The 10 Commandments of the Rookie Card

Between 1983-2005, the hobby had grown increasingly more fond of the rookie card. New technologies and designs evolved it. But by 2005, there was a lot of consumer confusion. So we continue the history of this hobby icon and present to you The 10 Commandments of the Rookie Card.

A “True” Definition of the RC is Born

In Part 1 of this series, History of the Rookie Card, I presented a timeline of the rookie card’s complex issues. However, it appears since the 1980’s each decade has had its own set of challenges.

But nothing has proven to be more resilient than the beloved RC.

mlbpa logo

I left off in 2005. If you recall, the MLBPA stepped in to assist the industry in clarifying licensing and defining the use of the MLB RC logo.

Guidelines were presented at a press release in May of 2005 by Evan Kaplan, Director of Licensing and Business Development for the MLB Players Association. 

He said, “A player’s rookie card should only be produced in the season in which he reaches the Major Leagues for the first time.” 

This statement has turned into the official definition of a rookie card. The dictionary and even Wikipedia states, “A rookie card is a trading card that is the first to feature an athlete after that athlete has participated in the highest level of competition within his or her sport.”

Expectations Declared by MLBPA

mlb rc logo 150x150

Another expectation given to the industry was rookie cards needed to be branded with a “rookie” identifier. Cards branded with this logo had to meet the requirement mentioned above, and they had to be licensed by both the MLB and MLBPA. 

Today, it seems card manufacturers look for loopholes instead of looking to comply with the most straightforward request made. But, again, that is an assumption, and I hope I’m wrong.

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Take note that these issues don’t apply to basketball or football. The problem always lies with baseball because when drafted, players typically end up in the minor leagues.

So the expectations placed on card manufacturers fit nicely and flowed smoothly with the other sports. But there are still certain boundaries that need to be defined. A common ground that the majority of collectors can agree on.

rated rookie

I emphasize the former because, let’s get real for a minute; we’re never going to reach a consensus.

Not everyone will agree with setting guidelines, heck I can’t entirely agree with some, but I still respect the fact that policies and boundaries are essential to have in all facets of life.

I lived the era of the broken rookie card and knew clarity was needed. Call it a time of solidarity, but what happened next needed to happen. Card manufacturers, sports card dealers, and collectors voiced their opinions.

“The hobby” at the time defined and solidified specific characteristics of the RC. But I’m a guy, so I’ve created a list in the form of commandments to bring about the simplicity of understanding. Below are the hobby guidelines and the new guidelines set by the Players Association combined.

The 10 Commandments of the Rookie Card:

  1. A rookie card must be licensed by both the League and the Players Association – this indicates that the player is a member of the organization, and manufacturers can now legally print that player’s cards. Both licenses are needed.
  2. A rookie card can only be released after a player has made a pro-level roster.
  3. A rookie card must be branded with an identifier on the card front. However, just because it’s branded with this identifier doesn’t make it necessarily accurate. It must also meet the rest of the criteria for an actual RC designation.
  4. A non-pro roster player can appear on insert cards without the MLB RC Logo.
  5. A non-pro roster player can be included in the base set as a rookie card with the consent of the MLBPA, but an August 31 deadline still applies.
  6. A rookie card must appear in the base set. If a player has more than one card in the base set, the first appearance of that player shall be considered the RC.
  7. A rookie card must come from a product allocated in pack form and distributed nationally when released. Regional sets may be desired by some collectors, but the industry doesn’t include those because of the limited distribution. The overall principle here is, all collectors should have a fair and equal chance at owning said cards.
  8. A player’s “rookie card” that is part of an Update/Traded or similar set, must not have any other cards issued within that same product line.
  9. Cards from licensed or unlicensed manufacturers depicting players in minor league uniforms shall not be considered an RC. (please refer to the official definition above). Neither are cards sponsored by a product such as Post, Coca-Cola, Hostess, etc.
  10. A rookie card must not be an insert, redemption, a parallel card, nor an On-Demand product.

Further Details

On-demand products that are printed to order are not to be considered RC. Again, the principle here is a fair and equal distribution to all collectors.

Rookie-themed inserts released within the rookie year and are rookie-related are acceptable but should not be viewed as true RCs. Again, a rookie card must appear within the base set of a product line.

Finally, a rookie card must not be a parallel card – this manufactured scarcity is not favorable for “true” RC designation. I get into the topic of parallel rookie cards in much greater detail here Parallel Rookie Cards, Helping or Hurting the Hobby?

Today’s Issue With Rookie Cards

Sports Card forums, hobby publications, books, and blogs show these as the main issues with the rookie card. And this is why the 10 Commandments of the Rookie Card are needed.

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Today some issues still exist with the RC. For starters, certain sports card manufacturers are still not following the guidelines set by the Players Association in 2005.

They half-heartedly at first but very subtly, over time, started to veer away from it. Card manufacturers are following the rules set by the MLB probably for legality reasons, but when it comes to the defined guidelines above, not so much.

Inserts, parallels, on-demand cards, all of it is getting the RC logo. In addition, if a set has more than one card featuring a rookie player, they all are recognized as RC’s.


Multiple minor league and prospect brands are now being offered to collectors, meaning they will not be fully licensed.

What has evolved from that is a group of collectors that view those cards as truer rookie cards but these players have not debuted at the pro-level yet!

These are typically branded with terms like “1st Bowman Card” and should be depicted in their minor league uniforms, but since they have the MLBPA license, they are being printed with their MLB uniforms, and it’s tough to tell which is which.

Few are saying anything, and even fewer notice. Many young collectors are unaware of the hobby history, so they are ignorant of the loopholes and shenanigans played by the card manufacturers.

Consequences to the Chaos

The consequence is a watered-down version of the RC. You see it in auction listings and any online venue that deals with sports card selling or trading.

Good intentioned folks are trying to sell or trade a prospect cards and calling it a rookie card. One thing is sure, whether it be ignorance, uncertainty, or blatant disregard – there is more confusion about what is and is not an RC.

Like most things in life, the old-timers know better. We’ve taken our lumps on the head over the years about our beloved RC’s.

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And as an old-timer myself, I’m challenging you, seasoned collectors, to speak up and teach this next generation. Send an email or a letter to manufacturers voicing your displeasures.

When I returned to the hobby in 2014, I found myself at times gun-shy to make purchases on the modern-day players because I wasn’t sure what is a prospect card and what is an RC. This is why I press in to do my homework.

I want rookie cards of Gleyber Torres, Francisco Lindor, and Juan Soto, to name a few, but I like the RC. I want the fully licensed version, the first card within the base set and stamped with that beautiful RC logo on the card front.

Prospect cards have a place in the hobby. I can appreciate them but don’t try to replace the rookie card with it! The RC is sacred, nostalgic, transcends the hobby, and at least in my eyes, will always be a pillar of the sports card hobby, and for those reasons, it should be respected and protected by us, the collectors.

Happy Collecting Collectors,

Learn. Collect. Enjoy.


Friedman, James. What is a Rookie Card? Sports Card Forum. (December 1, 2018).

JWBlue. Baseball. Can someone once and for all clarify what a rookie card is? Blowout Forums. (Accessed November 30, 2018).

Beckett Rookie Card Encyclopedia. Dallas, TX. Becket Media LLC. 2nd Edition 2014.

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