The Number One Rule When Buying Raw Baseball Cards

Graded cards have no doubt thrown a wrench into the trading card industry. Don’t get me wrong — grading companies are very important to the hobby and are a positive thing, as I’ve written before. But the grading companies have also sort of created a problem in terms of values.

Card values have gone through the roof for graded cards. That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily the issue. After all, we all want our cards to be worth more. But an indirect problem has been created in that collectors will sometimes overpay for raw, ungraded cards with the expectation that said cards will achieve certain grades. Sometimes, sellers will often tout what they think a card will grade and then affix a premium to that price based on their own opinion.

In short, that’s a really bad idea as a buyer. The No. 1 rule you should have is, unless you’ve got some sort of arrangement with the seller, you should be buying the card as if it will grade the bare minimum — Authentic.

Of course, buying a card that is authentic in the first place is the most important thing. But let’s assume that hurdle is cleared here. You should never be buying a card and paying big money with the expectation it’s going to grade well.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t pay more than what that card in Authentic condition would grade at. That’s particularly true when you’re dealing with very rare cards that you might not see very often. Sometimes, overpaying is necessary and I’ve certainly done my share of it. And sometimes you just want the card. In that case, buy away. But if I overpay for a card, I’m doing so with the assumption that, at best, it is going to grade Authentic. If it grades higher, that’s quite frankly a bonus. You should buy the card in such a way that you would not be disappointed if it graded Authentic — that should be your basis.

The reason for that, of course, is because you have no realistic idea of how a card will grade. Sure, many of us think we have an idea of how a card will grade. And some of us may even be quite good at it. But grades are still subjective — we’ve got no idea what a grader will see/not see or how they will consider a particular flaw one day vs. another day.

But even beyond that, graders can just have different opinions on cards. Even if a card deserves a numerical grade, it may not receive one at all. In particular, I’m thinking of something like trimming.

Some cards, for example, may have a rough edge. One grader may see that as a factory/printer issue with a particular card while another may believe that behavior shows a card that was trimmed in recent years. And the difference between those two things can be staggering.

A rougher factory cut may be considered a minimal flaw and a card could still get a very nice mid grade of, say, a 4, 5, or 6 if those cuts are common in that set. Meanwhile, a trimmed card is automatically given an Authentic grade. And while collectors will certainly pay premiums for nice looking trimmed Authentic cards, they will generally not be paying prices for a 4, 5, or 6.

If we’re talking something fairly minimal, like a 1939 Play Ball card, any sort of risk might be minimal. You might buy a nice looking 1939 Play Ball common that looks like a 5, pay about $30 for it, and find out it’s Authentic if you try to grade it, which would make it worth about $5 or $10. But on the other hand, if you’re talking something like a Ty Cobb T206 card, you’re talking of a difference of thousands of dollars. And, as stated, even if a card is legitimately not trimmed, you have no idea what a grader may determine. And, regardless of whether the card is trimmed or not, theirs is the opinion that matters. Right or wrong, they are the gatekeepers to determine if a card is a $1,000 card or a $10,000 card.

In short, you don’t want to be gambling when buying raw.

If you like the look of a card that is raw but are unsure of its gradeability, your purchase price should reflect that. Pay an amount for the card that you would be happy to buy it for if it graded as Authentic. You may come out ahead if you break that rule and overpay a bit. But if you assume the worse, you’ll never be disappointed, assuming the card is legitimate and authentic.

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