Ramblings: 1970s Prove Rookie Card Fortunes Can Change a Bit

Last week we took a little trip back in time to analyze the 1970s and dipped our toes into the early 1980’s so this will be part two of the evolution of the key rookie cards in the 1970-84 time period.  Our premise is to remember players who were thought to have Hall of Fame potential and fell short while others lived up to their early promise to become valuable cards.

OPC 1975 George Brett1975 roared out of the gate for whatever was developing in the fledgling hobby when Fred Lynn of the Boston Red Sox was on his way to winning both the Rookie of the Year as well as the Most Valuable Player award.  Since the concept of hobby pricing was still in the infancy in 1975, I think Lynn rookies may have been all of 50 cents by the end of the season as the absolute top end. After all, you could get those cards from brand new packs so what value would these cards have?

For the next few years the combination of Fred Lynn and Jim Rice would continue to be the key 1975 Topps rookies. During the 1980 season, George Howard Brett took his run at the .400 batting mark for a season and suddenly, the blossoming rookie card market was latching onto #5. Two years later, Robin Yount became the last superstar to develop from the class, winning his first of two MVP award.  From that point on the key 1975 rookies were always considered Brett and Yount who supplanted Rice (an eventual Hall of Famer) and Lynn.  The 1975 set even had other rookies who had nice careers or big years with the most notable supporting class member being Keith Hernandez.

1976 Topps Dennis EckersleyThe 1976 rookie class has never been quite the same as the 1975 and 77 years. For a time the best rookie in 1976 was Ron Guidry who, while playing in the major media market of New York had a 25-3 season in 1978. That season was just before the beginnings of Card Prices Update (CPU) and Guidry thus had an early lead as key rookie in that set.  A decade later, Dennis Eckersley would reinvent himself as the first major one-inning shut down reliever and build his reputation that way to go with his nice career as a starter. From 1988 on, Eckersley was the key rookie in that class and his Cy Young award and Hall of Fame credentials would ensure he will always will be.

1978 Topps Eddie MurrayAfter what turned out to be a solid 1977 rookie class, 1978 developed into another special year. When Eddie Murray and the Paul Molitor/Alan Trammell rookie cards became the key cards that year they were never supplanted as the best in the set. Other rookie cards have had nice runs including three more Tigers, Lance Parrish, Sweet Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris. In case you wondered why the Tigers were the team of the decade in the AL East think about this rookie card class all coming up together and staying together for many years. Plus, there is even a 1978 Burger King Tigers set with first year cards of Morris, Whitaker and Trammell which they have all to themselves.  It’s not likely to happen but according to some modern metrics, all three of those rookies deserve Hall of Fame consideration.

We will conclude our tour of these “golden” years with recaps of 1982 through 1984. 1982 began with Dave Righetti as the key rookie card as a star rookie pitcher playing for the Yankees, winning an Rookie of the Year award plus pitching into the post-season. While Righetti had a nice career including a memorable no-hitter on July 4, 1983 and being the single-season saves leader for a short time, by the end of 1982 Cal Ripken took over the top spot and never looked back especially when he won the MVP in 1983.

1983 Topps Ryne SandbergThe 1983 card season began with Willie McGee as the star attraction.  He had starred for the Cardinals during the 1982 World Championship season. I remember getting an early vending case and setting up at an Albany show with these new cards and asking the same price for Wade Boggs, who was getting a lot of attention. I think when I said those cards were 50 cents each every one of those buyers scurried away. I wonder if they ever thought a couple of years later when Boggs got to the $30 book value whether they should have “overpaid” way back in 1983 when a brash kid was trying to get a half a buck for them?  Ryne Sandberg’s emergence and the perennial batting title chases by Tony Gwynn completed a triumvirate for the ages.

Don Mattingly 1984 ToppsAnd to finish our tour we will look at 1984 and the tale of New York. At the beginning of 1984 the hottest of the two players was Darryl Strawberry who was later supplanted that year by Don Mattingly. Needless to say, 1984 is that rare year in which no player who had a rookie cadr (except for the hobby-only traded/update sets) will gain admittance to the Hall of Fame without paying admission. But because of the greatness of being in the New York area in the 1980’s both Mattingly and Strawberry and then Dwight Gooden the next year will always be hugely popular because of strong fan bases who remember their best.

Later in the decade we had a large number of rookie cards.  What were some of your “hits” and “misses”? We’d like to know.

Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]