemente, who was 20 years old as a rookie, would play in 124 games for the Pirates in 1956, showing signs of greatness (23 doubles, 11 triples and five HRs). The next season, 1957, he hit .311. By 1961, he had blossomed, leading the National League in hitting with a .351 average. When Clemente left us, his final numbers read .317, 240 homers, 1,305 RBI and 1,416 runs.
As outstanding as he was at the plate and base paths, Clemente was just as spectacular in the field. He won Gold Glove awards every year from 1961 through 1972—12 in all. And his arm was an absolute cannon; baserunners foolish enough to try for an extra base would usually see a clothesline throw whiz past them to a waiting infielder or catcher.
ON THE OUTSIDE — Wondering which items finished just beyond our Top 10 list? One noteworthy item—speaking of Hall of Fame discussions—is Pete Rose’s rookie card. Rose was one of four prospects to appear on Topps card #537 in its 1963 set. The others were Ken McMullen, Al Weis and Pedro Gonzalez. Rose’s record 4,256 hits and his .303 average accomplished as a player—before his gambling issues—dictate that he should be in the Hall, many of us think. How about you?
Here’s an expanded list of the first 10 items that ranked outside our chart:
• $23,100: 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan (PSA 10)
• $22,384: 1957-58 Topps Bill Russell (PSA 8)
• $21,101: 1951 Bowman Willie Mays (PSA 6.5)
• $20,601: 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan/Jerry Koosman (PSA 9)
• $19,585: 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan (PSA 10)
• $19,100: 2017 Panini National Treasures Patrick Mahomes Stars & Stripes, auto patch (PSA 10). u