by Chris Harris
One of the enduring legacies of baseball cards in the 1990s was the proliferation of new brands. Unlike their brethren, 90s hobbyists had more than one (or three) annual sets to collect. With this explosion of new product, came with it new options and new rookie cards. While many of the rookie cards of the era have become iconic, those weren’t the only rookie cards of those players to collect.
Here now are my picks for The Top Five Alternative Rookie Cards of the 1990s.
The Big Hurt’s 1990 Leaf RC is one of those “iconic” rookie cards of the era. It wasn’t his only rookie card, but the rest of them were all from grossly over-produced “junk wax” products. With that said, you’d think that his best alternative rookie would have been his Upper Deck card, and you would be right. That is, if there was a Frank Thomas card in 1990 Upper Deck Baseball.
For some strange reason UD didn’t produce a Frank Thomas RC, all of which leaves Big Hurt collectors looking for an alternative to his Leaf rookie having to settle for a junk wax card. There is his Topps error card, but good luck actually trying to find one, much less one for under $1000. The Bowman Tiffany and Topps Tiffany sets are scarcer; but are technically parallels and not “true” rookies.
Of those left, Thomas’s rookie card from Score looks the nicest, and probably his best – which, granted, isn’t exactly saying much.
Mike Piazza: Hall of Famer? Let the debate begin. No doubt that he, along with Ivan Rodriguez (another border-line Hall of Famer), were the two best catchers of their generation; but unlike Pudge, Piazza’s two RCs (1992 Bowman and Fleer Update) have actually retained much of their value.
In addition to his rookies, Piazza did have a third card released in his rookie card year: A “Phenoms” insert from 1992 Donruss The Rookies. Why Donruss decided not to include Piazza in the Donruss The Rookies base set remains a mystery, and one can only imagine what that rookie card would be worth.
But if you think he’s a Hall of Famer and can’t afford his Bowman or can’t find his Fleer Update, you might as well grab his Phenoms card.
The foil-fronts, low production, and the status as Upper Deck’s first “super premium” card set all combine to make Derek Jeter’s 1993 SP card another icon of the era. But if you can’t afford a couple thousand dollars for a PSA 10, well you’re in luck.
His card from the Stadium Club Jack Murphy set is Jeter’s second-most valuable RC, but if you’re looking for a rookie that’s just as condition-sensitive as his SP, look no further than his black-bordered rookie from 1993 Pinnacle Series Two. You can pick them up raw for about $20-$25.
A-Rod’s best rookie card is also from Upper Deck’s SP and like the Jeter, foil-fronted and a real pain to find in mint condition – with slabbed Mint, Gem Mint, and Pristine copies selling for equally ridiculous amounts of cash.
It’s not his only condition-sensitive RC (his RC from 1994 Upper Deck is also foil-fronted and tough to find in mint condition), but his best rookie card alternative is from the Fleer Update set. The classic 1994 Fleer Baseball design, combined with the unique factory-set distribution and low post-Strike production make A-Rod’s Fleer Update RC a good value.
When Topps unveiled Bowman Chrome in 1997, it caused a sensation. Packed with superstar rookies like Jose Cruz, Jr., Travis Lee, and Kerry Wood, low production, and the Finest-style chromium-stock collectors went crazy over, ‘97 BowChro was truly a landmark product. It may seem laughable now, but at one time Kerry Wood’s BowChro RC was a $70 card, with his Internationals and Refractor parallels selling for hundreds – a seemingly laughable sum now.
Of course the best rookie to come out of the 1997 RC class, Roy Halladay, spent much of the first decade of his career under The Hobby radar in Canada. While “Doc” was racking up strikeouts, wins, and a Cy Young award in the Great White North, you could get plenty of his RCs on the cheap. A trade to a big-market team, perfect game, post-season no-hitter, and another Cy Young Award later, and those days are over.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view), the introduction of BowChro had the unintended consequence of cannibalizing Topps’ established Bowman and Bowman’s Best sets. Fortunately, you can get Halladay’s Bowman’s Best RC for the price of his BowChro AND still have enough left over to get his 1997 Bowman card.