For years, Joe DiMaggio was introduced as the ‘greatest living ballplayer’. He insisted on it, many whispered. It’s a great title but the down side is that you are absolutely going to lose it someday.
Tuesday night, Major League Baseball introduced a quartet of living legends—and then some. The Franchise Four campaign allowed fans to vote for the top players in the history of each franchise and several other significant categories over time. More than 25.5 million votes were cast by fans across 33 categories (the 30 Major League franchises, as well as the Greatest Living Players; the Greatest Negro Leagues Players; and the Greatest Pioneers, covering players whose careers began in 1915 or earlier).
The naming of the ‘Greatest Living Players’ generated heated arguments. Friends became temporary enemies while comparing careers across the decades. There was likely screaming and shouting in bars and rec rooms. In other words, it did was is was designed to do: get people fired up in the middle of the season.
In the end, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Johnny Bench were the selections. Whether you agreed with the picks or not, there’s little doubt they’re on a very short list of the greatest breathing ballplayers.
Their rookie cards earned continue to earn respect in the marketplace so we thought we’d take a look at them—and some cards of a few other players who seemed to be mentioned most often in the debate. Click each name to compare current prices on eBay.
Willie Mays: He looked every bit of 84, but a glance at his 1951 Bowman rookie card is all it takes to transport you back to the day when people thought of him like they do Mike Trout today. Mays had everything. His rookie card lags behind Mickey Mantle with graded near mint examples typically selling for $5,000-$6,000 today, about half the price of a Mantle. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to think there might be room for growth.
Hank Aaron: The Hammer’s 1954 Topps card has been on a slow, steady climb. Near mint examples are tough to grab at anything less than $4,000. Smart investors know high-grade examples aren’t likely to come out of the woodwork and competition is stiff.
Sandy Koufax: A year after young Hank popped out of Topps packs, a very youthful former University of Cincinnati basketball recruit emerged in the 1955 set. It took Sandy Koufax a few years and a coast-to-coast move to become SANDY KOUFAX, but in the 1960s, his name was ominous among hitters. You can still buy a near mint rookie for around $1,500 and a ‘6’ for less than half that.
Johnny Bench: There are a lot more Bench rookies on the market for obvious reasons but being named as one of the four best living players won’t hurt the value of his 1968 debut card going forward. It’s an easy get now for $150 but as one of the two key rookie cards in the set, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see prices inch upward. An ‘8’ is about twice that much while 9s have shown strong growth in recent months.
The “other” card in that ’68 set features a certain pitcher some felt deserved a spot in the Greatest Living group. Nolan Ryan walked a lot of guys but it’s hard to argue with the accomplishments. We’re not likely to see a pitcher toss seven no-hitters, strike out more than 5,000 guys and win over 300 games in a career. Ryan remains a legend well beyond Texas and his higher grade rookie cards have been soaring.
We heard Frank Robinson’s name mentioned a lot, too. Well under half the population has no recollection of him in his prime now and that’s a shame. If you can buy his 1957 Topps rookie card in a ‘7’ for $300 or less right now, it’s hard to argue you’re not getting an important card for a reasonable price.
Rickey Henderson: More than stolen bases, Rickey made opposing teams nervous at bat or on the bases. The all-time stolen base king also had power. If you saw Rickey in his best years, you won’t forget him. His 1980 Topps rookie card, the last major rookie from the original Topps monopoly, is readily available. Forget the ‘7’ here. Not when 8’s are around $50 and 9’s under $300. Rickey’s rookie card has actually been trending slightly downward for some reason.
Pete Rose: The all-time hits leader is another choice that’s hard to dispute. Pete wasn’t a power guy but he knew how to beat you. His rookie card remains ultra-popular and you won’t touch a nice one for less than a few hundred dollars.
Barry Bonds: We’ll never know for certain just where his career ranks but we do know without steroids he was still a phenomenal talent. Plenty of rookie cards at next to nothing and it’ll probably always be that way.
Ken Griffey Jr.: I didn’t hear a lot of talk about Junior and the ‘4 Greatest’ list, which was a little surprising. Value aside, his rookie card might be the most popular of any thanks to the kids of the 90s, who loved the hobby as much as any demographic in history.
Tom Seaver: As a pure pitcher, Seaver was Picasso from the late 1960s through the early 80s. Consistently great for a long period of time wasn’t enough to get him on the official list but he was on many fan lists instead of his former catcher in Cincinnati.
Your list might include someone not even on our extended play version and that’s the fun of it. Baseball serves up few right or wrong answers when it comes to its history, but it’s great fun to pose the questions.