Although there are many popular baseball cards that have been produced throughout the history of the hobby, it is safe to say that only a handful can truly be called “iconic” cards. By definition, such cards represent in their appearance the baseball card hobby as a unique entity. These cards, on their own, call to mind the greater whole of the hobby.
Many of these iconic pieces of cardboard treasure share elements in common. For instance, a 1952 Mickey Mantle card from Topps and the 1909 T-206 Honus Wagner card share interesting backstories to their scarcity and hold considerable value. The Wagner card with it's tale of a player who wished to avoid being connected to tobacco may or may not be legendary. How many Mantle cards were lost in the submerging of Topps excess product in the Atlantic is something that will never be known. However, those stories combine with the desirability of the cards to create lasting hobby value and surely place them in the iconic category.
Of course, not all iconic cards have such stories. Nor do they tend to trade in the thousands of dollars. Some are iconic because of an era that they represent, and their status tends to run in the hearts and minds of a segment of the collecting population. Recently, it has been interesting to note how many collectors who find their way into our shop have memories triggered by the sight of an 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card. For the most part these are thirty-something folks who were in their adolescent years when the landscape of baseball cards changed thanks, in large part, to the success of the groundbreaking Upper Deck set. Many of these folks tell me how they still have their first Griffey, Jr. card and the story behind how they obtained it years ago. One guy even showed me a picture of his office (he has done quite well in his profession) with the #1 Upper Deck card in a thick acrylic holder on his desk. You can scream "overproduction!" a thousand times but the card represents this man's era as a young collector. It's obviously important to him.
This got me to thinking how each “collecting generation” likely has its own card to place in the iconic category. And while there may be some regional aspects to consider, for the most part a card really needs to have a national appeal to fit the icon status. Keeping it modern, the Mantle card surely fits as we have noted, and the 1960s gave us the 1963 Topps #537 Pete Rose rookie card which featured the multiple player concept that kids either loved or hated. And earlier this year we discussed how several designs from the late 1980s are now hitting a nostalgic streak in collectors who are beginning to turn their own kids on to the hobby. Perhaps we should consider iconic card designs?
Many of these elements (rookie card, design, key to an era, nationally known baseball hero) find their way to a card that has to at least be considered for iconic status, the 1975 Topps George Brett rookie card. Sure, the card is rivaled for value by the rookie cards of Mike Schmidt, Carlton Fisk or Thurman Munson if we stay in that decade, but the Brett card is unique among those as Brett is the only one of those few players to have a solo rookie card. And those green-purplish blue borders stir an instant recognition for any baseball card collector from that era (say hello to the fifty-somethings).
It was true that, shortly after they retired and were working their way to the Hall of Fame, George Brett and Robin Yount had rookie cards that were close to one another in the set and in value (Yount’s rookie card is also found in the 1975 Topps set as a solo). But the last several years have seen the Brett card pull ahead. This, too, I think speaks to the Brett card and its iconic status.
First, white the aspect of design does not make a card iconic, there is something to be said for the way a card’s appearance elevates its appreciation over time. Certainly it is a part of what makes the Brett card stand out when one considers the Topps baseball design of the couple seasons prior to Brett’s rookie card. Regardless whether one considers them “classic” or “boring,” the design elements of the 1973 and 1974 cards that preceded Brett’s rookie were largely devoid of color. The 1974 set, in fact, is almost corporate-looking in its simple design. The brightly colored borders of all the 1975 Topps cards make them almost explode by comparison. This factor in itself would likely cause the set, and therefore its individual cards, stand out more in the collective consciousness of those who were kids and bought the cards in new packs almost 40 seasons ago.
Secondly, the timing of significant events in the career of the Royals Hall of Fame third baseman has to play a part in the interest for his rookie card. Going into 1975 collectors outside of Kansas City likely would not have thought much of the California-born third sacker. Sure, he hit .282 during the prior year, but nothing really spoke to the greatness that was to come. Yet, as the1975 campaign played out, Brett led the AL in at bats, hits and triples. Then in 1976, he once again led the league in each of those categories as well as adding total bases as he captured the batting title with a .333 average. Batting titles bring national exposure, and since he had only two Topps cards up that point, it became easy for collectors to garner “all” his cards and begin following his career in earnest. The die was cast.
Unlike many players who start with a bang yet end with a whimper, the trajectory of George Brett’s career did nothing but keep his fans excited and collectors going after his cardboard. Just a few years past his rookie card debut he would flirt with a .400 average and become a national favorite who appeared in ads for brands like 7-Up and Lifeboy. Leading the Royals to their first World Series certainly kept up his high profile. Then he did it again in 1985. Almost on cue, it seems, five years past that he won another batting title and capturing the fascination of many as he accomplished the unique feat of winning a batting title in three different decades.
Brett really did not leave the baseball radar during his career, and that certainly is a reason his rookie card continues to flourish. Even at the tail end his name kept appearing in headlines. Following the surprise batting title in 1990 he reached the 3,000 hit plateau just two years later, and then had a “farewell” season following that. Inevitably he was ushered into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility, and he went in with two others of his era (Nolan Ryan, and interestingly, Robin Yount) which fact made several headlines that year. Indeed, even though fifteen years had passed since his induction, when Brett joined the Royals as interim hitting coach in the 2013 season, it made national news and caused another round of interest in all his baseball cards.
There is another factor that plays a role in the ongoing popularity and special status of this rookie card. Not only did Brett appear on the regular 1975 Topps baseball card, but that season Topps produced a test issue of “minis” that paralleled the entire 1975 Topps set. Each card measures 2 1/4" by 3 1/8.” The 1975 Topps minis, though issued only in a couple of different areas of the country (most notably Michigan and California), are not necessarily rare, but they do exist in lower numbers than the regular cards, and the full-edged color borders make condition an issue for both sizes of the card. And it was a rarity for a Topps rookie card to be available in two “sizes” such as the 1975 cards were made. It has happened a handful of times since (like the almost illegible “micro-mini” card sets of the mass production era), but this was a first and it helps to set the Brett card further apart from other cards of the time.
In fact, a case can be made that there are actually three rookie cards of the Hall of Famer. Since 1966 the Canadian company O-Pee-Chee (OPC) had been producing baseball cards that essentially mirrored those of the Topps Company but with a bi-lingual back that included French. It was a unique arrangement that lasted for many years. In 1975 the OPC cards were essentially the same as the cards produced by the American candy giant. Indeed, the Brett card is still numbered 228, and it carries a hobby value close to that of the mini card mentioned earlier.
Speaking of values, the Brett rookies cards do carry a price that is befitting of their status. Currently, the Beckett price guides give a value of $80 to the regular rookie card, and $100 to the mini and Canadian counterparts. While that may not seem like much in this day of serial numbered scarcity or “big hits,” it ought to be remembered that the cards were found in packs that could be bought for a dime or full cello boxes costing under $6. And, as with most vintage cards, the pricing considerations come most into play once the cards are graded.
As of this writing, 6,332 of the regular Brett rookie cards have been submitted to PSA for grading. Of these, a total of eight have received the grade of Gem Mint 10. Another 192 have been graded as a 9, which means that of the cards submitted to PSA only .03% have been considered Mint. Then again, well over half of the submitted cards have been placed in the PSA 7 or PSA 8 category. And the price points for these cards reflect this disparity. The Sports Market Report (SMR) lists the Gem Mint 10 as having an expected value of $12,000, and it drops to $1450 for the grade 9. When a grade 8 is sought the expectation falls to around $150. Correspondingly, the number of minis graded have been 2,028 with 136 pulling a grade of 9 (129 cards) or a 10 (7 cards).
Less than 200 of the O-Pee-Chee cards have been submitted, and the small sample size has seen almost ten percent of these with a Mint grade. The SMR does not even list a price for a Gem Mint version of the Canadian card, but lists the grade 9 at $1400. Interestingly, the grade 9 mini lists at $800, which is a considerable difference from the OPC. A Gem Mint 10 mini is said to have a value of $6500.
Beckett’s Vintage grading service (BVG) has graded considerably fewer of these cards than their counterparts at PSA. However, it is interesting to note that BVG has yet to award a Pristine 10 grade to either the Brett regular rookie or the mini. Of 1647 regular sized cards graded four have been graded 9.5 (gem mint on the Beckett scale) and an additional 27 have been graded 9. Less than 300 minis have been graded by BVG, and they have given 20 cards a 9 with another three mini cards graded at 9.5. O-Pee-Chee has had only 28 of the Brett rookies submitted.
Certainly the 1975 cards have their condition issues between the full-bleed color borders and the frequent off-cuts. But that has not seemed to dampen the collectors of these colorful cardboard memories, especially when the card under consideration is the rookie card of the greatest Kansas City Royal to date. You can see Brett rookie cards on eBay here.