Baseball’s Hidden Gems

Small-market baseball teams – or in the case of Seattle, teams tucked away in geographic corners of the country – don’t get the hobby respect of powerhouses such as the Giants, Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, or fan magnets like the Cardinals and Cubs. Still, there have been some all-time greats who not only are fan favorites but statistical titans – and as such, make great collecting bargains.

Oldies, But Goodies:
Tony Gwynn:  He’s 20th all time with a career batting average of .338, and a Hall of Famer to boot. And to top that, one of the friendliest players of all time. Since he played in San Diego, however, Gwynn gets overlooked. While his 1982 TCMA Hawaiian Islanders minor-league card can crack four figures on eBay in Gem Mint ($275, Mint) slabs, his Gem 1983 Topps rookie usually trades around $250, give or take a few bucks. Patient bidders can nab certified auto cards of this Hall of Famer for less than $25.

Johnny Bench: The two-time MVP, Hall of Famer and Big Red Machine anchor is a hero in Cincinnati, but his name doesn’t roll off the tip of fans nationally when they’re thinking of the greatest catchers of all time. Some of his regular, non-rookie Topps cards are trading at more than $200 in the highest grades, because set-registry competitors are skewing prices. But his 1968 Topps rookie closes at less than $200 for a PSA 8, which is a very nice condition card for that era. His unusual autographed issues (2003 eTopps, for example) go for more than $100, but other low-run auto cards of this rock-solid legend (2005 Diamond Kings, No. 5/10, 2007 Upper Deck Premier No. 11/15) trade in the $25-$50 range – absolute thievery.

Craig Biggio: Houston fans adored him, he finished in the top five of the MVP vote twice, racked up 3,000 hits and ranks 13th all time with 1,844 runs. And he doesn’t stink of steroids. Cooperstown awaits. He’s got several rookie cards, including the 1988 Score Traded Glossy ($230 Gem Mint), Score Traded (less than $50 in Gem slabs) and others (1988 Topps and Topps Tiffany, and 1989 Upper Deck, 1989 Fleer and Fleer Glossy) that are even cheaper. Winning auctions for certified Biggio autos is like shooting fish in a barrel, as you’ll find yourself factoring in the cheapest shipping prices before dropping in a bid.

George Brett: “Kansas City, here we come,” might be a memorable line from one of the most famous blues songs, but baseball players and collectors treat this town like a black hole. The all-time Royals hitter with 3,154 hits (good enough for 15th all time) was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. It’s true that his 1975 Topps rookie – and Topps Mini cousin – comprise two of the hottest cards of the ’70s in top-top grades. But look at the $100-and-under Brett bargains you can find on eBay and try to find comparable deals of Jeter, A-Rod, Youkilis, Manny or Pujols: PSA/DNA auto bat ($100); PSA/DNA Mitchell & Ness autographed vintage-style jersey ($99); 1975 Topps, PSA 8 ($91); 1975 Topps Mini, PSA 8 ($89.67); unused ticket from 3,000th hit game ($36.99); 1997 Donruss certified auto ($22.16).

How do you uncover your own hidden gems? Look up all-time stats at baseball-reference.com, click on “Leaders, and start combing the career lists. Soon you, too, will be saying things like “Billy Hamilton is below Ted Williams and just ahead of Babe Ruth in career batting average, with 2,000 hits? Who’s Billy Hamilton? He’s in the Hall of Fame? Wow.” Or skip the lists and go straight to Edgar Martinez.

Active Watch
Ryan Howard: Philly isn’t the smallest market, and Howard’s batting average is dropping like a rock. But a World Series ring, 175 homers in four seasons and an MVP with two more top-5 finishes is nothing to sneeze at. Top eBay pick – 2007 Bowman’s Best buyback auto (2006 card) No. 62/67, $24.16.

Grady Sizemore: People wonder how Cleveland deserves the Rock Hall, and such a talent as Grady Sizemore, too. The answer? Cleveland rocks. Top eBay pick – 2009 Upper Deck Game Jersey auto No. 14/15, $56.55.

Chipper Jones: Not even the steady, second-best all-time Braves hitter and an unparalleled playoffs run could sell out that stadium. Top eBay pick – 1991 Score rookie, BGS 9.5, $29.

Ken Griffey Jr.: The undisputed hobby heavyweight for many years, “The Natural” (and Hall of Fame lock) is coming back into vogue at the end of his career. Top eBay pick – 2007 Upper Deck Black auto, No. 2/10, $80.

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