A Short History of the Rookie Card, 1887-2022

On December 28, 2021, Ryan Cracknell of Beckett Media tweeted this…

…and thus began the Great Rookie Card Debate. Is 2021 Bowman’s Best Wander Franco’s rookie card?

I have been collecting the Chicago Cubs for almost 30 years, and rookie card collecting has been a huge part of that. Most collectors, particularly baseball card collectors, care about rookie cards, and therefore they care about what defines a rookie card. What is a rookie card? To get to the 2022 definition of rookie card, I think it’s necessary to start at the very beginning and look at each era of collecting.

Pre-War Era 1887-1947

The longest era with the least amount of clarity is pre-war. From 1887 to 1947, card releases were sporadic, dissimilar, glorious afterthoughts. They were almost always used to sell a product. Tobacco, candy, gum. It took decades before card companies realized the cards themselves might be the product, so identifying rookie cards during this era is a challenge. If you go by Beckett, rookie cards didn’t exist at all until 1933 Goudey, but that seems unsatisfying. I understand why Beckett tries to keep it simple for pre-war collectors, because it’s a challenging era to get into. But did Babe Ruth wait until his 20th season to get a rookie card? I don’t think that’s right, but figuring out the Babe’s RC isn’t as simple as looking for his first card.

What is the traditional definition of a rookie card? It’s important to note that the idea of a rookie card hadn’t gained much traction in this era, and the term certainly wasn’t in use. But the generally accepted definition that has developed over the decades starts with this: it must come from a licensed, widely distributed set that includes major league players. The first year a player has such a card, that’s his rookie card season, and any card from a different set in the same year that meets the same guidelines is also a rookie card. This definition works well almost all the time, from 1948 to present, but with pre-war it gets tricky. Licensed? Widely distributed? Year? All these terms can be debatable. Some sets are released continuously over a number of years, with multiple issues for some players. Is a set widely distributed if the gum-maker sold their product mostly in New York and Boston? Plus we have two world wars to deal with. It becomes clear that we can’t uniformly apply the same traditional rules during this era, but with a century of hindsight, I think we can come up with a set of rules that make sense.

The nature of these sets should be the first factor. What kind of issue is it? There were many oddball “cards” during this time, released in oddball ways, but I want a true rookie card to look like a card. I excluded very large format issues like cabinets, plates, and supplements; and I also excluded multi-sport sets, postcards, card games, and hand-cut cards. I prefer them to be released with some degree of randomness. When you opened a pack of cigarettes in 1909, you didn’t know which T206 you were going to get. Also, many of the sets released had a very small checklist and were not comprehensive representations of major league baseball, therefore I have set the minimum set size to be three times the number of teams in the league, making the minimum 48 for most of the pre-war era.

Determining what year a card came out can be difficult in the pre-war era, since many sets were released over a number of years. For the sake of simplicity, sets like 1887-90 Old Judge and 1909-11 T206 are considered to have been released in the first year of their distribution.

One of the challenges of the era is extreme rarity. Some of these sets are impossible to find. One famous set, called 1904 Allegheny Card Company, has only one known extant set, not found until the 1980s and not split up for sale until 2000.  The first one-of-ones! How would you like to have the Honus Wagner out of that? Is it appropriate to label any of those cards rookie cards? This set fails the “widely distributed” test with gusto. So availability needs to be one of the criteria. I addressed this problem by looking at grading population reports from PSA and SGC, and creating two tiers of availability. Any set where the average number of graded examples per card matched or exceeded 1887 Old Judge, that set qualifies for Common RC. As of January 15, 2022, there have been 16,254 Old Judges graded between PSA and SGC, and there are about 575 different players in the set. That’s 28.3 cards per player. That’s not a lot by any means, but enough to give collectors a shot at finding one. On the other hand, 1887 Buchner Gold Coin only has 11.1 graded examples per player, so that would make it a Rare RC.

Why make this distinction at all? Why not just find the earliest card and call it the rookie card, regardless of rarity? Let’s say you’re trying to complete a PSA rookie card registry of the greatest Chicago Cubs, and you get to Cubs legendary first baseman Frank Chance. Searching for his earliest card you find something called “1903 E107 Breisch Williams”, and next to Frank’s name you see the PSA population is…one? So you check SGC to see if you can find one of those and get PSA to cross it over, but SGC’s population is…two? There are three of these in the whole world? Making that card the requirement to complete your legendary Cubs set would be excessively challenging and no fun at all. Following the Old Judge rule, you find that Frank Chance has four cards released in 1909 that meet the requirements, one of which has a population in the hundreds. Much more doable. So, Chance’s Rare RC (or “real” RC if you prefer) is 1903 E107, but his Common RCs are E90-1 American Caramel, E101 Set of 50, T204 Ramly, and the big one, T206. For many players, there won’t be a difference between the two. Their Common RC will be their “real” RC.

Here is a list of pre-war sets that meet the requirements to be a Common RC and are appropriate to use for building rookie card set registries. These are the ones I would encourage Beckett to use for their official “RC” designation, instead of just defaulting everything to 1933 Goudey.

1887-1890 N172 Old Judge1912 T2071933 World Wide Gum
1895 N300 Mayo’s Cut Plug1914 Cracker Jack1934 Goudey
1909 E90-1 American Caramel1915 Cracker Jack1934-36 Batter-Up
1909 E101 Set of 501916 M101 Sporting News1934-36 Diamond Stars
1909 T204 Ramly1921 E121 American Caramel 801938 Goudey
1909-11 T2061922 E120 American Caramel 2401939 Play Ball
1911 M116 Sporting Life1922 E121 American Caramel 1201940 Play Ball
1911 T201 Mecca Double Folders1927 E210 York Caramel1941 Double Play
1911 T2051933 Goudey1941 Play Ball
1912 T202 Hassan Triple Folders1933 Tattoo Orbit

And now a non-exhaustive selection of sets that meet the requirements but are much rarer than the sets above. If you want a challenge, look for your favorite player’s Rare RC here. In some cases, the rarer card might not be the most valuable. 1925 Exhibits might be Lou Gehrig’s “real” rookie card and very rare, but the 33 Goudeys generally bring a higher price because of the huge demand.

1887 N284 Buchner Gold Coin1922 Neilson’s Chocolate1928 Tharp’s Ice Cream
1903 E1071923 Willard Chocolate1928 Yuengling’s Ice Cream
1910 E105 Mello Mint1923-24 Exhibits1929-30 Exhibits 4-on-1
1917 Boston Store1925 Exhibits1931-32 Exhibits 4-on-1
1917 E135 Collins-McCarthy1926 Exhibits1933 Rittenhouse Candy
1921 E220 National Caramel1927 E126 American Caramel 601933 Worch Cigar
1921 Exhibits1927 Exhibits1934 World Wide Gum
1922 E122 American Caramel 801928 Exhibits1936 World Wide Gum
1922 Exhibits1928 Harrington’s Ice Cream1947 Tip Top Bread

You might be thinking some popular sets are missing from these lists, like 1909 Philadelphia Caramel and 1933 DeLong. That’s because they don’t meet my minimum set size requirement. Also 1887 Allen & Ginter and 1888 Goodwin Champions are not here because they’re multi-sport sets, not focused on baseball. They are all iconic sets though and these requirements of mine are admittedly arbitrary, so if you want to call those rookie cards be my guest! I love those sets and I have at least one card from each of them.

Post-War Era 1948-1980

Move along, nothing to see here. Our soldiers came home from war and started cranking out big beautiful baseball card sets every year and didn’t stop. The primary bit of controversy takes place at the very beginning with the Leaf set. Some sources call it 1948 Leaf, some call it 1949 Leaf. Beckett has settled on 1949 (even though PSA still calls it 1948) which means if a player was in 1948 Bowman, his 1949 Leaf card is not a RC. Other than that, it’s smooth sailing for more than 30 years. There were all sorts of small, regional sets released during this time, but nothing that would challenge Topps’ authority. In 1965, O-Pee-Chee started producing baseball sets that mostly mirrored the Topps sets, essentially becoming Canadian Topps. Other than that, Topps managed to create a monopoly on baseball cards, which is not great for diversity and innovation, but it makes identifying rookie cards very simple.

This is the era where the idea of a rookie card begins to solidify in the minds of collectors, although the term itself and its ubiquitous place in our minds and conversations wouldn’t really take hold until the 1970s. The definition of a rookie card in this era is as simple as can be. The first year a player appeared in one of these sets, regardless of the year he debuted in MLB, that’s his rookie card year. In 1959, Topps began creating subset cards, like league leader cards, award winner cards, and all-star cards. Generally speaking, a player is not going to have one of these cards the same year he has a rookie card, but if he did, the regular card would be considered the rookie card, not the subset card.

The sets where you can find official rookie cards:

1948-1955 Bowman1949 Leaf1965-1980 O-Pee-Chee
1951-1980 Topps1975 Topps Mini1959-1968 Topps Venezuelan

XRC Era 1981-1988

Things started to change in 1981 when Topps lost their monopoly on the hobby and two new players were introduced: Donruss and Fleer, and later a third in Score. Now with some competition, both Topps and the new companies looked for ways to distinguish themselves. One result of that was the introduction of Traded and Update sets. Small factory sets released late in the year to showcase players who were traded, and rookies who were called up. These sets were not released in the traditional manner, randomly inserted into packs; they arrived as complete factory sets in little boxes.

Another major development during this time was the founding of Beckett Publications in 1984. Dr. James Beckett had been publishing card price guides since the 1970s and had become a respected voice in the collecting world. The launch of the monthly Beckett magazine was a milestone because it created an authority that collectors could turn to, and it proliferated the use of Rookie Card as a common hobby term.

Collectors were divided on what to do with traded and update cards, so Beckett created the designation XRC (extended rookie card) to account for their uniqueness. Questions begin to arise. What is Roger Clemens’s true rookie card? Is it his 1984 Fleer Update XRC? Or one of his 1985 Topps/Donruss/Fleer?

As these kinds of sets became more common and accepted, the controversy wore off, and after 1988 the XRC tag was mostly retired. Now collectors generally consider both RCs and XRCs from the 80s to be true rookie cards, and the XRC tag remains as more of a historical marker than a useful hobby designation.

Sets where you will find the XRC tag:

1981-1988 Topps Traded1984-1988 Fleer Update1986-1988 Donruss The Rookies
1988 Score Rookie/Traded  

Sets with the RC tag:

1981-1988 Donruss1981-1988 O-Pee-Chee1985-1988 Leaf/Donruss
1981-1988 Fleer1981-1988 Topps1988 Score

Prospect Era 1989-2005

Two major developments hit in 1989: the first Upper Deck set, and the reintroduction of Bowman (now owned by Topps). Innovation increased exponentially. This era is marked by rookie cards appearing for players earlier and earlier, such that players might have a rookie card three or four years before they played in the majors, or get a rookie card and never play in the majors at all. Derek Jeter’s rookie cards are all in 1993 sets, but he didn’t reach the majors until 1995, and his official rookie season was 1996. During the 90s, the practice of “prospecting” really took off. Collectors wanted to get their hands on rookie cards very early and in large quantities, always looking for that hot new prospect. The era is also marked by an explosion of sets. Upper Deck and Bowman didn’t just arrive, they arrived with friends. In 1988, Barry Bonds had 6 base cards (including Leaf and O-Pee-Chee). By 1998 he had over 40. And with all those new sets came new opportunities to create rookie cards. I won’t even try and list every set that produced rookie cards during this era, but the same rules that worked in the 80s and work today will work here as well: if it’s a base card in a licensed, widely distributed MLB set, then it can be a rookie card.

Logo Era 2006-present

If pre-war is the most confusing era, then this era is a close second. In 2006, MLBPA announced that only Topps and Upper Deck would be given licenses to produce cards of MLB players. The market was flooded with sets, and interest was at an all-time low; this was an attempt to reengage young collectors by cleaning things up a bit. Part of the new agreement was how rookie cards would be handled. Instead of releasing a player’s first MLB card as soon as he was drafted, they would wait until the player actually debuted in the big leagues. However, they wanted to keep making cards of these prospects before they made the bigs, and people wanted to buy them, so they came up with some rules that would allow this. Both MLBPA and the card companies knew that a player has an official rookie card as soon as he appears in an MLB base set, so they would limit a player’s cards to prospect-only sets and insert sets until they were ready to have a true RC. This created a dual-debut cycle for baseball players. They would have a 1st Bowman card after being drafted, and then a Rookie Card when they were called up, which featured an official RC logo telling everyone it was a Rookie Card. This loophole hinges on the idea that a true rookie card must be in a licensed, widely distributed MLB base set. Otherwise, those 1st Bowmans would just be Rookie Cards.

Initially, this new world was met with some predictable pushback. Long-time collectors were uncomfortable with the idea that Topps was going to tell them what was a rookie card and what was not, but after a few years the new way of doing things settled in and the logo was generally accepted. In many ways the new system made a lot of sense, specifically for baseball. Unlike football and basketball, baseball players, even the biggest stars, very rarely went straight to the major leagues. So two debut cards—1st Bowman for entering professional baseball and Rookie Card for entering MLB—matched the real life cycle of a professional baseball player.

However, the logo era (coupled with an era of younger collectors that relied on the authority of Beckett less and less) created a lot of confusion about the rookie card definition. As the logo became an accepted part of the baseball collecting universe, the logo itself came to be understood as the marker of a true rookie card. And Topps put the logo on every card released during a player’s rookie season, not just base cards. Some collectors, especially younger ones, now consider inserts and parallel cards to be true rookie cards, as long as it has that logo on it. Such that a player in 2021 might have hundreds or thousands of different rookie cards. This is concerning for a couple reasons:

  1. It detaches the current collecting era from the long history of collecting. The current collecting environment is ultra-hungry for more and more product, so it’s good (debatable, perhaps) that there are lots of insert cards and parallel cards to be collected. But one thing that can retain that connection to years past would be our definition of what makes a true rookie card, even amid this print run avalanche. Baseball card collecting is built on history, like it or not, and the rookie card definition creates a line of tradition that connects eras, all the way back to the start of the post-war era in 1948.
  2. A long-standing collecting method is completing a rookie card set of a player. In 1982, Cal Ripken’s RC set was 3 cards. In 1989, Ken Griffey Jr.’s set was 6 cards. In 2001, Ichiro’s set was 49 cards. In 2020, Luis Robert’s set was hundreds of cards, according to the notion that every card with a RC logo on it is a rookie card. Many of those are 1/1’s. Good look completing that set! Ichiro’s total was elevated because of real changes in how many base sets were produced that year. Robert’s total is elevated because of an erroneous definition of rookie card, making the idea of completing his RC set impossible and meaningless. In reality, there are “only” 62 true rookie cards of Luis Robert.

In addition to the introduction of the RC logo, this era is colored by some interesting innovations. One is the proliferation of the certified autographed card. These cards are usually not rookie cards, but there are a few sets released where the cards in the base set are autographed, like Topps Dynasty and Panini National Treasures, so autographed true rookie cards do exist.

Online-only sales have also increased dramatically in the modern era, which creates a question regarding the “widely distributed” rookie card criterion. Can a card qualify as a rookie card if it was sold online-only, or does it have to be available in retail or hobby stores? In general, as long as a set is presented in the traditional way (either in randomly assorted packs or as a factory set) then it can have rookie cards, even if it is only available online. An example of an online-only card that does not qualify is the on-demand card, which exploded on the scene in 2016 with Topps Now. These kinds of cards are available on-demand, which means collectors can order as many as they want during a limited time. They are not randomly assorted or in a factory set; you can buy whichever card you want. This difference has put these cards in the non-rookie card category.

Short print cards have also exploded in the last few years. There have been short printed cards for as long as cards have existed, but Topps has made it into an art form. Are they rookie cards? The key to answering this is the base set checklist. Do you need this card to complete the base set? Then it can be a rookie card. This means that short print variation cards generally will not be rookie cards. Here are some examples, from my personal collection:

The 2012 Bryce Harper is a rookie card because it is numbered as part of the regular base set, even though it’s a short print. It is the one and only #661 in the set. But the 2018 Ronald Acuña Jr. is not a rookie card because the regular #698 in the set is Ryan Sherriff. The Acuña is a variation of that card, and more like an insert or parallel than a base card. You don’t need the Acuña to finish the base set. This does not prevent it from being a massively desirable card! Some desirable cards are not rookie cards, and some rookie cards are not desirable. The definition of a rookie card has nothing to do with how valuable or iconic a card is. The collectors determine that. Why do I have that Acuña in my collection if it’s not really a rookie card? Because it’s a great card, one of the most iconic baseball cards of this century, and a serious modern baseball card collection isn’t complete without it. But do you know what is complete without it? Acuña’s rookie card set.

2021 Bowman’s Best

This long and colorful history of baseball cards and rookie cards leads us to this bizarre moment. Bowman’s Best has long been a small, often-ignored, end-of-the-year set. Very bright and modern, lots of colorful parallels, some interesting on-card autos, but not exactly the set that everyone waits on every year. An afterthought. The 2021 set was destined to be the same except for an incredible choice that was made regarding the checklist. In 2020 and years past, Bowman’s Best was organized as a 70-card base set of MLB players, and a 30-card insert set of prospects. 1-70 and TP1-TP30. This is the loophole to the RC rules that allows Topps to create prospect cards without them becoming rookie cards. In 2021, they mixed the two sets of cards into one big base set, 1-100. For some reason, after 15 years of carefully following the rules that they and MLBPA had crafted regarding the makeup of their sets, Topps chose this set at the end of 2021 to completely screw things up. The 30 prospect cards do have a different design than the veteran cards, as shown below.

So it appears that, at some point during the design process, these cards were intended to be a prospect insert set. Then mysteriously they were numbered along with the regular set, and not all at the end either. They are mixed in throughout the set, with Wander Franco, the game’s #1 prospect, given card #50. We may never know how or why this happened.

Thus began a long debate about what makes a rookie card a rookie card. According to the traditional hobby rules, all 30 of these prospect cards are now rookie cards; in fact, they are the one-and-only rookie cards of these 30 players. These players each had a base card in an MLB set for the first time, so clearly they were rookie cards. The hobby rules should take precedence over the RC logo (or lack thereof), especially since the agreement between Topps and MLBPA acknowledged the existence of those rules. But (incredibly, to me) this was the minority opinion! Most people believed that they were not rookie cards, because they did not have the RC logo on the card. I had been mistakenly certain that all these men and women I was collecting alongside were in agreement about rookie cards. But for years, the RC logo had been slowly eroding the old magic to the point where those of us who still believed it were looked upon as foolish old men (I’m 44!), clinging to an outdated system. So many of my fellow collectors were certain that 2022 Topps Series 1 would be Wander Franco’s first rookie card, and no number of appeals to tradition or logic would convince them otherwise. However, 2021 Bowman’s Best really is Wander Franco’s rookie card (and Bobby Witt’s and Spencer Torkelson’s and Henry Davis’s), not because I want it to be or I’m financially invested in it. Just because it is. But the whims of collectors and the forces of the market will determine what is most valuable and most popular and most iconic.

The debate has often been positive and edifying. New friendships were created, alliances were built, and the hobby in some ways grew stronger. The debate has also often been frustrating and vitriolic. But all in all it has been good to engage with each other about these ridiculous things that we, for some reason, care deeply about. I care about 2021 Bowman’s Best because I care about T206 and 33 Goudey and 52 Topps and all the other iconic sets we love. And ultimately because I care about baseball. Today’s debate is about how we connect one end of the string to the other, and how the beautiful sets of today grew from somewhere. 2022 owes something to 1887 and 1948 and 1989.

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