Collecting your favorite player’s baseball cards

There are so many different ways to collect baseball cards, and no single way is the right way. On the contrary, “collect what you like!” is the advice most commonly given to new collectors who ask. I’m not here to discredit such advice, but I am here to augment it. After all, part of collecting what you like involves knowing what’s out there and what the options are.

My focus in this article is on what is known in the Hobby these days as “player collecting,” i.e., collecting cards of specific players. Our blog already includes Player Collection Spotlights on Tim Jordan, Jim Gantner, Brooks Robinson, Keith Hernandez, and Ozzie Smith, and I’m hopeful that other SABR members who collect specific players will submit additional articles.

Before jumping into the state of the modern Hobby, I’ll back up a bit to around 1981 when things were much simpler but card shows were frequent enough that I was able to collect far more than what was on the shelves of my local 7-Eleven. Favorite players at the time were Steve Garvey, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and George Brett, all of whom were well represented in contemporary sets but also had cards that pre-dated my own entry into the Hobby.

The way I approached collecting these players matches what I’ve found to be the understanding of others around my age who have recently re-entered the Hobby. For example, someone hoping to start a Roberto Clemente collection might initially presume a checklist of 19 Topps cards, one per year from 1955-1973. Perhaps they’d also remember that the Great One might have graced some All-Star or League Leader cards–maybe even a food issue or two. What they wouldn’t expect would be the nearly 6000 (!) cards they’d see when looking up Clemente on Trading Card Database.

Yikes!! How the Hobby has changed since 1981! And with these changes, two questions arise?

  • Is it even possible to collect all of my favorite player’s card?
  • Is there any point to collecting my favorite player’s cards?

Assuming the favorite player is a popular Hall of Famer, the answer to the first question is almost always no. Taking Clemente as an example, he had 20 different 1/1 (“one of one,” meaning only one such card was ever produced) cards from last year’s Topps Project 2020 alone. Were you lucky enough to find one, good chance its price tag would be several thousand dollars or more. Good luck picking up all twenty!

I am fortunate in that Hank Aaron “only” has 5,335 cards, but of course this number goes up (by a lot!) every single year. Do I plan to do what the old boxes and wrappers said and “COLLECT THEM ALL?” Not a chance, and I call myself a Hank Aaron collector?!

Still, as collectors there is something in our DNA that compels us to complete sets. Were we to acquire the aforementioned Roberto Clemente Topps run of 1955-1973 with the exception of a single card, we’d spend more time agonizing over the missing than enjoying the 18 in front of us. We are programmed to be “completists,” meaning there are only two ways to go when we figure out we can’t be:

  1. Give up.
  2. Make a new plan.

I’ll focus on the second of these strategies.

Keep it Simple?

In the face of an overwhelming and seemingly infinite checklist, an approach many collectors take is to focus solely on Topps base cards from each year’s main (“flagship”) set. This is the approach Dave wrote about when he first shared his Jim Gantner collection with us. Of course most of us in the Comments completely lost our sh*t: “Only Topps?! What? Not even Fleer and Donruss????”

Really, though, this is a fantastic option for collectors. Not only is it (typically) easiest on the wallet but it also provides (for most players of the Topps era) a year-by-year record of the player’s career that collectively tells the story of the player in baseball card form. What teams did he play for? How did he look when he was young? How did he look when he was old? What position was he most known for each year?

Flagship Add-Ons

Barring an expensive rookie card (e.g., Clemente) or demands for gem mint, the above approach is generally tenable, which is a good thing until it isn’t. For weeks, maybe months, or maybe even years, the mission was to collect the whole set, and now all of a sudden it sucks to be done! Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the Arrival Fallacy, the belief that when we attain a certain goal we’ll be happy when in reality we feel let down and lost.

Fortunately, there are often some simple ways to extend a player collection without (yet!) sliding down the slippery slope to completism. One of the most standard ways is to stay within Topps flagship but add other cards that feature the player prominently:

  • All-Star cards
  • Record Breaker or Highlights cards

In the case of Hank Aaron, cards like this become additions to the checklist.

Another Topps flagship card many star players–particularly from the 1950s and 1960s–might have is what Trading Card Database calls a CPC (“combination player card”). In the case of Aaron, there are several. Here are two of my favorites.

Other simple extensions to the player collection focus, still within Topps flagship, are League Leader cards and Team Cards. Personally, I don’t chase these cards for my Aaron collection, but many player collectors do.

An extreme case I’ve been asked about but not encountered personally is collecting the generic set checklists within flagship, provided the player’s name appears. Does this really look like a Hank Aaron card to you? (But if it does, go for it!)

Up to now I’ve covered most (but still not all) of the ways one might define a player collection within Topps flagship. While my example has been Hank Aaron, the picture isn’t tremendously different for other Hall of Famers of the Topps era.

Sticking with Topps

Most years, Topps issued more than just its popular flagship set. Examples that showcase the variety of such offerings are 1955 Topps Double Headers, 1965 Topps Embossed, 1975 Topps Minis, and 1985 Topps Traded. Go much later than the 1980s and be prepared to encounter an absolutely seismic increase in number.

Of the non-flagship offerings, I consider Traded/Update sets to be the most essential. This doesn’t impact my Hank Aaron collection, but it does, for example, demand that the 1984 Topps Traded Dwight Gooden card be part of my Gooden collection. My standard temptation in this realm is to want everything. However, many of the Topps releases were “test issues” with very limited production and distribution, hence very pricey.

Two such examples in my Hank Aaron collection are the 1969 Topps Super test issue and the 1974 Topps Deckle Edge test issue. I am glad I have these cards today, but I’m not glad enough to pursue other Aaron test issues such as his 1974 Topps Puzzle. My advice to collectors here is first to learn what’s out there, which is easy to do thanks to the PSA Registry or Trading Card Database, and then next to get a sense of prices. From there you can decide whether you want all, some, or none. “Some” is of course a spot most collectors hate. All I can say is it’s my current spot, and I’m learning to live with it more and more.

Another point I’ll add that may factor into which cards the player collector chooses to pursue is that many non-flagship sets are unusually sized, either much larger, smaller, or rounder than standard baseball cards. If an important goal for your player collection is to display it, size and shape can be important considerations. Of my tougher Aaron cards, I love that my 1958 Hires Root Beer, 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy, and 1969 Topps Super cards all fit my 50-card Pennzoni display case. Conversely, I hate that my 1974 Deckle Edge is much too large for it.

Defining the Era

If your player collection involves a retired player, one of the most important decisions to make is whether you’re interested in cards from any year or solely from his playing (and/or managing/coaching) career. My approach tends toward the latter, though it’s still occasionally fun for me to pick up a low priced modern card of the retired players I collect.

For example, I am thrilled to have this 1961 Topps card of Roy Campanella and this 2021 Topps card of Hank Aaron. What I’m not looking to do is chase every post-career card of these players that comes out. There are a few reasons.

On one hand, it’s the post-career cards of most retired greats that multiply their player collector checklists tenfold if not more. Second, so many of the cards are extraordinarily expensive due to their manufactured scarcity–e.g., intentional print runs of 1 or 5 or 10. Finally, when you produce dozens if not hundreds of Hank Aaron cards each year, it’s just basic math that a whole bunch will be ugly.

Beyond Topps

Collecting more than just Topps cards is a decision I’d encourage for most player collectors. However, the numbers do multiply quickly, particularly once you hit the late 1980s when it seems like everybody and their cousin were issuing baseball card sets.

Keeping my focus on the Topps era (1951-present), I’ll offer that most non-Topps cards thru about 1990 fell into these convenient categories–

  • Bowman (1951-55 and…shoot, if you insist…1989-1990)
  • Leaf (1960)
  • Fleer (1963 and 1981-1990)
  • Donruss (1981-1990)
  • Score (1988-1990)
  • Leaf* (1990)
  • Foreign issues (e.g., Venezuelan Topps, O-Pee-Chee, 1985 Donruss Leaf)
  • Oddballs

*Referring here to the premium U.S. issue, not the Canadian Donruss releases of the mid-1980s

That last category is extraordinarily large and some would argue it’s where the most fun is. However, from a completeness perspective, I tend to view it as less essential than the first six categories. For example, Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card was a “must have” for me, as would have been the case were there cards of him in 1960 Leaf or 1963 Fleer. Though I do have several O-Pee-Chee Aaron cards and many, many oddballs, I’m not sure I’d regard any as essential to my collection.

Again, my advice is to learn what’s out there, get a sense of prices, and choose accordingly. For the top players, the oddball category proves too large to collect everything. Of course, there are so many great cards in it that collecting nothing doesn’t feel very good either.

Order from Chaos

Though it’s where I’ve landed with my own player collections, I’ll be the first to admit there’s something icky about pursuing a largely amorphous checklist. How satisfying it would be to say “I’m collecting all of Hank Aaron’s cards” or even “I’m collecting all of Hank Aaron’s cards from his playing career” as opposed to “I’m collecting Hank Aaron’s Topps/Bowman flagship playing career base cards, most of his Topps playing career non-base cards, some of his playing career Topps non-flagship, some of his playing career oddballs, and a pretty random mix of his modern stuff.” Of course, the cost of a simpler sentence might be triple, and there is little chance the joy of collecting would be commensurate.

The important thing, again going back to collector DNA, is not so much what’s on your list but that you have a list, even if it ultimately evolves. Your list may defy any simple explanation beyond “the cards of Player X that I want.” Though it’s subjective and won’t necessarily match the list of any other collector, it’s still a list that enables you to pursue a goal, check things off, and someday “collect them all!”

It’s also where I believe we are forced in the modern Hobby, where new offerings are too plentiful to keep up with and older cards quickly leave many collectors priced out.

Overall then, my guide to player collecting is simple:

  • Learn what’s out there
  • Get a sense of prices if not sizes
  • Create your own checklist, in stages if you like
  • Modify as needed, but be thoughtful

Before wrapping up, I’ll elaborate on that final point. Once you complete your checklist, of course you’ll want to add more cards to it. Almost always, the cards you add in latter phases aren’t as “must have” as the ones from earlier phases, but they often cost just as much if not more. As I grapple with adding on to my Hank Aaron collection, I’m very conscious of the fact that what I spend for the 110th through 120th Hank Aaron cards I want could probably fund an entire Topps run of Frank Robinson or Ernie Banks!

My final advice is to look beyond the what and why of your player collection to the how. Whatever cards you collect will almost certainly be more enjoyable if they build relationships in the Hobby. Share your goals with the collecting community, post the occasional pickup, and be willing to spend a couple bucks more if it means buying from a “real person” as opposed to an anonymous eBay seller. In the end, the collection is just cardboard, but the relationships and memories can be gold.

Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

31 thoughts on “Collecting your favorite player’s baseball cards”

  1. I collected Travis Fryman cards back in the 90’s when I was a trading maniac. I reached a total of 256 unique cards and somehow ended up with 811 doubles when I quit, realizing that Travis was not going to make the Hall. At last count I only had another 170 unique cards to obtain. Sigh’

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    1. Things can get CRAZY with anyone who played into the 1990s or later. My Dr K collection is about 700 different cards and the want list has maybe 200 other cards on it!

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      1. I try and just find whatever I can find. For Bo I will typically go for his cards from his playing days and same for Griffey but not as much. For Amir I collect mostly autographs but when I go to the National this year, I will try and complete a rainbow.

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  2. Great and interesting post. I generally like the “limit yourself to cards released during their career” approach which you mention, but it should probably come with the caveat that it works as a strategy really only for guys whose careers ended before the early 90s or so. With Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente that approach will get you down to a manageable number at least (ignoring the insane prices of their rookie cards as an obstacle). With a Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. on the other hand it won’t even get you close!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! That’s how my Dwight Gooden binder ended up with 700 different cards from his playing career. I’d say the same general principles still apply, but the number of cards to consider is ungodly. Fortunately, at least with Gooden, prices are low enough to cast a wide net.

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  3. Jason, excellent as always! I feel like we’ve discussed this before, but if not, a natural extension to your collection of Hammerin’ Hank would be any card that is in the design of a base Topps card of Aaron. Since you have the 2021 Topps 1986-style card, you may want to try to add every similar card from the recent past. I used the 2000s Topps reprints of Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Clemente and Ryan’s base cards (plus special cards of Mantle and Mays) to create collections of each of them, then added to them every card in the style of a Topps base set. None of them are anywhere near available in a complete run of Topps base cards, but Mays is getting somewhat close. Aaron is not too far behind.

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    1. I won’t say I haven’t thought about it! 😀 I’m a huge sucker for 1978 Topps so a 1978 style Aaron would qualify as must have. Haven’t seen one yet though.

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  4. PS, How about a complete collection of all cards of a player SIGNED? I have about 30 different of Jim Bouton. There’s another player of whom I have over 80 different cards signed, with another 20-30 in the queue. I will post on him when my collection is complete….

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  5. I collect Robin Yount and Rickey Henderson and a few others. For all I only collect cards that have more than 50 issued. The cards are just too expensive for me and the 1of1s are ridiculous. For Yount I only collect cards before 1999, that’s the year he went into the HOF and when all the new/retro stuff went crazy. For Rickey I only collect stuff from his first stint with the Oakland A’s (79-85ish), that includes newer stuff where the main photo is from that time era. It’s just too hard to collect everything these days.

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  6. Cool post Jason.
    I include team cards in my player sets. I usually already have doubles being a team collector as well. League Leaders definitely get included., For most of my guys I stick to playing days cards. If I happen to get some of the modern cards of any PC guy it’s just a bonus. Where as I still collect the base team sets of most modern releases I end up with some of these cards anyway. The Puzzle wouldn’t fit in your display anyway.

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    1. I probably will start adding leaders to the Aaron collection one of these days. And yes, fitting the display is key for me if the cards are pricey. That Lake to Lake was the last card on my “display want list” and took me till just this year to find.

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  7. There’s also a post on Keith Hernandez.

    Being perhaps one of the lead lunatics in player collecting (in addition to Hernandez, I have about 30 other players I “collect” with varying intensity – players that range in popularity from Reggie Jackson and Cal Ripken to Julio Franco and David Cone to Danny Klassen and Wonderful Monds, with a post eventually coming about the latter two and some others), I’ve actually started to spend time thinking about whether a product really interests me. Call it the Leaf Lumber effect. Leaf does not have an MLB license, so there are no MLB logos. I can live with that, though I’m not a fan. However, certain players, like Hernandez, aren’t even pictured on the Leaf Lumber cards. The pictures on his cards are literally a jersey with his uniform number. If I could find one for $2-$3 I would pick one up, if only for the Seinfeld quip about rooting for laundry and Hernandez’s ties to Seinfeld.

    Buybacks are also becoming of less interest to me, in part because they are being limited to low print runs. Panini (Hernandez hasn’t had a Topps card in years, so I assume he is not under contract) buys back a dozen or so copies of a card, has Hernandez autograph them, and stamps them numbered to 12 (or less with multiple foil variations) – I already have those cards so I don’t really need another version that some manufacturer has bought back. When Hernandez didn’t have as much autographed product they were much more interesting, but now, less interesting to me.

    My Tim Raines collection is … more reasonable, particularly when it comes to post-career cards. Perhaps because I associate Raines with the Expos, I like his post-career Expos cards more, so I am more inclined to buy those than his White Sox or other cards (similar to michaelageno’s comment about Rickey Henderson and his A’s cards), though, as i think I have mentioned before, I will buy purple-bordered Raines cards regardless of team. I agree with Jason that some of the newer cards are not visually appealing (in fairness, the same can be said for some of the older cards, though choices were more limited), so my focus on Raines cards is of cards I like (yes, I will be picking up a copy of the Naturel Raines from Project 70 that just dropped).

    But I do have one additional recommendation for post-career cards (or in-career cards for recent players who have hundreds of cards produced each year). I recommend trying to collect a rainbow of your favorite player(s) from a product you like. I have a fairly complete rainbow of Raines from 2017 Stadium Club and a less complete rainbow from 2017 Topps High Tek. If you “display” (which for me is usually in a 9-pocket page) the cards together, it can be an attractive display. You may want to set a lower limit on how low of a print run will lead to a “complete” rainbow as printing plates and other 1/1s may never appear (again, similar to michaelageno’s comments about only collecting print runs above a certain level). You’ll likely want to get started close to the product release as people busting product looking to sell will usually be listing those cards soon after they open a product.

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    1. 🤦‍♂️ My bad on neglecting Keith. Will update. And thanks for sharing your approaches to the different players. One defense of post-career that I should have mentioned is for certain players it’s a great way to build up a nice collection without going broke. Ditto for reprints or art cards. I used to focus on vintage/original only but I’ve been swayed by some beautiful player displays that mix any and all.

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  8. That Mantle/Aaron card is desirable for at least 4 collections: the 1958 Topps set, Mantle player collection, Aaron player collection, and (for me) postseason collection, since it says “World Series” on the front.

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      1. Oy vey, I face that issue a lot! Usually I need one for each. But if the card is expensive, I sometimes settle for a reprint for the lesser collections. My 1973 Topps set and my Phillies collection each have a Schmidt rookie, but my Schmidt player collection has a Cards Your Mom Threw Out reprint. But if I can get the right price on a third original, that will take its rightful place in the least important of the three collections!

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      2. Yep! I have a Hank Aaron display AND a display for the greatest players of all time. I’d love to put a fave card of Aaron in both, but instead I used a really meh Parker Brothers Aaron in the latter one.

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  9. You may have strong feelings against it, and I don’t blame you if you do, but there are reprints (some legal and others not) available on eBay and Etsy that can serve as placeholders while you are waiting to justify spending to add a second copy of the same card for your collection. Fortunately they won’t fool anyone who looks at them for more than a second, especially the glossy backs, but they can serve a purpose—if you are so inclined. A Richie Ashburn reprint is keeping the space warm in my 1949 sheets until I can justify springing for an original in good enough condition.

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  10. I think the best advice that beginner player collectors can distill from your post is to create one’s own checklist and don’t be tied down or limited by it. Sounds simple, but for so many of us who tend to be completists, it takes some discipline. It took a long time for me to realize that even completists aren’t really completists (as you say, how often are you going to get the opportunity to acquire a 1-of-1?).

    As a young adult, I put together fairly comprehensive collections of two players who at one time or another I had considered my favorite player: Hoyt Wilhelm and Tommy John. It was a reasonably straight-forward enterprise: you had whatever Topps put out and a variety of oddball issues, which, as you point out, often ended up being some of the most intriguing cards in the collection. Even with the addition of Fleer, Donruss, Score and Upper Deck, collecting “everything” was not yet an unreasonable goal.

    That changed for me in 1990, when Frank Thomas hit the scene. As a White Sox fan, I’d never seen his like before, at least not wearing a Sox uniform. His arrival coincided with the last five years of the hobby ramping up to never-before-seen levels, before the ’94 players strike led to the bubble bursting, and because he was clearly the best player on the team and a perennial all-star, he was featured in just about every set, subset, regional set, etc., etc. For years I did my best to keep up with the tsunami of Thomas cards coming out each year, filling two massive albums to bursting.

    What finally allowed me to give up on the hope of collecting “everything” was parallel cards. I’m sure they have their fans, but to me they’re just a card company swindle, and once I stopped trying to get every version of a card, I finally was able to ease my foot off the accelerator. I’ve found that in the post-career of my favorites, it’s easy to add currently produced cards of those players if I like them, without worrying myself over whether I’m finding everything that’s out there.

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    1. “without worrying myself over whether I’m finding everything that’s out there”

      I that is the best way to go. I have switched to that mode as well. Someday my heirs will appreciate that!

      Liked by 1 person

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