Hobby Musings: Signed rookie cards getting their due – Collectors have always gravitated toward and paid high prices for rookie cards. Whether it was during the 1980s for players like Ron Kittle or today for athletes such as Aaron Judge, rookie cardboard has always had a special place in the hobby. In recent years as card grading and autograph authentication have become more popular, rookie values have gone up even higher. Even more recently though, the trend of getting rookie cards signed, especially vintage rookies, has spiked considerably. For more on this part of the hobby, I had the chance to catch up with PSA vice president Steve Sloan. The following interview was conducted via email.
KS: Has the market for autographed rookie cards always been this strong and we’re just hearing about it now, or is it a trend that has only recently taken off?
SS: The market for autographed rookie cards certainly has grown over the last five or six years, although it’s still somewhat in its infancy stages. For the longest time, it was considered taboo for collectors to try and get a signature on anybody’s rookie card for fear of devaluing the card. But there seems to have been some reconsideration on that front as we’re seeing more and more signed rookie cards from vintage years and certainly from the modern era now popping up in public auctions across the board. The purists in the hobby will no doubt never get the rookie cards in their collection signed, but that’s by choice. Player availability is another important factor to consider when trying to get a rookie card from yesteryear signed.
KS: Vintage graded cards are a large and lucrative part of the sports card market. That being said, writing, including autographs, technically defaces the card. Doesn’t it seem kind of counter-intuitive to get these cardboard treasures autographed?
SS: There are several schools of thought on that front. Yes, it could seem counter-intuitive. As I mentioned, it was always considered a big no-no to get a rookie card signed by the featured player, especially post-war vintage rookie cards. But the fact is there are focused collectors nowadays looking just for signed rookie cards. The problem is that autographed post-war rookie cards are in short supply. For a lot of superstars who have passed away, there simply aren’t that many of their autographed rookie cards to begin with and there won’t be any more coming down the pike. In my opinion, I think these cards provide tremendous cross-over appeal for both trading card collectors as well as autograph seekers, and it simply remains up to the individual collector as to what he or she wants to go after.
KS: Typically, what kind of grades are you seeing people using to get vintage rookie cards autographed?
SS: The grades for autographed vintage rookie cards we get at PSA and PSA/DNA are usually lower grade, ranging from 1-3. This is especially true for cards of players who passed away prior to 2010, before the vintage signed cards market caught fire. Back then, people who put together their collections prized the signature on the card and the condition was secondary.
KS: If you had to put a percentage on it, how much would you estimate that an autograph enhances the value of a rookie card?
SS: That’s a tough question. Again, depending on the era, the card’s value could increase substantially. But if it’s a card from yesteryear, and the demand for that player’s rookie card in original, as close to pristine condition as possible is high, I think it would be a deterrent.
KS: When these cards come in for submission and/or encapsulation, are you typically grading the card, authenticating the autograph or both?
SS: The short answer is ‘both.’ It’s ultimately the customer’s choice on the service level, but we provide both card authentication and grading, and autograph authentication and grading. Our PSA team is authenticating and grading the card, while our PSA/DNA team of autograph experts is authenticating and grading the signature.
KS: How much of a difference are you seeing in submissions for vintage autographed rookie cards vs. more modern autographed rookie cards?
SS: Most modern rookie cards like Bowman Chrome or Panini National Treasures come already signed from their respective card companies, and their submission numbers have always been very consistent at PSA through the years.
KS: Which autographed rookie cards are you seeing the most come in for submission?
SS: In consulting with the staff, the consensus is that the most popular vintage signed rookies that we’re getting in right now are Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson and Nolan Ryan.
KS: With it being such a hot market, which autographed rookie cards tend to sell for the most?
SS: There’s no question that the vintage Hall of Fame signed rookie cards is among the hottest segments of our hobby right now. The cards in most demand are players who passed away more than 10 or 15 years ago. Players like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Willie Stargell were hardly ever asked to sign their rookie cards and the supply of these cards just cannot meet the demand today.
In 2000, not even the most optimistic hobbyist could have envisioned a ‘52 Topps signed Mantle selling for almost $100k but that’s where we are now.
KS: What’s one under-the-radar signed rookie card now that you could see being a hot item in the next few years?
SS: Personally, I grew up in the Junk Era, and we know there is no shortage when it comes to rookie cards for players like Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones and Frank Thomas. I think collectors who grew up in that era might start gravitating to autographed 1989 Upper Deck #1 Griffey cards, or 1990 Leaf #300 Frank Thomas cards. These cards are not rare in their original state, but add an autograph, and you have something a little more unique. Plus, the availability of players from that era on the autograph circuit make the mission achievable.
KS: Bobby Orr will be charging $850 to sign his rookie card at a show later this year. Do you see that trend continuing where athletes charge a premium to sign those cards?
SS: Yes. If it works for one Hall of Famer, other Hall of Famers – and their agents – will likely implement similar strategies. It’s certainly a free enterprise opportunity and for a lot of the players from eras before the professional league salaries exploded, it’s their way of making up for lost time since they were paid at just a tiny fraction of what today’s players are making salary wise.
KS: I’ll get you out of here on this, what tips would you offer collectors wanting to start a signed rookie card collection?
SS: If that’s truly somebody’s goal then they will need to put the necessary time in to make it a worthwhile pursuit. Right off the bat, I would narrow my focus to either a set or a player and go from there. And a big part of the fun in collecting cards like this is to secure the autographs in person. Anybody can go up on eBay and try to find them, but to map out a plan on how to acquire the cards in person and follow through with that plan is a lot of fun, too. You could attend Spring Training games in Phoenix or Fort Myers or go to pregame batting practice and hang around the dugout or, if you’re really motivated, stake out the visiting team’s hotel in your city and try your luck at landing some signatures in the lobby.
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