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The Controversial Collection: Top 10 Sports Cards with a Story

From the Bill Ripken F*** Face Card to The Mark Jackson Hoops Card With The Menendez Brothers, Here Are The Most Controversial Cards In The Hobby

Updated Feb 13, 2024

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Controversy often stirs heated debates, and nowhere is this more evident than in the world of sports cards.

From secrets that took over two decades to unravel to revelations that shocked the community in mere months, the tales behind these cards are as varied as they are fascinating.

This article delves into the top 10 most controversial sports cards of all time, uncovering the stories that have sparked debates, lawsuits, and sometimes, even legends

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1. The Wayne Gretzky 1909 T206 Honus Wagner Card

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Often hailed as the 'Holy Grail' of baseball cards, the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card has captured the imagination of collectors worldwide.

The card was thrust into the spotlight back in the early 90's when Hockey great Wayne Gretzky acquired a 'mint conditon' copy of the infamous Wagner tobacco card.

However, the card's mystique was tarnished when it was revealed that it had been altered by the infamous card trimmer, Bill Mastro

Despite the controversy, the card was graded a PSA 8 in the late 1990s, when PSA and other grading companies vied for market dominance. 

The decision to assign it a numerical grade has been contentious, with some arguing that it was used to bolster PSA's reputation during its formative years.

Despite this, the PSA label on the card has remained unchanged, raising questions about the grading process.

2. 1994 Upper Deck Mickey Mantle Ken Griffey Jr. Dual Auto 

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The Mantle/Griffey Jr. Dual Auto card, issued in three variations including the coveted dual-autograph edition, experienced a significant value surge during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Griffey Mantle-UD Autos -courtesy user BlowoutForums

This card's rarity and the high profile of its featured players have made it a prime target for forgeries, particularly attempts to convert solo autograph versions into the more valuable dual-signed variant. 

The market has been infiltrated by sophisticated fakes, making it crucial for collectors to seek out cards authenticated and slabbed by PSA.

Each card was issued with a hologram and a serial number on the back. 

But in order to tell that a dual auto is authentic --here is guidance from PWCC

  • The first thing to do is to review the signature of Griffey. The original autographs were signed with a fine point, jet black permanent marker.
  • Those signed with a medium tip permanent black marker are believed to be signed by Griffey after they were pack pulled.
  • In addition, the pack pulled dual auto features Griffey auto in line with mantles while it is believed that those cards featuring Griffey’s secondary auto will have his auto placed above the Mantle auto.

Of the 1,000 authenticated dual-autograph cards, those graded Gem-Mint PSA 10 have fetched prices as high as $8,350, per Alt Sales Data. 

3. 1887 Old Judge (no number) Ol Hoss Radbourn - Hands on Hips “Obscene Gesture”

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At first glance, the Radbourn card appears ordinary, yet a closer look reveals a startling detail: Radbourn is depicted giving the middle finger. 

This gesture, especially rare and controversial for its time, makes the card a highly sought-after collectible. 

With only seven examples graded by PSA, its rarity is undeniable. 

The most valuable of these sold for $9,600 at Robert Edward Auctions in 2017, as reported by PSA Sales Data. 

The combination of controversy and scarcity enhances the card's appeal and marks it as a unique piece of trading card history, shrouded in both controversy and obscurity.

4. 2006 Topps Alex Gordon Rookie #297

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Despite Alex Gordon not having played a single MLB game by the start of the 2006 season, Topps included his card in their release.

However, Players Association's rules stipulate that rookie cards can only be made for players on the 25-man roster or for those that played in an MLB game the previous season.

Topps's decision to include Gordon in their set was a significant oversight. 

As reported by Darren Rovell in a 2006 ESPN article titled "This card costs 'cause you aren't supposed to have it'", Topps had to remove most of Gordon's cards from the set, inadvertently creating a rarity.

This mishap generated substantial buzz, controversy, and demand for the card. A few of the complete Gordon cards escaped the cut and may still be found in packs or boxes from 2006

According to Alt Sales data, as of July 2023, there are 34 PSA 10 graded full versions of the Gordon card, with the latest selling for over $2,300. 

In total, 211 of these cards have been graded by PSA, making them a coveted piece for collectors due to the unique circumstances surrounding their release.

5. 1990 Score Bo Jackson PSA/DNA Authentic #697

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Signed copies of the 1990 Score Bo Jackson card #697 have become a notable rarity in sports memorabilia due to Jackson's refusal to sign it, attributed to licensing disagreements or the photographer's lack of recognition.

Only 20 of these cards have been authenticated and signed by Jackson, as verified by PSA.

The most recent sale in January 2021 saw such an Authentic copy fetching only $825.00.

Given their limited availability, future sales could see prices soaring to three to five times that amount. As of February 2024,
there's an active listing on eBay for a PSA 9 graded card with Jackson's authentic signature, with an asking price of $5,000.

The precise reasons behind Jackson's decision remain a mystery, yet the card's appeal among collectors is undeniable, marking it as a highly coveted piece of sports history.

6. 1989 Fleer Bill Ripken F* Face #616 Error

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The 1989 Fleer Bill Ripken card #616, infamous for displaying the phrase "F* Face" on the bat's knob, stands as one of the most talked-about error cards in baseball collecting history.

Upon its discovery, the card sparked controversy and became a highly sought-after item among collectors and shop owners.

Fleer subsequently released various corrected versions of the card, employing methods like black scribble, white scribble, black box, and white-out to obscure the original error.

A notable sale of the original error card occurred in May 2023
, with a dual-graded (PSA 10 for both card and autograph) version selling for $2,625.00. Only 22 cards have received this perfect dual grade.  

Even after all these years, 
the Bill Ripken error card remains a beloved piece among collectors.

7. 2002 Rookie Review LeBron James

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The 2002 Rookie Review LeBron James card presents a peculiar case in the sports card community.

It's one of the earliest LeBron James cards, yet neither PSA nor other major grading companies will authenticate it.

The primary issues are its non-licensed status and its origin as a perforated card from a magazine, similar to SI for Kids cards—which, notably, are graded by these companies.

Its ease of replication further complicates its eligibility for grading, deterring major companies from authenticating it. Despite this, the card, especially its rare Gold Version, attracts collector interest.

In the past, grading companies like GAI, GEM, and PGI, which have since ceased operations, did slab this card,
with current values on eBay ranging from $20 to $50

While it holds nostalgic value and LeBron's Finest XRC remains undervalued, collectors should be wary of any PSA-graded slabs of this card, as they're likely counterfeit.

The future may hold changes if new grading companies decide to assess its authenticity but I highly doubt it -- due to the card's unlicensed status.

8. 1970 Topps O.J. Simpson Rookie #90

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O.J. Simpson, despite being an NFL Hall of Fame running back, is often overshadowed by his controversial life events, including the infamous White Bronco chase and murder trial in the mid-1990s.

These controversies have influenced collectors and buyers to avoid
his rookie card from the 1970 Topps Football set.

According to Alt Sales Data, a PSA 8 graded Simpson rookie card recently sold for between $461 and $510, with 653 examples graded at this level.

For those considering an upgrade, a PSA 9 graded card, significantly rarer with only 118 in existence, is valued at $4,670 as of January 2024.

The enduring controversy surrounding Simpson remains a significant chapter in sports history. 

9. 1990 Hoops Mark Jackson #205 - Menendez Bros in Background

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The 1990 Hoops Mark Jackson #205 card flew under the radar for over two decades until a Reddit user highlighted in 2018 that the Menendez Brothers, notorious for murdering their parents in 1990, were captured in the background at courtside. 

This revelation, shared by John Rosenberger on X (formerly Twitter), sparked widespread intrigue, placing the brothers at an NBA game in the period between their crime and arrest.

Following this discovery, the card's uniqueness drove collectors to purchase it in bulk, with its price peaking at $20-25 for ungraded copies

The controversy even led eBay to temporarily ban its sale, though this restriction has since been lifted. 

As of February 2024, PSA 10 graded examples of this card are selling for ~$450 on eBaywith only 160 graded copies known to exist

This card's backstory adds a remarkable layer of controversy to its history.

10. 2023 Bowman Tom Brady Expos Baseball Bowman Card

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In December 2023, Fanatics/Topps released a unique Tom Brady card depicting him as a Montreal Expos catcher, a nod to his 1995 draft by the Expos. 

This Bowman card quickly became popular, featuring various parallels and autographs, including a Gold Auto 12/50 with a $500,000 bounty

However, controversy ensued when @BeisbolCardBlog revealed on X (formerly Twitter) that the card was photoshopped, using a 1993 photo of Expos catcher Darrin Fletcher with Brady's headshot from his baseball days superimposed

This revelation sparked debate among collectors, with some criticizing the card as gimmicky and expressing disappointment over its inclusion in the prestigious Bowman Draft series. 

The card's value reflected this controversy; after initially selling for $45,600 in PSA 10 condition in late December 2023, its value plummeted to $19,800 by February 2024, underscoring the impact of the photoshop controversy on its market appeal.

Vinnie Rullo

About the author

Vinnie Rullo is a passionate sports fan, with a hardcore loyalty to the Yankees, NY Giants and New York Knicks. An avid sports card collector, Vinnie has also worked a collectibles specialist for one of the bigger online auction houses.

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