Sports Cards: The Most Iconic MLB Rookie Card for Every Team

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2022

Sports Cards: The Most Iconic MLB Rookie Card for Every Team

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    Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

    Rookie cards will always be a dominant force in the sports card hobby.

    These days, most players have a wide variety of rookie card options, with everything from lower-end base cards to high-priced autos, but there was a time when Topps was the only game in town. Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the market expanded, there were still only a handful of companies.

    Taking a team-by-team approach, we have highlighted the most iconic rookie card in the history of each MLB franchise, including a healthy mix of retired legends, more recent stars and active players.

    Iconic doesn't always mean most valuable, and for many players, their flagship Topps rookie got the nod over short-printed premium cards that few will ever have an opportunity to own.

    Included is a link to view each card, as well as some pertinent details about recent sales, grading history and player background.

    Only a player's true rookie card qualified for inclusion, meaning no XRCs and no prospect cards. Since Topps released its first flagship set in 1952, we designated that year as the cutoff, so no cards prior to that were considered.

AL East

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    Derek Jeter
    Derek JeterDiamond Images/Getty Images

    The most sought-after early card of Cal Ripken Jr. is part of the short-printed 1982 Topps Traded set. However, while that is his first solo Topps card, it's not a true rookie card since he was included in the 1982 base set, and that's the card that gets the nod for the Orioles. The only rookie card of Hall of Famer Eddie Murray (1978 Topps) was also a strong contender.


    Since Ted Williams debuted before our cutoff date and both Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz broke into the league with other teams, the choice here came down to Carl Yastrzemski (1960 Topps), Carlton Fisk (1972 Topps), Jim Rice (1975 Topps), Wade Boggs (1983 Topps), Roger Clemens (1985 Topps), Nomar Garciaparra (1992 Topps Traded) and Mookie Betts (2014 Topps Update). You can't go wrong with any of them as a Red Sox fan.


    The legendary 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card would be the no-brainer if it were considered a rookie card, but since he first appeared in the 1951 Bowman set, it's instead an iconic second-year card for the sake of this conversation. That turns our focus to Derek Jeter, and while his 1993 SP rookie card is far and away his most valuable, it's his 1993 Topps that is the most recognizable, and that's the name of the game here.


    There is some debate as to whether his 2021 Bowman's Best should in fact be considered his true rookie card, but Wander Franco is the rookie chase card in 2022 products and they carry the "RC" badge, so for now, we'll consider his 2022 Topps to be a rookie. All due respect to guys like Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, but no player in Rays history has made an impact on the hobby the way Franco already has.


    While it was tempting to give the nod to Carlos Delgado (1992 Bowman) or Roy Halladay (1997 Bowman), or to give some overdue attention to Dave Stieb (1980 Topps), there's really only one right answer here. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been a hobby juggernaut unlike anyone else in franchise history. He didn't appear in the 2019 Topps base set but was added for the 2019 Topps Chrome release, and that stands as his top base rookie card.

AL Central

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    George Brett
    George BrettSPX/Diamond Images/Getty Images

    Chicago White Sox: 1990 Leaf #300 Frank Thomas RC

    The 1990 Leaf set was a premium product released at the height of low-quality mass-production throughout the hobby, and it is one of the most important sets of the 1990s as a result. It doesn't hurt that it includes key rookie cards of Frank Thomas, Sammy Sosa and Larry Walker, and even raw copies of the Thomas card still regularly sell for $20-30 on eBay.


    This was a tough one. Jim Thome (1991 Bowman) and CC Sabathia (1999 Topps Traded) both received some serious consideration, and Jose Ramirez (2014 Topps) could ultimately be the best answer, but for now, the pick is Francisco Lindor. From the time he made his MLB debut on June 14, 2015, until his trade to the New York Mets, he was one of the faces of baseball and a perennial AL MVP candidate.


    The 1978 Topps set is a must for any Tigers fan, as it contains rookie cards of Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris, but the iconic rookie card nod goes to legendary outfielder Al Kaline. The Hall of Famer spent his entire 22-year career in Detroit, racking up 3,007 hits and posting 92.9 WAR while adding 18 All-Star selections and 10 Gold Gloves.


    Kansas City Royals: 1975 Topps #228 George Brett RC

    There is no team in baseball with a larger gap between the greatest player in franchise history and everyone else than the Royals, so this was one of the easier picks. The 1975 Topps George Brett rookie card is one of the most iconic cards of the 1970s, and the set also features rookie cards of Robin Yount, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Keith Hernandez.


    Tip of the cap to Harmon Killebrew (1955 Topps), Rod Carew (1967 Topps) and Joe Mauer (2002 Topps), but there is little question the most popular player in Twins franchise history is Kirby Puckett. He has rookie cards in the 1985 Donruss, 1985 Fleer and 1985 Topps sets, as well as an XRC in the 1984 Fleer Update set that was not eligible for inclusion under our parameters.

AL West

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    Mike Trout
    Mike TroutRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    The 1991 Stadium Club set was the first premium product released by the Topps company in an effort to compete with the rising popularity of Leaf and Upper Deck, and Jeff Bagwell is the top rookie card in the inaugural set. The Hall of Fame first baseman has nine different rookie cards, and the Stadium Club is the most popular of the bunch.


    What the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card was to 1990s collectors, the 2011 Topps Update Mike Trout is to the current generation, only at a significantly higher price point. Ungraded versions of the Trout rookie can push four figures in clean condition, and a PSA 10 version sold for $2,752 on eBay earlier this week.


    Jose Canseco won AL Rookie of the Year honors with a 33-homer season in 1986, and two years later he won AL MVP honors with a 42-homer, 40-steal performance in the first 40/40 season in MLB history. The Athletics were the best team in baseball in the late '80s and early '90s, and Canseco was one of the most popular players in the sport as one-half of the "Bash Brothers" alongside Mark McGwire.


    Even baseball fans who are not card collectors likely recognize the 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, and there's a real case to be made that it's the most iconic baseball card of all time. As card No. 1 in the set, it helped launch Upper Deck's inaugural product release, and a whopping 164,691 have been submitted to PSA for grading.


    The Rangers only have six retired numbers. One belongs to Jackie Robinson, one belongs to manager Johnny Oates, and three belong to players who began their career with other teams in Nolan Ryan, Adrian Beltre and Michael Young. That leaves Ivan Rodriguez as the easy choice for this list, and 1991 Bowman is the best of his seven rookie cards.

NL East

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    Hank Aaron
    Hank AaronAssociated Press

    The 1954 Topps set is a beautiful example of vintage baseball cards, and the checklist features rookies of Hall of Fame legends Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. All three of those cards were considered for spots on this list, and the Aaron rookie is an easy choice to represent the Braves as one of the most recognizable vintage cards in the hobby.


    The Marlins signed Miguel Cabrera as an international amateur free agent on July 2, 1999, and Topps decided to include the precocious teenager in its 2000 Topps Traded set after he made his stateside debut that year at the age of 17. It wound up being his only rookie card, along with the matching Topps Chrome Traded version, and both cards command a premium as a result.


    This would be another first-ballot inductee into the hypothetical baseball card Hall of Fame, and the fact that both players on the shared rookie card went on to have successful careers only further adds to its appeal. That said, Nolan Ryan is unquestionably the main attraction, and he remains one of the most popular names on the vintage market.


    Philadelphia Phillies: 1973 Topps #615 Mike Schmidt RC

    Thanks in large part to the fact that Steve Carlton is still a member of the St. Louis Cardinals on his rookie card, this was an easy choice. With all due respect to Jimmy Rollins (1998 Bowman), Chase Utley (2001 Bowman Draft), Cole Hamels (2002 Bowman Draft), Ryan Howard (2003 Bowman Draft) and other more recent homegrown stars, Mike Schmidt is a legend and arguably the greatest third baseman in MLB history.


    All that needs to be said is "US300," and many current baseball card collectors know exactly what you're talking about. When Juan Soto climbed from Single-A to the majors in a span of 40 games in 2018 and proceeded to post a 142 OPS+ with 22 home runs as a 19-year-old, his hobby stock skyrocketed. He has only solidified his standing as one of the game's best young superstars in the years since, and his Topps Update rookie card is far and away his most recognizable.

NL Central

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    Roberto Clemente
    Roberto ClementeAnonymous/Associated Press

    Our third visit to the 1954 Topps set highlights another all-time great in "Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks, who spent his entire 19-year career in Cubbie blue. Other options here included Ryne Sandberg (1983 Topps), Kerry Wood (1997 Bowman) and Kris Bryant (2015 Topps), but it's hard to make a real case for anyone other than Banks.


    Fellow "Big Red Machine" stars Tony Perez (1965 Topps) and Johnny Bench (1968 Topps) are also worth a mention here, but Pete Rose remains the biggest star from those legendary teams. His 1963 Topps rookie card was a frequent target of counterfeit attempts in the 1980s, some of which were confiscated and stamped "counterfeit" only to return to circulation. Even those sell for $50-75 on eBay today.


    Milwaukee Brewers: 1975 Topps #223 Robin Yount RC

    If the George Brett rookie card is the most sought after in the colorful 1975 Topps set, Robin Yount's rookie is a close second. The two-time MVP played his entire 20-year Hall of Fame career with the Brewers, racking up 3,142 hits and 77.4 WAR along the way. The 1978 Topps rookie card that Paul Molitor shares with Alan Trammell was also a strong contender here.


    Count me among those who think Roberto Clemente should have his No. 21 retired across baseball for his legendary career on the field and his humanitarian efforts off of it. His 1955 Topps rookie card is one of the most valuable rookies on the market thanks to his enduring popularity, and no other Pirates rookie holds a candle to this one.


    Unlike many others during the 2000s, Albert Pujols does not have a base Bowman Chrome rookie card, but instead only an autographed version with a minuscule print run of 500. The most recent eBay sale of the cards was on March 30, when a BGS 8.5 (Auto 9) sold for $19,999 plus $25 shipping. Have to love a seller who still charges for shipping when you buy a card for $20K.

NL West

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    Tony Gwynn
    Tony GwynnGeorge Gojkovich/Getty Images

    Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley and even current stars Ketel Marte and Zac Gallen all began their careers with different organizations, so there were not many options for the D-backs outside of Paul Goldschmidt. He spent the first eight seasons of his career in Arizona, racking up 39.9 WAR in the process, and his 2011 Topps Update rookie remains extremely undervalued.


    This was a coin toss between Todd Helton (1993 Topps Traded) and Nolan Arenado (2013 Topps Update), with some consideration also given to Troy Tulowitzki (2005 Bowman Draft). There's an argument to be made that the Helton rookie shouldn't count, since he's pictured as a member of Team USA and was not even drafted by the Rockies until 1995, but we're willing to overlook that.


    Los Angeles Dodgers: 1955 Topps #123 Sandy Koufax RC

    There's a compelling Sandy Koufax (1955 Topps) vs. Clayton Kershaw (2008 Topps Update) debate for the title of greatest pitcher in Dodgers history, and it spills over into this conversation as well. For vintage collectors, the Koufax rookie is undoubtedly a grail, and it gets the nod here by a narrow margin over a more readily available modern card.


    This came down to Dave Winfield (1974 Topps), Tony Gwynn (1983 Topps) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (2019 Topps Chrome), and while Tatis will have every opportunity to carve out his legacy in the Padres organization over the course of his 14-year contract, Gwynn is still "Mr. Padre" for the time being. He also has rookie cards in 1983 Donruss and 1983 Fleer, but his Topps flagship rookie is the card to own.


    San Francisco Giants: 2010 Topps #2 Buster Posey RC

    Similar to the Yankees and Mickey Mantle, the 1952 Topps Willie Mays would be a layup pick here, but it's technically a second-year card since he appears in the 1951 Bowman set. That leaves Willie McCovey (1960 Topps) and Juan Marichal (1961 Topps) as the best vintage options, while Will Clark (1987 Topps) is also worth a mention. But in the end, we opted for the face of the team's three recent championship runs and a potential Hall of Famer in Buster Posey. Scoop this one up at a reasonable price while you still can.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.