by Rich Klein
I recently received an email from one of my most loyal readers who saw the mention of Ed Broder (or Rob as he called himself in the late 1980’s) who was responsible for a whole style of popular cards during the early hobby boom period of the late 1980’s. Those cards universally featured a nice full-color photo on the front along with either a blank back or an imaginary company on the back. As I was driving around on Mother’s Day the term “Indiana Blue Sox” came to mind as one of the companies who “sponsored” these cards. And what did we at Beckett think of the infamous Broder cards? Well, for us, these cards were exactly what they were, popular cards which were not licensed and thus had no real collectors value. I don’t think we spent more than 10 minutes discussing these cards internally.
Prior to the 1980s, though, the whole concept of licensing could be considered murky. We eventually grandfathered in all cards issued before then and treated cards after 1980 on a case by case basis. This, by the way, turned out to be a far different decision than Bob Lemke made in the Standard Catalog Of Baseball Cards.
He listed all the Border cards he had information on and I’ve never asked him about that, but I’m willing to believe and guessing accordingly that their reason was since these cards were so popular among collectors, listing them was a way to explain to the masses what they were.
While I did not agree with their decision, I sure do understand the position. These types of cards are where I agree 100 percent with COMC.com about not accepting unlicensed and I suspect this is what they really mean on their reject sheet as unlicensed cards.
However, a bigger issue at Beckett– one which began before I arrived and continues to this day– is what constitutes a rookie card. For pre-war cards there are very few players whose confluence of card set, rookie year and collector importance makes it easy to say ‘yes, this is a rookie card’. Two that are very obviously rookie cards are the 1949 Play Ball Ted Williams and the 1941 Play Ball Pee Wee Reese. There may be a few others, but good examples like that are few and far between.
The rookie card definition is much easier from 1948 through 1982. However, beginning in 1983 several players made early appearances in Traded or Update sets and the question became are those cards rookie cards? If you look carefully at some of the very early Beckett Baseball magazines you will see this designation next to a player’s name — RC? Yes, one of the early Beckett magazine questions was to what should be a rookie card and by 1986 it was agreed that a rookie card would be the first appearance in a major set available in unopened packs while cards in the extended sets would be considered XRC’s.
When I got to Beckett in 1990 the definition needed to be changed. After Upper Deck started issuing their last 100 cards in “updated” wax boxes, all of a sudden the rules were changing since those sets included the very popular Jerome Walton and Jim Abbott cards which technically could be called rookie cards. Of course the two best rookie cards in that 1989 high number series ended up as Steve Finley and Omar Vizquel.
After some spirited internal discussion we ended up switching our definition to ‘cards issued during the player’s rookie year’. What did this was change updated factory sets into sets which should be released in packs. This was the first step in the ever changing evolution of rookie cards which now come in all sort of sets, varying print runs, with memorabilia pieces or autographs.
Somewhere in my memory, there is a “rookie card” issued by Pacific in one of their hockey products with a scheduled print run of one card. Yes can you imagine a set where one of the rookies had exactly one card issued. That is not exactly the best way to guarantee anyone will want to complete that set.
And, of course, there’s the matter of whether a card that is issued before a player makes the big leagues can be called a rookie card. Officially, the answer to that is no but collectors don’t always buy that. MLB and the MLBPA changed the rules in 2005 so only players who had actually, you know, played in a major league game could have official rookie cards. I did agree with this in theory as this makes it easier for collectors to actually, ahem, have a chance of knowing the rookie card they pulled from a pack. This change did take a few years to cycle through and I believe Choo Freeman eventually became a rookie even after making his first card appearance in the 1999 Topps Traded set.
It’s different in football and basketball in which many rookies are drafted and are expected to play in their first professional season. This is an important difference between those sports. The other reason for these changes is that both MLB and the MLBPA are always looking for a 2001 repeat in which both Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols were superstars as rookies and continued at that level for the next decade. However, THOSE years come along only once every 15-20 years but the overall concept does make sense.
As for the future of rookie cards, who knows what surprises may be up everyone’s sleeve but with Topps having the MLB exclusive for the next several years I think we will see quite a bit of stabilization in terms of the baseball card world. Like with most things in this business, I’m excited and curious to see what the future holds.
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]