Five Easy Steps to Collecting Pre-War Cards

So, you’re ready to take the plunge into pre-war sports cards – now what?

Aside from which sets/cards to collect, the most frequently asked question I get is how to begin collecting pre-war cards. You might want to go all in or you might only want to dip your toes in the water. But in any event, I thought it would be helpful to some to give some easy steps to follow to get started.

The fact is that it’s a pretty big hobby. When I first started learning about pre-war cards, I was concerned that I’d be pretty limited in what I could collect. That turned out to be entirely wrong. You can collect these cards for decades and you’ll almost certainly still just be scratching the surface of what’s out there.

So where do you begin? Well, here are five easy tips to get started.

1. Decide What to Collect


The bad news here is that I can’t determine what you should collect any more than you can say what another collector should pursue. The good news? I can at least point you in the right direction.

There are several different ways to collect, really. You can try collecting a particular set. This can be expensive but doesn’t necessarily have to be as there are several cheap sets. If you’re looking for a set to collect, my first recommendation is always the 1936 Goudey set. It’s short, cheap, and a quality gum card set. And if that one isn’t up your alley, there are plenty of others, too.

Even an inexpensive set may appear too daunting. But don’t fret — you’ve got other options. Maybe you want to collect a particular player or team. That’s an easy one that will give you plenty of options. If that’s too narrow, you might want to collect cards featuring players/teams in a specific city or region. Some collectors, for example, pursue cards of players from their hometown.

Or maybe you want to be a type card collector. Type collectors essentially want to collect as many different types of cards as they can — usually one from each set.

If none of that is appealing, the fail-safe method is to simply collect cards that interest you. There’s zero pressure there and while you might not have the money to buy everything you want, collecting this way allows you to work at your own pace with no real pressure about trying to meet goals.

Whichever path you want to take, that’s the first step. You’ve got to determine what kind of cards you want to collect. Don’t rush this. The last thing you want to do is go down a collecting path, spend a lot of money, and realize that you weren’t interested at all. This step may take quite a while to figure out and that’s okay.

2. Determine Your Budget

After you’ve decided what you want to collect, the next thing you’ve absolutely got to do is establish a budget. Some would even argue this should be the first step. Regardless of where you think this should go, a budget is mandatory.

Figure out how much you can reasonable spend in, say, a given month. More importantly, stick to it. Everyone’s budget will be different but unless you’re wealthy beyond belief, you’ll definitely want to factor in how much you can spend on cards without it affecting your everyday life.

This is simple, folks. Don’t avoid paying bills to buy cards. Baseball cards are not the be all, end all of life. And the good thing is that cards will be around no matter how long you take a hiatus from buying.

Sure, some are very rare and if you decide to collect that kind of stuff, it’s understandable that you might not want to pass on a particular item. But you’ve got to account for all of that. If you splurge one month, take it easy the next month. Don’t put yourself in financial peril to buy a stupid piece of cardboard with a person’s picture on it. I can’t possibly stress how unimportant this stuff really is.

3. Narrow Your Focus to Particular Items

This is the fun part. Now, it’s time to pick out some actual items that you want.

This part, however, can also be the most daunting because it’s time to figure out some specifics. If you’re interested in type collecting, you’ll have it the easiest. You can simply use this site to look at the various sets out there and get started.

If you’re interested in a particular player, team, or region, your work will also be somewhat easy if you’re not limiting your focus. PSA’s player registries (here’s the baseball one) aren’t perfect for catching everything but are a great place to start if you’re wondering about the different cards a particular player has. If looking for cards of players from a particular team or city, I’d recommend starting with eBay and using searching for that team/city in the pre-war baseball cards category.

Babe Ruth 1933 US CaramelBut say you want to collect sets. Unless you find one in this list of options I suggest for new pre-war collectors, that’s going to require a little more nuance. Do you want to collect tobacco cards or candy cards? Or strip cards or game cards? These are things you’ll need to figure out. If you’re going for most inexpensive, strip cards or game cards will be your best bet. If you want to go for more popular, you should probably look at tobacco or gum. If you like a challenge, go for early candy cards.

The best advice I can give here (and it’s not a plug, I swear) is to use this site as a resource. After you’ve figured out the sport you want to collect, start at the home page and work your way down through all of the types of sets under that particular sport using the drop down menu near the top. Go right through the list and look at the pictures of the cards. If you find something you want to consider, take a look at the page for that particular set.

For almost everyone wanting to collect sets, this will be the most tedious thing if you are starting from scratch with no idea of what you want to collect. It is important that you take your time and figure out what you want to do before buying anything.

Keep in mind that things won’t go 100% smoothly. Even experienced collectors change focus so if you start down a path and realize you need to change, it’s not the end of the world by any means. But things will go best for you if you figure out what you want first before you pour all kinds of resources into something you might not ultimately want.

4. Research Pricing

Once you determine what you want, you need to figure out the going market for those cards.

This is easy and difficult at the same time. It’s easy in the fact that you can research sites like eBay and figure out how much most cards typically sell for. But it’s hard in that it takes some work to get a good idea of pricing. Set aside some time in the beginning to just work on the pricing aspect. Once you’ve figured out what you want to collect, I’d recommend taking a few days just looking around eBay and the rest of the internet for pricing history for particular cards.

One very important thing here is not to go by asking prices of sellers. Some sellers are very reasonable. However, the majority of them asking flat prices will usually be on the high end. In some cases, extremely so. Your best bet almost all of the time will be to use the prices of what cards have actually sold for. Those aren’t always accurate, mind you. Sometimes auctions get missed and cards sell for an underwhelming amount. Other times, a seller may underprice a card and it sells quickly. But in general, you are much better off using prices of sold cards than you are in using prices of what sellers are asking for.

5. Buy

Youth's Companion Football StampSo you’ve figured out what you want, narrowed it down, determined how much you can spend, and also checked out what it should cost you. Now it’s time to make a purchase.

A lot of new pre-war collectors are overly nervous about buying a fake and don’t want to get taken. That’s completely understandable. But in general, as long as you’re buying from a reputable seller, that will take a lot of the guess work out of things.

If you want to be really certain, regardless of what you want to collect, you can start with some low-grade common cards that are graded. From there, crack open the slabs (plenty of help for this is available on YouTube) and get a feel for what the cards should look/feel like. Of course all cards aren’t the same but if you’re looking at particular sets, get a feel for what one looks like and use that as your comparison.

You also can buy raw cards. In fact, that’s how I got started. You may occasionally come upon a fake but if you’re buying from card sellers with lots of positive feedback on eBay, the amount of problems that you will encounter should be limited.

While buying raw cards is good for low-grade and low-value cards, I would not recommend buying more expensive cards raw until you get a feel for them. Even in that case, it’s always best to play it safe with graded cards for more expensive ones unless you absolutely know what you’re doing. Here are some tips for avoiding fakes.

An addendum to this last point is to always ask questions if you’re unsure about something. Most collectors will treat you with respect and even if your question seems basic, they’ll be happy to help. None of us really want to see collectors throw money away on a card priced too high or, worse yet, one that isn’t real. Net54, for example, is a great community to get involved with and is the most popular message board for pre-war cards. If you’re not already a member there, I’d encourage you to become one.

In closing, just know that you’ll make some mistakes along the way. We all have. You’re absolutely not going to get through unscathed as a collector. The key is to make as few mistakes as you can and a good plan of action in following the steps outlined above should hopefully help with that.

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