Understanding the Complexities of the Rookie Card

It’s no secret. This website is centered around my passion for collecting rookie cards of Hall of Famers. When asked, “what do you collect?” it typically brings a smile to my face. A better question would be, “what are you collecting right now?” For me, it doesn’t matter the sport, card manufacturer, nor the era it’s going to be rookie cards of Hall of Famers. 

In  my humble opinion there is nothing the hobby can produce that will sustain the long-term value like the RC. Most collectors identify with a type: some are set collectors, some are player collectors, and yet for others it can be a team, autographs, vintage, etc. No matter the niche all collectors have this one thing in common – they appreciate and recognize the value found in RC’s.

However, don’t be fooled if I painted you a picture of peace, love and unity among collectors and rookie cards. On the contrary they have brought many challenges, debates, and opinions that go back decades.

The Complexities of the 1980’s (the RC Boom is born)

complex rc 4In the 1980’s the hobby gave birth to the RC Boom. It started early on with Fleer and Donruss. A courtroom victory over Topps gave them the right to manufacture and distribute sports cards. Topps immediately ups the ante by creating something different, Tiffany and Update sets. The competition responds with special releases of their own and by the mid-to-late 80’s there is a cluster of brands and special issued sets that included cards of rookie players. The hobby was trying to find it self by trying to unravel this mess but natural questions arose: Are the Tiffany, Glossy and Update sets considered RC? How about factory sets that were distributed in a certain region are those considered RC? What if a player has two cards in the same set, are they both considered RC?

complex rc 1complex rc 2

By 1986 collectors are in an uproar about all the confusion. Hobby publications tried to help by creating the XRC identifier on certain sets. This meant the card was released in an “extended or limited” set. Typically, these specialized sets were released between the time a player was drafted and prior to a players first major league appearance. But giving cards this XRC identifier caused an uproar among collectors. People could not agree and another adjustment had to be made by hobby publications. This time all identifiers were removed from certain sets. Oh my goodness the confusion!

complex rc 4On the horizon a giant was approaching. 1989 Upper Deck makes their debut and the RC craze is once again set a blaze. Demand was high and manufacturers kept right on printing. In my opinion the driving force behind the “Junk Wax Era” was the demand of the RC. In 1980 there was the Topss & O-Pee-Chee brand only but by 1989 there were just over 190 different sets created by five manufacturers Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Score and Upper Deck and most were distributed at the national level and others were only regional, some were extensions of the base set while others came from retail chains.

The Complexities of the 1990’s (and the plot thickens)

complex rc 6More competition as Leaf & Pacific enter the arena of sports card manufacturing. In 1992 Bowman included Minor League Draft Picks still in street clothes and the hobby flocked to those RC’s like seagulls in a parking lot after you chuck the rest of your french fries out the window. Collectors lost their minds trying to get their hands on these. That same year Bowman re-brands itself by self-proclaiming themselves “The Home of the Rookie Card.” It was a genius marketing scheme, but also a top-notch product with great card stock and design. 1992 Bowman turned white-hot and flipped the hobby upside down.

1992 brought another complex issue. Shaquille O’Neal was still under contract withcomplex rc 5 Classic, a non-licensed card manufacturer. They enforced this contract and did not allow licensed-manufacturers to print RC’s of Shaq-Diesel. So as a resolve licensed manufacturers created redemption cards, a great strategy right! Wrong, this caused a lot of debate within the hobby, because of distribution and timing of the contract collectors did not get their redemption cards, through the mail mind you, until the end of the season going into the 1993 season. To further complicate matters some of these redemption’s came back numbered like an insert set rather than part of the base set.

complex rc 8By 1994 the Insert Card Boom hit the hobby and we embraced them with open arms. It revolutionized the hobby yet again. Historically a sub-set would be found within the set itself now the sub-sets are found outside the set in the form of inserts (or chase cards). Add to the insert card boom, advanced computers, and printing technologies and what evolved we’re great looking cards and a host of parallel cards. But are parallels and rookie players that are included into insert sets considered rookie cards? Some collectors said, NO! Others said, YES! By 1999 manufacturers introduced another big change within the hobby. The autographed / serial numbered rookie card. Oh boy! Here we go again!

The Complexities of the 2000’s (the crazy cycle)

complex rc 9Collectors infatuated with the idea of having a rookie auto couldn’t get enough. Sells of unopened product sore to new heights. These serial numbered beauties had limited supply and high demand. These rookie autos were serial numbered, mostly between 499-3999 and it prevented manufacturers from mass producing cards like they did back in the 1980’s (another topic for another day).

Upper Deck tried to capture some of this rookie card momentum by releasing a set that was licensed by the MLB but not the MLBPA the industry felt that this was cheating in a sense and quickly branded those rookie cards as “XRC.” Right about the same time manufacturers start to release parallel versions ofcomplex rc 10 the RC’s. These had some type of slight variation in design and branded with serial numbers too. Some collectors felt that this was another form of cheating the system. The hobby took notice and decided that parallel cards can’t be considered rookie cards. But of course not all collectors agreed with that.

Early 2000’s manufacturers were trying to one up each other by releasing a multitude of brands each with its own type of variant complex rc 11or twist to try to create something different and exciting but before a product had a chance to gain momentum a competitor quickly released another brand and extinguished any momentum. This crazy cycle continued month after month, year after year. Production of different brands spiraled out of control, the number of relics, autographs, serial numbered parallels left collectors scratching their heads. It discouraged many collectors, myself included, and forced some collectors to bow out of collecting all together. I tapped out in 2004.

Maybe it was one business trying to take out its competitors, maybe they were riding the wave of good fortune, maybe it was greed. I don’t have any evidence that indicates that manufacturers purposely set out to confuse and frustrate collectors but that definitely was the outcome. By 2005 collectors and the industry determined that the rookie card is broken!

MLBPA Steps in as Mediator


In 2005 the Players Association steps in to assist the card manufacturers on defining what a rookie card is and the rules for using the MLB RC logo on card fronts. This noble cause would remove consumer confusion. (So they hoped).

The mandate issued to all licensed-card manufacturers was, “Remove the licensing logos from the cards of all players without major league service. Once a player is placed on a 25 man roster he will be eligible to appear on cards with the MLB RC logo” This would help collectors distinguish which players were going to be truly making their major league debut and who wasn’t. The mandate further stated, “…no manufacturer will have the right to include non-25 man roster players in their products as anything other than insert cards.”

At that time Evan Kaplan, Director of Licensing and Business Development for the MLB Players Association said this,

“In baseball, as in other sports, a player’s Rookie Card should only be produced in the season in which he reaches the Major Leagues for the first time.”

So it’s all good in the neighborhood right? Wrong. Topps released multiple products outside the scope of this mandate for several months when asked about it they claimed, they intend to meet the requirements of the MLBPA but that these releases are a mere production, scheduling conflict. Non the less more confusion in the hobby and yet another kick in the teeth by Topps to its competitors.

So at this point the “Rookie Card” goes under reform. The industry was in desperate need of improvement, things were headed down a wrong path, there was what seemed to be corruption and this amendment was going to be the first step in making things right. The next logical step was to define what exactly constitutes a rookie card? So the MLBPA, the card manufacturers, card dealers and collectors put their heads together to reconstruct the rookie card in an effort to revitalize this pillar of the card community. In Part 2 of this series we will look at the rookie card – defined.

Happy Collecting, Collectors!

Payne, Mike. The Changing Face of the Rookie Card. Beckett Baseball Magazine. October 2005 | Issue 247.
Beckett Rookie Card Encyclopedia. Dallas, TX. Becket Media LLC. 2nd Edition 2014.

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