The 10 Commandments of the Rookie Card
Collectors today have options. There is something for every type of sports card collector. But the one thing most, if not all, sports card collectors have in common is the rookie card. We can collectively appreciate and recognize the value found in them. However, it’s been a bumpy road.
In Part 1 of this series, Understanding the Complexities of the Rookie Card I presented a timeline of complex issues surrounding the rookie card. It appears since the 1980’s each decade has had its own set of challenges. But nothing has proven to be more resilient than the beloved RC.
I left off in 2005. If you recall the MLBPA stepped in to assist the industry in giving clarity of licensing and defining the use of the MLB RC logo. The guidelines were given by Evan Kaplan, Director of Licensing and Business Development for the MLB Players Association basically said, “A player’s rookie card should only be produced in the season in which he reaches the Major Leagues for the first time.” From that, an official definition of the rookie card has evolved into hobby publications, dictionaries, and even Wikipedia. It states…
“A rookie card is a trading card that is the first to feature an athlete after that athlete has participated in the highest level of competition within his or her sport.”
Another expectation given to the industry was in the use of the MLB RC logo. Cards branded with this logo had to meet the requirement mentioned above and it had to be licensed by both the MLB and MLBPA. Today, it seems card manufacturers look for loop-holes instead of looking to comply with the simplest request made. Again, that is an assumption and I hope I’m wrong.
Take note that these issues don’t apply to basketball, football nor hockey. The issue always lies with baseball because when drafted, players typically end up in the minor leagues. So the expectations placed on card manufacturers fit nicely and flowed smoothly with the other sports. But there are still certain boundaries that needed to be defined. A common ground that the majority of collectors can agree with.
I bring emphasis to the former because let’s get real for a minute, you’re never going to get consensus. Not everyone will agree with setting guidelines, heck I don’t agree with some but I still respect the fact that guidelines and boundaries are important to have in all facets of life. I lived the era of the broken rookie card and knew it had to be fixed. Call it a time of solidarity but what happened next needed to happen. Card manufacturers, card dealers, and collectors voiced their opinions. “The hobby” at the time defined and solidified certain characteristics of the RC. I’m a guy so I’ve created a list in the form of commandments to bring about the simplicity of understanding.
The 10 Commandments of the Rookie Card
- A rookie card must be licensed by the League. And must be licensed by the Players Association which indicates that the player is a member of the organization and manufacturers can now legally print cards of that player. Both licenses are needed.
- A rookie card can only be released after a player has made a pro-level roster.
- A rookie card must be branded with some type of identifier on the card front that states it is indeed a rookie card. However, just because it’s branded with this identifier doesn’t make it necessarily true, it must also meet the rest of the criteria for a true RC designation.
- A rookie card must appear in the base set. If a player has more than one card in the base set the first appearance of that player shall be considered the RC.
- The product must be apportioned in pack form and distributed nationally when released. Regional sets may be desired by some collectors but the industry doesn’t include those because of the limited distribution. The principle here is, all collectors should have a fair and equal chance at owning said cards.
- On-demand products that are printed to order are not to be considered RC. Again, the principle here is the fair and equal distribution to all collectors. It can not be assumed that all collectors have access to technology to acquire such items.
- Cards from licensed or unlicensed manufacturers depicting players in minor league uniforms shall not be considered an RC. (please refer to the official definition above). Neither are cards sponsored by a product such as Post, Coca Cola, Hostess, etc.
- A player “rookie card” that is part of an Update or Traded set and was distributed in pack form nationally must not have any other cards issued within that same product line.
- A rookie card must not be an insert nor a redemption card. Rookie themed inserts that were released within the rookie year and/or are rookie related are acceptable as such but should not be viewed as true RCs. To reiterate, a rookie card must appear within the base set of a product line.
- A rookie card must not be a parallel card. Instead, it must be identified as a “rookie parallel” so that it not be confused as a true RC. This manufactured scarcity falls more in line with an insert due to its pack odds.
Sports Card forums, hobby publications, books, and blogs. All my research shows these as the main issues with the rookie card. Opinions of collectors were also taken into consideration and what I have found is that the majority of collectors (emphasis mine) agree with all or most of what’s been defined here as an RC.
Today some issues still exist with the RC. For starters, certain card manufacturers are still not following the guidelines set by the hobby back in 2006. They did at first but very subtly, over time, started to veer away from it. They are following the rules set by the MLB probably for legality reasons, but when it comes to the defined guidelines above not so much. Inserts, parallels, on-demand cards, all of it is getting the RC logo. If a set has more than one card of a certain rookie they all are recognized as RC’s.
Multiple minor league brands are now being offered to collectors, meaning they will not have the MLB license. What has evolved from that is a group of collectors that view those cards as truer rookie cards when in actuality they are prospects cards or minor league cards. These are typically branded with terms like “1st Bowman Card” and should be depicted in their minor league uniforms but since they have the MLBPA license they are being printed with their MLB uniforms and it’s really hard to tell which is which. Few are saying anything and even fewer notice.
The consequence is a watered-down version of the RC. You see it in auction listings and any online venue that deals with sports card selling or trading. Good intentioned folks trying to sell or trade a prospect card and calling it a rookie card. Whether it be ignorance, uncertainty or blatant disregard one thing is certain – more confusion about what is and is not an RC.
Like most things in life, the old-timers know better. We’ve taken our lumps on the head over the years about our beloved RC’s. But I found myself at times gun-shy to make purchases on the modern-day players because I’m not sure what is a prospect card and what is an RC. This is why I press in to do my homework. I want rookie cards of Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor, and Javy Baez just to name a few but I want the RC. I want the version that is fully licensed, I want the first card within the base set and stamped with that beautiful RC insignia on the card front.
I can appreciate the prospect card but don’t try to replace the rookie card with it! The RC is sacred, it’s nostalgic, it transcends the hobby and at least in my eyes will always be a pillar of the sports card hobby and for those reasons, it should be respected and protected by us, the collectors.
Happy Collecting, Collectors!
Learn. Collect. Enjoy.