Somewhere during the evolution of the baseball card, collectors determined that the first card of a great player had more demand and enhanced value. So, the “rookie card” became the standard for the hobby and remains that way today. Fans will chase these cards and in today’s marketplace, with scouting and resources going down to the High School level, everyone is looking for the first card of the next superstar. A case in point is Bryce Harper, the phenom who was the #1 pick in the amateur draft of June 2010 by the Washington Nationals. In addition to his record contract, he also had a deal in place with Topps and baseball cards with his image were available for sale before he ever had a professional at-bat.
Looking back, you will see that the “rookie cards” in a particular issue have great significance on the value and staying power of those sets. The Goudey company made cards in the 1930’s and the 1936 issue includes the RC of Joe DiMaggio. The Play Ball company made baseball cards in the three years prior to World War II and even though over 75 years have passed, their 1939 set is still cherished because it included the rookie card of Ted Williams. The Yankee Clipper and the Splendid Splinter…aka Joltin’ Joe & Teddy Ballgame.
The 1952 Topps set includes the “holy grail” of modern baseball cards…#311, Mickey Mantle. Even though it is the most iconic card of the era, Mantle’s first Topps card is technically not his rookie card, as there was a Mantle card issued in the 1951 Bowman set. However, the history of that initial Topps offering makes the ’52 Topps Mantle worth 3-4 times more than the ’51 Bowman. Another Hall of Famer had his rookie card in the ’52 issue…Braves 3B Eddie Mathews. The Mathews card is very rare in good condition because it was the last card in the set (#407). Why should that matter? Because kids of that era didn’t have protective pages, sleeves and albums for their cards, so they would hold them together with a rubber band…and the Mathews card always took the abuse of being the bottom card. That is also why the #1 card, of an obscure player named Andy Pafko, is also very difficult to find in good condition.
The 1954 Topps set was another historical landmark, as it included the rookie cards of four Hall of Famer members…Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline and Tommy Lasorda. The 1955 Topps set didn’t disappoint collectors with the rookie cards of Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Harmon Killebrew. Other sets of the 50’s has some unique stories also…in the 1957 Topps set, you’ll find the rookie cards of both Robinsons…Frank & Brooks, who teamed up later in their careers with the Orioles. Topps offered up the rookie card of Roger Maris in their 1958 set, while the 1959 collection featured the rookie card of Bob Gibson.
The November issue of Beckett’s Baseball Price Guide chose the ten cards of the last 50 years that had the most impact on the hobby. #1 on their list is Mike Trout’s Rookie Card from 2011 Topps Update. After nine seasons of incredible performance, his accomplishments my be taken for granted but this is a generational player. Even though his RC isn’t really scarce, an ungraded one in Near Mint (NM) condition currently books for $300+.
Other RC’s in the top ten include Ken Griffey’s card from 1989 Upper Deck, the Albert Pujols autograph card from 2001 Bowman Chrome, Don Mattingly’s Donruss card from 1984 and the Derek Jeter Foil RC from 1993 SP. If you’re just getting started, the 2018 RC’s to look for are Ronald Acuna Jr. & Juan Soto…for ’19, it’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. & Pete Alonso.
Hopefully, your baseball card collection is filled with prospects, not suspects.