Someone asked me recently what the rarest baseball card is of all time?
While immediate thoughts for many center on the T206 Honus Wagner card, we have the population data that shows the card isn't quite as rare as most people think (about 50-75 copies of the T206 Wagner are thought to exist).
So, what is the rarest baseball card? The question is not an easy one to answer. The immediate starting point would be any card with an existing population less than say 50 cards (making it rarer than the Wagner).
But there are quite a few cards with low 'graded' populations. And then the guesswork comes in to try and determine the existing 'ungraded' population.
As an example, lets examine the 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth card, which is by most accounts, Ruth's rarest baseball card.
PSA has graded three copies, SGC has graded 6, so we can probably safely assume there are less than 20 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth rookies out there.
So, now we at the very least have a baseline for rarity. Is there anything out there with an existing population below 20 cards? Yes, there are many.
But the issue arises from the fact that there are many oddball pre-war and pre-1900 sets where there are only 1 or 2 cards that have been graded. Or rare backs or error cards which just confuse the topic.
In terms of mainstream cards, one of the tougher to locate sets was produced in the early 1900's - the E107 Breisch Williams set.
The E107 Honus Wagner card from the set is an extremely tough card to find and far scarcer than his T206 card.
PSA has graded ZERO copies and SGC only six copies, thus we can safely assume less than ten copies are circulating this planet.
Ok, let's get slightly rarer than the E107 Breisch Wiliams Honus Wagner Card.
Here's one of my favorites: the 1908 Rose Co Post Card Ty Cobb card.
Once again, zero copies graded by PSA, and only five by SGC, thus, just based on graded population, it's rarer than the E107 Wagner.
Are There Any Other Rare Baseball Tobacco Cards?
Most collectors are unaware of the extremely rare 1915 T214 Victory Tobacco set. Between PSA and SGC there are less than 90 copies of all cards in the set graded in total.
This Ty Cobb card from the T214 set uses the same design from the T206 yet with blue font for the name and team name.
There are a total of three graded T214 Cobb's between PSA and SGC.
So, are there any cards rarer than the T214 Ty Cobb?
Here's a 1922 T231 Fans Cigarettes - Frank 'Home Run Baker card, one of the rarest pre-war sets of all time. This card has only ONE graded copy and it's this SGC graded version below.
The card sold at Heritage Auctions for close to $11,000 back in 2015. I would guess that number would easily be eclipsed today.
Rare 19th Century Baseball Cards
Stepping back from the 1900's tobacco cards, there are also many 19th century baseball cards that are considered RARE by collectors.
The first baseball card ever produced the 1869 Peck & Snyder Red Stocking Team Card is a tough find, but, there are still 13 PSA graded copies.
One of truly rare late 1800 baseball card sets is the 1888 N173 Old Judge Cabinets issue.
Most vintage collectors are familiar with the popular N172 Old Judge cards issued from 1886 through 1890.
However, the correspoding 'cabinet' cards to the set (cataloged as N173) which were awarded as a premium to collectors are not as well known.
The N173 cards are exceedingly rare with only 97 cards graded by PSA out of a believed 400+ card set.
Here's an example of the most valuable card in the N173 set, the Mike "King" Kelly card, shown here in his "street clothes' of which only a handful are believed to still exist. Note, there is another variation in the set of Kelly (batting) which is a bit easier to find (over 20 graded copies are known to exist).
There are plenty of cards out there with a population of ONE, and there are plenty of back variations and type cards that are quite scarce. So, this is why I said the answer to 'rarest card of all time' is sort of complicated.
Do you have a pre-war vintage 'one of one card' I didn't mention here? Leave a comment below and let me know about it.
Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with a photo of your card and I'd be happy to do a follow up post showcasing reader 'rarities'.