What is a Rookie Card? A Different Take…

When I decided to create a website dedicated to rookie cards, I knew I’d have to wade into the argument of what constitutes a rookie card. I didn’t look forward to this because the truth is my goal isn’t really to be an authority on rookie cards. The concept for this site was to take a deep dive into the early cards of great athletes across all sports to bring awareness of what exists to collectors. There are some largely unknown gems in the hobby and I wanted to find them. And since I was doing it, I decided to bring you along on my journey. Let me elaborate on this a bit.

The Card that Rocked My World

Dave Concepcion is my all-time favorite player and I spent my early years trying to collect all of his cards. With my trusty CCP price guide in hand, I made my checklist and made regular trips to the local card shop until I had them all. Or so I thought. The collecting universe was small in Clinton Tennessee in the mid-1980s and I had no idea how much stuff was out there. How could I?

Time passed and the industry changed again and again. One of the biggest disrupters to the card collecting hobby was the emergence of eBay. It turned my tiny collecting universe in small-town Tennessee into a global universe seemingly overnight. I wasn’t an early adopter of eBay, so by the time I checked it out a large segment of the collecting industry was already using it. I remember the first time I searched “Dave Concepcion” and saw this:

1970 Ovanca Dave Concepcion #4 - Front
1970 Ovanca Dave Concepcion #4 – Front

This card was unlike anything I had ever seen. It wasn’t in my CCP or Beckett, it was older than Dave Concepcion’s rookie card – and infinitely more interesting. Later I found out that there’s another Concepcion card 3 years older than this one! The CCP price guide, and later Beckett, told a story from an industry giant point-of-view, but for me, there’s a deeper and richer story to tell.

Twenty years later I finally decided to do just that, one player at a time. I’m finding that it’s much more complex and interesting than I expected when I started this project. And I’m finding that it’s not so easy to determine what is a rookie card… at least for a person like me who likes to challenge conventional wisdom.

Rookie Card Conventional Wisdom

So let’s start with the conventional wisdom. There are a number of people and entities who have defined what constitutes a rookie card. I’m grabbing from a number of places, but the rules generally include some or all of the criterion below:

  • The card must come from a fully licensed product.
  • It must come from a set released on a national level.
  • It must come from a pack.
  • The card must be counted as part of a product’s base set.
  • It must feature an athlete participating in the highest level of competition within their sport.
  • The first card featuring the player in the standard sequentially numbered set gets the designation of RC.

My Issues with Rookie Card Conventional Wisdom

I understand why people have tried to create a set of guidelines, but it seeks to simplify something that just isn’t simple. And in a lot of cases these rules create some designations that defy logic. I actually reject EVERY ONE of these rules. Let’s quickly go through them and I’ll give my brief rebuttal.

The card must come from a fully licensed product

We know that in the 1970s Topps had to airbrush team logos out. Is the 1976 Topps Walter Payton because it didn’t have full licensing? What licensing counts – the league’s player association or the league itself? Also, we have issues like the 1975 SSPC set that wasn’t licensed, but is significant to the hobby’s history. I’m not going to ignore the 1975 SSPC Willie Randolph rookie because a legal agreement wasn’t in place. Like it or not this set became significant without licensing, and while most unlicensed sets don’t, we can’t just ignore them when this happens.

The card must available on a national release level

This might have made sense at one time. In 1986 it wasn’t fair to collectors in Tennessee when McDonald’s was handing out Jerry Rice rookies in California. I’m not sure if “fair” really even plays in to it, but the circulation of the cards would have been mostly in and around San Francisco in 1986. We live in a different world where geography isn’t the barrier it once was. Not only does the internet solve this issue for new releases, but for old ones, too.

The card must be available in packs

I have no idea why people think a pack is better than a box for delving a rookie card. When I’ve probed into why a 1983 Topps Traded Darryl Strawberry shouldn’t be considered a rookie I typically get to some form of one of these two arguments: “because some entity said so” or “kids must have a chance to ‘pull’ them.” Simply put, I’m never going to accept the argument that some authority defined something without digging into the logic behind it. As for kids, this argument pretty much falls apart with the mention of “tobacco cards.”

The card must be counted as part of a product’s base set

I’ll address this one with a few examples. So I can open up a pack of cards and get a base card and an insert card of the same player – and one is a rookie and the other is not? No, I simply reject that – it’s just an arbitrary rule someone made up and it doesn’t make sense. Also, In 1983 if I bought the Topps Traded set I shouldn’t consider the Darryl Strawberry card in it isn’t a rookie, but the one I get in a pack nearly a year later is a rookie? I would be more willing to accept this the other way around and not consider the 1984 Topps Strawberry card a rookie.

The card must feature an athlete participating in the highest level of competition within their sport

I get that there is an issue with minor league cards, but let’s look at the 1985 Topps Mark McGwire Team USA card. This card went into my common box and came back out two years later as an $8 card. I absolutely consider it a rookie card, and it’s more interesting than 99% of rookie cards I’ve ever owned. So while I don’t consider minor league cards to be rookies, there are just some exceptions to this rule.

The first card featuring the player in the standard sequentially numbered set gets the designation of RC

This one is just dumb. Had Topps put Dan Marino’s 1984 Topps “Instant Replay” card in front of his regular card would anyone not consider the regular card a rookie card?

The Authority on Rookie Cards

There is definitely disagreement about what a rookie card is? Surely there is someone who can settle this for us, right? Let me start by telling you who I don’t trust to tell us what a rookie is.

Who I Don’t Trust To Tell us What is a Rookie

Beckett and other Price Guides – I’m a fan of Beckett and have bought more than my fair share during my life. But I don’t want to cede the authority of designating rookies to Beckett. First of all, Beckett uses some of the criteria above that I’ve already disagreed with. Beckett also isn’t infallible. It played a key role in hyping up the card prices during the “wax junk” era. I understand demand was at an all-time high, but Beckett was better positioned than any of us to understand the mass amounts of cards being produced. Instead of being a grounding authority for card prices it just fed the hype and sold a lot of magazines.

The Card Manufacturers – Now that the card manufacturers have taken to printing the “RC” designation on rookie cards they can be trusted to tell us what a rookie is, right? Let me show you a few examples of why I don’t trust the card companies with this.

Danny Tartabull's Multiple Rated Rookie Cards
Danny Tartabull’s Multiple Donruss Rated Rookie Cards
Danny Tartabull's Multiple Rated Rookie Cards
Dale Murphy’s Multiple Topps Rookie Catchers Cards

The card companies already have a history of putting the word rookie on cards that are not considered rookie cards. The reality is they are for-profit businesses and will probably do whatever makes financial sense with little regard for a guiding philosophy on rookie card designations. Even if they have and adhere to a philosophy, who’s to say it’s a sound one?

Why Do I Have the Authority To Decide What is a Rookie Card?

So I don’t trust Beckett and I don’t trust the card companies. You might be wondering why I’m qualified to designate rookie cards. I can give you a very simple answer to that. I’m not. No more than anyone else is, anyway.

I do have a history in the sports card hobby. I’ll tell you about it in more detail in another post, but the quick version is that I’m a life-long collector, I have worked for two card shops, I used to work for the company that produced Sports Collectors Digest and Tuff Stuff magazine. Several years ago helped design and develop both of those websites. Outside of those qualifications I own and write for this blog – and that’s it.

Everything here is just my opinion. I can tell you what I think and why I think it in a mostly consistent manner. I’m sure I will contradict myself at times because it’s a tricky subject with a lot of gray areas.

It’s Subjective. No, Really.

So who decides what a rookie is? It’s not Beckett, it’s not Topps, and it’s certainly not me. It’s subjective and opinions vary widely. Even when a card is “universally” considered a rookie card like the 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky #396, it’s not because it meets one set of rules or is an objective truth. It’s because it checks the boxes for pretty much everyone. It’s just a subjective opinion that has wide agreement across the hobby.

My Rookie Card Philosophy

A little further down I’ll go into the basic rules I follow, but let me give you a brief overview of my philosophy for designating rookie cards.

I take a very liberal view and think the hobby is more fun with unique and oddball cards being designated as rookie cards. I reject most rules that try to preserve the title of “rookie” for the industry’s big companies. McDonald’s or a regional dairy farm can make a rookie card just the same as Topps and Bowman can. We’re just talking about a photo printed on cardboard very early career in a player’s career.

I do give the major release sets some reverence. For example, I’m not denying the 1973 Topps Rooke Third Basemen #615 a designation of Mike Schmidt’s rookie card because the Phillies put out a team-issued postcard that predates it. If the larger hobby recognizes something as a rookie I probably do too, but I also make room in my definition for oddballs, stickers, postcards, and other items some collectors don’t recognize.

In the end, my site is more about uncovering hidden treasures than it is about being an authority source. I’ll tell you what is out there and you can decide for yourself. If you don’t like how I classify something, leave me a comment. The discussion is part of the fun.

Rookie Card Classifications I Hate

There are a few designations that some collectors use that I don’t like, so I don’t use them. I’ll give you a quick list of some common terms you might be familiar with that you wont find on my site.

XRC or Extended Rookie

This is a term that is used to describe cards that are from traded or extended sets. The idea is that if it didn’t come out of a pack it’s not a real rookie. The problem I have with this is some of my favorite rookies of all time came from traded or extended sets – and each one of them is the player’s first professional card from a major-release set. I don’t like nitpicking them because of how they were circulated. Baseball cards have been circulated in 100s of different ways, and while I love opening packs, I’m not going to buy into the notion that it’s a more legitimate way to circulate cards than any other way.

I bought almost all the rookies in my collection from other collectors or card shops anyway, as did most collectors, so I don’t see what it matters whether it originated in a pack vs an extended set. I’m willing to count the 1985 Fleer Dwight Gooden as a rookie, sure, but not at the expense of considering his 1984 Fleer Traded card a rookie. I might mention XRC at times, but its not a designation I like or use personally.

Note: As for counting cards like the 1985 Dwight Gooden as a rookie. I’m not a fan of this and think his update/traded cards have a much better claim. However, I’m willing to consider his 1985 base cards to be rookies to stay better aligned with the hobby on that point.

Rookie-Year Card

This is a term people use when referring to a card that is the same year as some rookies, but for one reason or another they are not considering it a rookie. There are probably rare occasions where I do refer to a card this way, but most of the time someone uses this term they are excluding something that I will count as a rookie such as an insert, subset, or oddball card.

The General Rules I Follow

I use a two step process of determining is something is a rookie and then putting it into a category. Not everything fits neatly, so I exercise judgement and do the best I can. These are the rules I use to determine if something is a rookie.

Determining If It’s a Rookie

Step 1: Establish the Rookie Year

  • I first determine what year the first major-release rookie card was produced.
    • If I’m recognizing a traded card and the next year’s base card both as rookies I use the year the base card was issued.
      • Any major or minor release after the established rookie year is not a rookie
      • Any major or minor release that is the same or before the established rookie years is a rookie unless the same entity issued an earlier card
        • Example:
          • 1986-87 Fleer Hakeem Olajuwon #82 is the first major-release rookie. 1986 is the established rookie year.
          • 1984-85 Star Hakeem Olajuwon #237 IS a rookie because it predates the established rookie year
          • 1985-86 Star Hakeem Olajuwon #18 IS NOT a rookie even though it predates the established rookie year because Star issued an earlier Olajuwon card.

Classifications or Types of Rookie Cards

Here’s a quick rundown of the categories of rookie cards I use. Keep in mind, I consider all of these categories to be valid rookies except pre-rookies, which I view as something a little different. The other classifications are simply to add context to the card.

Pre-Rookie

I consider any card to be a pre-rookie if it’s issued before the year of their most widely recognized rookie card(s) and features them on a minor league, college, or foreign team.

Rookie

I typically save this designation for the first regular cards from major-release sets. By “regular” I mean not from a subset within the base set. It’s not always easy to define what qualifies as a major release. This gets particularly tricky for sports that don’t really have a major release, so I just make a judgment call.

Subset Rookie

This designation is for rookie cards that are within a subset of a major-release base set. Examples of this would be Dan Marino’s 1984 Topps “Instant Replay” card. If a player’s only card in the set is a subset card, such as Cal Ripken’s 1982 Topps Orioles Future Stars #21, I’ll typically just designate it as a rookie. I’ve changed my mind on this a few times, so you might see some inconsistencies in my older posts.

Insert Rookie

An insert rookie is a card (or sticker) of a rookie player that is inserted into packs, but not numbered as part of the base set.

Oddball Rookie

An oddball rookie is a card or otherwise of a player that is not from a major-release set. I include regular-sized minor release cards in this category, but also odd-sized cards, stickers, postcards, and pretty much anything else.

Cameo Rookie

A cameo rookie is a rare situation when a rookie player pops up on another player’s card. These are rare and don’t tend to do a lot for the value of the card, but they are a cool oddity that I love to point out when I find them. I’m happy to claim credit for making up this category and term. See the example below:

1983 Topps Reggie Smith #282 (Ryne Sandberg Cameo Rookie)
1983 Topps Reggie Smith #282 (Ryne Sandberg Cameo Rookie)

Gray Areas and Contradictions

It’s worth noting that the rookie designation is not the main driver of value. That is and always will be supply and demand. The rookie designation can play a role in driving demand, but there are a lot of worthless rookies of great players – so it’s clearly not the main factor.

Conclusion

So there you have it. This is my take on one of the oldest and most controversial topics in the trading card collecting hobby. Leave me a comment and let me know where you agree and disagree.

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