One of the offshoots of the sports card industry’s first "explosion" back in the late 70s and early 80s was the development of the rookie card craze. Somehow it became an established fact that a player’s first card was more valuable than just about any other.
When Topps got competition and players like Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry and Don Mattingly became the ‘must haves’, the guessing game was on. Which rookie card would be the most hardest to find and thus, the most valuable?
There were collectors and fans who dropped a few bucks on their favorite players throughout the 1980s and early 90s in hopes they’d be worth more years down the road. It was sort of like penny stocks for the sports fan. There were plenty of misses (Kevin Maas, anyone?). Some that were hot for awhile but never panned out completely (hello Juan Gonzalez 1990 Donruss reverse negative) and several others that did pretty well (the big three 1983 rookies). It was a nice little niche that you could participate in if you wanted to without risking much (yes, I have some of Juan Gone’s cards in a box somewhere).
While I suppose it’s still possible to play the lower end rookie card game, most of the prospecting done today is only for those who would have been considered high rollers back in the day. There are no secrets anymore when it comes to who the up and coming players are. Research is a few clicks away and so right out of the box, the potential stars are pricey. What’s worse is that the general perception is that the only rookie card worth having is the autographed insert. If more than 1,000 exist, it’s just another card. If you can’t be lucky enough to pull one from a pack, you’ve got to go to the secondary market.
It started with the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. You could own the Topps, the Fleer, the Donruss or the Score, but if you really expected anyone to care, you had to have the Upper Deck. Overproduction prevented Upper Deck from producing any more high dollar rookies for a few years after that so Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez probably represent the era of the last rookie cards that didn’t require a major investment. By the late 1990s, the autographed rookie insert card was becoming king.
There’s no question that the rookie cards being produced today are a lot prettier than they used to be. You really feel like you’ve got something special in your hands. And some will say the ‘investor’ never had a place in the hobby anyway. But I wonder how many adults who needed or wanted that kind of option didn’t bother to start collecting–or get back in–because modern rookie cards left the penny stock mode behind in favor of nothing but blue chips?