Editor's Note: Reprinted from the Oct. 1 issue of Sports Collector's Digest.
To those of us obsessed with sports, history has supplied a generous, seemingly endless lineup of heroes. From the earliest Olympiad standouts (ever hear of Milo of Croton, a wrestling standout active from around 520 to 540 B.C.?) to Adley Rutschman (today’s No. 1 prospect in baseball), the list is long and ever-growing.
As such, singling out 10 hobby icons is a near-impossible task. By the time you’re finished reading, we guarantee you’ll have come up with a number of names you’ll insist should be included. (Note: We’ve headed you off at the pass, at least a little, by packing a sidebar with the next 15 names that should be in the argument.)
In a way, the assignment would’ve been easier if we had angled our feature on the cliché of the day — a Mount Rushmore of hobby icons. Why? Because the top four names on our list are immovable forces in the hobby (and would work in any order), as you’ll likely agree when you arrive. But that’ll be a few scrolls away, because we’re starting at No. 10 and counting down.
So dive in … and then feel free to tell us where we erred.
10. TED WILLIAMS
The appeal: The Splendid Splinter may have been baseball’s purest hitter ever, a man who studied the science of hitting and practiced it like no one else. He batted .344 with 521 homers in his 19-season career, despite losing three of his prime years (ages 24 through 26) to military service. He led the AL in hitting six times and exhibited the keenest batting eye in the game. He led the league in walks eight times and totaled 2,021 free passes in his career (to go with 2,654 hits). Not surprisingly, he led the AL in on-base percentage 12 times.
Hobby Icons: The Next 15
While he was wowing baseball crowds, Williams also became a prominent face in American advertising, lending his image to promote such products as Wilson gloves, Sears fishing products, Chesterfield cigarettes, Moxie soda, Coca-Cola and, of course, Ted’s Creamy Root Beer. Today, you can build an impressive collection of Williams ephemera based on ads alone, not to mention the countless magazine covers he graced.
Card of choice: There’s a rich assortment of Williams cards from his playing days — cards that span pre-War to post-War years. His first issues were in 1939. There was a Canadian-printed Goudey Premium card with scarce distribution in the U.S., but there was also a more widely available card from Play Ball. The latter is considered his true rookie — a clean and simple piece featuring only a photograph of Ted (in a post-swing follow-through) on the front.
In 2015, multiple Williams 1939 Play Ball cards graded 8 sold for prices between $12,000 and $15,000. Jump to 2021: An example also graded 8 sold for $56,000. A 9-grade specimen of the card goes for around $150,000.
Another key Williams issue is his 1954 Topps card. He was so popular Topps made him the first and last card in the set (Nos. 1 and 250). Both are condition-sensitive and can draw around $20,000 if in 9 condition.
9. JOE DIMAGGIO
The appeal: Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were the Bird and Magic of baseball from the 1940s and ‘50s. Instead of being anchored on alternate coasts, they were both in the Northeast — eternal rivals who helped perpetuate the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. Williams hit with more power and had a longer career, but DiMaggio hogged all the championships, winning nine in his 13-year career. He was a .325 hitter with 361 homers but may be best known for a remarkable 56-game hitting streak in 1941. That year, he hit .357 and led the AL with 125 RBI — and won the AL MVP award to edge Williams and his .406 average.
Long after their careers ended, both Joltin’ Joe and Teddy Ballgame turned up on the autograph circuit from time to time. If you happened to see either or both, you know how revered they were — baseball majesty who typically left fans awestruck by their mere sight.
Card of choice: DiMaggio’s colorful 1941 Play Ball issue is perhaps his most desirable card. The front features a batting follow-through pose — hand-painted and eye-catching — while the reverse notes that he won his second straight batting title in 1940.
In 2020, Heritage sold a jaw-dropping Gem-Mint 10 specimen of DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card for $750,000. A year earlier, a PSA 9 example of the same card sold for $216,000.
Earlier DiMaggio cards can sell for five-figure prices, but they don’t have quite the visual appeal. For example, his 1936 Goudey World Wide Gum issue (printed in Canada, with limited distribution in the U.S.) features a black and white headshot of a dour-looking DiMaggio. His 1939 Play Ball card is similar in design but with a smiling Joe D. In between, Goudey issued two 1938 cards, both with DiMaggio’s head overlaid on a cartoon drawing of his body.
8. MIKE TROUT
The appeal: He turned 30 only recently (Aug. 7, 2021), but Trout has already been in the major leagues for 10 seasons and has made a stunning impact. His career totals through 2021: 310 homers, 203 steals and a .305 average. Despite his injury-shortened 2021 season (and the splash made by his otherworldly two-way teammate Shohei Ohtani), Trout is entrenched in our Top 10 hobby icons.
For as long as he’s been a hot ticket in the big leagues, Trout’s rookie card has been hot even longer. His first major cards came out in 2009, but his major league debut wasn’t until 2011, when he got into 40 games. His breakout season was a year later, 2012, when he won Rookie of the Year honors. Since then, he’s been named to the AL All-Star team nine times and has three MVP awards to his credit (2014, 2016, 2019). All along, collectors have been on the prowl for Trout treasures.
Card of choice: The Trout card you see most often in headlines is his 2009 Bowman Chrome autographed Refractor. It was produced in an edition of 500 and sells for well more than $50,000. Variations produced in smaller quantities bring much higher. In the past year, multiple auctions of his Orange Chrome Refractor (from an edition of 25) sold for prices between $240,000 (BGS 9.5) and $370,000 (PSA 10). An ultra-rare Red Refractor, one of five made, brought $922,500.
And then there’s the big one: A 1-of-1 Superfractor version of Trout’s 2009 Chrome Refractor reached the mind-boggling price of $3.84 million in a 2020 Goldin Auctions sale.
7. ROBERTO CLEMENTE
The appeal: This longtime Pittsburgh Pirates star died tragically at age 38 while on a mission of mercy, delivering supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua in December 1972. He left behind Hall of Fame credentials: exactly 3,000 hits, plus a .317 average, 240 home runs and 1,305 RBI. He also won 12 straight Gold Glove awards, from 1961 to 1972. He possessed a cannon of an arm, as 254 opponents found out when trying to take an extra base. (That mark — 254 assists — is a record for right-fielders.)
Card of choice: Topps included Clemente in its 1955 set for the first time, a card that gives us a close-up head shot plus a smaller batting photo. The value of this card has taken off; price guides from the early 2000s show it was worth $2,500 in NM condition. In March 2021, we saw a PSA 9-grade Clemente rookie sell for $1.1 million at Goldin Auctions. Other recent prices include PSA 8.5-grade examples that sold for $210,000 (Heritage, March 2021) and $147,600 (Goldin, May 2021).
6. TOM BRADY
The appeal: Go back 10 years in time and Brady wouldn’t even be in the “Top 10 Hobby Icons” conversation. He was bubbling under back then; now he’s boiling over. Seven Super Bowl rings, gaudy passing numbers and sheer longevity will do that.
In fact, it’s a futile argument as to who ranks as the NFL’s best all-time QB — even for fans of multiple-ring winners like Bart Starr, Joe Montana and John Elway. And even for fans of QBs who put up crazy numbers, like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Dan Marino.
Card of choice: Think about where you were in the early 2000s. At the time, you could have picked up any number of signed 2000 Playoff Contenders Rookie Ticket Brady cards for lunch-money prices. Now it’s impossible to touch the card in Near-Mint-9 condition for less than $100,000.
Even pricier: the Championship Rookie Ticket rarity (limited to a run of 100). Goldin Auctions sold one graded BGS 8.5 for $1.68 million in April 2021, only to be topped by Leland’s in June, when another 8.5-graded example fetched $3.107 million.
5. LEBRON JAMES
The appeal: King James burst onto the NBA scene with the Cleveland Cavaliers at age 19. That was in 2003, and he quickly became the consummate small forward. By now, fans have had nearly two decades to watch him at work. And what a body of work it is! He’s shown he can score at will (27 points-per-game career average), clean the boards (7.4 rebounds per game) and pass like a point guard (7.4 assists per game). In fact, in his second year with the L.A. Lakers (the 2019-20 season), he really did become point guard, leading the NBA in assists with 10.2 per game. He’s won four regular-season MVP awards and four more MVPs in NBA Finals series. He’s also been named to 17 All-NBA teams.
James has also proven himself to be role model material. In Sports Illustrated, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described James like this: “Paul Simon sang that ‘every generation sends a hero up the pop chart,’ and this generation couldn’t do any better in the hero department than LeBron James.”
James’ performance and persona haven’t been lost on the collectibles market. There’s only one Michael Jordan, but James has ascended closer to his level than anyone.
Card of choice: James’s 2003-04 Topps Chrome Refractor rookie has been climbing the value ladder for years. In March and April 2021, the memorabilia market had more momentum than a runaway train, and it drove James’s Chrome Refractor rookie to almost unbelievable heights:
● Chrome Refractors graded Gem-Mint-10 bring prices between $150,000 and $250,000.
● Variations go even higher: At Golden Auctions in fall 2020 and winter 2021, Gold Refractors (production run: 50) fetched $295,000 and $312,000. A Black Refractor (production run: 500) went for $450,000.
Then there’s James’s 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Rookie Patch card. A parallel version from a run of 23 sold in a private deal in April 2021 for a then-record $5.2 million (one eventually broken by a Honus Wagner T206). And it wasn’t even a 10 — it had a grade of BGS 9.
4. MICHAEL JORDAN
The appeal: He was basketball’s all-time best player — a groundbreaking superstar who dazzled NBA audiences for 15 illustrious seasons. During his career, Jordan averaged 30.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game. But numbers don’t begin to tell the story of his athleticism, versatility and clutch-time ability.
Don’t forget that Jordan, after winning a three-peat (NBA titles in 1991, 1992 and 1993), left the Bulls at age 29 and took up minor league baseball. He later returned to the Bulls and played four more seasons, pulling off another three-peat. He retired in 1998, but after three years away, he came back for two seasons with Washington. Throughout his career, and even during his baseball diversion, Jordan was the hottest name in the hobby, and he’s only climbed higher since then.
Card of choice: No mystery here — Jordan’s 1986-87 Fleer card is a lightning rod for well-heeled bidders. It seemed to hang around in the $15,000 to $25,000 range, if in 10 condition, from around 2010 to 2019. In a January 2016 installment of our “Online Auctioneer” column, for example, a PSA 10 Jordan Fleer rookie paced our Top 10 list with an auction price of $17,000.
In 2019, it started making incremental jumps and hasn’t stopped. Now it flies past the $100,000 mark without slowing down. In January 2021, we reported on an example that brought $208,100. Six months later, we reported on another PSA 10 that brought $840,000.
3. HONUS WAGNER
The appeal: The fact that he played so long ago gives a certain mystique to the name Honus Wagner. We can’t watch endless hours of him hitting doubles into the gap, stealing a base or fielding ground balls at shortstop. Heck, the man started his pro baseball career in 1897 for the Louisville Colonels of the National League.
However, we do have gobs of stats that show Wagner could handle a bat. He hit .328 in his 21 seasons, banging out 3,420 hits and stealing 723 bases. He also whacked 101 homers in the dead-ball era.
And ... we’ve got old photographs — mostly posed or head shots of a face brimming with character. Wagner had the look of a workmanlike grinder — a guy who rarely sat down when there were innings to be played.
And … we’ve got the card.
Card of choice: We’ve studied Wagner’s expressionless look on that T206 — the straight-ahead stare, those steely eyes, the pointy collars of the old wool uniform. Wagner’s T206 has a personality all its own. It’s the single most important item in sports collecting history: It’s rare, it’s endearing, it’s condition-sensitive and it’s highly sought by high-end collectors. Only 60 examples of the card have survived, according to hobby estimates, and most are in 2 condition or worse.
When any of the few higher-condition examples changes hands, the price is ever-escalating. One such T206 — a well-preserved piece with a 3 grade from SGC — broke hobby records in August by selling for $6.606 million at Robert Edward Auctions. This particular Wagner is said to be the first ever sold at a public auction. That was in 1973, and the price was $1,200. Three years later, it brought $2,500. Now it sits atop the hobby as the most valuable piece ever sold.
Eventually, a piece of sports memorabilia will reach the $10 million mark. Is there any doubt it’ll be a T206 Wagner?
2. BABE RUTH
The appeal: Baseball was a different type of game before Ruth came along. During the game’s “dead ball era,” teams relied more on slap singles and stolen bases than the long ball. Ruth changed all that, blasting prodigious homers with regularity. By the time he retired in 1935, he had that iconic home-run total of 714 to go with a .342 average and 2,214 RBI. He was omnipresent — a star attraction on and off the field, a personality Americans found endearing and lovable.
As the great sportswriter Red Smith put it:
“It wasn’t that he hit more home runs than anybody else. He hit them better, higher, farther, with more theatrical timing and a more flamboyant flourish.”
Card of choice: Ruth appeared on a number of cards that remain ever-rising in price. The earliest and arguably most desirable may be the 1915-16 Sporting News issue cataloged as M101-5. It captures him as a young Red Sox pitcher and today sells for $50,000 to $125,000 if in 2, 3, or 4 grade. It’s a rarity in higher grades, so the price soars, from about $275,000 (6) to as much as $3 million (8).
And then there’s the Ruth 1933 Goudey #53, which set a record of $4.2 million when it sold in August as part of the $25 million Thomas Newman Collection. The PSA Mint 9 was the only 9 grad among 1,500-plus examples, according to Memory Lance Inc.
1. MICKEY MANTLE
The appeal: You have permission to flip Ruth and Mantle — or to slide Honus ahead of both. But first, understand the logic here. Ruth’s signature is especially iconic, but the hobby is more than just autographs. Trading cards have been even more of a driving force — the inspiration that drew countless collectors among us to “get in the game.”
Topps first appeared in 1938, but it wasn’t until 1952 that the company began issuing annual baseball card series. As Mantle fans know, the “Commerce Comet” first appeared in the majors in 1951, playing right field next to Joe DiMaggio but struggling — so much that he got sent back down to the minors.
Mantle returned to the Yankees that season, so when Topps prepared its new 1952 numbered set of color baseball cards, it included the new Yankees star. From that point on, the hobby began taking on a more organized feel. And as the years went on, Mantle continued as the leading attraction in every set — the player every kid wanted to pull out of wax. His heroics on the field — a .298 lifetime average, 536 homers (plus a record 18 World Series homers), 1,676 runs and 1,509 RBI — made him the game’s most popular face.
Card of choice: Yes, the first Mantle card is in Bowman’s 1951 set, and that one is a beauty. But it’s his 1952 Topps that really gets collectors bidding. Decent-condition examples of the card (in the 5, 6 or 7 range) have been pushing and exceeding a million dollars for years. But in January 2021, it hit a new high, selling for $5.2 million, setting a baseball card and all-time record at the time.
As long as there’s a hobby, collectors will want a vintage ’52 Mantle. In any condition. We’ve seen a PSA 1 sell for $25,000, a PSA 2 for $57,931 and a PSA 3 for $56,400.
More Hobby Icons: The next 15
— Got feedback on our choices? Email Larry Canale at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author of two books with photography legend Ozzie Sweet (The Boys of Spring and Mickey Mantle: The Yankee Years), Canale has been writing for SCD for more than 15 years. His past editorships included six years at “Tuff Stuff” and 14 years at “Antiques Roadshow Insider.”