Like so many other kids growing up, I collected sports cards. I bought fresh packs right off the shelves and used money from my paper route to pick out some undiscovered gems at flea markets.
And after years of collecting throughout my childhood, I went off to college and I forgot all about my cards.
About six years ago, my parents asked me to come home and empty my stuff in the storage bin. So I gathered up my boxes of memorabilia stored there and brought my collection home. After dusting off the binders and taking a look, nostalgia kicked in and I was hooked on collecting once again.
First, I started exploring what the hobby looks like years later and the product I discovered is different from the mass-produced Topps from my childhood. eBay is stocked with a glitzy modern assortment of boxes full of autographs and parallels. But the biggest difference in collecting in this new world is just how easy it is to find and buy any card online.
Having caught the card-collecting bug again at a totally different stage of life, when I had a salary, I set to work picking out some legendary cards that I never could have found or afforded as a kid. Rookie cards of Jackie Robinson, Bart Starr and Bill Russell were now within my reach and my collection grew again.
During this frenzied renewal of collecting, my partner and I found out that our lives would be forever changed as we received news that we were going to be parents of twins. Card collecting went into hibernation for a second time until my kids were a few years older.
When the pandemic hit, I managed to find some time to make my way back to my cards. And as I looked through the collection that had taken over my closet, I had a new lens: I was viewing stacks of Elways, Jordans, and Clementes through the eyes of a parent.
My cards weren’t just a childhood hobby anymore or just a short-term investment. Instead, I was looking at an artistic collection of heirlooms that one day would be handed down to my kids. And from the moment that I reopened my closet and looked through the boxes of slabbed Hall of Famers, a new question entered my mind.
What message would I would be sending to my daughter when she was old enough to look through these boxes?
For my son, he could be any of the athletes pictured. But for my daughter, I didn’t have a single female athlete from my time growing up and collecting cards. At that moment, my collection took a pivotal turn as I pulled out my computer to begin a new search on eBay.
The 1933 Goudey Sport Kings Babe Didrikson kicked off this new phase of the hobby for me when I found a PSA 5.5 Didrikson for a couple hundred dollars. The 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set published in the 1930s featured Walter Hagan, Knute Rockne, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, but this set was also one of the earliest of the large producers to feature women athletes.
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One of the absolute best cards in the set is the larger-than-life legend of Didrikson. Set against an orange background, her Goudey card features her looking fierce as she hurdles to glory. She was the other Babe who dominated her competition during the 1930 and ’40s by winning Olympic gold medals, qualifying for a men’s PGA event and pitching in exhibitions against major leaguers.
From the purchase of that card, a new obsession in the hobby took root for me. I had rookie cards of most of the greatest men in sports and now I needed to collect cards of the greatest women’s athletes.
A NEW VENTURE
The hunt for the best cards mainly took place on eBay and I was surprised to see the vast array of cards of female athletes that were out there that I had never known existed. So I began to search for women’s cards in the same way I approached my collection of male athletes. Pouring through compilations and lists of the greatest female athletes, I found accompanying rookie cards available for sale and set to work.
Although my collection of NBA, NFL and MLB stars is good, my collection of cards of female athletes is first class. Rather than being stuck in the middling grades on a 1-10 scale, there are some real gems that highlight my collection.
One of my favorites is a 1970 Panini Champions of Sport Billie Jean King rookie card, graded BVG 8, that I bought for $100 (there are only three PSA 8 and none graded higher). This card features Billie Moffitt-King before she won the Battle of the Sexes and forever changed the game of tennis.
As a former soccer player, I bought a Sports Illustrated for Kids card of Mia Hamm on eBay that graded out as a CSG 8.5 (a PSA 10 of this prolific goal scorer sold for $36,000 last year).
Watching Serena Williams continue to pile up Grand Slam victories and become one of the most recognized athletes in the world, I found a 1999 Sports Illustrated for Kids Serena Williams SGC 8 and a 2003 Netpro Serena PSA 10 that are beautiful cards. A 2003 NetPro autographed patch rookie card of Williams just sold for $266,400 at Goldin Co., a record for female sports cards.
And now, two years after beginning my quest, I have a more balanced collection that I think will inspire both of my children one day.
The centerpieces of my collection still include Jim Thorpe and Hank Aaron, but they now also include: a gem 1997 Pinnacle Lisa Leslie; a 1988 Panini Supersport Jackie Joyner-Kersee; a 1960 Hemmets Journal Wilma Rudolph; a 1935 Ardath Cigarettes Helen Willis Moody; a 1937 Ogden’s Sonje Henje; a Godfrey Phillips Gertrude Ederle; a 2019 Topps Naomi Osaka rookie still tucked away in its complete-set box; and a mint Simone Biles, among many others.
Our collections will always reflect our values. For both of my twins, they will take a look at my cards with the same lens that they view the art on our walls and the books on our shelves. Hopefully one day when they flip through the slabs in the closet, they will both see themselves in our family’s collection.
— Pat Finley is an educator and freelance writer living in New York City. He grew up collecting sports cards and has been in the hobby for 40 years.