In the 1980s, baseball cards began to boom. Professional traders, stores, conventions, and magazines began to pop up around the hobby while Topps battled new competition from multiple brands. Although traditionally more popular, rookie cards were determined to be particularly valuable, and a player’s first card has remained a major factor in value.
First of all, we are going to have to address the debate of “What is a true rookie card?” Then, we will take you through some of the more famous rookie cards.
The Fluctuation of Multiple Rookies
For the other major trading card sports in the US, including football, basketball, and hockey, a rookie card is mostly simple: the first card of a player in a professional uniform. In baseball it has a more complex history.
Prior to 1952, there is some debate over true rookie cards as there were multiple brands. From 1952 to 1975, Topps reigned supreme, and Topps RCs are considered the best. Then, it becomes a little bit more complicated as brand after brand entered the market.
Rookie Cards were somewhat clear in the late 1980s. For Randy Johnson, there is the 1989 Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Score. They all featured his year in professional uniforms, and they are his rookies. But, which one is best?
Ken Griffey Jr.’s rookie cards are a great example. His first year was 1989, and his cards are easily searchable. The list includes the 1989 Bowman, 1989 Bowman Tiffany, three versions of Mother’s Cookies, 1989 Fleer, 1989 Score Traded, 1989 Topps Traded, and of course, the 1989 Upper Deck.
These cards are not traded, valued, or collected in the same way. Mother’s Cookies is not a noted brand, while Score and Topps did not include them in the base sets. It makes sense why these are not as valuable.
Bowman, Donruss, and Fleer are considered rookies, but they have never been nearly as popular as the 1989 Upper Deck. Part of it is simple facts such as Ken Griffey Jr. was chosen as number one for the Upper Deck set, and he is in a San Bernardino Spirit uniform. Still, it seems somewhat arbitrary.
It continued to grow more complicated. Cards would be printed while players were in the minor leagues, inserts would abound, brand after brand flooded the market, and the notion of the best rookie is still debated.
Topps brought calm to the situation by designating rookie cards with a RC logo in 2006. Yet, many value prospect cards.
The major issue with current cards come from unlicensed sets. Panini and Leaf have been releasing high quality cards on prospects. They are popular among collectors, and the market for prospect cards is booming. Many of these cards are valued above the designated RCs. It leads to a general confusion that has persisted for decades.
A great example comes from Aaron Judge. After a slow debut in 2016, Judge took off the next year, and his rookie cards have become a huge find. If you look at any “Aaron Judge RC checklist,” there are dozens of mostly unlicensed cards from 2013-2017 that many claim fall under the designation of RC.
Excluding a 25 year period of Topps’ dominance, the debate over true or best rookies from multiple eras will continue. This is especially true from cards in the 80s onwards. The debate is especially heated because of RC’s boom in popularity.
However, I still have not answered the question.
What is a RC?
Nobody has a comprehensive answer that is uniformly accepted. There is no widely accepted solution as to what constitutes a RC throughout every era of baseball cards. At the same time, there are many cards that are generally accepted to be rookies. Essentially, what hobbyists value is the best determination of a RC, and there is no accepted formal definition.
To attempt a formal definition, here is PSA’s definition: “A players first year of cards, whether or not it is his rookie season. Players may have one or dozens of rookie cards, depending on how highly touted he was as a youngster and in which year his rookie card was issued.” This is a good working definition.
Another important definition is for an XRC (eXtended Rookie Card). This comes from before 2006 with special or limited releases. These are not considered true rookies. To be clear, subsets, inserts, and parallels are not considered true rookies.
For this article, the best rookie card is what the hobby generally considers it to be. Sometimes, it is the sophomore season or a specific brand. Many times, it’s a classic, like the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan.
Before we move on to a few iconic rookie cards, there is a poll on Beckett’s website. It has 20 questions about RCs. The questions range from the RC logo today, the importance of RCs, parallels, to definitions. Out of several hundred people polled, there was rarely an overwhelming consensus.
Thus, the debate has and will continue over rookie cards, but at least we have a general working definition. Part of it comes from PSA, part from Beckett, and overall, a RC changes with what investors value. If you ask a forum of 100 people, you will receive 100 answers.
For now, let us move onto the good stuff and look at iconic rookie cards. They are some of the greats
1909-11 American Caramel E90-1 Joe Jackson
The Black Sox Scandal from the 1919 World Series reverberates today. Joe Jackson was banned from baseball while he was at his peak. There were very few of his cards that were produced as a result, which includes his rookie card.
Take historical importance, add in a great player, throw in rarity, and finish off with a set that includes Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, and Joe Jackson’s rookie is one of the most valuable out there.
1951 Bowman #305 Willie Mays
The 1951 Bowman Willie Mays is accepted as his only rookie. Mays was incredibly popular in his time, and he was accordingly productive on the baseball field. This is a popular card, and along with Mickey Mantle, he is the key to this set.
1968 Topps #177 Nolan Ryan
Four rookie cards were released for Nolan Ryan. It was a precursor to the modern checklist of rookies. There was a card from O-Pee-Chee, Topps Milton Brand, and Venezuela Topps. The most famous, valuable, and sought after card is the Topps #177. Collectors have striven to track down these cards since their release, and the chase remains common today.
A top graded 1968 Topps Nolan Ryancan reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. The only registered PSA 10 was sold for $600,000 in 2016
1916 M101-5 Sporting News Babe Ruth
Naturally, several of Babe Ruth rookies are considered the best. It is an absurdly difficult find. Babe Ruth is shown pitching in Red Sox uniform, which are two unique details for him. Interestingly enough, Babe Ruth pitched for 3 years, and he was superb with a 94-46 winning record and 17 shutouts.
There are several variations of the back with different advertisements, though this does not strongly affect the value. Most copies around today have blank backs. Many of the cards were printed off center, so in addition to its age, quality is a major concern. There are no top graded cards registered, but a PSA 7 sold for $384,000, while a PSA 8 is valued at well over 1 million.
1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle
Although the 1951 Bowman is nowhere near as popular as the 1952 Topps #311, it is one of the better rookie cards. The 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle is his rookie cards, and it makes it an oddity for being less valuable than a more recent card.
Mantle might be the most sought after player in the hobby, depending on how “sought after” is calculated. While the card itself is beautiful, it is high numbered which creates all sorts of problems. There are stains on the back, terrible centering, and print lines.
1948 Leaf #79 Jackie Robinson
If you consider cultural impact on the United States, Jackie Robinson is the most important player who ever lived. Also, he was one good ball player. Put those two factors together, and it makes complete sense that his rookie card is excellent.
This is another card that is hard to find in top shape. There were issues with coloration in particular.
It’s worth noting that Satchel Pagie and Stan Musial join Robinson as rookies on this set. Paige is especially important because he played in the negro leagues until 42. With the color barrier broken, he joined the Cleveland Indians and was a two time All-Star.
1963 Topps #537 Pete Rose
With the all-time hit record, Pete Rose is featured on this card with Al Weis, Ken McMulen, and Pedro Gonzalez as a promising player. A PSA 10 sold for $717,000 in 2016.
The card has a unique look because the four rookies are grouped together under a vertical platform. The back of the card has a horizontal layout, displaying the rookie stats of the four players.
Considering the four standouts, the colorful pictures, and the overall unique layout, this card is a great find.
1955 Topps #164 Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente had some intense competition from Willie May and Hank Aaron. While Clemented is not the best of his age, he is still an all-time five-tool player. He is still a great even though his life was cut short by a plane crash, and he died with 240 home runs and precisely 3,000 hits.
High quality cards are tough to find. There was serious centering issues that bother collectors today. Joining Clemente on this set are the Killebrew and Koufax rookies which makes this an awesome set.
1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr.
You have probably already noticed, but this list has zero cards dated after Nolan Ryan. Simply put, the newer rookies are not as desirable to hobbyists, and they do not have the same kind of historical value to the hobby. Even this card is a bit of a stretch in a list of the great rookie cards.
Still, the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. put Upper Deck on the map for their first dip into the baseball card game. They put Ken Griffey Jr. as #1 which helped make this card standout from a few other major publishers. Additionally, Ken Griffey Jr. is wearing a San Bernardino Spirit uniform.
It is still a popular card today, but with 70,425 card graded by PSA, it is definitely not rare. Part of what happened is that Upper Deck promised to refund faulty prints with new cards. Thousands poured in for refunds, and Upper Deck printed sheets of Ken Griffey Jr. by himself.
Rookie cards will always be the best finds. From the early days of baseball to the modern day, rookie cards are the cards to get.
While their will always be a debate over the “true” rookie, while the debate will seem sometimes seem arbitrary, and while producers will create prospects, parallels, and multiple rookies, collectors will always enjoy the chase and speculation of the ultimate rookie cards.