The Top 10 Sports Cards That Changed The Hobby

These ten hobby icons need to be on your radar. Some, while incredibly rare (like the T206 Wagner) are out of budget for most collectors, cards like the Jordan RC are still affordable in lower grades.

Updated Sep 29, 2023

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Sports cards have been on quite the journey since the late 1800s.

From humble beginnings with baseball cards tucked inside tobacco tins,
to today's flashy 1/1s and autographed patch cards.

Throughout this evolution, a few cards and sets have truly turned heads,
setting new trends and directing the next big thing in card collecting.

These aren't just pieces of cardboard; they're snapshots of sports moments in time, shaping the hobby and leading to the dynamic card culture of today.

Without these game-changing cards, our hobby would be a different ball game.

So, let's dive in!


1. 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311


The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card

Alright, let's talk about the big leagues of card collecting: Mickey Mantle's 1952 Topps card.

It's pretty much the Holy Grail for card collectors.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, wants it. Beat up or in mint condition – it doesn't matter.

But who's the genius behind this masterpiece?

That would be the legendary Sy Berger, the mastermind at Topps. He crafted a design so iconic that it became the benchmark for all Topps baseball cards to come.


Now, here's a curveball: while many folks mistakenly label this as Mantle's rookie card, that title actually goes to his 1951 Bowman card.

But the 1952 Topps? That's when Mantle made his grand entrance with Topps.

And here's where the plot thickens: loads of high-numbered cards from the 1952 set, Mantle's included, were dumped into the ocean.

Overproduction and waning interest led to the unfortunate disposal. 

Most of the unsold high-numbers eventually wound up dumped into the Atlantic Ocean in 1960 from a garbage barge. Aboard that barge was Topps executive Sy Berger, who originally designed the 1952 cards and who must have had mixed feelings as he watched several hundred cases of his babies tumble overboard to a watery grave.

- Peter Putnam PSA (Source)

Little did they know, this made the few surviving Mantle cards even more of a treasure.

Sure, it might not be the rarest card out there (PSA has graded close to 2,000 of them), but its place in the high number series of 1952 meant fewer were up for grabs from the get-go.

And get this: only three of these cards have ever earned the flawless PSA 10 grade.

Ready for some sticker shock?

Those PSA 10 cards come with a jaw-dropping price tag of $40 to $50 million.

And to think, one lucky person snagged one for just $150,000 back in '96!

2. 1979 Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee Rookie #18


The 'Great One's' 1979 OPC Rookie card.

Wayne Gretzky, known as "The Great One," is considered the greatest hockey player of all time. 

Gretzky's rookie card was issued in 1979 by Topps and O-Pee-Chee, with the later version produced for the Canadian market. 

Aside from the back of the cards, both versions are identical, with the OPC back printed in both English and French. The back of the OPC card also has a lighter colored cardboard. 


Gretzky rookie OPC Back


Gretkzy rookie Topps back

In 2021, a gem mint PSA 10 copy of Wayne Gretzky's O-Pee-Chee rookie card sold for $3.75 million, the highest recorded sale for any hockey card. 

A word to the wise: Gretzky's soaring popularity has spawned several counterfeits. If you're eyeing one for your collection, tread with caution.

All in all, Gretzky's O-Pee-Chee rookie card isn't just another collectible. 

It's transformed the hockey card market, emerging as a must-have for collectors, irrespective of the card's grade or condition.

3. 2000 Playoff Contenders Tom Brady Auto Rookie #144


Tom Brady, the gridiron legend, has one card that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the 2000 Playoff Contenders Rookie Auto.

This card has two variants, but the one that grabs headlines is the ultra-rare 'Championship Ticket' version, serial-numbered out of just 100.

In 2021, this card set the sports memorabilia world abuzz, fetching a staggering $3.1 million, making it one of the priciest football cards ever sold.

Here's the kicker: from its release in 2000 until around 2017, Brady's Playoff Contenders auto rookie flew under the radar for the longest time.

2000 Playoff Contenders PSA 10 Brady PSA Values

It wasn't until Brady orchestrated a historic Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons that this card began its meteoric rise in value.

The Contender's Autographs have been a cornerstone of the hobby for over two decades.

With Fanatics snagging the NFL trading cards licensing agreement, Panini's future in the football card business is up in the air.

But one thing is certain: Brady's Contenders auto rookie has left an indelible mark. It's not just a card; for many, it's the pinnacle of modern football card collecting.

4. 2001 Bowman Chrome Albert Pujols Autograph Rookie /500


Albert Pujols, one of baseball's modern-day legends, has a card that stands out for its value and rarity: the 2001 Bowman Chrome Autographed rookie card.

The Pujuols Bowman Chrome Autographed rookie card marked a turning point as it was among the first significant chase cards that required redemption.

Limited to only 500 copies, the actual number in circulation is believed to be much lower, as many collectors did not redeem the cards.

Moreover, it heralded the inaugural year of Bowman Chrome Autos in baseball – a tradition that, over two decades later, remains the gold standard for baseball card collectors.

Only six copies have achieved a Gem-Mint, PSA 10 grade. One of these perfect-condition cards fetched a staggering $168,000 at a Heritage Auctions sale in December 2020.

5. 1948 Bowman Basketball George Mikan RC #


The year 1948 marked a pivotal moment in the realm of sports card collecting. It was in this year that the world witnessed the birth of an entire basketball card set, setting the tone for subsequent basketball card releases.  

This seminal set boasted a standout – the George Mikan rookie card, which became a sought-after treasure for collectors.  

Mikan might be lesser known with today's younger collectors, but at the time, Mikan was the best big man in the league.

He is considered to be one of the pioneers of basketball, establishing the traits that became commonplace for today's centers in the NBA. 

Less than 500 copies of Mikan's Bowman rookie card have been graded by PSA, with only one copy earning a Gem-Mint, PSA 10 grade. This card sold for $403K at auction back in 2019, but I think today's market could push that value over $1 Million. 


The one PSA 10 copy of Mikan's 1948 Bowman rookie card.

Despite its groundbreaking nature, it would be nearly a decade before another major basketball card set, the 1957 Topps Basketball set, would emerge.

6. 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr RC #1


In 1989, Upper Deck took a gamble that would forever shape the world of card collecting.

Making the strategic choice to feature Ken Griffey Jr. as card number one in their debut set, they were placing their bets on a top prospect who had just begun his journey with the Mariners.

Despite being launched during the "junk era" – a period defined by mass production and over-saturation – Upper Deck set itself apart by also introducing a premium set of cards with unparalleled quality and design. 


Griffey's rookie card became an instant sensation, with fans thronging card shops, eager to own a piece of the emerging baseball prodigy.

The buzz was inescapable; for nearly three years post-release, the Griffey Jr. card dominated hobby conversations.

But by the mid-1990s, the bubble had burst. The deluge of cards, once seen as treasures, became commonplace, causing the hobby to plummet to an all-time low. Many hobby shops, unable to sustain the downturn, shut their doors.

But every cloud has a silver lining. This tumultuous period served as a lesson for card companies.

The subsequent years saw the introduction of rare serial numbered cards, autographed editions, unique parallels, patch autos, and super short prints - strategies to reignite the allure of card collecting.

Today, Griffey’s Upper Deck rookie card, in a pristine PSA 10 condition, is fetching around $2,000 in recent eBay auctions

It's not just a card; it's a symbol of an era, a catalyst for change, and a beacon of the ever-evolving landscape of card collecting.

7. 1909 T206 White Borders Honus Wagner


Arguably the most iconic card in the hobby, this card is known for its rarity and the story behind why so few exist.

Wagner reportedly didn't want his image used for tobacco promotion, leading to limited production.

Copies of the card are quite scarce and any aucton of a Wagner gets immediate attention throughout the hobby, regardless of condition.

The Wagner, and the appreciation in value of the card over time, has shown that baseball cards, even those bought for a significant amount can be a tremendous investment. 


8. 1996 Topps Chrome Basketball Kobe Bryant Rookie Card


In 1996, Topps introduced the basketball world to its Chrome series, and the game of card collecting was forever altered.

This pivotal year presented a rookie class that included not one, not two, but three future Hall of Famers: Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Ray Allen. 

The Chrome series, with its distinct shiny finish, didn't just create a new set of cards; it reinvented basketball card collecting.

This fresh take on cards, the Chrome effect, reinvigorated a hobby and set the tone for basketball card collecting for more than a decade, right up until 2009.

And among the many shining stars of this set, one card stood out: Kobe Bryant's Topps Chrome Refractor.  

A significant number of these cards suffer from what's known in the collecting community as the "greening effect."

Due to improper storage or care, the card's surface starts to show a green tint, affecting its overall quality and value.


Yet, in spite of these challenges, a pristine Kobe Bryant Topps Chrome Refractor, graded as a PSA 10, recently fetched a staggering $121,000 at Goldin Auctions.

9. 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan RC #57


In 1986, the world of basketball card collecting experienced a seismic shift.

While the Star Basketball series had its run from '84 to '86, it was the '86 Fleer basketball set that truly heralded the return of pack-issued basketball cards.

This was a monumental comeback, especially since Topps had bowed out of the basketball card arena after their '81-82 release.

But this wasn't just any return.

Fleer's debut basketball set coincided with a transformative era in basketball itself. The sport, which had been languishing due to a perceived lack of electrifying on-court product, was undergoing a renaissance.

While legends like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had been ruling the roost, a fresh-faced rookie from North Carolina was on the horizon, poised to redefine basketball.

Enter Michael Jordan.

Card #57 from Fleer's inaugural basketball set, showcasing Jordan in his rookie glory, didn't just become another card. It transcended the confines of card collecting to become a cultural phenomenon. 

10. 1994 Upper Deck Mickey Mantle/ Ken Griffey Jr. Auto


This 1994 Upper Deck dual auto was one of the first times that collectors saw two superstars from different eras - the legendary Mantle and the rising star Griffey - share the spotlight (and signatures) on a single card. 

While dual-signature cards are somewhat standard in today's market, back in '94, this was groundbreaking. The sheer novelty of it made it a sought-after treasure from the moment it was released.

However, as with any valuable and popular item, copies with forged autos began to flood the market. This has made authentication paramount. 

It's no surprise that a recent sale of an authenticated version of this card fetched $6,600, despite only receiving a PSA authentic grade.


For years, the market seemed to sleep on this card, with it flying under the radar and remaining surprisingly undervalued.

However, in the last three years, its stock has risen considerably, mirroring the increasing appreciation for unique and trailblazing memorabilia.

Other Honorable Card and Set Mentions

1994-95 Upper Deck Be a Player Autographs Wayne Gretzky #108 - First Auto


When Gretzky's first certified autograph card was introduced, it changed the game. Randomly inserted into packs of 1994-95 Upper Deck hockey with only 300 copies in existence, it added a thrill to collecting.

This innovation, giving fans a chance to find a rare autographed card in a regular pack, became a defining trend in hockey card collecting.

Today, the practice continues, with autographed cards of stars being a staple in modern sets, all thanks to that pioneering Gretzky card.

1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter


Derek Jeter’s 1993 Upper Deck Foil SP rookie was one of the most popular cards issued in the early 1990s.

Upper Deck had already been at the forefront of innovation in the hobby with its inaugural, premium baseball card issue in 1989.  

In 1993, Upper Deck decided to take it to the next level, with its 'Super Premium', or SP for short set. The cards were part of a new trend in the hobby at the time, as Topps released its premium issue called Finest and Fleer came out with its higher priced cards with a new 'Flair' moniker.

The 1993 UD SP set featured a special 'Premier Prospects' subset featuring 18 of the top rookies of the day. It was a different type of card with a background entirely made of shiny foil. 

Jeter’s SP Rookie is still widely popular today and considered his most popular rookie card. It is also a very condition sensitive card, as the foil is very prone to scratching.

Only 21 PSA 10’s exist and the last sale of a Gem-Mint copy was in late 2022 for $204,000.

2013 Panini Innovation Kobe Bryant Kaboom Insert #9


The first “Kaboom” insert is credited to the 2013 Panini Innovation Basketball set.

Kaboom inserts are considered SSP (Super-Short-Print), and very tough to pull out of packs.

The Kaboom insert cards would fly under the radar for nearly a six year period in the hobby and it wasn’t until 2020 when many of these cards were becoming highly sought after.

The Trevor Lawrence Gold Kaboom card in early 2022 caused a lot of hobby buzz.

Two of the highest record sales of Kobe’s first Kaboom card were for $22,000 and $13,000 in 2021 and 2022. 

The Kaboom was a unique insert that resonated with a lot of newer sports card collectors. We could see more of them being created in the future due to how popular Kaboom cards are.

1994 Finest Baseball Refractors


In 1994, the Finest baseball set introduced the world to the first refractor.

Unlike any other card, the refractor boasted a unique shine across its surface, instantly making it a standout. This innovation quickly became one of the most celebrated card types in the hobby.

Fast forward nearly 30 years, and the refractor's appeal hasn't waned. It remains a coveted parallel card, with modern iterations continuing to capture collectors' interest.

Cards from the 1994 Finest set, especially in refractor form, are increasingly hard to come by, particularly in mint condition.

A testament to its enduring value, Ken Griffey’s 1994 Finest Refractor recently fetched over $1k in both BGS 9.5 and PSA 9 grades at eBay auctions.

2002 Bowman Draft Baseball


In 2002, Bowman revolutionized baseball card collecting by launching an entire set dedicated to "prospect cards," showcasing the top up-and-coming talents in baseball. Before this, only a handful of prospects were sprinkled into sets.

This 2002 release wasn't just a list of names. Bowman innovated with a range of cards: from the standard Bowman base to the shiny Bowman Chrome base, and even more exclusive versions like Chrome Refractors, Xfractors, and the rare Gold Refractor limited to just 50 prints. The crown jewels of this set? The first-ever Bowman Chrome Prospect Autos, which became the most sought-after cards.

Fast forward nearly two decades, and this format is still very much alive. While there are more variations now, the essence remains the same. Every December, the baseball card community eagerly anticipates the Bowman Draft set, a testament to the lasting impact of Bowman's 2002 initiative. The annual prospect chase has become a cornerstone of the hobby, all thanks to that pivotal year.

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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  1. How one go about selling a Topps 1978 Rookie Wayne Gretzky appears to be flawless haven’t had it graded.
    Seeing site that one sold for over a million? Who do you take it to for auction? What’s the process

    1. If you want to send me an email with a few photos of the card I can take a look ( It is all based on condition, and it is a very low probability to earn the highest (PSA 10 Gem Mint) grade). however, even if a few grades below that there can still be significant value and might be worth grading.

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