Collecting football cards, the kind that used to come packaged with a slab of gum or a carton of cigarettes, isn't just for kids. In fact, it's not just for football fans either. With some cards fetching up to $750,000 on the specialist market, these cardboard nuggets of football history are also a collectible goldmine. What determines their value is a bit mysterious: why is a signed Tom Brady worth so much more than other celebrity footballers? Much depends on the player depicted, the card's age and rarity, and the condition the card is in.
For traders, this exceptional football card is the gold standard. Its worth is calculated at $750,000 in mint condition, but the card is considered priceless by avid collectors. Part of a 36-card set from Chicle Gum, cards like Bronko Nagurski's are rarely posted on the market. When they are, they tend to re-write the price list for all vintage football collector cards.
Many of quarterback Tom Brady's cards from his winning years as a New England Patriots are worth in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. But this autographed, mint condition Championship Ticket rookie card from 2000 is worth in the neighborhood of $450,000. It reflects well on the charismatic GOAT who just ended his 20-year career with the Patriots this year in favor of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
One of the most popular cards among collectors, this Joe Namath is slightly larger than other cards. The card has some printer anomalies—black marks that collectors call butterfly variations—that boost its value to around $150,000. Namath is an all-around fave when it comes to football memorabilia, with everything from helmets to autographed footballs going for top dollar.
Legendary Cleveland Browns player Jim Brown is another rare collector favorite. He is considered the GOAT in the fullback department. This vignette card from 1958 can fetch up to $358,000 at auction. But as with all vintage cardboard and paper items, it is increasingly difficult to find copies of this particular rookie football card in pristine or mint condition.
The P.H. Mayo tobacco company produced football cards for inclusion in its Cut Plug tobacco brands. These were the first football cards ever made, and they featured Ivy League teams as there was not yet an AFL or an NFL. Harvard halfback John Dunlop graces this rare collectible, but there are no titles on the card so it is listed as Anonymous. Titles or no, it is one of the most valuable in the 1894 Mayo set, fetching in the realm of $100,000 at auction.
With a striking dual-pane design, this rookie card was released by Topps, America's leading sports memorabilia producer, way back in 1957. It depicts the iconic Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, nicknamed The Golden Arm. Though not particularly rare, a pristine edition of this card can command up to $100,000 at auction, likely because Unitas is still so revered.
This rare illustration of Jim Thorpe—Native American gold medal Olympian, track star, first president of the AFL, and running back with the Canton Bulldogs—is coveted for its elegant design. Released by Goudey Gum as part of the Sport Kings series depicting American athletes, it can go for upwards of $100,000 among sports history collectors who revere Thorpe for his legendary all-round athleticism.
Long before his notoriety in the tabloids, OJ Simpson was a genuinely remarkable running back. In 1970, Topps released a card to commemorate Simpson's second season with the Buffalo Bills. A pristine version should fetch up to $1,000 in the market, but some collectors will pay much more for anything with Simpson's autograph.
Auction price may hover around $50,000, but Peyton Manning cards have another value among fans of the former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos quarterback. Considered one of the greatest players of all time, Manning's rookie card from the annual Playoff Contenders series is autographed, making it a special collectible.
Another dual-pane card from Topps, this coveted Dick Lane rookie card depicts the legendary tackler, aka Night Train, in full flight. Lane still holds the record for most interceptions in a single season, an accomplishment from his rookie season with the Los Angeles Rams. The 1957 card, in mint to pristine condition, has an estimated value of $500 to $20,000.
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