5 Rare Rookie Cards
For many sports card fans, acquiring that first appearance on a card by an iconic player is the holy grail. Here are 5 rare and sought-after rookie cards featuring famous figures from baseball, basketball, football and hockey.
1948/49 Leaf Jackie Robinson card
Jackie Robinson was the first black player to cross the colour line into Major League baseball, making his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Withstanding racist abuse and discrimination from fans and rival players alike, Robinson excelled and paved the way for future generations of black players.
The first baseball card featuring Robinson is actually a Bond Bread car dating from 1947. However, as these cards were offered as premiums with loaves of bread, rather than in standard wax packs, many collectors view his next appearance as his true rookie card – the 1948 Leaf card.
Regarded by many as the most iconic Jackie Robinson card, the Leaf card bears a copyright mark of 1948 but was not widely distributed until early 1949, providing confusion about its true date. The Leaf set was the first widely distributed MLB set to feature black players, with Satchel Paige joining Robinson across the baseball card colour line. Robinson's rookie card is hard to find in top condition, with examples selling for more than $8,000 at auction – a price which many collectors feel is still undervalued, given his importance to baseball history.
1965 Topps Joe Namath card
Joe Namath is one of the most famous quarterbacks in football history, a Superbowl winner who spent 11 years with the New York Jets and later forged a career as an actor and TV personality. Regarded as one of the first true media superstars of football, his playing style helped influence the quarterback position in the NFL and popularized a more open passing style throughout the sport.
Namath began his professional career in 1965, when the Jets selected him with the first overall pick of the AFL draft. He was named the American Football League Rookie of the year, and two seasons later in 1967 became the first quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. Perhaps his most famous moment as a player came in 1969, when the Jets came up against the heavily favoured Baltimore Colts team in Superbowl III. Namath publically guaranteed a Jets victory, and backed it up with an MVP performance as he drove his team to a stunning 16-7 victory.
Namath's rookie card came in the 1965 Topps set, and although not especially rare it remains highly sought after due to the player's iconic status. Just four examples have ever been graded PSA 9 (mint), with none higher in existence, and in 2014 one such example sold privately for $60,000.
1979-80 Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee card
Wayne Gretzky is the most famous ice hockey player in modern history, regarded as "the greatest hockey player ever" by fans, players and experts alike. During his first season in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers he scored 137 points, still a record for a player in his first season, and won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the League's Most Valuable Player.
The 1979-80 Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee rookie card is the most sought-after modern hockey card. Whilst Topps produced the NHL cards for the US market, in Canada the license was held by O-Pee-Chee confectionary company, and the same cards were issued in smaller numbers due to the size of the respective markets of the countries.
Therefore the Canadian Gretzky rookie card is far rarer that its almost identical US counterpart, and far more valuable. Average prices are almost double those of the Topps cards in any condition, with the record currently held by a Gem Mint 10-graded O-Pee-Chee card which sold in 2011 for $94,613.
1986/87 Fleer Michael Jordan card
The 1986/87 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card has been described as "the most popular basketball card ever made".
Jordan made his professional debut in the 1984-85 season, but didn't appear on a wax pack trading card until his third year in the NBA. His earliest appearance on a trading card is the 1984-85 Star Company card, but as they were mainly sold through mail order or given away as promotional items, many collectors don't regard Star Company cards as on a par with other sets.
The mass market for basketball cards was almost dead and buried before Fleer took up the mantle in 1986 and produced its first set – kick-starting the modern basketball card hobby as it is known today. The Jordan rookie is the most iconic card from the hobby's most iconic series, from a time in which the player's popularity began to transcend the sport and influence popular culture.
The Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card is by no means rare, with more than 13,000 cards recorded, and a good copy graded around 7 can be found for less than $500. However, the value of the highest-graded examples has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2011, one of only a handful of pristine examples with a perfect 10 grading sold for $100,000.
1914 Baltimore Sun Babe Ruth card
Baseball legend babe Ruth began his professional career in 1914 with the minor league Baltimore Orioles. Although he made his name as the king of the home run, Ruth started out as a star pitcher and was signed at the age of 19, straight out of St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys.
The local newspaper The Baltimore Sun printed a set of cards featuring players from both local teams: the Orioles from the International League and the Terrapins from the more popular Federal League. The success of the Terrapins drew most spectators in the Baltimore area, leaving the Orioles playing to virtually empty stadiums and causing financial trouble for team owner Jack Dunn. By July 1914, just a few months into the season, he was forced to sell some of his best players to make ends meet. Ruth was traded to the Boston Red Sox, and the rest is history.
There are only ten known examples of the 1914 Baltimore Sun Babe Ruth card in existence, printed in both red and blue variations with a list of the team schedule on the reverse. In 2008 an example graded 'very good' sold for $517,000, and in 2013 another sold for $450,300 – making the card one of the most valuable in the entire hobby.
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