by Eamon Donlyn
It’s one of those concepts that is generally accepted amongst all circles in the collecting world.
Much like 'guy codes' that are just accepted whether we think about them (or like them) or not:
- The QB always gets the lead cheerleader
- Don’t drink another man’s last beer
- Don’t bring your wife to the poker game
Just like quarterbacks, rookie cards get all the attention. It’s not something collectors even think about, it’s just understood. For many, if you don’t have your favorite player's rookie card, then you have a big hole in your collection. Rookie cards are the Lombardi trophy of collecting - they are the barometer for which all collecting is measured.
There are a multitude of reasons for this, not the least of which is tradition and quite obvious. The "RC" is the player's first introduction to the collecting world. When a player first enters the league and his first card hits the market, the unknown factors of the players performance makes the card value susceptible to heavy fluctuation. It’s a risk to heavily invest in newer RC’s.
And for some unkown reason, that aura or risk and potential still resides around the RC’s in the vintage market, especially in the ungraded world. It’s as if an ungraded rookie card depicting Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath or Emmitt Smith has all the potential they had before stepping foot on the gridiron as a professional. That vintage rookie could yet be uncovered as a PSA 9 or miraculously as a GM MT 10 and leap to the top of the collector pool.
The look and feel of a rookie card includes some of the aesthetic appeal, as the player is sometimes posing before ever playing a single game, showing the youthful exuberance of potential before fulfilling it.
But these are just some of the subtleties to the emotional side of collecting cards of the top athletes. Having someone’s rookie card in your hand gives off the vibe that you hold something pure. It stands for the the moment someone was immortalized in print before ever knowing if that card would end up in the stack of commons you can flip through at any shop or show, or if would be far too expensive for you to afford years later.
It’s tough to explain, but that feeling still carries with the card even if it is half a century later. It’s a window into the distant past before the more recent past and present became a reality. Before superstardom, or Hall of Fame accolades, the trading card represents the nubile nature of being a rookie. And potential is the most important element in any business and the collecting world, and a rookie card represents just that - potential.
The clear cut answer why rookie cards are the most valuable, and have been for quite some time is the same as any market: consistency. People have long collected various things, such as just their favorite player, their favorite team, or anomalies such as error cards, or refractors, or certain sets. But most of these trends or fads have run their course, or are specific to individual preferences or one card maker, subset or a single year.
Rookie cards are always a part of every year, regardless of trends and they always hold the top value due to their consistency. They are the gold standard of the industry, and one commonality regardless of the types of cards and collectibles introduced into the market.
Combining the realm of Vintage with Rookie cards, gives you the most consistent investment value over generations. Vintage rookie cards are the best investment around, as the values still have potential to increase as they can become more scarce, and if their records still around longer than expected, even their performances on the field can gain more appreciation among fans and collectors over time.
Stories of legends get handed down from generation to generation, only furthering the value to collectors. And rookie cards represent the first chapter in those stories, giving a window to the potential of the previous generation before it began. Owning a rookie card is like owning a piece of a history book before it was written, and that is simply a priceless feeling.
Hobbyist Eamonn Donlyn is a former ESPN writer and producer who currently works in broadcast marketing. He lives in Hawaii.