At some point after World War II, The rookie card became important in baseball card collecting. It no longer is so. It’s hey day (1948 to 1993) is long gone and collectors no longer find this designation as anything important. This may be a bold assertion, and many may disagree, but read on and you can voice your opinion below.
The main reason why the rookie card had such an important role in the history of baseball card collecting was because it became synonymous with a player’s first major league card. Let me explain…
To put it another way, it wasn’t that a card was a player’s rookie card that made it most desirable, but it was because it was the player’s first major league card. There is a difference. But because, for the most part, a player’s first major league card was his rookie card, the two terms became practically synonymous.
If we realize that it’s the player’s first card, not his rookie card, which is the most desired by a majority of collectors, then we can see that all the fuss over the last decade on what defines a rookie card, is all just smoke and mirrors and mostly unimportant to the experienced collector. It may be something a new, or novice collector might like as it would be easier for him to identify a player’s important cards, but for the experienced collector it matters little as he knows it’s the player’s earliest major league card which is most important.
We must also factor in scarcity when we speak of first cards, if the card was mass produced like cards back in the 80s, then alternatives will be looked for. If they are so rare that no one looks for or sometimes even knows about them, then collectors will pass them over as the most desired of the first cards.
Lets look at some examples that show my point.
The most famous first card/rookie card difference was concerning Mickey Mantle. Mantle’s rookie card comes in the 1951 Bowman set. It is quite a desirable card selling in the $4000.00 range in VG condition. But it is not Mantle’s most desirable card. That belongs to Topps 1952 card which sells in the $20.000 range in VG condition. Here is an example where a rookie card is less wanted than a first card. Topps has become the most desired brand name over the post war years and when Bowman was beat out by Topps in the cardboard wars of the 50s, the Mantle Topps card was seen to be a better card than the Bowman issue.
If we move forward to the 80s a few more examples come to mind…
There are cards from the 80s that easily spring to mind that shows that first cards are more important than rookie cards. And here is where the definition between what is or is not a rookie card first started.
The first card pertains to Darryl Strawberry and his 1983 Topps Traded #108T vs. his regular issues from the next year (Topps #182, Fleer #599, Donruss #68). Most argue that a true rookie card of a player is the player’s card which is first issued by a major baseball card manufacturer in a regular nationwide set. If you agree, as Beckett and others did at the time, it would mean that Strawberry’s Topps Traded card is not his rookie card since the traded set was not issued as a regular set but distributed to hobby dealers in limited areas. But as a experienced collector, we all know that if we chose to buy a Darryl Strawberry card it would be the Traded version we would be looking for. If you compare pricing the Traded card sells for around $100.00 (PSA 10) and the regular issues sell in the $20.00 to $60.00 (PSA 10) which further proves the point that it is the first card not the rookie card which is most important to collectors.
Other important examples include: Roger Clemens and Kirby Puckett’s 1984 Fleer Update cards and Barry Bond’s 1986 Topps Traded card.
The second card pertains to Mark McGwire and his 1985 Topps #401 Team USA card vs. his 1987 cards from Topps and Donruss (Topps #366. Donruss #46). Fleer missed McGwire in their regular set issuing their first card of his in their Update set later in the year. Since McGwire never entered major league baseball until 1987, some argued that his Team USA card from two years earlier was not his true rookie card. Others disagreed since the Team USA set was part of Topps regular issue and not an insert. To experienced collectors the issue was pointless as the Team USA card would always be the more desired card because it was McGwire’s first card. If we look at pricing for the cards we draw the same conclusion ($500.00 compared to 20.00 in PSA 10).
Before we move forward I must also note that if I was to be perfectly precise the most sought after and desirable cards from this era of baseball are the Topps Tiffany cards (and to a lesser degree Fleer Glossy). Many experienced collectors forego the regular sets of cards from 1984 to 1991 (with some individual exceptions) to avoid buying cards that were produced in the millions. They believe the cards in the Tiffany sets are the cards that are most collectible from the era. A Tiffany card sells for much more than its regular set counterpart. For example the Team USA McGwire card in the Tiffany parallel sells for 2500.00 rather than 500.00 in PSA 10 condition. The regular sets would technically hold the rookie cards as the Tiffany cards are a parallel but again this rookie card designation is unimportant to the experienced collector.
If we move up to the 2000s there are two more cards that can be looked upon. They can be found in the 2006 Bowman Chrome release, that is, 2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks Evan Longoria #66 Autograph, and 2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks Clayton Kershaw #84 Autograph. Both are examples of cards that are more desirable that the player’s true rookie cards which didn’t come out until 2008.
Lastly, as there are exceptions to everything, there is one card that balks the rookie/first card comparison. That would be the cards of Barry Larkin. Larkin’s first issued major league card was Sportflic’s 1986 Rookies #34. At first this was argued to be his rookie card, but as time passed and Sportflics cards were looked on as a novelty item rather than a regular issued set (3D multiple image plastic cards did not catch on with collectors) Larkin’s 1987 regular issues from Topps, Fleer, and Donruss became his official rookie cards. Larkin’s Sportsflics card, now considered his first card, sells for less than his 1987 cards.
There are probably more examples that readers can come up with on both sides of this argument but it is not too much of a stretch to say that in truth experienced collectors prefer a player’s first card over a player’s official rookie card, when the two cards are not one in the same.