By Greg Bates
Joe Orlando witnessed first-hand how the card grading industry exploded. When Orlando started working at Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) in the summer of 1999, the company had recently graded its 1-millionth card. It took seven to eight years for PSA to reach that milestone. However, from that point on, PSA has graded 1 million or more cards per year.
“It became more of a mainstream thing versus something that people were familiar with before that, but also the Internet started to pick up quite a bit. People started to find out about stuff like eBay and so forth,” said Orlando, who is the president of PSA and PSA/DNA. “Plus, you had the 1998 home run chase and people were more interested in baseball again. It was sort of the perfect storm of events that really propelled grading to the next level. It has become very big.”
PSA, which features a daily counter on its website showing how many collectibles it has certified since it launched in 1991, was at 23.76 million items as of Dec. 30. The Newport Beach, Calif.-based company has become the largest third-party grading and authentication service in the world, and the most recognizable for card collectors.
Card grading became so big in the late 1990s that Sportscard Guaranty Corporation (SGC) was formed in 1998. Scott Hileman went to work at the company in Bound Brook, N.J., in its first year. He also recalls how big the McGwire-Sosa home run chase was for the grading industry – and was a full-time grader by late 1999. Hileman, who is the director of grading, estimates SGC grades 10,000 cards per month.
Card grading 101
Both PSA and SGC use similar procedures in grading cards. PSA has a larger operation, with 13 full-time card graders, while SGC employs four full-time graders.
Once cards are submitted and processed, they reach the grading stage, and that’s when Orlando’s crew and Hileman and his staff go to work.
At PSA, the first part of the grading stage is determining if the card is authentic. It is checked to see if any possible alterations were made to the card. Once the card passes for being authentic, graders start the tedious task of examining the card. They focus on the characteristics of the card, such as strength and quality of the corners, color, edges, centering, surface, print clarity and overall eye appeal, Orlando said.
The graders at SGC take a thorough look at the surface of the card, front and back. Confined to a dark room, graders scan and angle the card every which way under a halogen light. They are searching for imperfections.
“The most common thing to miss and the difference on a card being a high grade or a low grade a lot of the times is creasing,” Hileman said. “That helps find surface wrinkles or factory creases within the card . . . Something that could be an 8 is all of a sudden a 4 because of a hidden wrinkle. They do hide on cards a lot of times.”
In the second stage, SGC measures the centering with the bare minimum being 60/40 to acquire a higher grade. This is also when more of an “eye test” comes into play. The grader will check the card’s corners and look for further print or surface issues.
“There’s no question that over time centering has become more and more important,” Orlando said. “Long before I came to work for PSA, and I was actually one of their first customers as a collector, it didn’t seem like centering was as important. If a card was razor sharp and beautiful in every other respect but it wasn’t quite centered well, people seemed to be more forgiving 20-25 years ago. But it seems like over time people are putting emphasis into centering.”
Once a card has been thoroughly examined by the graders at PSA, it is given a grade on a scale of 1-10. SGC uses a slightly different grading approach going from 10-100. A 100 rating by SGC is considered a pristine card. Say a card rates a Gem Mint 10 for PSA, that’s the equivalent to a 98 grade for SGC. A Mint 9 for PSA is a 96 for SGC. An 8.5 rating by PSA is a 92 for SGC – and so forth down the line.
“When we decided to go to the half-point system a few years back, the real key is eye appeal. I know that sounds like a vague term,” Orlando said. “Let’s take a Near Mint-to-Mint 8, and when you’re looking for an 8.5, what is the grader looking for?
They’re looking for a top-notch, super-aesthetically appealing 8 that also meets certain criteria. The grader is trying to be as objective as they can. When you’re talking about things like eye appeal, some subjectivity can come into play. That’s because you’re looking at things like color, registration, where there’s some interpretation there where it’s different from measuring something like centering.”
Maybe a card looks tremendous but has a just a hair of wear on a corner or two, that could dock it one-half point, Orlando said. For an 8 to receive an 8.5, for instance, a card has to meet the minimum centering requirements for the next highest grade.
“They’re looking for something that is much closer to a 9 than it is to an 8,” Orlando said. “It isn’t in the middle of the two grades, it’s at the high end. Just to add simplicity to the scale, we call them half points.”
“Not every 7 is going to look the same and not every 8 is going to look the same,” Hileman said. “A lot of times that half grade alleviates that.”
Each submitted card is reviewed by two people at SGC, Hileman noted. The second person does a scan of the card to make sure there isn’t any writing on the back or a crease that may have been missed. The majority of the cards that get submitted to SGC are examined by either Hileman or a fellow senior grader.
PSA also uses at least two graders to look at each card. If the graders have a split decision on how high a number should be given to a card, a third grader can be used to break the tie.
Wide array of submitted cards
With thousands of cards being submitted daily, PSA deals more in baseball cards than any other sport. Also, Topps, since its cards span so many decades, are at the top as the most submitted brand, Orlando said.
“There is no doubt there is a massive emphasis on rookies, and that probably won’t come to anyone’s surprise,” Orlando said. “When you start getting into the post-’70s, post-’80s era to the present, that’s what people want. Whether it’s LeBron James, Mike Trout or Joe Montana, people are set and focused on rookie cards.”
The most frequently submitted card in PSA’s history is the 1989 Topps Traded Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. As of late December, PSA had graded 63,473 of those cards. The 1989 Upper Deck Griffey – the more valuable of the two cards – had been sent in 59,543 times.
“We do get the rarities, we do get the real esoteric stuff as well, because the way the hobby is there’s always something for everyone out there,” Orlando said. “The masses really focus on the mainstream material.”
At SGC, Hileman also sees a lot of Griffey rookies get submitted. However, he has noticed a major switch in which vintage cards – generally considered pre-1975 – have become more common submissions than modern-era cards.
Tobacco cards often find their way into the SGC grading department, most commonly Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and other Hall of Fame players from back in the early 20th century.
“A few of our customers used to submit modern, and they changed over to collecting the vintage stuff because they find it a little more interesting, and also, they found that their dollar didn’t depreciate,” Hileman said.
Hileman is surprised how many T206 cards are submitted each year. He gets in three to four collections. It fascinates Hileman when he sits down to grade each of those 100-year-old-plus cards.
One of the most impressive items Hileman has ever seen was a 1914 Cracker Jack set that a collector brought to the National Convention a few years ago. With something that rare, the graders have to spend extra time because there could be a huge dollar difference if the cards aren’t graded accurately. Hileman was told that set could be worth a couple million dollars.
Since Hileman has been grading cards for 15 years, he has a solid grasp for what he’s looking for, and the process has become easier over the years. However, he and his graders never want to become complacent, because accuracy and consistency are key.
That’s the same rule of thumb for the graders at PSA. They aren’t allowed to work long days because they need to be productive and stay fresh.
“The one thing that held true back then is still today: Attention to detail,” Hileman said. “The most important thing is no matter what card is in front of you, you just have to remain focused on it. You could look at something that’s a 5 and if it has that pen mark on the back, it takes it down basically to a 1.5. You have to pay attention to the detail.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.