Jack Johnson Cards Among Pre-War’s Best Bargains
Some cards of the fighter can be purchased for the price of baseball commons
Jack Johnson is one of the legendary boxers from the pre-war era. He might not have necessarily been the GOAT, but he was a world champion and the best heavyweight for many years during his career.
Johnson’s legacy is … complicated. He was often the derision of the public that didn’t care to see a black athlete marrying white women (he pulled that trick three times). They also weren’t thrilled to see a black dude sitting atop the charts in what was possibly the most popular sport in the country. But even beyond the social controversies, his legacy is also a bit tarnished when it comes to actual boxing.
While Johnson’s record includes 74 victories, he also had 13 losses. About half of those came in his latter years but they still put a bit of a damper on his overall record. And while Johnson was often the subject of racism, he himself even denied ample opportunities to blacks in the ring, famously ducking Sam Langford, Joe Jeannette, and Harry Wills, who were all considered to be top black fighters, during his heavyweight title reign.
Despite all of that, Johnson’s cards are among the most desirable pre-war boxing issues. That’s because he was not only a great boxer but is also undeniably a cult hero … and collectors love themselves some cult heroes.
Shoeless Joe Jackson, Moonlight Graham, anybody?
But while Johnson’s stuff is heavily desired in the world of boxing cards, it often sells for a fraction of what the cards of the top baseball players does from that era.
That’s kind of weird because, all things considered, Johnson’s stuff is to boxing what Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson stuff is to baseball. Johnson may not quite be Ruth in a historical context since the latter is still considered by some to be the greatest baseball player of all time. But he’s obviously one of the top names in the sport from that day. And when it comes to placing a value on his cards, they mostly fall flat because boxing cards just aren’t as collectible as baseball cards.
Take Johnson’s popular T218 Champions cards, for example. He’s got two of them in the set — a side view and a front view. Both are essentially the most expensive cards in the set but both are also relative drops in the bucket. In low-grade the side view card can be purchased for as little as $15-$20. The front view is a little more but both certainly start below $50 if condition isn’t a factor. As a point of comparison, $15-$20 is about what you’ll find a low-grade baseball T206 common for.
Other examples are similarly jarring from a price standpoint and some of Johnson’s late-career stuff is equally cheap. His 1938 Churchman Boxing Personalities card is one of his more common late issues. That black and white card can be found for as little as $10-$15. Compare that to some of Babe Ruth’s late stuff. Even Ruth’s affordable cards, like his 1935 Goudey, still cost hundreds of dollars in low-grade condition.
Heck, Johnson’s own rookie card (pictured here), generally viewed as his 1909 Ogden’s Pugilists and Wrestlers card is pretty cheap. Even decent examples of that card can be bought for $100 or even less. For that amount, you can buy a very low-grade Christy Mathewson or Walter Johnson strip card — and certainly not a rookie issue.
Now, some of Johnson’s stuff is certainly more desirable. I don’t want to paint a picture of all of his cards being in the $20 range because they clearly are not. Boxing collectors will tell you that would be inaccurate and have shelled out good money for his stuff.
But here’s the thing –even Johnson’s more expensive cards are relatively modest compared to their baseball counterparts.
Better examples of Johnson’s Ogden rookie card can easily top $1,000. And some of his stuff, such as his rarer tobacco and caramel cards, have sold for hundreds of dollars – what you might pay for lower end cards of Hall of Fame baseball players in many sets. But again, we’re talking his better cards and if you compare that to the better stuff of the likes of Cobb, Ruth, Mathewson, WaJo, etc., it gets blown out of the water.
Not all collectors will be drawn to boxing cards. I have many, but don’t come close to collecting them with the same vigor of baseball issues. But Johnson’s stuff is a real bargain and if boxing cards ever become more collectible again, they would make for fine pickups while the prices are low.