The Great Debate: What is a Rookie Card?

Rookie cards are among the most sought after cards by collectors. When the rookie craze began exactly, I couldn’t tell you. But I know but the time I was collecting, it had already started. I jumped into collecting during the late 1980s and that time, folks were spending their hard-earned money on guys named Gregg Jefferies and Ben McDonald. Didn’t work out, exactly.

A little while back, I wrote that rookie cards can be difficult to determine for pre-war collectors. But that got me thinking about two larger questions – what exactly are rookie cards and how do we define them? The short definition of ‘a player’s first card’ is the quick and dirty answer typically stated. But it’s much more than that.

Rookie cards, of course, were already widely collected by then. And then, it was much easier to determine. Yes, there were minor league cards but you weren’t dealing with the kind of stuff we see today where guys can legitimately have many years of minor league cards before they even reach the majors.

But while the determination of a rookie card may have gotten tougher, it’s always been there, really. You might think that it’s a lot easier to determine a rookie card from the pre-war era but, to the contrary. Vigorous debates can and do happen about exactly what is a particular player’s rookie.

Why? For several reasons.

Good Old-Fashioned Confusion

E90-1 055 JacksonT210 Joe JacksonFor one thing, even in some of the more clear-cut cases, there can just be a degree of confusion if collectors are unaware of a particular issue or are a bit mixed up of the dating of specific cards.

One of the more well-known cases is Shoeless Joe Jackson, for example.

Jackson’s rookie card is generally understood to be his E90-1 American Caramel card. Those cards were issued from 1909-11 but his card is usually cited as being first printed in 1909 as he was pictured as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics – his team in 1908 and 1909.

Interestingly, though, Jackson is featured as a minor league player on a 1910 T210 Old Mill card. That card is dated later but pictures Jackson as a minor leaguer as he played only short stints in the majors in 1908 and 1909. He actually played the majority of his career in the minors until 1911.

Thus, even though Jackson’s T210 card shows him as a minor leaguer and his E90-1 pictures him as a major leaguer, his E90-1 was his earlier card.

The Minor League Conundrum

Ten MIllion T212 ObakWhile Jackson’s case is a little unique, most of the time, a player’s minor league cards are issued before his major league cards. The question is if they should be considered rookie cards or not.

They are usually clearly printed in advance of a player’s major league card so there’s no doubting the dating. But can they technically be a rookie card if a player is not yet a major league rookie?

‘Rookie’ is a moniker given to major leaguers – hence, the Rookie of the Year award. Minor league cards are generally cards of a player printed before they are a major league rookie. These are more like pre-rookie cards. Don’t agree? If not, you’ll be opening up a whole can of worms. After all, what about team-issued high school cards? Or worse yet, Little League cards?

I suppose a counter to that could be that when a player is a minor league player, they are technically a professional as they are paid to play baseball. Further, what if a player never reaches the majors? If he has a dozen minor league cards but none as a major leaguer, can he even have a rookie card? That case can be made for a player such as Ten Million. Million’s only known card is his Obak issue, which pictured him as a minor leaguer. He never made the majors so does that mean he technically doesn’t have a rookie card.

As you can imagine, there are all sorts of conundrums with minor league cards. Fortunately, with pre-war cards, we don’t have to worry about issues like Bowman’s Draft Picks set and what not. Still, minor league issues are an issue with pre-war sets such as the massive T210 Old Mill and T212 Obak issues.

Tough Regional Issues

Then there are the tough and/or regional issues. These are cards that may have been printed in very small quantities — and in some cases, in a very small area of the world.

If the card was not widely available to everyone, should be it be considered a rookie card?

What’s my take here? Pretty simple. If a rookie card is an athlete’s first card as a professional, then that’s independent of where it is or how common it is. Just because a card is hard to find shouldn’t necessarily make it any less of a rookie card.

Part of my rationale for that thinking is that, who’s to say when a card is too rare or too regional? Is a card printed only in a specific city regional? Probably but what about a particular state? How about a collection of states (i.e. the east coast)? Additionally, while a card may be rare, what if a stash is discovered suddenly making them less rare? Can a card that was not previously determined as a rookie based on rarity suddenly be now considered a rookie if we find a few hundred of them, which was what happened with the E98 Black Swamp Find cards?

Rarity shouldn’t play into the decision of an athlete’s rookie card in my mind.

Card or Not Card?

Ty Cobb Dietsche Postcard RookieSo far, ‘Rookie’ is the key part of ‘Rookie Card’ that I’ve focused on. But the second word merits some consideration, too.

In other words, we have to be able to adequately define a card if we’re to determine a rookie card. That might seem pretty easy but it’s often a sticking point with collectors.

Ask collectors what a card is and you can get all sorts of answers. Some things like tobacco cards and caramel cards are easily classified as trading cards. Others, though, are not.

Ty Cobb is a great example of this. According to Old Cardboard, Cobb’s earliest cards are his 1907 W600 Sporting Life Cabinet and several postcards issued starting in 1907. But the cabinet is really a photo (the back is even stamped calling it a photo) and the others are postcards and not traditional trading cards. Are those really cards? In particular, postcards are designed for a completely different purpose than being collected. They are used to send a message to a recipient.

While things like postcards, pins, photos, matchbook covers, etc., may be the first collectible of a player, calling it a rookie card is a bit of a stretch for me. Cards are generally considered as trading cards and things like that aren’t really viewed as trading cards.

So what is a Rookie Card?

A rookie card, ultimately, is how collectors determine it. I’m not sure a consensus will ever be reached and interests will largely depend on a person’s particular position. If someone has a valuable minor league card, they’ll often see it as a rookie. If someone has a player’s first major league card, that’s the rookie.

I don’t mean to offer the definitive view of what a rookie card should be in any sense. But in terms of baseball cards, my personal position is that the first cards produced of a player in the year they are a major leaguer are rookie cards. I do not believe minor league cards should be called rookies unless without a specific designation (i.e. minor league rookie card). Even in cases where a player has no cards as a major leaguer, I’d still contend that those should be minor league rookie cards as opposed to traditional rookie cards.

And as stated earlier, a card’s rarity should not play a factor, either. I’d also limit it to collectable cards, leaving things out such as postcards, photographs, stamps, pins, felts, etc.

One other point I’d make is that it does not matter when a card was issued in a given year. For example, if a card is issued in April of a player’s first major league season and another one in September, they are both rookies. The player did not stop being a rookie later in the year and, as such, cards from an entire year should be considered rookies.

Not everyone will agree with that definition and that’s part of the fun in collecting. We can all set our own boundaries and, in a way, kind of determine the rules. But that is one man’s thoughts on how to determine a rookie card.

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