1/1 Sports Cards: Holy Grails or Traps?

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Part of the fun of collecting sports cards is finding truly rare and unique cards.   Card companies often number or short print their cards to motivate collectors to buy more products and hunt for those super rare cards to add to their collection. Another thing short printing and numbering does, is it helps control the supply of cards and limits the market to prevent it from becoming flooded. The card companies almost bankrupt the industry in the late 80s and early 90s because they over produced cards which caused them to decrease in value. It’s the same concept when it comes to overprinting money, that it loses value the more of it that is printed.

CHECK OUT OUR ARTICLE ON: THE ETHICS OF SPORTS CARD COLLECTIVE (3-Part Series)

1/1 Sports Cards: Holy Grails or Traps?

Like everything else in the world, the rarest thing you could possibly have is a one of a kind item, meaning it is the only one in the world and none others like it exist, in theory anyways. In the world of sports cards, cards get numbered 1/1 or some higher end sets will write out “one of one”, meaning they are only one printed that look exactly like this. It is supposed to be the rarest card in the set and one of the nicest pulls you could have. I personally, have two different 1/1s in my collection, one of Mike Mussina and the other of Clay Buchholz (jersey card too) and a 1/1 printing plate the of Edmonton Oilers star Jordan Eberle.

Printing Plates

Printing plates (in the card industry) are thin metal sheets the size of cards that are sensitive to light. An image is burned on the plate using a light of high intensity. When exposed to light, an image is transferred to cardstock using ink and will only reflect the image on the plate. This is how most sports cards are manufactured and produced. Printing plates come in four colors: black, cyan, magenta, and yellow. I have yet to see a printing plate that was not numbered 1/1. Usually the back reads something along the lines of “Congratulations! You have received an authentic printing plate used to manufacture card (name of player and card #). This is truly a one of a kind collectible.” Then above this is “1/1.” There are some collectors who argue the printing plates aren’t worth as much as cards because they technically aren’t cards, and they use four of them to make one card.

The Value in 1/1

While a 1/1 is probably one of the highlights of most card collections, they are not the most valuable cards in the world. Often considered the most desirable and valuable baseball card in the world is the 1909-1911 T206 of Honus Wagner. Less than 60 legitimate Wagner’s are known to exist today, at least three of which are stored in museums or libraries. The Wagner can fetch anywhere from a couple hundred thousand dollars to a record breaking $2.1 million in April of 2013 depending on grade and condition. To put things into context my Mike Mussina and Clay Buchholz 1/1, I paid somewhere around $20 – $30 apiece for them.

This leads to my first point regarding 1/1s, they are not valuable just because they are rare. Despite the fact that my cards are rare and the only ones in existence, they are nowhere worth the money of the T206 Wagner, even though they are not 1/1 and more than one is known to exist. If I wrote a diary it would be unique and a 1/1 item, but since I am not famous nobody (except maybe my girlfriend) would want to read it. My diary would not have any value and I could not sell it. However, a celebrity’s diary would be worth much more and could be sold and sought after.

Pricing Valuable Cards

However, some sellers of these cards seem to think otherwise. When something is so unique that it is a one of a kind collectable, it is hard to price. Part of this struggle is because there is nothing else like it to compare it too for a price. Therefore it is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay for it. If you do a quick search on eBay for 1/1 (use true 1/1 for an easier time) some 1/1s are listed for the price of a new car. There is a seller who is selling a 2013 Topps Tribute bat knob card of Derek Jeter numbered 1/1. The card contains the bat knob (bottom of the bat) of a bat Jeter used a MLB game. The seller is asking $24,000 or best offer. Most collectors or anyone for that matter does not have an extra $24,000 to spend on a single baseball card. In fact, you can purchase an entire game used bat used by Jeter certified by Steiner or PSA DNA (both leading authenticators of sports memorabilia) on eBay for $2,000-$ 4,000. Double that range ($4,000 – $8,000) and you can get an entire game used bat of Jeter that is also autographed by him complete with the same LOAs/COAs (Letter of Authenticity/Certificate of Authenticity). For $24,000 you could buy 3 – 12 game used bats of Derek Jeter, some including his autograph on them, a 2015 Ford Mustang, or a baseball card numbered 1/1 with a bat knob from a bat that Jeter used in a game.

How Rare are 1/1’s?

While one of kind items are rare, just how rare are 1/1s in collecting? Speaking from personal experience, In my twelve years of collecting, I have pulled two Bowman 1/1 printing plates (first one was of Cole Hamels, the second was of a prospect named Gabriel Rosa) from the same exact store about two months apart sometime last year. According to the backs of the pack the odds of pulling printing plates were about 1 in 3,500 packs. While it could have been coincidence or pure luck, it made me wonder just how many 1/1s are out there and how rare they are. According to Beckett, there were 29,793 1/1 cards made for baseball alone in 2009. That excludes football, basketball, and hockey cards (as well as other sports like soccer or NASCAR) but I’d be willing to bet those numbers are similar.

In 2010, an editor for Beckett did some digging and discovered the following: Beckett had close to 340,000 1/1 cards listed in the Beckett database — just for baseball. Again that is excluding, football, basketball, hockey, and other sports and that was five years ago. That 340,000 figure has probably doubled since 2010 if not grown even more than doubling.

Analyzing 2014 Topps Series 1 for Baseball

There are 330 base cards in the regular set excluding inserts and memorabilia cards. Each base card comes with a platinum border 1/1 variation. That alone means 330 1/1 were made. However, each of these cards were made with 4 printing plates, numbered 1/1. That means they used 1320 (330 x 4) 1/1 printing plates to make 330 cards. Cards are double sided, so the front and back each need their own printing plate; however the last back printing plate I have seen was from 2005 (I don’t believe they release the back printing plates anymore but if they did it would be 330 X 8 = 1640).

On top of this, there were special subsets such as “Strata Cuts” which include cut signatures (signatures on checks or letters cut and placed into the card) of very famous players like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. There were 31 cards in that set each numbered 1/1.

Another set was called “In the Name” which included a letter from the last name of the player on the back of his jersey. It featured 61 different players, which means that is another 61 1/1s. If we add the platinum bases, the printing plates, the 31 and the 61 from these subsets that means Topps Series 1 in 2014 produced 1742 cards numbered 1/1. However, the “In the Name” set included a card for each letter of the players’ last name. So players like Adam Wainwright produced another 10 (11 characters minus 1 because he was already part of the 61 total set count) cards numbered 1/1. Add up every player and include the printing plates from all the inserts and subsets and who knows how high this one set would get. Probably close to a couple thousand just from 2014 Topps Series 1. That does not include Series 2, Update Series, Topps Museum Collection, etc. or 1/1s made by Topps for football. That figure also excludes 1/1s coming from rival companies such as Upper Deck and Panini.

The Holy Grail of Collecting? Not so fast.

The 1/1 used to be a highly collected and sacred card sought by many collectors. To some they were the holy grails of collecting. However, the industry has managed to over produce them with such a large quantity, there are probably over a million in existence across all four major American sports. While they are still rare and one of kind items, I find it hard to believe they are worth the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars sellers try demanding for them. I understand individual players have their own values based on performance, attitude, and fan bases, but I could go to a state university for a year or own a card with a bat knob that Derek Jeter once touched in a game.

I think Beckett’s equations for determining prices of cards has its flaws; however 1/1s offer a new challenge. Bottom line, there are much more collectable and valuable cards around that are not numbered 1/1. Frankly, I’d rather have a rare card from the old days or a beautiful patch and autograph of a decent player than a 1/1 of a prospect or no name. I think the 1/1 has lost its way and will never become the rarest baseball card in the world.

Got any 1/1s? Any questions or suggestions for an article you’d like to see? Leave your comments below.
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