With all apologies to the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card, it pales on the scarcity scale in comparison with the truly rare baseball cards that have mystified the hobby for decades.

Sure, that Mick is more responsible for driving card values into the stratosphere and spurring our collective imaginations than any other pasteboard. And, yes, it’s tough to come by, especially in high grades.

But PSA alone has graded more than 1500 of them, and other grading companies have handled their fair share, too, with various nice raw copies still out there in the wild.

And, don’t get me started on modern phenomena like 1-of-1 cards, redemption schemes, and the like. Because, while they have no doubt spurred collector interest and built an ecosystem of ungodly expensive new cards, they were designed with exactly that outcome in mind — to create scarcity right out of the pack and generate buzz when one of the whiz-bang cards reaches the open market.

Fortunately, the actually rare baseball cards from the hobby’s rich history are steeped in interesting stories or intriguing mysteries that keep us coming back for more and trolling garage sales, flea markets, and dark attics and basements in search of hidden cardboard treasure.

What follows is a breakdown of seven of these iconic and important cards. Unlike some of our modern contrivances these were all issued right along with the more common cards in their respective sets — or were supposed to have been — for at least a little while.

I’ve also included (affiliate) links to eBay and Amazon listings for these cards, which might be surprising at first glance.

You can’t buy rare baseball cards on eBay or Amazon!

Well, actually, you can…sometimes.

More importantly, these listings give you a glance at the wide array of reprints and often outright fakes that these classics have spurred over the years. You can pick those up for relatively cheap prices and own a knockoff of hobby history, but you also get a bit of a lesson in how to spot fakes. Be careful out there, in other words.

And, sometimes, real copies of these hobby classics do show up for sale online (especially for the more recent entries).

Now, sit back, and enjoy the story of these amazing rare baseball cards.

1909 T206 Honus Wagner

1909 T-206 Honus Wagner

Probably the most famous baseball card in the world — though that 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle might have something to say about that — the T206 Honus Wagner card owes its mystique to a combination of 1) depicting an all-time great player and 2) existing in extremely small quantities.

Indeed, this has been the most valuable baseball card in the world, the hobby’s Holy Grail, for about as long as diamond men have been appearing on cardboard.

Why is the Wagner so rare? Well, it seems that this beauty was pulled from production by the American Tobacco Company (ATC) when they were unable to gain The Flying Dutchman’s approval to print his likeness on a card that would be used to promote their cigarettes.

The reasons for Wagner’s objections are still not 100% clear — some cite his status as a role model for kids and a desire to steer them away from tobacco usage.

Others insist it was a monetary play, driven by his dissatisfaction with the sum ATC was paying him for his inclusion.

Whatever the case, ATC did pull Wagner from their print runs, but not before making a few copies of the storied card — something like 50-200 in all.

Why they didn’t wait until they actually had ol’ Honus’ approval before cranking up the printing presses with his card in-tow is anyone’s guess, but we are the beneficiaries of that hubris or greed or oversight or whatever.

Whenever this card comes up for sale, almost regardless of condition, it always has the chance to set a new record for “most expensive baseball card ever.”

The most recent example was a $6.6 million sale in the summer of 2021.

Certainly, taken as a grouping, the T206 Honus Wagner is the most valuable baseball card … even if others are more rare. And, with just 32 cards in the PSA Population Report as of early June 2022, Honus is about as rare as a hen’s teeth in its own right.

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1909 T206 Eddie Plank

1909 T-206 Eddie Plank

The T206 card of Hall of Famer Eddie Plank is nearly as scarce as that of his Cooperstown mate (Wagner, that is), but the reasons for its meager existence are even more of a mystery.

There aren’t any stories running around out there about how Plank didn’t want his face on a tobacco card, for example. Nor are there rumblings that Plank demanded more money from ATC.

No, the card is just … well, it’s just not there in most cases.

As of early June 2022, PSA has seen 70 Plank cards, about twice the number of Wagners.

A trimmed but PSA-authenticated copy of the Plank card sold for close to $130,000 in April of 2022.

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1909 T206 Sherry Magie Error Card

1909 T-206 Sherry Magie

Yet another T206 dandy, this card was an early, early harbinger of a trend that would take hold for real in the 1980s — Error Card Mania.

See, back in 1909, Sherry Magee was a slugging outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, regularly “crushing” 3-6 home runs a season (trust me — impressive totals in the Deadball Era).

Dude was well-known, popular, even.

And yet, ATC managed to botch his last name in their first print run, listing him as “Magie” instead of “Magee.”

That faulty spelling was corrected for subsequent printings, creating a variation (the error) that’s not much more plentiful than the Wagner and Plank cards.

Indeed, PSA has graded 113 copies of the Magie error card (as opposed to 451 corrected versions) as of early June 2022.

The market reflects this scarcity, too, and Magie’s status as one of the Big 3 among T206 cards — even PSA 1 copies regularly sell for five figures, and you’re looking at $100K+ by the time you get to a PSA 4.

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1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie (#106)

1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie

The 1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie card represents either a major gaffe or a monumental piece of early baseball card marketing genius.

At #106, Lajoie landed just about in the middle of the 240-card issue, between Bernie Friberg (#105) and Heinie Manush (#107). Even in those days, there were enough kids (likely of all ages) collecting cards for a big swath of them to realize that card 106 was hard to come by.

Really hard to come by, as it turned out.

That’s because Goudey never actually issued that card of Lajoie, who also happened to have retired back in 1916. But, as those painstaking hobbyists began writing in, Goudey did print enough of the Nap cards to send one to those who requested it … but not until 1934.

So, did Goudey simply forget to actually print and release card #106 in 1933, or did they intentionally create a “missing” card in order to keep kids buying more of the their gum?

You can decide for yourself, but the fact remains, PSA has seen less than 90 of these cards as I write in June of 2022. Not surprisingly, that scarcity leads to some high prices …

An amazing PSA 9 copy sold for $384,000 in January of 2022.

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1954 Bowman Ted Williams (#66)

1954 Bowman Ted Williams

In the early 1950s, if you wanted a Ted Williams card, it was Bowman or the highway. Williams declined to sign the individual-player contract proffered by Topps, so the young card company had to get along without the Splendid Splinter.

And, after 1951, Williams was absent from Bowman sets, too, appearing only in more minor issues like the 1952 Berk Ross and Red Man (#23) sets while he was serving in the Korean War.

That changed in 1954, though, when Topps officially welcomed Williams to the fold, a monumental occasion that landed him on both the first (#1) and last (#250) cards in their base set.

And, lo and behold, Williams also started popping out of packs of 1954 Bowman, on card #66. The problem, of course, was that Topps had the exclusive rights to use Teddy Ballgame’s image on baseball cards that year.

Hilarity ensued, naturally, as lawyers started warming up in the bullpen, but before an all-out brawl could erupt, Bowman gave Williams the hook. That happened pretty early in the run, and they were ready with a replacement at card #66–Williams’ Red Sox teammate Jimmy Piersall.

Through most of the boom in the 1980s, the 1954 Bowman Ted Williams was considered one of the most rare and important cards to ever hit the hobby…and it still is, really, despite the one-of-one mania and such that have created artificial scarcity among new cards.

As of early June 2022, PSA has handled a relatively whopping 1244 of the Bowman Williams card, compared to 311 of the Piersall. That’s more selection bias than a reflection of the relative population of each card , though — there are currently 20 “raw” (ungraded) Piersall cards for sale on eBay (affiliate link), for example.

Meanwhile, there are zero unslabbed Williams cards, but something like 90 graded examples of the Teddy Ballgame (affiliate link).

Virtually every 1954 Bowman Ted Williams that surfaces ends up graded, in other words.

And condition is an issue, as there are zero copies in PSA 10 and just three in PSA 9 condition.

Not surprisingly, the Williams card brings big bucks on the open market — two copies in PSA 8 (population 53) sold for north of $18,000 and $26,000 at a Memory Lane auction dubbed “Spring Rarities” in May of 2022.

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1959 Fleer Ted Williams (#68)

1959 Fleer Ted Williams Ted Signs for 1959

By 1959, Williams was winding down his storied career at age 40, Topps had chewed up Bowman and left them on the scrapheap of hobby history (for awhile, at least), and another gum company was picking around the edges of the baseball card market.

And, while Fleer didn’t have a full-on license to produce a full-blown set that featured all teams and active players, they were able to sign the Splinter to an exclusive contract.

So, the Fleer presses started rolling, cranking out an 80-card set dedicated only to Williams and chronicling all aspects of his life, from his military service, to his hunting exploits, to his on-field accomplishments.

And even to his contract status, as card #68 showed him re-upping with the Red Sox for the upcoming season — “Ted Signs for 1959.”

Problem was, the other gent on that Fleer card was newly-appointed Red Sox general manager Bucky Harris. Story goes, either Harris objected to being shown in the new set without compensation, or he was still under contract with Topps as a former manager.

Either way, Fleer had to pull the card, making for yet another early rarity that drove hobby dreams and treasure hunts for decades.

Today, though “Ted Signs” may have lost some of its mystique in the face of the flash and overwhelm of the new-card market, it remains a truly tough card.

As of June 2022, PSA has graded nearly 1000 copies of #68, more than any other in the set, but this is again selection bias — nearly ALL of the these short-printed Williamses end up slabbed.

The key to the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set, #68 is also tough from a condition standpoint, with only one PSA 10 copy in existence. It last changed hands for nearly $35,000 in February 2020, right before the pandemic-fed boom.

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1982 Fleer John Littlefield Error (#576)

1982 Fleer John Littlefield Error Pitching Lefty

John Littlefield made 94 relief appearances in the major leagues, pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1980 and the San Diego Padres in 1981.

So, by the time Littlefield’s blurry 1982 Fleer card hit the hobby, he was already done in the bigs.

Still, as nondescript as his career was, and as few collectors probably cared about his cards, someone noticed that the right-hander showed up in Fleer’s second set as a lefty.

Fleer noticed, too, and moved quickly to correct the flipped negative, leading to a modern scarcity that helped fuel the error card mania of the 1980s. Did I have the Littlefield hiding somewhere in my stacks of discarded commons?

It was a question collectors across the land asked ourselves as soon as we “discovered” the Littlefield error by virtue of some big numbers in our yearly Beckett price guide.

Most likely, the answer was, “No,” but that didn’t keep us from searching. Still doesn’t.

Today, the Littlefield error card remains plenty hard to come by, with PSA having graded around 200 of them. That’s four times as many as the corrected version, but as with the cards above, not many folks care enough to have the one — the righty — graded.

Maybe not surprisingly, considering it’s a modern(ish) card issued in packs, the Lefty Littlefield grades out pretty well when it does show up–mostly PSA 8s, with a healthy dose of 9s and even about seven percent of them rating a perfect 10.

The last GEM-MT copy to sell changed hands at nearly $2200 in May of 2021.

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