History is a great tool. As we discovered with the recent Hall of Fame voting, players we once thought to be slam dunk Hall of Famers become nothing of the sort. Rafael Palmiero, one of a handful of players with the combination of 500 homers and 3000 hits is not even eligible to be voted in by the writers after Wednesday’s results. That got me thinking of some years past and players who had the look of the top rookie but never got there and those who did emerge as superstars.
Pre-1970: Sometimes you would turn a card over and read a really funny line. My favorite of all time was the 1964 Red Sox rookie card featuring Archie Skeen. His card says on the back “Archie has retired to become a school teacher”. No real investment future for that card.
1970: This was truly a weak rookie card class and Thurman Munson was always the best of a mediocre bunch. When living, Thurman was beloved in New York and according to some Hall of Fame analysts, was even on a path to Cooperstown. When his plane went down in 1979, his rookie card took a spike upwards and it established as the key to the 1970 Topps set. Bill Buckner’s rookie card is there and Charlie Manuel’s debut card garnered some attention while he was managing.
1971: When I first started collecting and dealing with cards in the late 1970’s the best rookie card was Steve Garvey. Garvey was in the process of playing in all those consecutive games, had won an MVP award and was part of the perfect couple with then wife Cyndi. By the end of the 1980’s that had all changed as Garvey was nicknamed “The Padre of our country” for his growing brood of children not borne by his wife and his move from Los Angeles to San Diego.
While it seemed at one time like Garvey was on a Hall of Fame pace, by his retirement at the end of the 1980’s it was understood his candidacy would be far more difficult. At the same point Bert Blyleven was nearing his 20th major league season and much “smart” money was being used for his rookie cards. That presumption took a long time but Blyleven is now the undisputed star of his class. However, he might not end up ever as the most expensive rookie as the combination hi # rookie of Dusty Baker/Don Baylor and Tom Paciorek features three baseball lifers and is a much more difficult card to acquire.
1972 Topps: Would you believe the Carlton Fisk rookie was for a time almost as well known for being the Cecil Cooper rookie? We called that card the Fisk/Cooper Rookie, especially after Cooper hit .352 in 1980. Cooper kept going and would be one of the key players on the Brewers team that went to the World Series in 1982. By the end of the decade, Fisk had established himself as a sure Hall of Famer while Cooper’s career fell off and he ended up as part of the great grouping of first basemen with nice careers who are not Hall of Famers (Mickey Vernon, Keith Hernandez, Bill White and other players of that ilk).
1974 Topps: We began with no real clear favorite as the key rookie card but as 1979 began, Dave Parker was it. He had just completed an MVP season and had back to back batting titles under his belt. As it turned out very soon he would add a lot of weight over his belt and went through a mid-career melt down between drugs and girth and probably cost himself a Hall of Fame career. Around the time when Parker was going through wilderness period, Bill James in his classic abstracts was writing about Parker: “It’s hard to play baseball when you’re fat”.
Parker did have a nice career but in the early 1990’s, David Mark Winfield was beginning to take off in terms of collector’s acceptance. He was signing a 10-year contract with the Yankees and was amazingly still a productive hitter at the end of that contract. Although George Steinbrenner famously nicknamed him “Mr. May”, Winfield ended up with more than 3,000 hits and 400 homers and a place in Cooperstown. Today, Winfield is the key rookie from the 1974 set.
A side note here: I always liked the Randy Jones Washington Nat’l League rookie card as the major New York area dealers who dealt in the Washington Nat’l Leaguers were always short of that one card. We never knew why it seemed so short printed in comparison to the others.
1977 Topps: After his 1976 season, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych became such a legend that even non-baseball fans had heard of him. Think of the 1970’s version of “Refrigerator” Perry. Fidrych was so popular that I actively remember dealers “bidding” for them in hobby trade publications and the amount being asked for his cards struck me as silly compared to vintage Hall of Famers.
As times developed, Fidrych was just one of many who took a turn as a key rookie in the set. We had the Jack Clark/Lee Mazzilli, the Tony Armas/Steve Kemp and we even had Jason Thompson Rookie Cards being popular for a while before Dale Murphy became the key for a long time in the 1980’s. This took nearly 25 years to totally work out but as of 2014, the three key rookie cards are the rookie cards of Murphy and Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Bruce Sutter. There were so many rookies in 1977 that this set has always been popular among collectors and will continue on that path. Interestingly that pattern continued with the 1987 set, 1997 bowman set and even the 2007 set. Seven must truly be a lucky number for card collectors.
1979: Topps: The year began with Bob Horner as the number one rookie. Coming straight out of college to join the Atlanta Braves, Horner hit 23 homers as a rookie and his cards were flying off dealer’s tables. Meanwhile a little known shortstop playing for the small media market San Diego Padres was a wizard in the field who had hit something like .218 over the full 1978 season. Who knew by the end of the 1980’s , Ozzie Smith would be a legend while Bob Horner’s career was just about complete. Horner even took a trip to Japan for a season before completing his career.
1981 Topps: This was perhaps the peak of the first time of “rookie card mania”. It is hard to recall just how amazing the career starts for Tim Raines and Fernando Valenzuela were at the beginning of the 1981 season. Valenzuela was off to a perfect start and Fernandomania was in full bloom. Raines seemed to be on his way to demolishing Maury Wills’ NL single season stolen base record.
This was literally the first year of looking to have guaranteed profits out of boxes as if you had the right Fleer box you could score a popular error card. in Topps it was Raines and Valenzuela and although the Donruss boxes had terrible distribution, if you had boxes with Raines cards, you were doing OK. Plus those two players helped to spark the first “stand-alone” Topps Traded set which has continued in various incarnations to be a hobby staple from that point forward.
While still important to the set, you can pick both up for a song these days.
I’m sure you may have other rookie card stories and we’d love to hear them. Please contact with your favorite rookie card stories to We'll have a Part 2 next week!
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]