Not all sports cards are created equal.
That being said, not all PSA 10s, BGS 9.5s or SCG 9.5s are created equal either. Mike Baker and Demian Werner are trying to differentiate the cream-of-the-crop pristine cards from the rest of the field.
In August 2020, the duo started Mike Baker Authenticated (MBA), a certification service for high-end graded products from the three leading third-party grading card companies: Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), Beckett Grading Services (BGS) and Sportscard Guaranty Corporation (SGC).
Baker’s grading roots date back to when he was PSA’s first employee and then its first director of grading when he worked at the company from 1991-2001. He hears all the time: “You’re grading the graders? We send a card off to get graded, and then we send it off again to get it regraded?”
Well, not exactly.
“Just in its appearance, it can be looked at that way,” said Baker, the company’s chairman and CEO. “We’re not trying to spin it, I’m very accessible. The reality, within the grading standard — especially with PSA, because they have the lion’s share of stuff out there in plastic — but there’s differences.
“PSA doesn’t have a half-grade for the 9 grade, so there’s no 9.5. So, you’re going to have a 9.0, 9.1 to a 9.9. And, so, right there there’s a massive flex between what could be considered a really high-end 9 — what Beckett or SGC would call a 9.5. So from that perspective, it works awesome. In the 10s, PSA doesn’t have a pristine. They have a gem mint, which is Beckett’s 9.5 and SGC’s 9.5. Granted, they sell. If you get a PSA 10, it sells better than a 9.5.
“The conceptual piece two years ago when we talked about this was, PSA just didn’t have anything above a 10 and people love that in the modern world. It really doesn’t fit in the vintage world that much, but if it’s in the modern world, we said there’s a place.”
Baker, who has been involved in card grading for the last 30 years, noted that the Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) has used this certification model for coin grading since 2007.
Collectors who submit cards to MBA are hoping to get their prized possessions back with a grade that highlights their cards’ attributes with a coveted hologram sticker.
Baker and Werner, who both worked at Global Authority before forming MBA, aren’t out to show flaws in the third-party grading card companies.
“They all have standards. They all adhere by their standards to the best of their ability,” said Werner, who is the company’s COO. “We don’t believe that any of the companies out there are doing anything malicious or ill-intended; you know conspiracy theorists will say different. I think they all believe they do their best jobs, and that’s what it is.
“People make mistakes. We make mistakes. No one’s perfect. Grading’s a subjective analysis of something, so there can be a lot of interpretation to what you agree or disagree with.”
TO STICKER OR NOT TO STICKER
Every card submitted to MBA goes through Baker and Werner. They are the main two guys who certify the cards, but they also have a few other people who help out.
Each card undergoes an extensive examination. But unlike graders at PSA, BGS and SGC, who are looking at cards in raw form and not in protective sleeves, MBA certifiers are looking at the cards in their encapsulated state. That, obviously, makes it a little more challenging.
“Are we grading? No. We’re just taking a peak in plastic and how it presents, how it sits and is there something special about this card that warrants it to receive a sticker,” said Baker, who noted that approximately 65-70 percent of the cards that are submitted to MBA have been encapsulated by PSA.
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MBA has a structured 10-point scale it uses to evaluate each card. The scale takes into account authenticity, measurement, alterations, centering, corner wear, edges, surface, staining, print defects and overall eye appeal.
“We created it the way that people really look at cards,” Werner said. “You go centering, surface, corners and edges. We think that’s how we kind of perceive the cards. In that sense, some people use eye appeal as a name, we use quality.”
MBA, which looks at the overall grade of a card and not the subs that BGS offers for its graded cards, uses three color-coded diamond stickers — Silver, Gold and Black — to represent certification.
A Silver Diamond is a plus card. It’s a great looking card that fits under the standard for what MBA interprets the card being in that grade. For example, Baker said if it’s a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card graded PSA 10, it has all the qualities of a 10, but has a little bit more — it’s centered better, a little better on the back and has a fully intact hologram on the back.
A Gold Diamond is also a plus card. However, the card is better than the grade it was assigned by the third-party grading company. So, if it’s a PSA 7, MBA is saying it has attributes of at least a 7.5.
“We’ve had Beckett 9.5s that have been Golded and they’ve gone back on a review and they’ve gotten the benefit of the doubt — not always, but sometimes,” Baker said.
A Black Diamond signifies that the card has all the traits of the pristine card, including four perfectly sharp corners, superior print quality and the image must have 50/50 centering on the front and within a tolerance not exceeding approximately 60/40 on the back, Baker said. A Black Diamond can only be awarded to a card that is graded a PSA 10 Gem Mint, SGC 10 Pristine and BGS 10 Pristine (Black Label).
“You don’t have to be a card expert to go, ‘There’s something special about that card,’” Baker said.
Cards that warrant a sticker get the diamond placed on the outside of the slab between the third-party grading company’s label and the top of the card. If the sticker is ever attempted to be removed, it will shred.
“The Silver and the Gold are really where you’re going to find the majority of what we do, because we’re literally like less than 1 percent of any cards that have a Black Diamond on it,” Baker said. “It’s literally like a BGS Black Label in a lot of ways. In fact, Beckett Pristines, we’re like 4-for-4 or 5-for-5 on submissions to go from Pristine to Black.”
If MBA looks at a card and deems its grade to be less than it should be — say it’s a PSA 9, but doesn’t meet that standard — the card does not receive a sticker.
“Every card that doesn’t get a sticker gets a little report card,” Baker said. “It says, corners, edges, surface and centering. So, I will point out what I see as to why it did not receive a hologram. It’s not to say that the card isn’t graded accurately, all it’s saying is the attributes of the card don’t go into the level of receiving a hologram.”
Also, every card that MBA reviews is entered into a database, so if that card is ever resubmitted, it has been assigned a certification number and whether or not it received a sticker. Each card that does receive a sticker gets scanned front and back.
MBA is in the process of building a population report that can be accessed for free for any collector to look and see how many of a certain card have been stickered.
“What really makes this interesting is the data that we’re grabbing, because of the data mining,” Baker said. “Over a period of time, you’ll see just how tough a Silver, Gold or Black is to receive on different cards.”
As of early October 2021, MBA has certified more than 145,000 cards. The company’s main clientele consists of auction houses, dealers and high-end collectors.
One well-known collector familiar to Baker and card enthusiasts is Marshall Fogel. His masterpiece collection is considered the gold standard in the industry. His prized possession: a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 10 — one of only three that exists.
When Fogel caught wind that Baker was starting his certification company, he was literally the first in line, contacting Baker months before MBA had even launched. The two guys go way back to Baker’s PSA days.
“When Mike Baker and Demian Warner started MBA, I thought it was a great idea,” Fogel said. “So, I called Mike Baker and said, ‘I’m in.’ And he said, ‘In my opinion, you have the best card of all of the 9s and 10s. There’s no equal to them at all.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you come to Denver. I will be your guinea pig. You come to the bank and you go ahead and look at my ’52 Mantle, which is a 10, and my ’53 Mantle, which is a 10, and you decide if they deserve Black labels.’”
Last year, Baker and Werner flew out to Colorado and went to Fogel’s safety deposit box where he houses some of the big items from his collection. Fogel’s ’52 Mantle earned a Black Diamond sticker from MBA.
“That card is a little bit more special than the other two [1952 Mantle PSA 10s in existence],” Baker said. “Not to say the other two aren’t awesome cards, because they are — because I graded all three of them — but there is one that stands out. ‘I am the representative of this card in this grade.’”
Baker, who also graded all six ’52 Mantle PSA 9s that exist, still recalls grading that top ’52 Mantle when it was submitted to PSA in the 1990s. Fogel purchased that prized Mantle already graded from the David Hall collection for $121,000 in 1996.
Known as the Holy Grail of baseball cards — it has surpassed the T206 Honus Wagner card in the eyes of many expert collectors in the industry — the pristine Mantle is by far the most valuable sports card in existence. Baker said it could be valued at $50 million.
“What that card has become is a little piece of art,” Baker said. “It’s like a little Monet. It’s never to be replicated. I don’t see after all these years another one coming out that beats it. If that’s the case — and there’s always that chance that someone remodels a house and finds some stuff in an attic or wall or whatever — but I think it’s fair to say that that particular card in that particular grade and everything that card has is just something special.”
Fogel isn’t just having Baker and Werner certify some of his exceptional Mantle cards, he’s having them review his entire collection. That includes Fogel’s rare T206s, T205s and M116s from the early 1900s.
“He’s fair — he didn’t sticker everything,” Fogel said. “When it’s an 8, it’s an 8. If it’s an 8-plus, he’ll sticker it. But there are a lot of cards he just left alone.”
Fogel figures MBA has stickered about 35 percent of all the cards they’ve looked at from his collection.
Fogel believes the ideas that Baker and Werner have about certifying grades is groundbreaking to the industry.
“It’s a good idea because, first of all, you’ve got to remember, it’s Mike Baker. He is the George Washington of card grading,” Fogel said. “I think he knows more about it and how to do it than anybody on the face of the Earth.
“I think there are cards that are 8s and 9s and 6s and 5s, but some are better than others.”
Fogel has endorsed Baker and Werner since Day 1.
“I told Mike, ‘Look, you and Demian do whatever you want — make posters, I’ll sign anything. I’m 100 percent in favor of what you’re doing. I think it’s a great idea,’” Fogel said. “It turns out that the cards that are labeled the Silver, Gold or Black are getting more money at the auction sites, so it’s obviously working.”
Along with Fogel’s collection, other big-time collectors have trusted their cards for MBA to certify. The collector who purchased a 1986-87 Fleer PSA 10 Michael Jordan for $720,000 in January 2021, and then six weeks later paid $4.6 million for the 2018-19 National Treasures Logoman 1/1 Luka Doncic, has had his cards looked at by MBA.
BUSINESS IS BOOMING
MBA was originally going to premiere its company at the 2020 National Sports Collectors Convention, but that didn’t go as planned since the event was cancelled.
At last year’s National in Rosemont, Ill., MBA made a big splash. It attracted new clients and pushed the business in a positive direction. MBA receives the bulk of its submissions when it sets up at card shows.
Werner figures that 80 percent of submissions are modern cards.
“When you look at those numbers — when I say modern, some of it is ultra-modern new — everybody’s chasing a Gold or Black Diamond sticker on a new rookie that’s hot that’s playing,” Werner said. “Those guys that are playing in that realm are pretty new to this market. When I say new, probably in the last three to four years. A lot of them don’t know who Marshall Fogel is. A lot of them didn’t know the ’52 Mantle existed and then even know that there’s three of them.”
Baker is extremely confident in his company and said its service is being received well by collectors.
“For the people who use it, it’s great. For the people who haven’t used us or don’t know much about it, I just think they need to be educated about it,” Baker said. “Our Gold sticker is running 30-plus percent of a premium. Why wouldn’t you do that? If you’ve already got an awesome card, why wouldn’t you want it to be the most awesome card of that card in that grade?”
Fogel doesn’t hesitate giving the go-ahead to anyone possibly interested in trying out MBA’s service.
“There’s no question that what Mike Baker and Demian Werner offer is an alternative that doesn’t hurt anybody and helps the industry,” Fogel said. “I think PSA, SGC, Beckett, everybody should be in this together. If it brings people to the market, great.”