Collectible Sports Figures: They’re More than Just Bobbleheads

The Hartland Company is credited as the entity that really gave rise to collectible sports figures, with the original 1958 run including Eddie Mathews (pictured), Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth.

There are many types of sports figures for collectors to pursue that have intrinsic value all of their own. However, they can also serve as a versatile piece to add variety and dimension in the display of other sports memorabilia as well. Available in all shapes, sizes, and materials, sports figures go by a variety of names and categories—statues, nodders, bobbleheads, figurines and action figures are just some of the terms collectors use when referring to three dimensional representations of athletes in miniaturized form. This article will provide a top level overview of several of the categories, their manufacturers and other useful information to help you, the collector, pick the figure or figures that are right for you.

The Bryce Harper version of a McFarlane Sports Pick figure.

McFarlane Sports Picks
Manufactured by McFarlane Toys, these realistic action figures are available in every major sport and officially licensed by each professional league—Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. Started in 2002, the company releases several series for each sport per year, consisting of a handful of players. To add to the collectibility of the figures, the company produces smaller runs of variant figures, which are referred to as “chase” figures. These limited-edition pieces typically display a subtle difference from the regular issue, such as a different jersey color, added jersey patches and sometimes even different poses. In addition to these “chase” figures, Collector Level figures are randomly inserted into cases and distributed through normal channels as well. These figures may include signed versions or figures containing pieces of official game-used memorabilia used for things like the bases or bats. It is these chase and collector-level figures that carry the most value and separate them from being merely toys. Rookie or first-year figures can also carry a bit of a premium.

The Starting Lineup figure for Pete Rose, who, at the time of production, had not yet been banned from baseball for life.

A Starting Lineup double pack featuring running backs Barry Sanders and Walter Payton.

Starting Lineups
The precursor to today McFarlane Sports Picks, Starting Lineup figures were incredibly popular in the 1980s and early ’90s. Manufactured by the Kenner toy company, the figures lacked the realism of today’s action figures and were produced in much larger quantity. Never intended to be collectible per say, the company marketed them strictly as children’s toys. However, collectors and fans were drawn to them as pieces to add to their team or player collections. The niche still has a strong fan base today despite not being produced in several years.

Hartland’s Nellie Fox, circa 1960. These were all hand-painted.

A cardboard tag and string from the Hartland Yogi Berra figure.

Hartland Figures
The Hartland Company is credited as the entity that really gave rise to collectible sports figures. Started in the 1950s, the company used a relatively new plastics manufacturing process to produce figures from a mold. The figures were then hand painted. The original series of figures produced in 1958 included Major League Baseball players, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. The initial release was incredibly popular and was quickly followed up with production of figures between 1960 and 1962 of Willie Mays, Roger Maris, Luis Aparicio, Duke Snider, Harmon Killebrew, Ted Williams, Don Drysdale, Dick Groat, Stan Musial, Nellie Fox, Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra and Rocky Colavito. While other figures have been produced through the years, some in very limited quantity, it will always be these initial releases that carry the most value. Often selling for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, the existence of the original packaging is the real key to their value.

Chicago Cubs mascot nodder from the 1960s.

A vintage Green Bay Packers nodder.

A vintage Willie Mays nodder from the ’60s.

Bobbleheads, or nodders, as they were originally called, have been around for decades. These cute and whimsical characters are popular with sports collectors, casual fans, vintage toy collectors and more. Manufactured by numerous companies in all varieties of sports, they are often used as promotional giveaways by teams around the country. Nodders originally gained popularity in the early 1960s and are typically a ceramic-made figure and hand painted. The more valuable of the nodders made in the 1960s were produced by a handful of Japanese companies. The vibrant colors and glazing techniques employed by the artisans allowed the figures to stand-up to years of display and proper storage without fading or chipping.

A modern babe Ruth bobblehead. They are more realistic, but don’t have the charm of the vintage nodders.

A modern bobblehead stadium giveaway item. There are usually 20,000 to 30,000 of the made for Bobblehead Nite at the park.

A McFarlane Sports Picks of Lebron James. The nature of the packaging doesn’t make for the greatest display piece, but once out of the packaging, the value of the collectible plummets.

Storage, Preservation and Terminology
As with all collectibles, the figurine niche has its own terminology. Here are some of the more commonly used terms, acronyms and their meaning.

• MIB: Mint In Box;
• NIB: New In Box;
• NIP: New In Package;
• MOC: Mint On Card (Many figures come in a plastic case affixed to a cardboard backing);
• Clamshell: A type of plastic case that typically snaps together;
• With Tag: (Typically used in reference to Hartland Figures that came with a string tag that was hung around the player’s head and neck.

Figures were made to be displayed. Unfortunately, their packaging is not always conducive to display. This is particularly the case with newer figures like Starting Line-ups and McFarlane’s, which use a cardboard backing. The fact is that if removed from the original packaging, the value drops drastically. As with other paper collectibles, the cardboard backing of figures is susceptible to edge and corner wear as well as color fading. Keeping figures out of direct sunlight will help prevent fading and storing the figures flat will help prevent paper loss or damage to the cardboard.

Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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