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The Negro Leagues And Negro League Baseball Cards

We baseball card fans tend to focus our collecting on the American and National major leagues. Sure, there is interest in the minor leagues and prospect cards. We have explored minor league cards on this site in the past.

But this Black History Month, it’s important to remember that for many years, these leagues were not inclusive of all the best baseball talents out there. Segregation kept many fans from getting to experience the best years of some of the best players in the history of the game, from Satchel Paige to Josh Gibson. Jackie Robinson finally broke the AL/NL color barrier in 1947, opening the door for much-needed progress.

But what about Negro League baseball cards? What is Negro League cards are out there? And what should you know about Negro League baseball card value?

What Were The Negro Leagues?

Until Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in 1947, non-white ballplayers were not allowed in Major League baseball. The horrible exclusion of players of color from the league was upheld for decades by an unwritten agreement between the owners and league leadership.

Not to be denied a chance to take part in professional baseball, those owners and ballplayers who were not allowed to take part in white major league baseball formed the Negro Leagues, a series of multi-city leagues of black players.

The Negro leagues started in the early part of the 20th century, with a heyday from around 1920 through around the time the Robinson debuted in the major leagues.

Negro League Baseball Cards

Recent Spotlight On The Negro Leagues

The historical importance of the Negro Leagues, in both the history of baseball and of America, cannot be doubted. As a small step to atone for the sins of the past, Major League baseball announced that they were adding Negro League statistics to the official record. Sites like Baseball-Reference are doing their part to make those Negro League statistics that exist available as part of the statistical record.

This development has helped put a spotlight on the Negro Leagues and its players, both those that later appeared in the major leagues, and those who never had that opportunity.

Satchell Paige and Josh Gibson

Negro League Players

The players who appeared in the Negro Leagues can be broken into two categories, those that later had the opportunity to play in the major leagues, and those, who through either the timing of their playing career or the too-long, too-slow integration of the league after Jackie Robinson made his debut, did not.

In addition to Robinson, some of the game’s all-time greats made their debuts in the Negro Leagues. This list includes Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Larry Doby (the first black player in the American League). Others, such as the Negro League great Satchel Paige, made brief appearances in the majors after their playing prime was over.

There were also a number of great players who never got the opportunity to play in the major leagues. Players such as Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martín Dihigo, and Josh Gibson were some of the best ever. There are now 35 players who are in the Hall of Fame predominantly for their contributions in the Negro Leagues.

Satchel Paige & Jackie Robinson

Contemporary Negro League Baseball Cards

Because of the era we’re talking about with the Negro Leagues, we can’t expect multiple brands and sets each year. No platinum parallels, game used cards, and serial numbered cards. Major releases of big league cards in the pre-war era are a bit few and far between.

Negro league cards from the 1900-1947 era are even hard to come by. Most of the cards that feature Negro League stars from that era are from either the Cuban or Mexican league cards or postcards. Many Negro League players appeared in those leagues during the offseason.

Some examples of cards from this era include: 1923-24 Tomas Gutierrez (Oscar Charleston RC), 1929-30 Cienfuegos Postcards (Cool Papa Bell RC), 1923 Billiken (Oscar Charleston), 1927-28 Mallorquina (Martin Dihigo RC), 1924-25 Aguilitas (Biz Mackey), and 1945 Mexican League (Ray Dandridge RC).

When you do find these cards, they typically are in poor condition and rather expensive. That being said, if Negro League cards of this era match your collecting interests and budget, there is a robust collecting niche around pre-war cards.

Post-Contemporary Negro League Baseball Cards

In the years since the Negro Leagues faded into history, several sets have been released celebrating some of the stars of the league. Some of these sets are now on the older side themselves and quite collectible in their own rights.

The first example of this is the 36-card 1974 Laughlin Old Time Black Stars set. A bit of an odd-ball, small brand set when released, the set is now collectible today. The cards don’t contain photos of the Negro League stars, but rather rough drawings.

PSA has graded 2,181 cards from this set, with most falling into the 6-8 range – there are only 149 PSA 9’s and 9 PSA 10’s. While this set may not be for everyone based on the rough photos, it’s worth exploring as one of the first sets honoring the Negro Leagues.

Laughlin produced a follow-up set a few years, later, the 1978 Laughlin Long Ago Black Stars set. The set also has 36 cards, with a PSA pop of 990 with 19 PSA 10’s.

The 1980-01 Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Series aren’t exactly cards (they’re postcards) and aren’t all Negro League players (the 245 postcard set does feature a number of Negro League stars). A good number of these are available on eBay ungraded rather cheap, so they may not be a great investment, but are a fun collectible.

The 1990 Eclipse Stars of the Negro Leagues is another 36-card set that features some of the greats of the Negro Leagues. This set again features artwork and not photos, although the artwork is of a higher quality than some prior sets. PSA has graded 516 cards from this set, with 76 PSA 10’s. Interestingly, there’s not a single PSA-graded example available on eBay at the time of this writing.

The Ted Williams sets from 1993 and 1994 contain several cards of Negro Leaguers, this time with photos. That a set named after Williams would contain Negro League cards is appropriate. In his 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech, Williams famously called for Negro League stars to be honored with induction into the Hall of Fame.

While these aren’t high-dollar cards, there aren’t many of them graded so there may be a fun collecting project here.

The 2020 Dreams Fulfilled Negro Leagues Legends Centennial set was released in association with the Negro League Museum in 2020. This 184 card set was limited to 5,000 sets produced and featured the artwork of artist Graig Kreindler.

The set looks nice…if you’re interested in the Negro Leagues, this may be the set for you. One note on the set is that the condition of cards coming out of the box is just a tough below gradable condition. I found this true of the set I purchased. On one hand, these would look great in a slab. On the other hand, I probably saved a lot of money on sub fees as I’d have submitted a LOT of these if the condition had allowed.

Negro League stars continue to appear in sets like Topps Project 70, Allen & Ginter, and others. as well.

Negro League Baseball Card Value

Negro League cards encompass a huge range of values, which means that there’s a Negro League card for every budget and collecting style.

 Original Negro League cards can be quite hard to find and quite expensive, but that combination makes them much sought-after collectibles. For example, 1923 -1924 Tomas Gutierrez Oscar Charleston. PSA has only graded two copies of the card, with the highest graded being in a PSA 2.5 slab. An SGC 4 sold last summer for $142,000. Other 1920s to 1940s Negro league cards bring low populations and high prices but are both impressive historical artifacts and items that bring real scarcity as a counterpoint to the “manufactured scarcity” of ultra-modern cards.

Even some of the older post-contemporary Negro League cards have become quite collectible in their own right. For example, the 1974 Laughlin Old Time Black Stars Satchel Paige has only been graded 74 times by PSA. Even in a PSA 4, the last sale was for around $250.

1990 was the height of the junk wax era, yet the 1990 Eclipse Stars of the Negro Leagues Cool Papa Bell has only been graded 17 times, with 5 PSA 10’s. Yet the last few sales, which go back a few years, were only for $25 each in PSA 10 slabs.  

The 2020 Dreams Fulfilled Negro Leagues Legends Centennial set is cool, but very condition sensitive, as mentioned above. The #73 Satchel Paige card has only been graded 7 times by PSA, with 4 of those in PSA 10 slabs. The last couple of sales of these PSA 10 have been for around $60.

CardTotal PSA PopRecent Sale PopRecent Sale Price
1923 -1924 Tomas Gutierrez Oscar Charleston #142PSA 2.5 = 1SGC 4 = $142,000
1974 Laughlin Old Time Black Stars Satchel Paige #1574PSA 4 = 5PSA 4 = $250
1990 Eclipse Stars of the Negro Leagues Cool Papa Bell #2817PSA 10 = 5PSA 10 = $25
2020 Dreams Fulfilled Negro Leagues Legends Centennial Satchel Paige #737PSA 10 = 4PSA 10 = $60

Investing in Negro League Baseball Cards

The Negro Leagues are a fascinating and long-overlooked part of the history of the great game of baseball. While tricky, if you can predict who the next Negro Leaguer is to make the Hall of Fame, you could see some nice short-term gains.

More generally speaking, however, with the new focus on the Negro Leagues, there is likely a buy-and-hold scenario. This is likely true whether you’re looking at rare pre-war cards from the heyday of the Negro Leagues or some of the interesting sets produced in the years since.

Even if they don’t present clear investment opportunities, I’d argue that from the pure collecting perspective, you can’t go wrong adding a few Negro League cards to your collection.

Final thoughts On Negro Leagues Baseball Cards

The Negro Leagues will always be the great paradox in the history of baseball. In some ways, the league can be lauded for how it celebrated black baseball, culture, and athletes. On the other hand, the very need for the league to exist highlights the great shortcoming of baseball, and all of society.

On a baseball level, it also means that pre-integration major league baseball didn’t represent all the greatest players of the era, and kept baseball fans from so many great matchups – Satchel Paige vs. Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson vs. Josh Gibson.

As card collectors, we can do our part to celebrate the Negro Leagues and remember the terrible history that forged them. Whether you’re investing in contemporary Negro League cards, Major League cards of former Negro Leaguers, or simply buying Negro League sets produced in more recent years just for the fun of it – making space for Negro League cards in your collection is a fulfilling enterprise.

More Cardlines Coverage of Negro League Stars

The Top Jackie Robinson Baseball Cards: Chasing Cards Of One of The Most Iconic Players Ever

Which Bud Fowler Baseball Card Is The Best For Collectors?

Buck O’Neil Joins Baseball Hall Of Fame – What Are His Best Cards?

Minnie Minoso Is Finally In The Hall Of Fame – Why You Should Add His Cards To Your Vintage Collection

Vintage Baseball Card Spotlight: A Tribute To The 1959 Topps Destruction Crew Card

Mike D.

Mike D

Mike D. has collected cards for over 35 years, since he bought his first pack of Topps at the corner store in 1987. His fandom,  collecting interests, and contributions to Cardlines center around baseball in general and the Baseball Hall of Fame specifically.

Mike's collecting focus is centered on graded cards, mostly rookie cards, of Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers. Lately, he's been enjoying dabbling in graded minor league cards. A collector/investor with a "buy and hold" approach, Mike takes the long-term view with his collection.
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