These cards became what we would consider to be collectable relatively quickly, and several canny tobacco companies—among them Goodwin & Co., Allen & Ginter, Buchner & Co., Mayo & Co., Yum Yum, S.H. Hess, and Four Base Hits—hopped aboard the train, inserting photos of baseball players into their packets of chaw. As one might imagine, these items are unbelievable sought-after today; a mint condition Yum Yum card from 1888, for instance, has been appraised at $750,000.
It got real in 1950, when a company formerly called American Leaf Tobacco decided to try and amp up sales in their bubblegum division by including baseball and football cards with the gum. (Think about that for a second: back in the day, the gum was more valuable than the cards.) The company—which had created an offshoot called Topps two years prior—went on to dominate the sports card industry.
Three decades later, the burgeoning sports collectables industry, such as it was, made a major pivot.
In the early-1980s, all four of the major American sports leagues—MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL—started selling jerseys, some authentic, some replica, which got collectors all a-flutter. (For the record, in 1987, I bought myself a big, red, sexy Michael Jordan jersey. And it wasn’t a replica. And it’s long gone. Oops.)
Soon thereafter, sports collecting went way beyond jerseys and cards. Fans found themselves with access to basketballs, baseballs, and footballs that were either signed, or were used in an important game…or, in a perfect world, both. Game-worn gear, be it a hat, a helmet, a shirt, or even a batting glove, were huge. Trophies and championship rings were huger. Even a vintage autograph or an old-timey publicity photo could fetch a pretty penny.
It wasn’t long before sports memorabilia shops became a major deal. The advent of the online buying and selling of memorabilia around the beginning of the 21st Century further increased the value of the industry, an industry that’s currently worth, depending on who you ask, anywhere from $5.4 billion to $14.57 billion.
But worth is in the eye of the beholder, and for most sports memorabilia beholders, it’s not just about the benjamins.