Stories abound about tokens of childhood pursuits netting later-life windfalls. Collecting baseball cards is one obsession that’s consistently paid off. And if you play yours right, you can knock one right out of the park.

Last year, in what’s been billed as the most incredible find of rare baseball cards in history, two Ohio cousins discovered a $3-million collection in their late grandfather’s attic.

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Once considered a quintessentially American pastime, investors worldwide are now combing card shops and auction houses for rare specimens.

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Today, it’s a $1-billion-a-year industry supported by nearly one million serious collectors, a half-dozen card manufacturers and more than 100 weekly card shows. But the absence of a dedicated index and reliable historic data make it difficult to establish benchmarks for potential return on investment.

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Photos courtesy Goldin Auctions; Memory Lane Inc.

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One way to follow the trend, though, is by tracking the price journey of one much-vaunted Honus Wagner card—one of the first collectibles.

Wagner was a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the first T206 Wagner card, as it’s known to collectors, was issued in 1909. By 1933, it was valued at $50. In 1991, it was sold for $451,000 to Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky at a Sotheby’s auction. The card then, according to Forbes, fetched $500,000 in 1995, $1.27 million in 2000, $2.35 million in 2007 and $2.8 million in 2008. But in April, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that dealer William Mastro had admitted to doctoring the card.

Hassle factor

  • Cards must be in mint or near-mint condition to be valuable
  • Insurance costs may not be recouped by sale
  • Due to size and material, cards can be accidentally thrown out
  • Card value hinges on athlete reputation

Another Wagner specimen fetched $2.1 million at the April 5, 2013 auction organized by Goldin Auctions.

Major-league investing

Other vintage selections, printed between 1948 and 1969 and in good overall condition, have been shown to increase in value at a greater rate than many stock markets, says Tom Bartsch, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, a publication regarded by fans as the hobby’s bible.

“If you had cards from [between] the 1950s and the 1960s and wanted to cash them in now, you’d come away far richer than when you started,” he says. “If you prefer modern cards [printed in or after 1980], you can find packs with rookie cards that will likely grow in value for less than $10.”

Older, high-grade specimens can cost tens of thousands of dollars and bring greater returns if held.

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