2018 will mark several anniversaries in the world of sports card collecting. For me, it starts with the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan rookie card.
1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie Card
As a young collector growing up, Ryan was the first true player that I actually collected. While a Mets fan, I still gravitated towards Ryan and his gaudy strikeout numbers. That was probably aided by the fact that I was a pitcher for one year in Little League and on any given day, emulated either Ryan or Dwight Gooden on the mound – probably depending on which had the better performance that week.
Sure, for an adult with a job and some discretionary income, 1968 Topps Ryan rookie is attainable – especially if you’re willing to sacrifice on condition and go for a low-grade example. But to a kid growing up in the 1980s that was more concerned with finding a way to save the massive amount of $30 for the latest Nintendo game, it was considered way out of my league. Even then the card was expensive– and that was before the market tumbled dramatically in the 1990s. I collected Ryan’s cards and amassed over 100 different, which I considered at the time to be a legendary feat. But as a 10-year old, the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan card may as well have been the Mona Lisa.
To this day, the card still looks striking to an old Mets fan and remains one of the hobby’s most important rookie cards.
The burlap pattern of the 1968 Topps cards gave it a distinct vintage look. And those hats with the iconic NY logo just looked so fantastic. Plus, having watched Ryan as an older pitcher in the late 1980s, it was just incredible to see his young appearance.
The back of the card made collectors feel like they had won the jackpot, too – never mind the incredible yellow border, which aided in the vintage appearance. Even for the positive biographies usually presented on baseball cards, the glowing description of Ryan in particular practically screamed that this wasn’t a card you should trade away. Ryan’s bio mentions the 313 strikeouts he accumulated in 1966 along with the 17-2 record for Greenville, ‘calling him one of the most promising rookies in the majors.’
The Jerry Koosman Dynamic
Just calling it the Nolan Ryan rookie card is somewhat insulting, of course. That’s because Ryan shares the card with fellow Mets newcomer Jerry Koosman. What many collectors don’t know is that Koosman actually looked like he could be the better pitcher early in their major league careers.
Both started in the minors in 1965 but Koosman was significantly older because he pitched in college while Ryan jumped straight from high school. Ryan debuted sooner pitching a couple of games in 1966 before Koosman arrived in 1967 for a brief stint, but Koosman enjoyed success much earlier.
In 1968, he narrowly finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind someone named Johnny Bench after going 19-7. Heck, Koosman even drew consideration for the Most Valuable Player Award, finishing 13th and was the third highest pitcher considered behind eventual winner Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. There wasn’t much of a sophomore slump for him, either. In 1969 when the Mets won the championship, Koosman was an integral part of the team, going 17-9 and again accumulating some Most Valuable Player votes. In each of those first two years his ERA was also in the low 2.00s and he looked like one of the most dominant pitchers in the game.
Ryan, on the other hand, got off to a slower start, likely due a bit to his young age. In his five years with the Mets, he was only 29-38 with a 3.58 ERA. He didn’t find the kind of success that Koosman enjoyed until 1972 when he won 19 games after going to the California Angels.
Obviously we know what happened next. Koosman went on to become a decent pitcher and, as his 3.36 career ERA and 222 career wins attest, was certainly above average. But it’s Ryan who got into the spotlight as a strikeout artist and ultimately became the better hurler, winning 324 games in his career.
Still calling this only a Ryan rookie card doesn’t feel quite right.
What shouldn’t be lost, either, is that the Ryan/Koosman card is one that has stood the test of time. As both pitchers established themselves in the 1970s, the card’s prominence began to rise. And while values might have taken a hit in the later part of the 1990s when card values plummeted, the card never dropped to catastrophic levels, either.
That, of course, did happen with other legendary cards in the post-1980 era. Those cards are newer but even other vintage cards have fallen with the exception of slabbed high-grade examples, which are gaining steam.
The Ryan/Koosman rookie card has not only held stead but has high-grade examples on the move in a big way. Mid-grade cards start around $200-$300 but high-graded cards quickly move into the thousands. Prices for mint examples have pushed into the tens of thousands in the last couple of years. A PSA 9 sold on eBay in December 2017 for just under $17,000, so the prices have come down a little from the madness in 2016. But high-grade Ryan/Koosman rookie cards remain among the most sought after rookie cards of the post-War era.