“Rated Rookie” cards were a mainstay of the Donruss sets I collected in the mid-1980s. These cards went straight from the packs I opened into penny sleeves, if not screw-downs!
In the Donruss universe, these cards made their front-of-card debut with the 1984 set (and as I’m reminded by Gavin in the comments, their back-of-card debut the year before). But were these Donruss cards the hobby’s very first Rated Rookies? They were definitely the first to feature that exact phrase, but let’s expand our hunt to any cards that at least in some way say, “Hey, this guy’s a rookie!”
You might imagine Topps or Fleer would have called special attention to their rookies that year, particularly with the rookie card craze already in full swing 2–3 years earlier (depending who you ask). In fact they did not.
My own theory is that the RC phenomenon is precisely what led Topps to move away from its two decade tradition of multiplayer RCs, which did of course call out rookies, and instead mainstream their rookies onto their own cards. The 1983 sets similarly gave no special call-out to their rookies, even if they were loaded with them.
At least within the bounds of this article, 1982 was the final year that Topps put out multiplayer rookie cards, the most famous of all being Orioles shortstop Bob Bonner!
Topps used the term “Future Stars” on these cards and always featured three players on the same team. There were also two cards in the Highlights subset that called out rookies. The Valenzuela record is particularly impressive by today’s standards in that we will probably never again see a rookie who hurls 8 shutouts over the course of his entire career!
As for Fleer and Donruss, there were no rookie call-outs at all in their 1982 sets.
As with the 1982 issue, Topps again grouped three players per team onto “Future Stars” cards. As a very random side note I want to compliment Topps here. In my world, whenever a card features three players–one facing right, one facing center, and one facing left–this is the correct order in which to portray them. Switch Raines and Pate on this card and–trust me–it would look weird.
The Record Breaker subset also featured a rookie call-out, thanks to this Expos rookie pitcher (whose name auto-corrects to Rollicking, by the way) fanning 18 batters in a single game.
Again, Fleer and Donruss came up empty-handed, never to be heard from again on this post.
The “Future Stars” again take up 26 slots in the Topps set, but to the delight of most collectors leave Rickey with his own card. As for the multiplayer RCs, I want to give some love to a player who doesn’t see enough of it in the hobby. Check out this man’s Cy Young Award finishes, and you’ll see what I mean.
I always love it when I can feature Pedro Guerrero, so here goes. Our “Future Stars” have been demoted to just “Prospects” now, but that still qualifies as a call-out.
The Record Breaker subset included another rookie call-out.
DINGO: Where are you going?
GALAHAD: I seek the Grail! I have seen it, here in this castle!
Behold the Grail that is the Topps All-Star Rookie cup. Now we’re talking! If there is any better way to call out a rookie in your set I have neither seen it nor can I even imagine it. Utter perfection is what it is.
In addition to the All-Star Rookies in the set, Topps also kept up their tradition of multiplayer RCs. Contrasting with their counterparts in subsequent sets these cards featured four players and combined players from multiple teams. I don’t know about you, but my four favorites are the Sam Perlozzo, Mickey Klutts, Ernie Whitt, and Tim Jones cards. I could see each of these guys having an incredible career someday.
Of course the All-Star Rookie trophies didn’t make their debut with the 1978 set but went back almost two decades with only a single interruption. Less for historical value but more because some of the cards are so magnificent, we’ll take a look at one card from each year that Topps highlighted top rookies with the gold trophy.
Two quick notes are that there were no All-Star Rookie cards in 1974 and that the trophy itself underwent a change between 1972 and 1973. It should be noted that ANY Topps card bearing the all-star rookie trophy was automatically awesome, regardless of how the player’s career turned out.
We’ll take a similar combo approach to the multi-player RCs Topps used over this same period. (There was no multi-player RC in 1961.) Checking the hype factor, we see the players characterized only as “Rookies” all the way back to 1973, followed by 11 years of “Rookie Stars” and a single year of the very festive sounding “Rookie Parade!”
Before heading to the watershed year of 1960, let’s also catch up on the more oddball rookie call-outs from the 1961-1977 Topps sets. There weren’t many, so it will be pretty quick.
The 1962 Topps set was chock full of rookie call-out cards. In addition to the All-Star Rookies and Rookie Parades, Topps also chose some (but not all) of its rookie cards to identify with a star. (Of all the rookie call-outs thus far, this seems the closest to what Topps does today.)
An honorable mention is this 1964 Topps “Young Aces” card featuring a member of the Black Aces and two future authors. “Young” isn’t the same as “Rookie,” and each of the hurlers pictured had their rookie cards two years earlier. Still, it’s a fantastic card.
And now we’re ready to head to a really special year!
The 1960 Topps set was the very first to feature All-Star Rookies. Unlike in subsequent years, the ASR cards used a different design than the standard cards in the set. Topps also saw fit to identify a second crop of Rookie Stars for distinction and used a totally different design for these players. Note also that the ASRs were selected by the “youth of America” (anyone know how that worked?) while the Rookie Stars were selected by Sport Magazine. I’d say both sets of voters did fantastic if these two cards were the results.
I had originally believed the 1960 Topps All-Star Rookies and Rookie Stars were as far back as Topps went in the rookie call-out department, so I’m thankful to Twitter user @RReul for alerting me to a fantastic bunch of cards from only a year earlier.
More than 30 years before collectors were chasing Kevin Maas, the hobby was going nuts for Eddie Haas! Okay, not really, but you gotta love the look of this 31-card Sporting News Rookie Stars subset. (Really, any card that says “The Sporting News” in that distinctive font is going to look super cool.) Star power proved to be on the low end, but we can at least imagine how a Bob Gibson or Willie McCovey card could have looked.
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
As this 80-card issue from Fleer addressed so many of the highlights of the Splinter’s career, it should come as no surprise that a card would be dedicated to his incredible .327/31/145 rookie season. Sure enough, card 14 did exactly that. I believe this Williams card and the Topps “Rookie Stars” of the same year were the first cards ever to use the word “rookie” on their fronts.
1948 Swell Bubble Gum “Sport Thrills”
I tend to milk this card since I’m super excited to own it. Whether a “Dramatic Debut” card falls into the same category of “Rated Rookie” and “All-Star Rookie” is something I’ll leave up to you. However, it may well be the first card ever to give front of card billing to the player’s debut/rookie season.
Interestingly enough, the previous card in the Sport Thrills set focused on fellow Brooklyn Dodger Pete Reiser’s amazing debut (1939 Spring Training), but the front of the card refers to it only as “Amazing Record.” Had they gone with “Amazing Debut,” the Reiser card might lay claim to being the first card to (sort of) identify rookie-ness. As it is, perhaps it’s only fitting that the first rookie-ish call-out of all-time belongs to the man for whom today’s Rookie of the Year award is named–at least until y’all tell me I missed one!
Honorable Mention: 1887 Buchner Gold Coin (N284)
Yes, of course I’m pulling your leg here, but it’s on my bucket list to feature a player on the LaCrosse Freezers! While 1984 Donruss was the first to use the phrase “Rated Rookies,” they were nearly a century behind the first set to call out “Rooks” on a card front.
Please let me know if you’re aware of any other issues earlier than 1960 Topps that gave card-front acclaim to a player’s rookie status. I am happy to add your set(s) to this article.