Rookies are the most popular and sought after cards by collectors of post-war baseball cards. Before World War II a rookie card is something of much debate and conjecture with spirited arguments on baseball card forums about which eclectic entry might be considered the ‘true’ rookie card of the game’s greatest stars. However, thanks to Bowman and Topps a sense of consistency had come as yearly production began that continues to this day, which makes it very easy to determine the best baseball rookie cards by year.
This is the first in a series of articles that will cover the single best rookie card of each year, broken up by decade, and starting with the 1950s. Since some years there are multiple cards that would be considered popular rookie cards, we’ve put them in our ‘honorable mention’ category.
1950 would prove to be the last year Bowman would produce a set without competition, but their effort was not particularly memorable – likely due to the fact to the absence of a significant card. 1950 Bowman does offer rookie cards of players that were fan favorites in the 1950s, with perhaps the most notable being Brooklyn Dodgers ace Don Newcombe.
‘The Newk’ was one of the great Negro League stars who entered the major leagues and had just won the 1949 Rookie of the Year. He would go on to win the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1956, and during his career was a 4-time All-Star and a member of the immortal 1955 World Series champion Dodger team.
Honorable mention: 1950 Bowman #219 Hank Bauer.
Was there ever any doubt? Arguably no player captures the image of baseball in the 1950s than Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. While his 1952 Topps card is more well-known and more valuable, it is Bowman that produced his first card a year earlier.
A much heralded prospect, ‘The Mick’ was presented in a memorable and attractive horizontal pose that captured his youth and potential. While the card routinely trades above $10,000 in higher grade examples, a Very Good 3 can still be had for under $4,000.
Before the emergence of Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews was considered to be the greatest offensive third baseman of all time. His 1952 Topps rookie card was included in the famed high number series, which were unceremoniously dumped into the waters off New York due to declining demand at the start of football season.
A nine-time All-Star, Mathews totaled 512 home runs, and the graced the cover of the first issue of Sports Illustrated. Given the perceived lower population for the high number series and the popularity of 1952 Topps, even a poor condition of the Mathews rookie is approaching the $1,000 benchmark.
The filmmaker Ken Burns described New York as the ‘capital of baseball’ during the decade of the 1950s, so it is no small wonder that we find yet another New York player on the list this early. A 3-time All Star, Podres had a respectable career with the Brooklyn/LA Dodgers, but he is on the list for his 4-1 World Series record that included the series clinching win in 1955 – what would be Brooklyn’s only championship.
While the majority of 1953 Topps artwork was limited to portraits, Podres was among the high series players whom the artists were permitted to expand upon and therefore features a prominent pitching pose. PSA 6 examples can be acquired for about $200, with PSA 7 and higher examples trending slightly higher.
Honorable mention: 1953 Topps #258 Jim Gilliam.
1954 Topps introduced us to ‘Henry’ Aaron, the man who – as Hank – would go on to surpass Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs – a record some feel he still holds due to Barry Bonds’ association with PEDs. Since the 1920s the home run has been baseball’s most popular play, which has cemented home run hits as the game’s most cherished stars. Therefore, this Aaron is not simply the best rookie card of 1954, but one of the best rookie cards of all time. As a result, cards in Near Mint 7 condition routinely trade above $4,000, with respectable condition cards in a 5 and a 6 between $1,000 and $2,000.
The 1940s introduced America to the great African American players who had earlier been excluded from the game, and the 1950s would follow with an influx of great Latin American talent that would come to shape much of the modern game. The greatest of these players was Roberto Clemente, whose 1955 Topps rookie remains one of the most desired cards of the era.
Despite being a 12-time All-Star, the 1966 NL MPV, and a two time World Series Champion (1960 and ’71) – Clemente is perhaps as well known for his off the field humanitarianism as he is his for his on the field achievements. It was this humanitarian work that would ultimately cut his life short in a tragic plane crash in 1972, adding to his mystique, and making him one of two players – along with Lou Gehrig – to enter the Hall of Fame without a customary five year waiting period. A nice Clemente rookie in a 6 can be had for below $3,000, while a 4 is reasonably priced under $1,000.
A Chicago White Sox legend, Luis Aparicio was an 11-time All-Star over his long career, as well as winner of the 1956 Rookie of the Year award. As the second Latin American player on this list, Aparicio represents the evolution that baseball was undergoing during the 1950s.
1956 also marked the first year without a Bowman set, and the beginning of an era where Topps would be without a rival until the early 1980s. His rookie remains widely collected by White Sox fans and those who collect Latin American players. Stunning examples of this card in a PSA 8 can be regularly purchased for under $400.
Honorable mention: 1956 Topps #8 Walter Alston.
1957 Topps introduced the card size that remains the industry standard nearly 60 years later, and featured several key Hall of Famer baseball rookie cards. The standout among the pack is Brooks Robinson, who still remains the gold standard for defense at third base, and whose card is a tougher high number than Frank Robinson, no relation.
One of the most popular players of the 1960s, the ‘Human Vacuum Cleaner’ won an astonishing 16 Gold Gloves, the 1964 AL MVP, and the 1966 and ’70 World Series. A centered example in a 7 can be picked up for slightly over $500.
In 1961, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single season home run record dominated the sports pages, but in 1958 Maris was an unheralded member of the Cleveland Indians who would soon be shipped to Kansas City. It was only after he became an All-Star in 1959 that he caught the attention of the Yankees front office, who at the time often viewed the A’s as a glorified farm team from whom to draw talent.
Because of the PED controversy that surround Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, there are some passionate fans who still feel Maris’ record is still the pure record – an irony given the way some felt league expansion and an increase in games played tarnished Maris’ record. Maris’ 1958 issue remains one of the most sought after non-Hall of Fame rookie cards, with an 8 regularly selling for over $1,000.
Honorable mention: 1958 Topps #464 Curt Flood.
Bob Gibson may have been the pitcher with the mentality closest to Ty Cobb, as his dominance on the mound was as much a result of his demeanor as his natural ability. In 1968 his 1.12 ERA would not merely win him the Cy Young and MVP, but also necessitate a change to the pitching mound to its current height in an attempt to return offense to the game. As impressive as the dominance of Gibson and his contemporaries were, the game was now dependent on television revenue and the fans wanted to see scoring. You should have no difficulty picking up a near mint example for about $600.
Honorable mention: 1959 Topps #358 Sparky Anderson.
At the start of the decade the league had 16 teams that had largely gone unchanged since the formation of the American League in 1901, and had only begun to include African American players. By the end of the decade the league had expanded to the West Coast and welcomed the players of all races and backgrounds who would go on to shape the modern game that we still enjoy today.
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