(Editors note: This article first appeared in Tuff Stuff Magazine circa 2007.)
By Dennis Tuttle
Rookie cards are the great barometer of sports memorabilia. When an athlete’s popularity rises or declines, the value of his rookie tells us unfailingly about his collector marketplace.
So the editors at Tuff Stuff got to thinking: Which rookie cards have been the most influential on the industry? In some cases the answers were obvious because of the player’s immediate greatness (Michael Jordan) or long, sustained value (Mickey Mantle). In other cases the player forever changed the way hobby did business (Shaquille O’Neal) or carried the hobby into a new era (Don Mattingly).
In fact, there were far more surprises of who didn’t make the list – players whose rookie-card popularity (Cal Ripken) came much later in their career, or players who started extremely high, but gradually petered out (Frank Thomas).
In determining the 20 most influential rookie cards of the modern collecting era (1950 to present) Tuff Stuff looked at a combination of basic criteria: Impact of the card or player on the hobby at the time of the card issue; longevity of collector interest; increasing value; rarity; and/or historical significance of the player and the card.
Of course, these types of lists are highly subjective, especially if you are holding a box full of 1986 Topps Traded Barry Bonds cards. But never fear, Pete Rose fans, lying, cheating and gambling have done little to harm the resiliency of Charlie Hustle’s massive impact on the hobby.
In chronological order, here are Tuff Stuff’s 20 Most Influential Rookie Cards:
1951 Bowman Willie Mays – When the baby boomers were rediscovering baseball cards in the 1980s, the key rookie cards of their heroes from 1950s were their prime targets. This Mays rookie card was one the boomers wanted back in their collections.
The fact this was a short-printed card also helped fuel demand (and still does). The argument can be made that the popularity of Mays begat the popularity of his cards, which begat more product and set up the hobby as we know it today.
The weight of the Mays rookie is carried by rarity, in number of issues and condition. The card is very difficult to locate in high-grade condition and well centered.
Today’s Value: $2,500
1952 Topps Mickey Mantle – OK, this is not his true rookie card. But it’s pursued like it is his rookie card because it’s his first Topps card. For collectors who have tried to build a run of Topps sets over the years and/or a collection of Mantle’s Topps cards, this is the starting point.
The 1952 Topps set is most desired, collected and valuable card set in history. Mantle’s card is not all that easy to find, especially in top condition. A graded 5 is acceptable but if you can get to a graded 8, auction prices have soared to the $60,000 level.
Today’s Value: $22,000 and up
1954 Topps Hank Aaron – Led by Aaron, Al Kaline and Ernie Banks rookies, many sports memorabilia historians consider this set as the blueprint for what a sports card should be. The rookie card of the man who has spent more than 30 years as baseball’s all-time HR king has been a hobby favorite for many years – although not as popular as Mantle’s cards have been. Still, he’s a favorite among collectors in great part because of his steady participation in the hobby. As Aaron has grown in legend and collector status, so has this great, great rookie card.
Today’s Value: $1,900
1963 Topps Pete Rose – Rose’s assault on Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record coincided nicely with the birth of the rookie card craze, so this card was an easy target for collectors in the 1980s. It was also one of the first major cards to be counterfeited in the hobby. But this card was so hot at one time that dealers were still able to sell the fake versions – with the word “counterfeit” stamped on the back – for as much as $20.
Today’s Value: $900
1965 Topps Joe Namath – Football cards weren’t considered on the same investment scale as baseball cards during the hobby’s boom period. But one rookie card that always was in demand was Namath’s first Topps card. This oversized, condition-sensitive card remains the most popular post-WWII football card issued. High grading of this card is almost impossible. A PSA 9 sold in 2001 for $20,000.
Today’s Value: $1,800
1968 Topps Nolan Ryan – The Ryan rookie, shared with Jerry Koosman, became a late legend, like the pitcher. As Ryan kept pitching into his 40s his rookies soared above $1,200. This was the hottest card of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Once the market was flooded by eager sellers, the price plummeted.
Today’s Value: $600
1969-70 Topps Lew Alcindor – When Michael Jordan made collectors take notice of modern basketball cards in 1986, it also brought some long-overdue attention to the rookie card of the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. This oversized set wasn’t a big seller initially, but that changed nearly 20 years later. The design lends itself to rough edges and poor centering but this is one of the great basketball card sets, anchored by the “Big A,” and remains very collectible.
Today’s Value: $575
1979-80 OPC Wayne Gretzky – This was really the first “must-have” hockey rookie card. The demand for scarcity among speculators also fueled demand for the O-Pee-Chee version of this card as opposed to the more-common Topps cards. It carries an amazing value for a modern card that isn’t rare, but high grades are almost impossible and forgeries are common.
Today’s Value: $900
1980-’81 Topps Larry Bird/Magic Johnson Panel (with Julius Erving) – This set, featuring perforated cards with images of three players, was extremely unpopular for about five years. Then rookie card speculators figured out Bird, Magic and Dr. J were all on one card. Suddenly, this card was worth buying and remains a favorite “vintage” basketball issue.
Today’s Value: $350
1984 Donruss Don Mattingly – Cited by many as the card that triggered the modern-day rookie card craze. Donruss’ 1984 set was, for a time, hard to find due to distribution issues. That created a frenzy for the hardest-to-find first card of the next big Yankee star. Suddenly, people started viewing rookie cards as having the ability to drive product sales. “I know it’s not the player so much as it is the timing of the player,” Mattingly told Tuff Stuff in 2001. “But it’s still neat to be a part of that history.”
Today’s Value: $25
1984 Fleer Update Roger Clemens – Most traditional collectors hated the late-season “Update” or “Traded” boxed sets. Most price guides declared rookie cards from these sets weren’t true rookie cards, but rather “first cards.” But the popularity of rookies from these sets, which began in earnest with the Clemens and Kirby Puckett cards from this set, eventually changed the minds of collectors and the definitions of the price guides.
Today’s Value: $250
1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan – Imagine people yawning over a Jordan rookie card? It happened for the first couple of years this set was on the market. Sales of this set were stagnant until about 1989. Then collectors started to take basketball cards seriously and within a very short time this became the most desired basketball rookie card on the market – and it hasn’t lost that designation nearly 20 years later.
Today’s Value: $675
1986 Donruss Jose Canseco – Jose Canseco was a prime target of speculators when this card first hit the market with a $5 price tag. It became even hotter after his 1986 Rookie of the Year award and after he became the first to hit 40 HRs and steal 40 bases in a season two years later, Canseco was viewed as a sure bet for a Hall of Fame career and this card was the hottest thing on the market. The second half of the 1980s were a rookie card haven, and Canseco was the leader of that fol lowing.
Today’s Value: $2
1989 Score Barry Sanders – The football card market went from one card maker (Topps) to three (Score and Pro Set) in 1989, and while it was by no means scarce, the Score product was produced in the lowest quantities. It also featured perhaps the best crop of rookie cards history, with Sanders as well as Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson and Thurman Thomas. This card remains the most valuable from a set that changed football card history.
Today’s Value: $40 and up
1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. – Card No. 1 in the debut issue from the hobby’s most influential card manufacturer of the past 20 years belonged to a young prospect who seemed destined for greatness. While Upper Deck’s first set doesn’t fit today’s definition of a super-premium product, it was the highest quality product the hobby had seen to date, and this card was one of the reasons it was always the most valuable of the 1989 releases. During the height of his popularity in the mid-’90s, the card climbed to $125 in value – considered eye-popping at the time.
Today’s Value: $40 and up
1990-91 OPC Premier Jaromir Jagr –
Hockey cards were viewed as a poor man’s option for rookie card collecting until this set arrived. It was thought to be scarcer than the other half-dozen or so products on the market, and was fueled by a number of hot rookie cards, among them the dynamic Jagr. Within a few months of its release, this was a $30 card, and forever forced rookie-card diehards to pay attention to which hockey sets contained which prospects.
Today’s Value: $15
1992 Classic Draft Picks Shaquille O’Neal – This card not only lifted the basketball card market to new heights, it changed the league’s licensing agreements with its players. When Shaq signed a card and memorabilia exclusive with Score Board, it meant Topps, Fleer, SkyBox and Upper Deck were shut out of making a card of the NBA’s hottest rookie until Jan. 1 of his rookie season. That meant Score Board – which did not have an NBA card license – had the only Shaq cards on the market. After that, the NBA mandated that all players who signed a contract to play for an NBA team automatically became part of its group licensing deal, thus guaranteeing hot NBA rookies were helping to sell NBA-licensed products.
Today’s Value: $5 and up
1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter – This was the hobby’s first key rookie card to come from a super-premium product. As more and more products began to arrive on the card market each year, collectors of rookie cards began to gravitate toward the scarcest of the dozens of sets on the market.
Today’s Value: $75 and up
2001 Bowman Chrome Albert Pujols – The biggest buyer frenzy for a baseball rookie since Frank Thomas in the early 1990s. Gave further credence to the power of short-printing rookie cards of players who became elite stars. Limited to just 500 and signed, the hot pursuit for the rare graded 10 guarantees a value exceeding $12,000.
Today’s Value: $2,800 and climbing
2003-’04 UD Exquisite LeBron James – Never has an “active” athlete had a rookie card reach five figures, but then again James isn’t just another athlete. Exquisite was proof that collectors will pay just about any pack price (this debuted at $500 per pack) if there’s a chance for rare cards and elite rookies. The card is limited to 99, embellished by a uniform patch and autograph, and continues raising the bar on modern rookie card values. There’s also a parallel version numbered to just 23, one of which sold at auction for $17,500 in 2006
Today’s Value: $13,000 and climbing
Don’t agree with our picks? Give us your top 20 most influential rookie cards by making a post at www.tuffstuff.com under the “Sports Talk” Forum.
Regular contributor Dennis Tuttle has been slugging out stories for Tuff Stuff since 1993.