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The 10 Commandments of the Rookie Card

Between 1981-2005, 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.

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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

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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.

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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 Commandments #1-5 are what the Player’s Association set in place for new rookie card guidelines. Commandments #6-10 are long time rookie card guidelines the hobby had determined decades ago.

The 10 Commandments of the Rookie Card:

(1) A rookie card must be licensed by both the League and the Players Associationthis was a primary reason why the PA got involved to begin with. Prior to 2005 card manufacturers were including prospect players into the base set. There is two problems with this. First, the prospect players were not legal members of the Player’s Association. 

The legal issue is in the back of the card, towards the bottom you will typically see two licensing logos and these prospect players did not have the legal right to be featured on those cards under those two licenses. 

So top priority for the PA was to issue this rule and it basically indicates that the player is a member of the organization, and manufacturers can now legally print the name, image, and likeness of a player. Again, both licenses are needed.

(2) A rookie card can only be released after a player has made a pro-level roster – another relevant issue that needed attention was card manufacturers including prospect player’s into the base set the year that they were drafted and not the year they entered the League.

This become more prevalent during the early nineties. Players had rookie cards three and sometimes four years before they got the call to the pro-level. Over time this loophole became more widespread as more and more manufacturers were competing to see who could be the first to feature a certain rookie player. 

(3) A rookie card must be branded with an identifier on the card front the design element to this identifier isn’t exclusive. The actual design of this identifier is up to the card manufacturer. However, somewhere on the front of the card collectors should be able to differentiate that this indeed is a rookie card. This decision was made to help with the “consumer confusion” that was happening.

NOTE: Just because it’s branded with this RC identifier doesn’t make it necessarily accurate. Today, the waters have been muddied because card manufacturers are applying the RC identifier on every single card produced of a rookie player: parallels, variations, inserts, subsets – everything has the RC identifier on it but traditionally this hasn’t been the case.

I apologize if this comes off confusing but its all part of the rookie card shenanigans that are so prevalent today. The point is, along with this identifier it must also meet the rest of the criteria for an actual “true” RC designation. 

(4) A non-pro roster player can appear on insert cards without the RC logo – taking the prospect player issue a step further this one to me makes a lot of sense because it brings fairness to the card manufacturers. Reason being, manufacturers and collectors alike want to see the hot prospects in product but putting them into the base set when they haven’t been assigned to a pro-roster was an issue.

In baseball the Player’s Association allowed these prospects to appear in insert sets within MLB product but the RC identifier can not be used. Some examples of this would be Bowman’s Scouts’ Top 100, Talent Pipeline, or Bowman’s Best – Top Prospects, or Best of Autograph’s.

(5) A non-pro roster player can be included in the base set as a rookie card with the consent of the Player’s Association – another concession for the card manufacturers was created here. Again, using the MLB as an example, many prospects do not make the opening day roster, typically they’ll be included into the MLB rosters mid-season.

If card manufacturers want to create rookie cards of them there is a process for that. But permission must be given by the Player’s Association. Any player included unto the roster after August 31 is considered a September call-up and not eligible for RC designation.

(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 – this is perhaps one of the longest standing rookie card guidelines in existence. A long-time hobby standard that still carries a lot of weight especially among hobby veterans. 

(7) A rookie card must come from a product allocated in pack form and distributed nationally when releasedregional sets may be desired by some collectors, but historically the hobby 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. 

For example. If something is too rare due to it being distributed at participating restaurants in a certain region of a country for a limited time only. This is not fair and equal distribution. Mainstream products have national distribution to multiple locations therefore are eligible to carry RC designation.

The 1980’s were notorious for this type of activity. Small spin off sets created for certain pharmacy’s or department stores. The hobby decided this is not fair and equal distribution.

(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 – this principle stands the test of time as well. Established in the early 80s it’s more relevant now than ever. The reason. Because today a rookie player can have 3-4+ cards featured in the base set and each card will have the RC identifier on it. This becomes very confusing especially to novice collectors.

But this long time hobby standard clarifies a good rule of thumb. These extended sets are an addition to another product line. So if there are multiple cards featured the first card in that set gets the RC designation. This is more of a manufacturing snafu that muddies the waters of actual rookie cards, and to just say, “let’s just allow all of the cards to be rookie cards” further muddies the waters.

Some collectors believe if the numbering on the Update or Traded sets begin with the #1 or a suffix like #U1 then it shouldn’t be considered an extension set. Therefore, these cards should have there own individual standing as rookie cards. However, this is what I call rookie card shenanigans. Since the original intent is an extension of another product line, and it has the exact card design, I find this way of thinking inaccurate.

(9) Cards from licensed or unlicensed manufacturers depicting players in minor league uniforms shall not be considered an RC there are many minor league ball parks that will sell complete team set cards in their gift shops. A few issues with these. Many times these minor league team sets are manufactured by unlicensed card manufacturers.

Moreover, they’ll feature these players in their respected minor league uniforms, and perhaps the most egregious is they are printed for regional distribution. A long-time general consensus within the hobby prefers their rookie cards in pro-uniforms.

(10) A rookie card must not come from a food and beverage issue, On-Demand Product, redemption card, insert, or a parallel card – (please refer to Commandments #6 and #7). Again, the rule of thumb was fair and equal distribution for everyone. Any spin off sets that were made for promotional use, or cards with some type of limiting distribution method, or didn’t come from a base set distributed nationally is not considered for RC designation. In the early 90s it was decided by the hobby that parallels are more of a variant or a copy of the original.

Now for the sake of example let’s just say we have an insert card with an RC logo on the front, it’s a gold parallel serial numbered to /100. That means only 100 people have a chance at owning said cards. This violates the true spirit of a rookie card which has always been everyone should have a fair chance at owning said card. How does that happen? This is a great questions and I’m glad you asked it. It only happens if it was included into the base set, and allocated in pack form distributed nationally. The greed of manufactured scarcity is another reason why the allure of the base set rookie card is devalued and mocked in today’s 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. They’ve created loop holes.

For example, if the Player’s Association deemed that a rookie card must be licensed by both the League and Player’s Association then why would they allow Panini to print baseball cards with only one license and use rookie card logos?

If Topps creates product specifically for prospect players then why would they allow them to have the MLB license and use MLB pro-uniforms. The rules say, “that a rookie card can only come after a player has made a pro-roster.” So we have prospect players inside of prospect product with pro-uniforms on. You know how confusing it is when you’re looking through a dollar box at a card show and you’re trying to determine if its a prospect card or an actual rookie card?

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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 MLB 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.

For further details on parallel rookie cards check this out: Parallel Rookie Cards, Helping or Hurting the Hobby?

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 prospect cards, and their 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.


Sources:

Friedman, James. What is a Rookie Card? Sports Card Forum. https://www.sportscardforum.com/articles/2010/04/what-is-a-rookie-card/ (December 1, 2018).

JWBlue. Baseball. Can someone once and for all clarify what a rookie card is? Blowout Forums. https://www.blowoutforums.com/showthread.php?t=971966 (Accessed November 30, 2018).

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