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Prospecting and the Evolution of Rookie Card Collecting

by Rob Bertrand (06/10/14).

A rookie card used to be easy to identify. This 1952 Topps card is Mickey Mantle's rookie card, and being so, makes it the most valuable of the Mantle cards.

A rookie card used to be easy to identify. This 1952 Topps card is Mickey Mantle’s rookie card, and being so, makes it the most valuable of the Mantle cards.

Collecting baseball cards of your favorite rookie players has changed drastically over the last several years. Today, a player’s first officially licensed trading card may be produced years before that particular player ever steps foot onto the diamond for an MLB team. This fact has created a niche in the hobby called prospecting: collecting early cards of talented young players in hopes they increase in value if the player actually makes it to the majors.

As a result, often a player’s most valuable card isn’t their pro rookie card but their first card. This has caused a lot of confusion in the market because for years, decades even, a player’s first card was their pro rookie card. In an effort to help eliminate this confusion, Major League Baseball’s exclusive licensee to produce trading cards, the Topps Company, instituted a policy that a player’s official rookie card would be designated with a specially created “RC” logo, once the player made the team out of spring training, was called up or made the team’s late season 40-man roster.

Despite this policy, most collectors place little importance on the rookie card logo and designation. Therefore, early cards of a player produced while still in the minor leagues carry a premium and continue to be treated like traditional rookie cards of the past.

Today, a number of cards focus solely on yet un-proven prospects are produced. Some of the most popular are manufactured by Topps under the Bowman brand name and include Bowman, Bowman Chrome and Bowman Chrome Draft Picks and Prospects. An important component of these products is the random insertion of limited-edition autographed cards. If, and when, any of these players becomes MLB stars, in most cases, it will be these limited-edition cards that command the most money and be the most heavily pursued by fans and collectors.

The Topps Company, Major League Baseball’s exclusive licensee to produce trading cards, started putting a specially created “RC” logo on a players card once the player made the team out of spring training, was called up or made the team’s late season 40-man roster, designating it as an “official” rookie card. Still, it doesn’t mean much to collectors.

The specially created “RC” logo, designating a card as an “official” rookie card. Still, it doesn’t mean much to collectors.

Speculating on how a young player’s performance will impact his first-year cards is the essence of rookie card collecting today. Unfortunate, it has made entry into collecting confusing for the novice and returning collectors, as well. Fans or collectors could once purchase a player’s most valuable card within the season, or the season after, of making their big league debut. While you can go purchase that player’s “official” rookie card, in most cases, it will not be the player’s most valuable.

There are rare circumstances when a player slips through the cracks. The most obvious examples are Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols made their first appearance on a trading card in the same year in which they played their first MLB game, 2001. At the time, this anomaly set the hobby on fire and drove demand for 2001 baseball cards through the roof. Even day, finding unopened boxes of baseball cards from that year is rare and when found, they are often very expensive.

Let’s take Bryce Harper as an example. A highly touted prospect, Harper had more than 250 baseball cards produced before he ever played a Major League game. His first card was produced by Upper Deck while he was on the 16-and-under USA Baseball National team in 2008-09. In addition to his base card, Harper had five autograph cards in the set. His first “official” “rookie” card wouldn’t be produced until 2012. In an effort to bolster the value of his Topps base rookie card, the manufacturer short-printed it compared to the rest of the cards in the set. The gimmick worked to some degree, with the Topps card currently selling in the $45 range, which is much higher than these cards often sell for of other players. However, the value of that USA Baseball card, in the same condition, sells in the $175 range.

Bryce Harper’s 16-and-under USA Baseball National team card from 2008. It was his first card and sells for $175.

Bryce Harper’s 16-and-under USA Baseball National team card from 2008. It was his first card and sells for $175.

Harper’s “official” MLB rookie card, which came out in 2012, sells for $45, but only because Topps short-printed it.

Harper’s “official” MLB rookie card, which came out in 2012, sells for $45, but only because Topps short-printed it.

The prices for these cards, however, pale in comparison to those paid for some of Harper’s earlier, pre-rookie cards. Some of the modern practices employed by trading card manufactures to increase the immediate value of a card involve self-created scarcity. These cards may have different color parallels with ever-diminishing serial numbering or autographs and the use of game-used memorabilia embedded in the cards. These elements are used in a card’s design to add further value to them. Some of Harper’s rarer cards have sold for five figures in the initial rush to capitalize on his impending stardom.

Despite all this information, when it comes to determining a player’s “best” card, there is no simple science. Just don’t expect it to be the one with the friendly “RC” logo on it, because chances are, it’s not.


Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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