Memorabilia Cards: A Bit of Sports History for the Little Guy

A Derek Jeter game-used bat barrel signature card.

A 1997-98 Upper Deck Michael Jordan game-used and autographed jersey card, numbered to 23.

If you haven’t opened a pack of baseball cards, or other sports cards for that matter, in several years, you may not recognize or understand what some of the cards actually are.

One of the major changes to cards over the last 25-plus years is the advent of the memorabilia card, which people also refer to as relic cards. These were a truly innovative concept at the time when first developed by the trading-card company in 1996 by Press Pass, the longtime official trading-card licensee for NASCAR.

The forerunner of all memorabilia cards was in NASCAR’s 1996 card series, which included this Dale Earnhardt “Burning Rubber Press Pass.”

Looking to add a dynamic element to a product category grown stale due to overproduction by the industry during the previous decade, Press Pass acquired race-used tires from the teams of specific drivers and systematically cut them into small one-inch pieces. These bits were actually embedded into trading cards, which were then inserted randomly into packs. Collectors went nuts for the revolutionary new cards, and manufacturers in other sports categories quickly began to follow suit.

In 1997, Upper Deck Company created the first baseball memorabilia cards. The company used material from jerseys players had worn in actual games to create an insert set, Upper Deck Game Used Jersey, which continues to this day. These first cards featured game-worn jerseys from Rey Ordonez, Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey, Jr. Inserted in one of every 800 packs, they were very tough to come by. As a result, they routinely sold for hundreds of dollars at the time.

Contrast this to today’s market, where memorabilia or relic cards are typically inserted at a rate of two or three per box and sometimes even per pack for higher priced trading-card brands.

During the late 1990s, there were four primary companies producing baseball cards: Fleer, Donruss, Topps and Upper Deck. In attempt to gain market share over its competition, each company went through an unprecedented stretch of attempting to out-do each other with each new release. As a result, the inclusion of memorabilia cards in trading-card products simply exploded.

1997 Upper Deck game-worn jersey cards launched with Ken Griffy Jr., Tony Gwynn and Rey Ordonez.

One of the key innovations in the use of game-used memorabilia came during this time period. Trading-card manufacturers began to produce sets with checklists consisting entirely of retired players dating all the way back to the dead-ball era of the late 1800s to the early 1900s. For the first time, companies began acquiring game-used jerseys, pants, caps and bats from some of the game’s all-time greatest players, including Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, to name a few.

To the horror of some baseball historians but the thrill of collectors, the companies chopped and cut up these iconic pieces of baseball history and embedded them in trading cards. For the first time in the history of the sports collectibles hobby, the everyday collector and deep-pocket investor types could own a piece of baseball history.

To the horror of some baseball collectors, this 2001 SP Legendary Cuts card featured a Shoeless Joe Jackson game-used bat that was chopped up and inserted into the cards.

When this Babe Ruth card was in production, the silent screams of baseball purists were outdone by the cries of joy of Memorabilia cards, or relic cards, who could now own bits of the Bambino’s game-used bat and uniform pants and jersey.

One of the most cutting-edge products released during that time period came in 2001. Titled SP Legendary Cuts, the line was produced by Upper Deck. Legendary Cuts was the first product to incorporate an overwhelming number of game-used bat pieces from some of the aforementioned greats.

Particularly unique at the time, was the inclusion of a Shoeless Joe Jackson game-used bat card. Jackson had been wrongly accused of being part of the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, where members of the Chicago White Sox were suspected of throwing the World Series. Banned forever from baseball, his inclusion in the product, with game-used material to boot, set the collecting world on fire and the value of the card skyrocketed to $750.

In 2003, the Donruss Company purchased one of three remaining Babe Ruth-worn, New York Yankees home jerseys at auction. The sole intent was to, in effect, take a single piece of treasured memorabilia and share it with thousands of collectors. While it certainly upset many of the game’s purists, the thrill and joy of pulling one of these treasured cards from a $5 or $10 pack of trading cards was, indeed, unprecedented.

This 1999 Upper Deck Century Legends card features Michael Jordan’s game-used jersey.

Other sports cards also incorporated the game-used memorabilia insert into their products. The timing in basketball couldn’t have been better. Michael Jordan had returned to the Chicago Bulls and was in the middle of his quest for his “three-peat” championship. Having an NBA trading-card license and an exclusive deal with His Airness, Upper Deck manufactured the first Michael Jordan game-used memorabilia card during the 1997-98 season. Inserted at an astronomical rate of one in every 55,000 packs, collectors couldn’t open product fast enough hoping to cash in on this cardboard treasure.

As if that wasn’t enough to drive collectors crazy, Upper Deck had Michael Jordan autograph 23 copies of the card—23 being his jersey number.

Today, game-used memorabilia and relic cards have jumped the proverbial shark, to some degree. Their inclusion is now commonplace and expected by collectors and not the chase they once were. As a result, the collector appeal for single-color jersey swatches has waned. Companies still incorporate them in their product designs but rely on material like patches from lettering and numbering to add more appeal than a plain, white swatch of material.

Additionally companies have become more creative with their use of game-used material. Cards have been produced with the entire letter from a player’s name, taken right off the jersey. Each letter is a one-of-a-kind and some collectors attempt to collect the entire nameplate of their favorite players. The signature portion of a baseball bat’s barrel have been embedded in cards, again creating an extremely limited collectible.

An example of a four-piece memorabilia and autograph booklet featuring driver Ryan Newman.

Chicago BullsTeam Multiple Memorabilia Booklet Card

A four-color Patch Autograph booklet for San Francisco 49ers quaterback Colin Kaepernick.

A set of game-warn jersey cards featuring the name letters of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, spelling out his name.

Since their inception, all sorts of game-used memorabilia have been incorporated into trading cards: shoes, caps, betting helmets, football helmets, footballs, baseball, hockey pucks and basketballs. Fight straps from hockey gear, end-zone pylons (some from actual Super Bowl games), mouth guards (yuk!), sideline towels, race car sheet-metal and roll cages, fire suits, batting and fielding gloves and just about any other piece of material an athlete has touched or worn.

While the demand may have decreased for these types of cards, their inclusion in products brings a degree of closeness to a player that was previously unattainable from a mere piece of cardboard.

The proliferation of game-used material, even from iconic greats like Shoeless Joe Jackson, has caused values of those cards to drop significantly. As an example, since the creation of the aforementioned 2001 SP Legendary Cuts bat card of Shoeless Joe, there has been at least one more of his game-used bat purchased and built into a handful of additional trading cards product. The consequence? The value of that $750 bat card just 12 years ago is now $250.

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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