Why is this so complicated?

The definition of Rookie Card has been a fluid one over the years and still leads to vigorous discussion among collectors, even as no less an authority than Major League Baseball itself has attempted to end the debate by fiat.

My first experience with RC ambiguity came in 1984 when nobody was quite sure whether the Darryl Strawberry cards we were pulling from packs were true RCs given that he already had a card in the 1983 Topps Traded set. Even then, once that debate got settled, what do we make of Darryl’s 1982 Jackson Mets minor league card?

These days, most hobbyists would settle the Strawberry example in this way–

  • 1984 Topps/Fleer/Donruss are his main RCs. (I say “main” because other current releases like Topps Tiffany also generated RCs.)
  • 1983 Topps Traded was his XRC (extended rookie card).
  • 1982 Jackson Mets was his PRC (pre-rookie card).

One should not read into these distinctions any hierarchy of pricing. For some players, the XRC might be the most valuable (e.g., Ripken, Clemens) while in other cases the PRC or RC might win the day. The usual suspects of rarity and desirability (i.e., supply and demand) will dictate pricing more than the acronym will.

Some mostly agreed upon criteria

While there are gray areas and disagreements to be had around each of these points, many collectors have settled on the following criteria for an RC.

  1. The card should expressly feature the player. For instance, if a player is simply standing around in the background of a card featuring a different player or is one of 20+ guys on a team card (see Nolan Ryan), this would not suffice.
  2. The card should depict the player at the Major League level, ruling out pre-RCs.
  3. The card should be part of a major issue with wide distribution.
  4. The card must be part of the issue’s “base set,” a condition that rules out XRCs and premium inserts.
  5. The card should be an actual trading card, not a sticker, postcard, newspaper, cut-out, etc.
  6. For cards meeting all conditions, the one(s) that came out first (or at around the same time) will take home the RC prize.

The third condition is particularly subjective. Take a look at the 1933 Goudey set in Trading Card DB and you’ll see 237 of the 240 cards listed as RCs–and one of the three non-RCs is probably just a typo! It’s not that players like Ruth had no prior cardboard. Rather, compared to the Goudey goliath none of these earlier releases still seemed major.

“That’s just Trading Card DB,” you say! Well how about this SGC-graded Mantle “ROOKIE HIGH#” card? Sure, 1952 Topps was an iconic release, but did it really render 1951 Bowman as minor? (Or as I’ve heard it from some collectors, 1952 Topps is Mantle’s RC because it’s his FIRST TOPPS CARD.)

Baseball Cards:Singles (1950-1959), 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 SGC 50 VG/EX 4....

Perhaps when it comes down to it, he who has the card makes the rules!

Banks RC

Faster than you can say Jack Robinson…

It is amidst this fog that we go in search of the rookie card of the great Jack Roosevelt Robinson, hobby icon and American hero. I’ll include a number of cards that aren’t generally even in the discussion but are just damn sweet cards and worthy of giving time to.

1946 Parade Sportive

First up is this incredible 1946 Parade Sportive newspaper insert depicting Jackie with the Montreal Royals, the minor league squad he reported to after his historic meeting with Branch Rickey.

Parade.jpg

Short of seeking out school yearbooks or birth certificates, this is the first major Jackie Robinson collectible. But is it an RC? Probably not (unless you own it! LOL). The collectible fails multiple criteria. For one, it was a regionalized release (Montreal), for another Jackie was not yet a big leaguer, and for another the insert is (debatably) not really a baseball card (it’s about 10 inches tall). Still, I would NOT turn one of these down if it ever came my way. No chance. FINAL VERDICT: No

1947 Bond Bread Exhibit

Next up is this 1947 unnumbered, blank back Bond Bread Exhibit card of Jackie, one of several dozen baseball players included in the set. EXCEPT THAT IT’S NOT!

1947 Bond Bread #NNO Jackie Robinson Front

Much like the Thompson Twins being neither Thompsons nor Twins, the 1947 Bond Bread Exhibit cards were neither from 1947 nor from Bond Bread! In fact, they are now believed to be from a 1949 “Sports Card Subjects” issue that simply reused the same photos that Bond Bread used for an earlier set. Their postcard size and the square (not rounded) corners are the tip-off. This picture from Net54 (of course!) shows how they were sold.

JR subjects.jpg

Now you might be thinking, “Hey, if the card is from 1949, it’s obviously NOT his rookie card!” But not so fast. As you’ll see soon enough, the most widely recognized RCs of Jackie Robinson are in fact from 1949. In the case of these cards then, we should look at two other iffy criteria. Not all collectors like to think of these postcard-sized cards as “real” baseball cards, so there’s problem one. And is this a major release? The fact that collectors took so long to even figure out what it was is a good hint that it wasn’t. FINAL VERDICT: Probably not. And if we find a rock-solid RC before 1949, then this one becomes a Definitely Not.

1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson

Good news! This one really is from 1947 and really is from Bond Bread! Robinson was one of 44 baseball players and 4 boxers that kids (that’s who collected back then!) could pull from a package of Bond Bread.

Bond Jackie

Is THIS Jackie’s RC? First the good news. These are pretty much baseball card-sized, coming in at 2 1/4″ x 3 1/2″ and Jackie is definitely a big leaguer. (If anyone wanted to argue these still aren’t real cards, they might cite the blank backs, which really isn’t a deal-breaker but at least moderately reduces the baseballcardness of the issue.)

If there is a showstopper here, it comes down to whether this was a major release with wide distribution. Food issues in general (unless the food is candy or gum) are often off the radar for collectors, at least until they read this masterpiece on the subject by collector Brian Powell. And oddly, PSA doesn’t even include this card in its Jackie Robinson Master Set checklist. FINAL VERDICT: Probably not. But if you have one, DEFINITELY!

1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson set

Here is a dream set of cards if there ever was one. Thirteen different cards of Jackie Robinson, all from 1947, and some with outstanding action poses. Really, really nice! (Okay, I admit it. The ones pictured here are reprints.)

Are THESE Jackie’s rookie cards? First the good news. These are pretty much baseball card-sized, coming in at 2 1/4″ x 3 1/2″ and they of course show Jackie already on the Dodgers. If there is any issue here, it again comes down to whether this was a major release with wide distribution. In this case, PSA has graded 286 of these beauties, meaning the average “pop report” for these cards is only about 22 apiece. That’s not a lot. (By comparison, PSA has graded more than 50 times as many 1952 Topps Jackie Robinson cards.) FINAL VERDICT: Maybe

1947-1966 Exhibit Supply Company

Similar to the 1947 Bond Bread 1949 “Sports Card Subjects” issue, this is an oversized issue but this time from a significantly larger set believed to have been issued at penny arcades. As the set and player cards evolved over 20 years, there came to be over 300 players, multiple poses of some players, and several variations (e.g., blank back vs stat back).

1947-66 Exhibits W461 #NNO Jackie Robinson Front

Because this set spanned 20 years, which feels like a record, and its cards are ubiquitous on eBay ($50 will get you a decent Robinson card), I tend to think of it as a major release. I was surprised to see that PSA has only graded 188 of the Robinson cards so far. However, the 10,834 graded cards from the overall set again speaks to its availability.

From an RC standpoint, there are probably two main detractors. One is the familiar argument of whether these postcard-sized collectibles are “real” baseball cards. For collectors voting with their wallets, it feels like the vote is a no. Otherwise, I imagine they would be much more expensive. The other argument concerns the specific release year(s) for the Jackie Robinson card.

The set itself began in 1947, but that alone doesn’t ensure that the Robinson came out in 1947. For instance, players like Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle are in this same set but obviously weren’t even playing in 1947. Using information provided by KeyMan Collectibles it is possible to assign more precise dates to individual cards from this set. When I applied this to the nine listing on eBay that had clear and usable photos, I found all nine to be from 1948.

Exhibit sizes.JPG

Were you to show me a Robinson exhibit clearly from 1947, you’d definitely have my attention. As it is, I’ll regard the size, the blank back, and the 1948 date as knocks against true RC status. FINAL VERDICT: Probably not, but this could change. However, before you cross this Jackie card off your list of cool cards every collector should own, there is at least one more thing you should know about it.

1947 Pleetwood Slacks

Here is a terrific looking Jackie Robinson blank-backed, 5″ x 8″ card from 1947. It was likely a promotional giveaway at department stores selling Pleetwood Slacks, which were dress pants for men but could also be a good name for a Fleetwood Mac cover band.

JR Pleetwood.jpg

By now you can probably already guess the reasons this may not be Jackie’s RC. While it’s an awesome collectible and perhaps the most scare Robinson this side of his birth certificate (total PSA Pop is only 3!), it feels a bit large to be a real baseball card, and it probably doesn’t help matters that Jackie is out of uniform either.

As an aside, something almost synonymous with baseball card collecting is buying a pack and not knowing what player(s) you’re going to get. For this reason, I take away points from any issue where there is no element of chance involved. Finally, that pop report gives a strong hint that this was not a major release. FINAL VERDICT: No

1948 R346 Blue Tint

Robinson appeared in a 48-card set nicknamed “Blue Tint,” featuring 2″ x 2 5/8″ blank backed cards of mostly New York players (Yankees, Dodgers, Giants). Cards were issued in strips, though the PSA CardFacts site leaves it unclear if they came in six strips of eight or eight strips of six. Four notable exceptions to the New York focus were Hank Greenberg (Pirates), Ted Williams (Red Sox), Warren Spahn (Braves) and Bobby Feller (Indians). (And yes, the card called him Bobby.) The set also featured Lou Gehrig, who was not only retired but no longer living. The set checklist is a reminder that when Robinson broke into the league, Hank Greenberg and Mel Ott were still playing and the Braves were still in Boston!

tint

In assessing RC status, two (by now) common objections arise. Are these blank-backed, undersized, hand-cut, not-from-packs cards really baseball cards? And is this a major release? The PSA Pop Report for this Robinson card is only 32 (or 34 if you count its black/white variation), and the PSA website describes the set itself as a “scarce and obscure release.” FINAL VERDICT: Probably not

1948 Old Gold Cigarettes

We go from undersized back to postcard-sized with this two-card set from Old Gold Cigarettes. Say what you will about the carcinogenic properties of their product, but Old Gold definitely had a knack for landing fantastic spokesmen!

oldgold

In assessing RC status, I’ll dock some points for the postcard size, but I’ll add a few back for these cards having non-blank reverses featuring Jackie’s bio. I’ll also dock a few points in that these cards hit the eye more as cigarette advertisements than baseball cards. Finally, the release itself was probably not a major one, with PSA having graded only 14 of the action shot and 54 of the dugout shot. FINAL VERDICT: Probably not

1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”

In 1948 the Philadelphia Gum Company produced a 20-card set highlighting some of baseball’s greatest moments and packaged it with their Swell Bubble Gum product. The set included a mix of retired players (e.g., the “Most Dramatic Home Run” card of the Bambino’s Called Shot) and current players. Card 3 in the set featured our hero, Jackie Robinson, and his “Dramatic Debut.”

Sport Thrills.jpg

What follows next is a somewhat biased treatment of the card since THIS IS THE ONE I HAVE! First the arguments in favor…

  • These are no-doubt real baseball cards, with backs, card numbers, and everything! Even better, they’re not “just” baseball cards but bubble gum cards! That’s about as baseballcardy as you can get.
  • Size matters! At 2 7/16″ x 3″ they’re about the same size as the classic 1933/1934 Goudey cards of the previous decade–not too big to offend collectors who shy away from the supersized stuff.
  • A precursor to the Donruss “Rated Rookies” of the 1980s and the RC stamps of today, I believe this is the first card in the history of the hobby that explicitly screams out–front and back–rookie card.

And now the arguments against…

  • PSA has graded only 1158 of these cards in all, including 135 of Jackie Robinson. As such, a possible strike against this card’s RC status is whether we view the release as major.
  • I take away a few points when roughly half a set features retired players as this one definitely does.
  • One could also argue the set’s primary focus on events rather than players makes it less of a true Jackie Robinson card than the others we’ve seen.

So where does that put us? FINAL VERDICT: Hell yes! After all, I have it!

1948-49 Leaf

When most collectors think Jackie Robinson RC, I believe this is the card that comes to mind. This set has one of the best player selections one could ever hope for: Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller…wow! Oh, and did I mention the Bambino (RIP) and Honus Wagner? As an added bonus, for the first time in this post, the cards have actual color!

1948-49 Leaf #79 Jackie Robinson Front

With 1238 of these Robinson cards graded by PSA, the release definitely feels major to me. If there is any doubt at all as to whether we are looking at an incredible RC of Jackie Robinson, it is only the year. When I was a kid, this set was known simply as 1948 Leaf. Since that time, there have been arguments made that the set was in fact from 1949. One clue cited by collectors is the copyright line.

leaf back.jpg

Another clue is that some of the card backs reference the 1948 season as “last year!” For example, here is the card immediately following Robinson in the set. (There was no card 80.) Check the last sentence of the bio and then head to Baseball Reference.

1948-49 Leaf #81 George Kurowski Back

Of course, just to confuse things, take a close look at Kurowski’s copyright line: 1948! Huh???

So when exactly did this set come out? And perhaps importantly in the event it spanned multiple years, when did the Robinson come out?  Short of definitive information to the contrary, I’m going to regard this set as 1948 “in name only” but otherwise regard it as 1949. For additional discussion on this point, see here, here, and here.

Of course, as mentioned previously, even if these cards were from 1949, they may still be RCs. What it comes down to is whether Jackie already had an RC in 1948 or earlier. For collectors who reject the Bond Bread cards and Sport Thrills as rookie cards, they are okay with the Leaf, 1949 or not. At the moment, I’d wager this is the majority of collectors. Still, my personal belief is that the 1948 Swell “Sports Thrills” card meets the RC criteria sufficiently to render this Leaf card a second-year Jackie. FINAL VERDICT: Probably not

1949 Bowman

For my money (check that…for more money than I have) this is one of the most beautiful cards in the history of the hobby. The 1949 Bowman cards didn’t rely on an extensive color palette, but they really made the most of what was available, and the images really capture the era to perfection.

1949 Bowman #50 Jackie Robinson Front

Similar to the Leaf issue, there is no doubt that this is a real baseball card from a real baseball card set, and the pop report on this card is 1244. But unlike the Leaf set, there is also no doubt as to the year. This is an unambiguous 1949. As such, its RC status hinges on whether we accept any of the cards from previous years as RCs. I’ve already stated my strong bias (just being truthful) that the 1948 Swell precludes any 1949 cards from having rookie card status.

One thing interesting to me is that this card is generally acknowledged as an RC in the hobby, even with its definitive 1949 release date. I have to assume this is at least a tacit acknowledgement that the 1948-49 Leaf card did not actually come out in 1948. I would think anyone who regards Leaf as a true 1948 would have to treat this 1949 Bowman as a second-year card. FINAL VERDICT: Probably not

1952 Topps

Jackie Robinson was card 312 in the 1952 Topps offering, the numerical next-door neighbor to the set’s most famous card.

1952 Topps #312 Jackie Robinson Front

On the surface there’s no reason to even bring this card into the RC discussion, but recall there are some collectors–and even SGC–who regard 1952 Topps as a Mantle RC, so why not! This is without a doubt Jackie’s first Topps card, and the 1952 Topps set certainly did dwarf nearly all sets that preceded it, but when it comes right down to it, I just can’t go there. FINAL VERDICT: No

Conclusions

Jackie Robinson cards provide great examples of just how subjective the identification of rookie cards can be. There are definitely players like Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron for whom we can absolutely confer RC status on certain cards (1954 Topps in their cases, even if Aaron may have others.) With Robinson, however, there are so many “maybes” (Bond Bread card, Bond Bread set, Sport Thrills) that it’s impossible to declare any card (or even multiple cards) a RC.

If I were Baseball Card Czar, I’d go with the 1948 “Sport Thrills” card as the winner. I’m not a stickler for how large a release is, but I do love my cards to have fronts and backs, and it’s always a huge bonus when they come with bubble gum too. Compared to the Leaf and Bowman cards that followed, the number of PSA-graded copies is about a tenth, which casts doubt on the card’s “major release” status but of course balances that doubt by conferring increased rarity.

pop chart

If I had to choose a runner-up, I’d go with the 1947 Bond Bread card (the single, not the set), but again this choice relies on subjectivity and personal bias. However, if someone asked me what the hobby consensus was, I’d name 1948-49 Leaf and (probably) 1949 Bowman.

Either way, my collecting philosophy has always been to collect what I like and not worry about what the rest of the hobby seems to dictate. It’s possible you could poll the 10,000 most knowledgeable collectors on the planet and zero would identify the Sport Thrills card as an RC. Lucky for me, I wouldn’t even care. What I will say though is should this card someday get more recognition among Jackie’s early cardboard offerings, I’ll be glad I got it last week. As it is, I had to sell off a lot of good cards to make this purchase. Were it more recognized among collectors, it would have taken an arm and a leg. I might still have no regrets, but then how would I still type articles like this?