Whilst most hobbies seem to come and go, sports card collecting is here to stay. The industry continues to break records each year and is expected to rise to more than $100 billion by 2027.
In 2020, card sales surged 142%, with sports fans having more time on their hands to collect their favorite players and stay involved in sports that were canceled at the time.
Today, the four major US sports leagues – the National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Football League (NFL) – all have deals with certain card manufacturing brands.
With cards now being overproduced, cards produced in limited quantities at a time when sports stars were less famous are now extremely collectible and valuable. These are known as Rookie cards.
13 Most Valuable Rookie Cards (Round-up list)
A Rookie card is defined as the first card of a player issued in a set at the start of their career. Featuring players now regarded as the greatest of all time, cards with autographs or game day patches now fetch huge prices.
Let’s take a look at the most valuable Rookie cards sold online or through a private sale. These are 13 of the most valuable cards currently valued or recently sold at auction over $1,000,000.
1) 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311
(Sold by Heritage Auctions in August 2022)
- Price: $12,600,000
- Grade: SGC Mint 9.5
- Card Number: #311
Mickey Mantle, nicknamed ‘the Commerce Comet’, was a former professional American baseball player. He played his entire career with the New York Yankees (1951-1968) in three different positions.
He is regarded by many as the best switch hitter of all time and was inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 1974. He is a 20x all-star, won seven world series titles, and is a three-time MVP. He won the converted triple crown in 1956, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in.
Taking the number one spot for the most valuable rookie cards of all time is the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle Rookie card – 1985 Rosen find. It features Mickey in a New York Yankees jersey and cap, looking on with a yellow baseball bat. On the bottom of the card is Mickey’s name and autograph in black pen.
The Topps card is from the ‘1985 Rosen Find’ collection. The card discovery started with a phone call from a man in Boston whose father had been a delivery driver for Topps and had a case of cards sitting in his basement for over thirty years.
Once opened, the case contained seventy-five ‘52 Mantles’ in mint condition. Today there are three known PSA 10 examples of this card, with this one an SGC Mint 9.5 from the ‘1985 Rosen Find’ collection. The card was sold at a Heritage Auction in August 2022 for $12,600,000, breaking the $7.250,000 record previously held by the Honus Wagner card in the number 2 spot.
2) 1909-1911 T206 Honus Wagner Rookie
(Sold by Goldin Private Auction in August 2022)
- Price: $7,250,000
- Grade: SGC 2
- Card Number: #T206
Honus Wagner nicknamed ‘The Flying Dutchman’ was a former American Baseball Shortstop, playing 21 MLB seasons from 1897-1917. He played almost entirely for the Pittsburgh Pirates and was inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 1936.
He is regarded by most historians as the best Shortstop and one of the greatest players ever. Wagner led the league five times for runs batted in and stolen bases and holds eight batting titles, a record that remains unbroken today.
Only recently beaten by the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle Rookie card – 1985 Rosen find is the 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner Rookie. The card features Horus in his Pittsburgh uniform, posing for the camera. The card has a white border with ‘Wagner, Pittsburgh’ at the bottom. It’s considered to be the rarest baseball card in the world by most, with less than 50 authenticated T-206 Wagner’s.
The card is graded as an SGC 2, lower than the previous SGC 3 Wagner card sold at $6.6m. The card was sold at a private Goldin Auction in August 2022 for $7,250,000, following the pattern of each card sold for more each time it comes to auction.
3) Stephen Curry Autographed National Treasures Logoman Card #206
(Sold by Private Sale in July 2021)
- Price: $5,900,000
- Grade: PSA NM-MT 8
- Card Number: #206
Stephen Curry is a current American professional basketball player for the Golden State Warriors in the NBA. Whilst Curry is still currently playing, he’s regarded by most as the greatest of all time (GOAT) and the greatest shooter in NBA history.
In his career to date, he has won 4 NBA championships, named the NBA’s most valuable player twice, and is an 8 time NBA All-Star. In December 2021, he set the NBA record for career three-pointers surpassing Ray Allen.
Featured in the number three spot is the 2009-10 Stephen Curry Autographed National Treasures Logoman card. The card shows Curry in his blue and yellow Warrior uniform with his hands clasped together. It includes an NBA jersey patch and is autographed at the bottom in blue ink.
The card comes from the 2009-10 National treasures collection, Panini’s first super-premium basketball product. It is graded by PSA as NM-MT 8 with the autograph graded as a Gem MT 10.
The card was sold in a private sale in July 2021 for $5,900,000, surpassing the previous record for a National Treasures Rookie previously held by the 2018-19 Luka Donic Rookie card in the number 5 spot.
4) LeBron James Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Rookie Card #78
(Sold privately on PWCC Marketplace in April 2021)
- Price: $5,200,000
- Grade: BGS MT 9
- Card Number: #78
LeBron James, nicknamed ‘King James’, is a current American professional NBA player for the Los Angeles Lakers. Like Stephen Curry, he is widely considered by most as the greatest player of all time and is often compared to Michael Jordan when debating who the greatest basketball player ever is.
In a glittering career so far, James has won four NBA championships, four NBA most valuable player awards, and four NBA finals MVP awards. He also holds two Olympic gold medals. James has scored the most playoff points and in 2022, became the first player in NBA history to accumulate 10,000 + career points, rebounds, and assists.
This is the 2003-04 LeBron James Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Rookie card and features Lebron in a Cavaliers jersey with the basketball. The card features a game day jersey patch and is autographed at the bottom in blue ink.
The card is from the Upper Deck Exquisite Collection, highly regarded among collectors and known for being very rare. They were only produced for three years and cost $500 a box at the time.
The card is graded by Becketts as a 9 NM, with only 1 card graded higher. It was sold privately on PWCC Marketplace in April 2021 for $5,200,000.
5) 2018-19 Luka Doncic Autographed National Treasures Logoman Card
(Sold privately in February 2021)
- Price: $4,600,000
- Grade: Ungraded
- Card Number: N/A
Luka Doncic is a Slovenian professional basketball player, currently with the Dallas Mavericks. He also plays for the Slovenian national basketball team. In 2018, Doncic declared for the NBA draft and joined the Mavericks, winning the ‘Rookie of the Year’ award in 2018-19. He is also a three-time NBA All-Star and has won multiple EuroLeague titles.
In the number 5 spot is his 2018-19 Luka Doncic Autographed National Treasures Logoman card. It features Doncic in a blue Mavericks jersey, pointing on as he dribbles the ball. The card included an NBA game day jersey patch and is autographed in blue ink at the bottom.
The card is part of the 2018-19 National Treasures set, a premium for card collectors. Each box contained 10 cards and can no longer be purchased at retail price. On the second-hand market, boxes go for over $4,500.
The ungraded card was sold privately in February 2021 for $4,600,000.
6) 2017 Patrick Mahomes Autograph Card #161
(Sold by PWCC Marketplace Private Auction in July 2021)
- Price: $4,300,000
- Grade: BGS 8.5
- Card Number: #161
Patrick Mahomes is an American Football Quarterback, currently playing for the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL. Mahomes initially played college football and baseball before deciding to focus solely on football. He was the 10th overall draft pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
After spending most of his rookie years as the second choice, Mahomes became the first-choice starter for the Chiefs in 2018. In that season, he became the only quarterback in history to throw more than 5000 yards in a single season.
This caught the league’s attention, with Mahomes winning the offensive player of the year and the NFL’s most valuable player awards. Following this, he led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl in 50 years and became the third African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
The card featured is his 2017 National Treasures NFL Shield Autograph Rookie card. The card shows Mahomes in a red Chiefs jersey, football in hand, looking to throw to a teammate. The card includes an NFL game day shield logo and has his signature underneath in blue ink.
With many playing years still ahead, this Mahomes Rookie card is considered a great investment by collectors. The card is numbered 1/1, meaning it’s the only one in existence. It has been graded by Beckett as NM-MT 8.5, with the autograph graded as pristine.
The card was sold by PWCC Marketplace in July 2021 for $4,300,000, It surpassed the previous record held by a Tom Brady Rookie card which features at number 9.
7) 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Mike Trout #BDPP89
(Sold by Goldin Auctions)
- Price: $3,840,000
- Grade: BGS Mint 9
- Card Number: #BDPP89
Mike Trout is an American professional baseball center fielder, playing for the Los Angeles Angels in the MLB. He was selected by the Angels in the first round of the 2009 MLB draft and won the 2012 AL Rookie of the Year award.
Trout is a ten-time MLB All-Star and has been voted AL’s most valuable player three times. He is regarded as one of the best young players in the history of baseball and one of the best players currently in the MLB.
The rookie card featured is the 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects. The card shows Trout in a red Angels jersey about to swing for a ball. The card included Trout’s signature at the bottom in blue ink. In the top right is a special logo that declares the card as a ‘certified autograph issue’.
The super fractor card comes from the Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects series, issued in 2009 with a 55-card base. The limited edition card is numbered 1/1, making it the only one in existence. It’s graded by Beckett as Mint 9, with the autograph graded a 10.
The card was sold in a Goldin Private Auction for $3,840,000.
8) 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky #18
(Sold by Heritage Auctions Private Sale in May 2021)
- Price: $3,790,000
- Grade: PSA Gem Mint 10
- Card Number: #18
Wayne Gretzky is a former Canadian professional ice hockey player and head coach. He is regarded by most as the greatest hockey player of all time and is the leading goalscorer, assists maker, and point scorer in NHL history.
After retiring in 1999, Gretzky was immediately inducted into the Hockey hall of fame. His 99 jersey number was retired by the NHL, an honor only given to two other players.
At number 8 is the 1999 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky card. It features Gretzky skating on the ice in an Edmonton Oilers jersey. The card is surrounded by a light blue border and shows Gretzky’s full name, position, and team logo.
The card is part of the O-Pee-Chee range, a Canadian company that worked with Topps to distribute similar-looking cards in Canada.
This particular card is hard to find in a high grade due to lower printing standards. The card is only 1 of 2 cards given a PSA 10 grading, making it extremely rare and valuable to card collectors.
The card was sold at a Heritage Private Auction in May 2021, shattering the previous hockey card record.
9) 2000 Playoff Contenders Championship Tom Brady #144
(Sold by Lelands Auction in April 2021)
- Price: $3,107,000
- Grade: Beckett Mint 9
- Card Number: #144
Tom Brady is an American football quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He spent his first 20 seasons with the New England Patriots, before switching to the Buccaneers who he currently plays for.
At the start of his career, Brady was only the 199th pick by the Patriots in the 2000 NFL draft. He is now regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time, winning 7 Super Bowl titles. He has won five Super Bowl MVPs, three National Football league MVPs, and two NFL offensive player of the year titles amongst many others.
In the number 9 position is the 2000 Playoff Contenders Championship Tom Brady Rookie Ticket. It features Brady in a Patriots jersey about to throw the football. The card includes a Tom Brady 2000 Playoff Contenders Championship Rookie ticket and is autographed in black ink at the bottom.
This particular card was part of a print run of 100 produced in 2000 and was graded by Becketts as Mint 9. Brady contender autographs are known to be quite fragile, with only seven other examples of this card in the same condition. No cards have ever been graded higher.
Shortly after Brady won the Super Bowl in 2021, three of the other rookie card owners were asked if they would sell their card for $5,000,000. Each owner declined.
The card is numbered #8/100 and was sold at a Lelands Auction in April 2021 for $3,107,000.
10) 1916 M101-4 Babe Ruth #151
(Sold by Mile High Auctions in November 2021)
- Price: $2,400,000
- Grade: PSA NM 7
- Card Number: #151
Babe Ruth, nicknamed ‘The Bambino’ is a former American professional baseball player. He played baseball in the MLB from 1914-1935, a career spanning 22 seasons. His career awards include seven world series championships, one AL MVP award, and two All-Star appearances.
He began his career as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox but became most famous as a slugging outfielder for the New York Yankees. Ruth was inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 1936 and is considered by most as the greatest baseball player of all time.
The card featured is a 1916 M101-4 Babe Ruth Rookie. It shows Ruth following through after pitching. The bottom of the card says ‘Babe Ruth P Boston Red Sox 151’.
The 200-card sets were issued in two versions, with one version containing advertising and the other version left blank. Only six blank versions have been graded by the PSA, with this card only 1 of 2 graded as a 7 NM.
The card was sold at a Mile High Auction in November 2021 for $2,400,000.
11) 1996-97 Topps Chrome Refractor Kobe Bryant #138
(Sold at a Goldin Auction in March 2021)
- Price: $1,796,000
- Grade: Beckett 10
- Card Number: #138
Kobe Bryant was an American professional basketball player, spending his 20-year career as a shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. Widely regarded as the best player of all time, Bryant won five NBA championships and was an 18-time All-Star.
He was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 2020, the same year where he tragically passed away in a helicopter crash. The All-Star MVP award was renamed in his honor.
Next on the list is a 1996-97 Topps Chrome Refractor Kobe Bryant card. It features Bryant in a yellow Lakers jersey, looking to shoot the ball. The card is from Topps, considered to be one of the more exclusive card companies.
The card is graded by Beckett as a Pristine 10, with only two other examples known to exist of the same quality.
Following the tragic passing of Bryant, the value of his sports memorabilia skyrocketed. This card was sold at a Goldin Auction in March 2021 for $1,752,000.
12) 1986-87 Michael Jordan Fleer Buyback #57
(Sold by Goldin Auctions in January 2021)
- Price: $1,008,000
- Grade: Beckett NM-MT 8.5
- Card Number: #57
Widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan, also known as ‘Air Jordan’ played 15 NBA seasons, winning 6 championship rings, 5 MVP awards, and 10 scoring titles.
When he retired, he became a basketball icon, with people still disbelieving his playing capabilities and the records he broke. This made him one of the most marketable players ever, with his sports memorabilia fetching huge prices at auction.
On the card is Jordan in a red Chicago Bulls jersey doing his trademark dunk stretch. It’s personally signed by Jordan at the bottom in blue ink.
The card featured is unique. When Upper Deck purchased Fleer, they bought 23 Fleer 1986 Jordan Rookies. Upper Deck inserted 23 redemption cards into random packs from the 2006-07 Fleer set and allowed customers to exchange a redemption card for one of the 23 signed Jordan Rookies. Only 14 have been graded, meaning more could be out there.
This card is numbered 20/23 and graded by Becketts as NM-MT 8.5. It was sold at a Goldin Auction in June 2022 for $1,008,000.
13) 1969 Topps Reggie Jackson Dmitri Young Collection #260
(Sold by Heritage Auctions in February 2021)
- Price: $1,006,000
- Grade: PSA Gem Mint 10
- Card Number: #260
Born in 1946, Reggie Jackson is an American former professional baseball right fielder. His career spanned a total of 21 seasons for four different teams and was nicknamed ‘Mr. October’, known for hitting better in the postseason.
His career awards include five world series championships, two silver slugger awards, two world series MVP awards, and 14 All-Star appearances.
Rounding out the list of the most valuable rookie cards over $1,000,000 is the 1969 Topps Reggie Jackson Dmitri Young Collection. It features Jackson in a green and white Oakland Athletics jersey, with his position and team name.
This debut card of Reggie is from the Dmitri Young collection and is the only one known to exist graded by the PSA as Gem Mint 10. The card sold at a Heritage auction in February 2021 for $1,006,000.
Why are Rookie Cards so Expensive?
Rookie cards were issued at a time when a player was less well-known, meaning the cards were produced in limited quantities compared to now where they are produced in huge quantities.
Those who had rookie cards didn’t care too much about keeping them in good condition, meaning high-quality versions are extremely rare and therefore valuable to collectors.
Rookie cards featuring game day jersey patches from historical games and player autographs are usually the most valuable and sought after.
Rookie Card Buying Guide
What to look for when buying Rookie cards
The main things to look for when buying a rookie card include:
- The player
- The grade
- Which set the card is from
- How many were produced
- The card brand
What are the main sports card brands?
Once received for free in tobacco and chewing gum packs, sports trading cards are now produced by 6 main brands.
1) Upper Deck
Founded in 1989, Upper Deck is a highly regarded brand known for its sports card quality. In 1992 they launched the Upper Deck Authentication Programme (UDA), which involved someone witnessing each card signing.
Upper deck was one the first companies to branch out into multiple sports and still set the trading card standards today.
Founded in 1951, Topps is a big player in the world of sports trading cards. Whilst they produce cards in 4 sports, they are most well-known for their baseball cards. Their Mickey Mantle card which features at the top of my list is one of their best and most valuable cards.
They produce cards that are typically known as ‘the industry standard’ and include player stats on the back.
Founded in 1929, Fleer has been around for quite a long time. They were acquired by Topps but continue to produce high-quality, popular cards.
They are widely known for their baseball cards but have also found success in other sports markets.
Bowman released their first set of baseball cards in 1948, with the ‘Play Ball’ collection still widely sought after by collectors today. The company was acquired by Topps in 1989 and shifted its focus to the production of Rookie cards.
The company only started making baseball cards in 2009, meaning they are pretty new to the industry. Despite this, they are a big known competitor for Topps in terms of sales and popularity among collectors.
Panini purchased the Donruss playoff cards in 2009 and they remain their most popular line today.
During the early days of Donruss, the company struggled to find success. Their 2007 Elite Extra Edition sets were hugely popular with collectors but it didn’t stop them from being purchased by Panini in 2011.
Today, they remain a valuable part of the sports trading card industry.
Conclusion – Most Valuable Rookie Cards
Rookie cards are some of the rarest and most valuable sports trading cards across the four major sports. Featuring players now historically regarded as the ‘greatest of all time’, Rookie cards draw the attention of high-level collectors all over the world.
Taking the number one spot for the most valuable rookie card to date is the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311, selling for $12,600,000 recently in August 2022, smashing the previous record.