A few years before Michael Jordan eschewed the NBA to become a real live professional baseball player, he was featured on a special insert card in Upper Deck’s 1991 baseball card product. The card quickly became one of the ones to remember during that year.
The card was cool for several reasons. It held appeal because it featured Jordan, who was just then starting to win NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls. But it was also a highly desirable card because it was an insert. And while inserts today might be commonplace, in 1991, they were quite rare. Topps, for the record, had created inserts of a sort with their 1980s Glossy All-Star cards found inside of rack packs. But ‘real’ inserts, the ones that helped drive the hobby to unprecedented heights, didn’t really begin in earnest until the 1990s.
The look of the card was phenomenal. It featured a fairly young Jordan swinging a baseball bat during batting practice with the Chicago White Sox, which wasn’t something that most collectors would have seen otherwise. Plus, the back even mentioned that Jordan hit two home runs with one (insert catchphrase here) landing in the ‘upper deck.’
It doesn’t hurt to mention, too, that Upper Deck was still very much of a new kid on the block in 1991. The company issued its first set of baseball cards only two years before that in 1989 with much fanfare and $1 packs, branding itself as a premium type of baseball card. And while other attempts to gain market share were being made by 1991 with Fleer’s Ultra product or Topps’ Stadium Club issue, Upper Deck was still a virtual rookie in the trading card business and, thus, getting most of the attention. Their cards were different, slick, and desirable. As you can imagine, a Jordan insert in the set (let alone a baseball card of the basketball player) made waves quickly.
I don’t remember how high that card ultimately went. At the time it came out, I don’t remember it being much more than a $20 or $25 card. But however high it went, it came down just as quickly. And that’s because, by the late 1990s, almost everything was down from the junk wax era.
Jordan’s card, once an iconic symbol of where sports cards were headed, sunk like a rock. By the mid 1990s, inserts were no longer the exception, they were the norm. At that point, card companies were no longer issuing one insert set, but many. And before you knew it, the card simply wasn’t that special because inserts were popping up everywhere. More desirable ones, too. Autographs and game-used cards were highly popular and ‘regular’ inserts just weren’t as marketable. I remember the card easily being found for just a few bucks a few years later. Before you knew it, it was a trendy find in some $1 boxes at shows.
The secret was out, of course. Sure, it was a wildly cool card. But like almost everything else in the junk wax era, it was overproduced. We’ll likely never know the exact number of how many were printed. But even as a short print, it exists in large numbers because of the sheer volume that the other cards were printed in. And it seemed destined as nothing more than a token of the 1990s that would hold minimal value for a very long time.
For a while the card did hold minimal value. It had been more than two decades, really, since the card was relevant. Had the card been a true rarity, it could have had staying power. But the reality is that, even as a short print, it was a dime a dozen, basically. Then came the latest sports card craze, which began last year with most of the world on some degree of lockdown from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sports cards, in general, have been on the rise. But some have been going absolutely crazy and those include cards of Michael Jordan. First came the spike in cards due to the pandemic. Then, Jordan cards caught fire, boosted by the Last Dance documentary focusing on Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls championship team.
Now, the card isn’t any rarer. In fact, with collectors ripping junk wax product and sending those cards in to be graded, there are arguably more of them around now. Certainly, with marketplaces such as eBay, they are easier to find than when they were released 30 years ago.
Still, the fact that so many are in circulation has not been a sufficient enough factor to slow demand. Today, the card has shot back up in value and is reaching even greater heights than what it did upon its initial release. Many raw, ungraded copies in nice condition are selling for $25-$35, or in some cases, even more. But it’s the graded examples that are really turning heads. Graded NM/MT 8 cards are selling for around $50 while 9s are often bringing over $100. PSA 10s? You can expect to pay between $700-$800 each for those.
It is certainly worth noting that the cards have come down a bit. Just a few months ago, PSA 10s were routinely topping $1,100 and $1,200. Still, they are selling for such an amount that collectors are rushing to scoop up unopened boxes in hopes of pulling 10s. Those 1991 Upper Deck boxes that you could find for, say, $10-$15 a box a few years ago, have been selling for more than $50.
So what’s the future hold for this card? Well, if there’s anything we learned from the resurgence of it, it’s that the future of the sports card landscape is unpredictable. But many of these cards are being sold in high-grade. Thus, seeing it maintain these sorts of prices seems as if it will be impossible.
To date, PSA alone has graded more than 8,500 of them. That doesn’t include all of the others graded by SGC, Beckett, or other third party grading companies. It also certainly doesn’t take into account all of the raw cards. The fact that most graded are high-grade, too, doesn’t help. Of the roughly 8,500 graded by PSA, more than 7,000 are high-grade as either PSA 8s, 9s, or 10s. About half of the remaining total after that are solid PSA 7s. That so many high-grade examples exist is not an encouraging sign.
Still, Jordan’s card has undoubtedly gotten a second life and that’s precisely one more than most collectors probably counted on. The current prices may not exactly hold steady with more and more still being submitted for grading every day. But safe to say, few could have imagined that the card would be in such demand today.
About Anson Whaley
Anson Whaley is a contributor to Sports Collectors Daily and has been an avid pre-war and vintage card collector for more than 20 years. He manages a pre-war sports card blog and database at www.prewarcards.com . You can email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @PreWarCards.