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How to Build a Comprehensive Baseball Card Investment Strategy
Explore the intricacies of building your card investment strategy by looking at the different vehicles, risk profiles, and considerations across baseball cards and boxes.
I’m a lawyer by day. So before I begin, this is not investment advice. Please review our full disclaimer here.
Baseball card investment opportunities can be divided into individual player investments and box investments. Individual player investments vary in risk from safest (high-graded cards with a history of appreciation) to riskiest (unproven prospects). Box investments are like ETFs, allowing investors to benefit from the performance of an entire class of players. Comparing the investment in top prospects from 2010 to buying a 2009 Bowman Draft Picks and Prospects Hobby Box, the box investment yields better returns, emphasizing the value of diversification.
Building a Baseball Card Investment Strategy
As I see it, there are two main types of card investment opportunities: investing in individual players and investing in boxes. Within each option lies several. Let’s start with individual players. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong answer here; however, it’s critical to consider your risk tolerance.
Buying Cards: What To Consider
Investing in individual players is akin to buying stock in individual companies. Just like with companies, there are relatively safe card investments and extremely risky investments. Of course, even the “safest” investments can go wrong (see Sears). Let’s break down this investment strategy by risk:
The safest buys are highly-graded cards with a long history of appreciation over time. These cards are expensive and unaffordable to most people, myself included. Some examples are the 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle Card (The story behind the 1952 Mantle is incredibly interesting and can be read about here - no one was buying the set in 1952 so Topps dumped them into the Hudson River). A SGC 9.5 Mantle card sold for $12.6 million in 2022. Another steep but safe investment is the famous Honus Wagner T206. For a non-baseball example, there is also the 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan.
The next tier is retired Hall of Famers and current players destined for the Hall of Fame. These cards’ values still fluctuate but are likely to increase in value over time. They also tend to be far more affordable than those listed above. Additionally, since these cards are more modern, there are a variety of options with varying values. One such “moderately safe” investment is Mike Trout. While Trout is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, his cards do fluctuate significantly due to his recent string of injuries. You can invest in Trout rookie cards ranging from a couple hundred dollars or less to millions for his 1st Bowman Superfractor. Here is a list of some great Trout cards at varying price points:
While Trout is in a league of his own, I believe Aaron Judge should also fall within this category of cards.
Another player who’s nearing Trout’s status with respect to investment risk is his teammate Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani continues to do otherworldly things, but I think he’ll need a couple more years before I’m comfortable solidifying him in the “moderately safe” investment class. If you are interested in buying investment-grade Ohtani cards, I recommend his 2018 Bowman Chrome Rookie Autograph card.
The next investment class for individual players is young superstars with few years under their belts. These are the Wander Francos and Julio Rodriguezes of the world. These players have a small, impressive sample size but have many years of baseball ahead of them. Some of the players in this category include:
Fernando Tatis Jr. (I know, there’s the steroids issue)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Ronald Acuna Jr.
Michael Harris III
This is akin to making pre-series A, angel investments in start-ups. Buying individual players in this risk portfolio mainly consists of 1st Bowman Chrome cards - otherwise known as “prospecting.” For the uninitiated, the Bowman Chrome set is best known for its inclusion of 1st Bowmans - the first cards of recently drafted and minor league players. Even though they haven’t played a single game in the MLB, these cards can go for thousands - even tens of thousands - because of their hype, potential, and performance in the minors. It’s hard to recommend buying certain players at this level since they’re unproven, and performance in the minors often does not translate to performance in the big leagues. For prospects to consider, a few top prospect lists can be found here, here and here (however, before doing so, please continue reading below).
Buying Boxes (and Keeping them Sealed): What To Consider
If buying individual players’ cards is akin to buying company stock, buying boxes equates to buying an ETF (and buying boxes of varying sports would be a mutual fund). Whereas buying individual players limits the potential appreciation of your portfolio to the performance of those players, buying boxes expands your investment to the entire class of players in that box. For example, by buying a box of 2019 Bowman Baseball, you’re investing in a class that includes both Julio Rodriguez and Wander Franco’s 1st Bowman Chrome cards. Rather than spending time studying a specific prospect and hoping you’re either prophetic or lucky, buying boxes allow for the flexibility of investing in an entire class of prospects and/or rookies.
Here are the top 10 Baseball America prospects:
Today, I can buy these players’ 1st Bowman Chrome Cards at the following prices:
Jayson Heyward - $39.99 (BGS 9)
Stephen Strasburg - $299.99 (PSA 10)
Giancarlo Stanton - $375.00 (BGS 9.5)
Jesus Montero - $2.99 (Ungraded, no bids for it on eBay)
Brian Matusz - $1.36
Desmond Jennings - $2.98
Buster Posey - $569.99 (BGS 9.5)
Pedro Alvarez - Couldn’t find
Neftali Feliz - $.99
Carlos Santana - $23.99 (BGS 8.5)
Grand Total: $1,317.28
Of course, it is worth noting that the prices above are what the cards are on sale for, not what they sold for.
If you invested in the top 10 prospects from 2010, you would have missed out on the #85 prospect in that class, Mike Trout. Had you instead invested in a box of 2009 Bowman Draft Picks and Prospects Hobby Box, which, at most, cost a couple hundred dollars in 2009, your box would sell for a minimum of $3,200 today. At one point, these boxes were selling for $10,000, and I think it’s reasonable to believe those boxes will obtain a $10,000 value again.
If you want a good laugh, you should watch this youtube video from 2009 of a guy pulling a 1st Bowman Mike Trout Auto Gold Refractor /50. The BGS 9.5 of that card sold in May of 2022 for $132,000. Certainly, you may be one of the lucky few who buys or pulls the card of a player who becomes one of the greatest of all time, but you’re probably better off buying a box and letting it sit.
Finally, consider the quality of players in the 2022 rookie class. It’s one of the deepest rookie classes in recent years. We’ve got the following:
Bobby Witt Jr.
Michael Harris III
Coming back to this in 10 or so years, I’m sure I’ll have missed a perennial superstar.
While it’d be nice to own all the players’ 1st Bowman Autos or Topps Chrome Rookie Autos, acquiring all of them is far too expensive for most people. Instead, you can invest in them through boxes. Instead of buying a couple of the above players and hoping their careers follow a superstar trajectory, buying a box is an investment in the entire class. All you need is one superstar (see Mike Trout and the 2009 Bowman box) for you to make a good profit off your boxes.
Cards vs. Boxes
The profitability of investing in individual baseball cards versus sealed boxes depends on various factors, such as the cards or boxes you choose, market trends, and your knowledge of the hobby. Here are some general considerations for both options:
Individual Baseball Cards:
Positives of Investing in Specific Baseball Cards:
Targeted investment: By purchasing individual cards, you can focus on specific players, teams, or sets that you believe have the highest appriciation potential. This allows you to make more informed investment decisions based on your knowledge of the market.
Immediate value realization: Investing in individual cards allows you to know their value right away, as opposed to the uncertainty of the contents of a sealed box. You can buy and sell specific cards based on market trends and your investment strategy.
Lower initial investment: Buying specific cards can have a lower entry point than purchasing sealed boxes. This can make it more accessible for investors with a smaller budget.
Flexibility: Investing in specific cards allows for a more customized investment portfolio. You can diversify by buying cards from different players, teams, or eras, or focus on a particular niche to suit your preferences and risk tolerance.
Easier to liquidate: Individual cards can be easier to sell than an entire sealed box, as there may be more demand for specific high-value or sought-after cards.
Condition sensitivity: Individual cards are more susceptible to damage or wear, which can significantly impact their value. Proper storage and handling are essential to maintain the cards' condition. Buy graded cards or get them graded!
Authentication and fraud risk: Purchasing ungraded cards carries a higher risk of counterfeits, which can negatively affect their value. It's crucial to buy from reputable sources and have high-value cards authenticated by professional grading services.
Limited potential for "hidden gems": When investing in specific cards, you miss out on the opportunity of discovering valuable cards in unopened boxes. The element of surprise and the potential for hidden gems can be a significant draw for collectors and investors.
Time-consuming research: Investing in individual cards requires extensive research to identify potential high-value cards and market trends. This can be time-consuming and requires a higher level of market expertise.
Competition: The market for individual high-value cards can be highly competitive, with many collectors and investors seeking the same cards. This can drive up prices and make it more challenging to acquire desired cards at a reasonable cost.
Baseball Card Boxes:
Value appreciation potential: Unopened boxes have the potential to appreciate in value over time, especially if they contain sought-after cards. As the 2009 Bowman Draft Picks and Prospects and 2016 Bowman Chrome boxes prove, all you need is one great player for the boxes to appreciate dramatically (Trout and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.).
Mint condition: Unopened boxes ensure that the cards inside remain in pristine condition. Cards in mint condition can command higher prices in the market compared to those with signs of wear or damage. (Of course, this doesn’t mean the cards would grade as a PSA 10 once opened).
Sealed authentication: Unopened boxes can act as a form of authentication, ensuring that the cards inside have not been tampered with or replaced. This can make them more appealing to serious collectors and investors.
Discovery potential: Unopened boxes offer the excitement of potentially finding high-value or rare cards inside, which can increase the overall value of the box.
Market volatility: The value of unopened boxes can be subject to market fluctuations, making it a risky investment. A decrease in popularity or oversupply of certain cards can cause the value to drop.
Storage and preservation: Proper storage is essential to maintain the condition of unopened boxes. Pulling out your boxes only to realize water has been leaking on them for years is not fun…
Opportunity cost: The money used to invest in unopened boxes could be invested in other assets with potentially higher returns or lower risks.
Targeted investments in individual cards and investing in unopened boxes come with their own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. Targeted investments offer more control and flexibility, allowing investors to focus on specific players, teams, or sets with the potential for appreciation in value. With a lower initial investment, it can be more accessible for investors with smaller budgets. However, individual cards can be more sensitive to condition, and there is a higher risk of fraud or counterfeiting.
On the other hand, unopened boxes provide the potential for value appreciation due to a single superstar in that prospect or rookie class. The sealed nature of the boxes offers authentication and ensures that cards remain in pristine condition. However, there is no guarantee of valuable cards, and market volatility can impact the value of unopened boxes.
Ultimately, the decision between investing in individual cards or unopened boxes depends on an investor's personal preferences, risk tolerance, and knowledge of the market. A well-informed and diversified investment approach can maximize the potential for returns while mitigating risks associated with both strategies.