In the early 1990s, nothing caused more of a buzz at card shows than a glistening display of vintage Nolan Ryan baseball cards.
Ryan’s 1968 Topps rookie card, of course, led the way, and climbed to more than $1000 by the time he hung up his spikes in 1993. That burlap-bordered beauty dragged along the rest of Ryan’s early-career cards, and soon collectors were paying three figures for pasteboards from 1969 through the mid-1970s.
But you don’t have to break the bank in order to stock up on vintage Ryan cards.
In fact, the list below contains 23 cards from throughout the career of The Ryan Express that you can pick up for a relative song.
First, though, a few ground rules …
For the purposes of this list, “vintage” means anything before 1990. You can quibble with this if you want, and I might, too, under other circumstances, but it makes perfect sense when you consider that …
I set out to include at least one card from every team for which Ryan pitched, and he didn’t catch on with the Texas Rangers until 1989.
Finally, in order to qualify for this list, a card has to be available today in NM or better condition for less than $100.
So there you go. If you can live with these terms, go ahead and soak in the vintage fireballer cardboard that follows.
(Click on the titles for each card to see copies currently for sale on eBay.)
The 1969 Miracle Mets are one of the most famous and inspiring teams of all time. Led from the dugout by the great Gil Hodges, the Mets were boosted by stellar pitching from Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, as well as a colorful lineup, that took them all the way to a World Series championship.
In commemorating the Mets’ victory in the first-ever NLCS, Topps issued this “WE”RE NUMBER ONE!” card depicting a shirtless Ryan in the clubhouse with teammates Duffy Dyer, Tommie Agee, and Wayne Garrett.
It’s a rare light-hearted pasteboard moment for the man whose stare and power could frighten batters even from the confines of his baseball card. The best part is that you can pick this one up for less than $10 in ungraded condition and for under $50 when slabbed in NM shape.
Looking for Nolan Ryan’s last card as a member of the New York Mets? Normally, you’d turn to the Topps set issued during his first year with a new team, since card makers are generally a season behind in their photos — this year’s Mike Trout cards shows what he looked like last year.
But in 1972, Topps pushed Ryan into their high-number series and, since he was shipped to the California Angels in December of 1971, his new card reflected his new team affiliation. But the 1972 Topps Mets team card at #362 shows the team as it was during the summer of 1971, and that meant Ryan duly made his thumbnail appearance with his blue and orange teammates.
So Topps managed to sneak in one last Ryan Mets card while at the same time squeezing him into his Angels togs at the end of the set. Whew!
You should be able to find the Mets team card for less than $5 in nice raw condition, while a graded NM-MINT copy might run closer to $30.
In 1972, Nolan Ryan led the American League with 329 strikeouts in less than 300 innings pitched. It was the first of 11 times that Ryan’s name would top the leader board, and it’s fitting that he and Steve Carlton appeared together on Topps’ strikeout leaders card the next year. Those two would battle for K supremacy over the next decade-and-a-half, with The Ryan Express finally steamrolling lefty.
Fresh off a record 383 strikeouts in his second season with the California Angels, Nolan Ryan was starting to make baseball people rethink the notion that he was just a one-dimensional pitcher. For this 1974 card, Topps captured the sight that was making batters from coast to coast quiver in the box as they awaited Strike 3 — or for something a bit wilder but just as fast. This is the first base card on our list, and it’s a bargain at less than $30 raw and less than $80 in graded NM condition.
If you were a collector who didn’t eat sweets in 1975, then chances are you gave away, or threw away, your fair share of Hostess pastries that summer trying to collect the cards the cupcakery issued on the bottoms of family-sized boxes of their sweeties.
The good news was that you got three at a time, panel style, so you could at least show some restraint in your Twinkie-buying habits.
For his part, Nolan Ryan led off a sheet that also included outfielder Reggie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals and hurler Joe Coleman of the Detroit Tigers, the cards separated by dotted lines that were meant for cutting.
While not all that rare, it’s an interesting period piece that you can find for less than $20 in ungraded condition, for either a nice hand-cut Ryan or the full sheet. Graded copies of the Ryan in NM-MT condition sell for less than $50.
On September 28, 1974, Ryan racked up his third career no-hitter. Even though he had tossed two no-nos in 1973, it took Topps until 1975 to commemorate his untouchable-ness in cardboard, and even then he had to share the spotlight with the temporarily unhittable Steve Busby and Dick Bosman.
Still, it’s an early piece of ephemera dedicated to the budding Ryan legacy, and it can be yours for under $10 raw and less than $40when slabbed in NM condition.
As card companies sprouted like weeds in the infield of the hobby during the 1980s, veteran collectors continued to lament the fact that no one seemed committed to producing a pure product that focused primarily on presenting the players we idolized while eschewing fancy design elements. Inevitably, these hobbyists would point to the 1975 SSPC set as a prime example of such “purity.”
While most hardliners warned that SSPC was an unauthorized, unlicensed product and could be reproduced whenever the creators — or anyone else — decided to turn on the presses again, a fair number of player collectors added these to their master-set checklists. The fact that it was later revealed the cards were printed in 1976 and not 1975 likewise did nothing to dim enthusiasm for the SSPCs.
The Ryan card shows a typically sharp (for the time), nearly full-bleed photo of The Express in his Halos uniform and sells for less than $10 raw today. Even graded GEM MT copies trade for less than $50.
Another SSPC card, this one shows two pitchers at different ends of the career spectrum, though we didn’t really know it then.
In his late 20s, Catfish Hunter was coming off a 23-14 record in his first year with the New York Yankees, but it would be all downhill from there, and “Jim” would be out of the league by 1979.
Ryan, a couple of years younger than Hunter, was just getting warmed up and would continue to build on his legend for nearly two full decades. The card is a contraband classic that you can find without too much trouble for under $10.
Usually, when guys start breaking career records, it’s a pretty good bet that they’re rounding second and heading toward the end of their big-league journeys. And that’s probably what most collectors thought about Ryan when he appeared on this Topps card commemorating his feat of four 300-strikeout seasons. He was turning 30, and it was only a matter of time before his powerful right arm flew right off his body, after all.
As it turns out, Ryan wasn’t quite finished, as he went on to record two more 300-K campaigns and to pitch at the highest level until 1993. Nevertheless, his 1977 Record Breaker card is a great snapshot of early-career achievement that you can find for under five bucks when ungraded and less than $30 when slabbed in NM-MT condition.
Nothing screams “1970s” like garish colors, blurry psychedelic backgrounds, sideburns, and Afros. The 1978 Kellogg’s Nolan Ryan card scores on all of those except the ‘Fro, and we don’t really know what was hiding under his Angel’s cap, right?
Angel on top, Devil underneath; business in the eyes, party in the hat?
What we do know is that you can snatch up nice, solid NM copies of this card for less than $10, though you should beware of bowed and (Corn) flaking, cracked surfaces.
When collectors first tore into wax packs of 1979 Topps, many of us thought we’d stumbled into an accidental treasure. How did Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson get wedged among our stacks of Ed Figueroas and Bump Willses? And does anybody recognize the mistake they made?
Soon enough, we realized that 1) the “All-Time Record Holders” were just a black-and-white device to give us some nostalgia with our record-holder education and 2) Lou Brock’s successful career denouement and assault on every imaginable stolen base records were the impetus for the subset’s existence.
Nearly 40 years later, this Nolan Ryan-and-Walter Johnson card is a happy byproduct of the Brock celebration, and one which foreshadowed Ryan’s strikeout march over the next decade-and-a-half.
This is Ryan’s last base card as a member of the California Angels, and it’s a beauty. While the angle of the image doesn’t leave the viewer staring down the barrel of The Ryan Express like his 1974 card did, the action seems almost more powerful somehow. Add in a clear photo and great complementary colors in the card’s design, and it seems all the more a bargain at less than $10 raw. You should also be able to snag a NM graded copy for less than $30.
In 1980, Ryan came home to Texas, and this 1981 card shows Ryan in his first season with the Houston Astros. It also happens to be part of Donruss’ first-ever baseball card issue, one of three major sets produced that year. But while Fleer and Topps settled for head shots of the powerful legend, Donruss caught him mid-delivery with the Wrigley Field brick and ivy in the background.
It’s not a gorgeous card, but it IS a perfect period piece that you can buy for less than $5 ungraded and for less than $50 in slabbed MINT condition.
In their sophomore effort, Donruss rolled out their first Diamond Kings, miniature versions of paintings by renowned Hall of Fame artist Dick Perez. Each team had a representative, and it was none other than Ryan who was positioned in front of the blaring orange Astros rainbow. Today, you can buy the original Ryan DK card for around $1 raw and around $30 in graded MINT condition.
Beginning in 1983, Topps inserted flimsy game cards that allowed you to accrue “points,” which could be redeemed for groups of 10 All-Star Glossy cards. These were the pasteboards that we all wanted Topps toissue as their base sets each year, because the card stock was thick and white, the photos were large and clear, and the design was minimal. In many ways, these were the harbingers of Topps Tiffany and the later move toward premium and super premium sets, and these days, you can buy the Nolan Ryan from this first issue for less than $5.
In 1983, Topps dipped into their archives to recognize 35 “Super Veterans” who had been around the Majors for 10 years or more. The roll included such luminaries as Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt … and Gene Garber.
And of course, Nolan Ryan made the list, too. It’s just that he and fellow Super Vet Carlton Fisk would be around for another 10 years and could have appeared in these types of subsets for decades. As it is, you can buy the Ryan SV for less than $40 in graded MINT condition.
In 1983, Walter Johnson lost his 56-year hold on the all-time strikeouts record, and the mark didn’t fall just once.
Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, and Gaylord Perry each dropped The Big Train, in order.
Perry retired after the season, and Carlton surged into the all-time lead, but Ryan had plenty more up his right sleeve. Topps commemorated the event(s) with #4 in their 1984 set, and you can buy ungraded copies for less than $5. Even in graded GEM MINT condition, you should be able to find it for less than $35.
With all sorts of big records and milestones within sight in 1984, Topps took the opportunity to stuff more star power into their set with a series of active career leaders in the major statistical categories for both leagues. Card #707 showcased the NL’s best strikeout artists, with Ryan riding shotgun to Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver easing into third. Of course, plenty of Ryan’s strikeouts had come in AL and not the NL, but don’t let the facts get in the way of great cards like this. Pick it up for less than $5, and you’ll be happy Topps fudged.
Card companies may have produced an infinite amount of product in the 1980s, but they were nearly as prolific when it came to the types of cards they offered. One of Donruss’ running specials was the Action All-Stars, which debuted in 1983 and showcased the biggest names in the game on the biggest cards in the game — 3 1/2″ x 5″, to be exact.
After a five-year hiatus, Fleer rolled out their second series of Star Stickers in 1986. These were full-blown Fleer cards with complete stats on the back, but you could peel away the front and plaster it on your notebook or TV screen if you were so inclined. Stick to the unslabbed version, and you can find the Ryan for less than $5, while a graded NM-MT copy goes for less than $15.
Issued in packages of baked goodies in 1952 and 1953, and then given away as in-stadium promotions from 1983-1998, Mother’s Cookies cards were a regional issue with an unusually far reach — the entire west coast and both Texas teams. Collectors who appreciated the pure, clean look of SSPC enjoyed Mother’s Cookies cards since they featured full-bleed photos and little else besides a player name and rounded corners. This 1987 Nolan Ryan example sells for less than $5 raw and less than $20 in graded GEM MT condition.
Seven years after Donruss and Fleer joined the baseball card fray, Score showed up with an innovative set that featured premium (for the time) card stock and solid photography on the front AND backs of each pasteboard. As it happened, 1988 was also Nolan Ryan’s last year in Houston, and his orange-bordered Score card is a powerful snapshot of his amazing delivery even in his 40s. You can buy ungraded copies for less than $2 each, and even a perfect GEM MT graded specimen will set you back less than $80.
The baseball card field became even more crowded in 1989, when Upper Deck unveiled its premium offering and Topps resurrected the old Bowman name. But while all of the other major base sets showed Ryan in his Astros uniform, Bowman was able to take advantage of a later release date and captured The Express in his new Rangers togs.
The 1989 Bowmans never really clicked with collectors, owing in part to their larger-than-normal size (2 1/2″ x 3 3/4″), but they did set the stage for the later, more popular renditions of the brand. Today, they also provide an early look at Ryan the Ranger for less than $2 in the raw and around $50 for a slabbed GEM MT copy.
There you have them: 23 “vintage” Nolan Ryan baseball cards that won’t set you back more than a tank of gas (OK, maybe two in a couple cases). And, really, who needs to go anywhere anyway when you have your wax pack gods to keep you company?