My prime card collecting years were the early to mid 1990s.
Back before baseball cards were littered with more flair than a Chotchkie's waiter, I was just a stupid kid dumping my allowance at the local card shop (remember those?!).
While limited insert cards were always a cool pull, I was all about a certain type of card – Rookies. I wanted all the rookies. I wasn’t out to find only future stars, but the soon to be legends I watched play every night.
Unfortunately for me, I always seemed to have the wrong rookie card. Whenever I thought I hit the mother lode, Beckett Magazine was there to keep me humble. If I had a player’s Topps rookie, it was Upper Deck that was valuable. If I had a Stadium Club, the Donruss was the first printed, and thus the most expensive. If I thought a guy was a true rookie one year, it turns out there were cards printed of him from three years prior. I could never win, but that didn’t make the hunt any less fun.
As I learned in time, even if I had the valuable rookie, there was a good chance my card wasn’t worth much. Little did I know cards needed to be PSA/DNA ‘gem mint 10’ graded and under UV protective plastic kept in a Fort Knox-level vault away from any other variables that may somehow harm the value. Even then, after paying to have all that done, you might score enough money to buy ten more packs of baseball cards.
As with most good things, collecting cards became big business. Nowadays the only cards that seem worth a damn have chunks of game used equipment, the players’ DNA and a signature on them, but back then a plain old rookie felt like a lotto ticket. I didn’t understand the concept of mass production. I had no idea that thousands of other kids were pulling the exact same rookie I was. I literally thought I was gonna retire off my baseball card collection one day, and these were the cards that we’re gonna get me to that private beach by age 30.
15 Mark McGwire: 1985 Topps Tiffany
This retroactively became our Holy Grail. No kid knew there was a Mark McGwire card printed before 1987, and I don’t think anyone had a clue what “Topps Tiffany” was. I can recall having a 1987 Donruss McGwire “rookie” and thinking I was the man (It’s $3 on eBay right now). Oh to be young and ignorant again. As soon as the McGwire/Sosa homerun hysteria took over the headlines, I learned about the Team USA McGwire card and realized my collection was small potatoes. It made all other McGwire rookie cards worthless. Any kid that had this card was a millionaire in my eyes. Collectors were shelling out hundreds of dollars for them at the time, and while some are still trying to get thousands today, Beckett claims the card is worth $120 ($20 for the regular Topps version). Not bad, but not life changing.
14 Sammy Sosa: 1990 Leaf
While the McGwire card was the white whale, Sammy Sosa rookie prices obviously skyrocketed as well. Of all the prints that existed, his 1990 Leaf card seemed to be the most collectable. I always found it funny that this bomb hitting monster’s most valuable rookie card featured a photo of him bunting. I didn’t even know Sammy played for the White Sox, so the sight of this card threw me for a loop entirely. I knew I had to have it. … I never got it. The prices were outrageous, especially for a kid with no job or prospects. I wasn’t gonna find unopened packs of 1990 Leaf lying around on shelves, so the only place to really get one was at a card show, or under the glass in the local shop. The card’s value peaked in the hundreds of dollar range, but is now listed for $8 in Beckett. Ouch.
13 Ken Griffey Jr.: 1989 Upper Deck
Ah, finally a card I actually owned! I don’t recall there really being a huge discrepancy between brands when it came to Griffey rookies. At the time, they all seemed to hold value. It was always a tossup between the UD and the Fleer, but the Upper Deck card is just iconic. You have this fresh faced kid looking like he’s in costume, with the old school Mariner hat just resting on his head. I can picture it without even using Google. It’s etched into my memory. I actually remember acquiring this card in a trade with a friend. You better believe it cost me a bundle. I think I still owe him a “card to be named later,” so hopefully he isn’t reading this. As for the card’s current value, this isn’t the most expensive Griffey rookie you can own, but I’ll always consider it the cream of the crop. You can buy a graded version on mlb.com for $80.
12 Derek Jeter: 1992 Topps
Now begins the run of shortstops. Of the thousands upon thousands of sports cards I collected as a kid, this remains one of the best I have in my current collection. That’s actually pretty sad, but hey, Jeets is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Can’t complain about having a Hall of Famer’s rookie card, right? Right? Just agree with me so I feel better. Derek Jeter was another guy whose rookies seemed to hold value across brands, but I always remember this Topps card being the one most collector’s showcased. This is one of those cards you don’t have to question in terms of rookie status as it features Jeter in one of those generic Spring league Yankee jerseys and says “Draft Pick.” Then again, I used to believe Donruss “Rated Rookies” were actual first year rookie cards, but learned a hard lesson in time. If properly graded, you can still get a pretty penny for this card, but Beckett only has it listed for $15. Maybe I’ll look to sell mine if I ever desperately need to extend my Netflix subscription another month.
11 Alex Rodriguez: 1994 Upper Deck SP
All I could think when A-Rod came up in 1994 was, “My God, the Mariners have another one?!” He was the top pick in the 1993 draft, so I obviously knew the hype, but after seeing his Sportscenter highlights, I knew I had to track down his rookie. I eventually did, but not the one with the most value, naturally. SP was one of those “Premium” offshoot card brands that I normally never bought because I seem to recall them costing more and having fewer cards per pack. This card was “Foil” style, which made it all the more exclusive. You can still scoop a graded one of these for about $75 from my browsing, although some auctions seem to still be asking for thousands of dollars.
10 Nomar Garciaparra: 1992 Topps Traded
You couldn’t mention A-Rod and Jeter in the 90s without also mentioning Nomar Garciaparra. He was poised to be just as good as the big 2, but his reign on top didn’t last nearly as long. Despite being a superstar for a few years, Nomar’s career kinda fizzled out when he left the pre-champion Sox. Still, his rookie card was a hot ticket item, and since the McGwire Team USA card was all the rage, I needed to get my hands on Nomar’s Team USA card from 1992 – 4 years before he made his actual MLB debut. I never ended up getting my hands on this card specifically, but if I truly wanted to they aren’t going for much these days. You could probably track one down for about $20-30 pretty easily without much of a search.
9 Chipper Jones: 1991 Topps
Keeping with the patriotic theme, Larry Wayne Jones also had a Team USA rookie card. I wanted a Chipper Jones rookie so bad my dad got me an entire set that year for Christmas… only he got me the wrong one. My gift was a box of 1991 Score, arguably the worst card brand on the market. I still have it, and I still appreciate the gesture, but it didn’t feature the Chipper rookie card I was craving. There were probably five different Chipper rookies that were going for more money in Beckett that year, but I just needed that Team USA card. I never ended up finding one, but you can buy one these days for around $20. Oh and that Score set wasn’t a total loss. It did feature rookie cards from Mike Mussina, and all time prospect flameout, Todd Van Poppel.
8 Brien Taylor: 1992 Topps
Speaking of “all time prospect flameouts,” who remembers the next Yankee great, Brien Taylor? I’d be hard pressed to make this list without at least one huge bust. For a small stretch of time, this was the card to have. I know that because I pulled one from a pack, and basically thought I was the king of collecting. Growing up around New York baseball at the time, Taylor was all anyone was talking about. He was THE next great pitcher. He was the best young NY hurler since Dwight Gooden. He was the first overall pick in the 1991 draft, so to pull his actual Draft Pick card felt like winning a contest. … We all know what happened from there – the poor guy got hurt in some off-field shenanigans and never even made the big leagues. While my cross-town Mets would go on to have their own trio of pitching busts (Generation K!) Brien Taylor was supposed to be transcendent, and I feel bad for the guy to this day. Still, I’ll always have the memory of pulling that card.
7 Hideo Nomo: 1995 Leaf
Brien Taylor was probably my favorite rookie pull, until a few years later when I found a Nomo rookie. Well, that’s actually a lie, my brother found it, but this was a card I actively remember searching for. The rumor was that Leaf would be the first set to have a Hideo Nomo rookie after he came to the MLB from Japan. It was my Holy Grail for months. I remember adult men buying up packs of Leaf alongside me with the same goal in mine. I bought so many damn packs of 1995 Leaf I still have a shoebox of them. All that work, all that hard earned money spent, and nothing. Meanwhile, I pressure my little brother into buying a couple packs and pulls one. He later gave it to me as a birthday gift, which was really cool for a little kid to do, and I still have it to this day. It’s essentially worthless. I’m thinking about trading it for a stick of Bazooka Joe gum. My brother’s getting married later this year, maybe I’ll slip it in card with a check that I short $1.25.
6 Barry Bonds: 1986 Topps Traded
Back when I was collecting, no one was talking about steroids… well I mean, it wasn’t the number 1 topic of conversation for a few more years at least. Barry Bonds was still that awesome outfielder for the Pirates. This was pre McGwire/Sosa, and before Barry decided to go from elite player to legendary. Still, he was one of the best players in the sport, and I needed to have all the best players in the sport’s rookie card. This was THE Barry Bonds rookie to own. I distinctly remember that image with the pillbox hat. I ended up buying the regular Topps Bonds rookie with the wood grain design instead, but I always yearned to have the Topps Traded version. There were apparently only 5,000 of these printed, but you can still track one down for an affordable price these days.
5 Frank Thomas: 1990 Topps (No Name Error Card)
While Bonds was one of the best players of the '90s, Frank Thomas was my favorite non-Met in baseball. I spent many a day imitating the Big Hurt’s swing in my backyard, and even used to tell my coaches I was gonna play baseball at Auburn one day (here’s a hint – that never happened.) I never even heard of an error card before this one, but I do remember thinking I was rich. Ya see, I had the regular Topps Frank Thomas rookie with his name on the front. When I checked Beckett and say what the “no name error” card was going for, I convinced myself they were one and the same. They obviously weren’t. While the Big Frank rookie I have is still one of my favorite cards of all time, I’m not gonna be able to make bank off it. The error card however is still going for $800 in Beckett.
4 Carlos Beltran/Juan Lebron: 1995 Topps Traded
Wait, who? This is my favorite error card ever, because it’s the only one I actually have. (My apologies to the Billy Ripken “F-Face” card). The card in reference is a 1995 Draft Pick card featuring a photo of Royals prospect Juan Lebron labeled as future Royals star, Carlos Beltran. To make matters more confusing, Beltran’s photo appeared on a card with Juan LeBron’s name. In the sports card collecting world, they call this the old switcharoo. This was Carlos Beltran’s first official rookie card and no one even knew who the hell he actually was. Beltran of course went on to be Rookie of the Year, while Lebron is just a name we associate with another sport these days. The cards themselves aren’t going for much at auction anymore, but are still a pretty cool collectable.
3 Albert "Joey" Belle: 1989 Topps
Needless to say the Carlos Lebron fiasco got me fascinated with mislabeled cards, so when I found a “Joey” Belle rookie card at an antique shop (underrated place to find cards back then) I thought I hit pay dirt. Who is Joey Belle? Was he Indians’ slugger Albert Belle’s brother? He looked like his twin. Did Albert have a twin or something? I was lost, but you better believed I snatched the card up with the quickness. Since I was a dumb kid who didn’t have access to the internet at the time, it took me a while to realize this WAS Albert Belle. The maligned, but underrated Belle’s birth name was Albert Jojuan, and he went by “Joey” through the first few years of his professional career. How the heck was I supposed to know? Either way, Albert Belle’s bat couldn’t keep up with his mouth, and he never ended up reaching the heights I thought he would. This card isn’t worth anything today.
2 Michael Jordan: 1991 Upper Deck
Forget Joey Belle, who is this Michael Jordan imposter wearing a White Sox uniform? This is the all time greatest “oddball” baseball card, in my opinion (My apologies to the 1994 Baseball Strike card, which believe it or not, was a hot collectable of OJ Simpson Pog slammer proportions back then.) My buddy had an Upper Deck MJ rookie, and I was blown away until we found out it was 3 years late. There were a few MJ baseball rookies in 1994, but his actual rookie came out with the 1991 Upper Deck set. I’m sure collectors will tell you this one doesn’t actually count because he was not signed to the Chisox system at the time, but since the card was basically prophetic, I’m counting it. No one actually knew Jordan would be playing for the Birmingham Barons just a few years later when he took batting practice that day in a White Sox uni. I still hold this card up there with all the best MJ collectables – from the sneakers to the white #45 Bulls jersey, to all those Happy Meal toys I made my mother buy me. I wish I had this card in my collection today, but I don’t feel like shelling out $100+ for it, which is what it usually averages at in sales.
1 Mike Piazza: 1992 Fleer Update
Last but not least, my favorite player of all time. … It’s my article, let me have this. I realize there are plenty of stars from the late 80s and 1990s who could have probably cracked this list, but the 1992 Fleer Update Piazza rookie was a gem at the time and has actually become a pretty rare collectable these days. Fleer Update wasn’t exactly the most popular brand in the shops, with the parent company, and Fleer Ultra selling more packs, so not many kids had this one in their binders. I actually have the Fleer Ultra Piazza rookie card, which I think is one of those fake rookies that were printed a year after. That one could probably net me $5 on a good day. The Fleer Update Piazza sells for hundreds of dollars. Why wouldn’t it? We are talking about the greatest hitting catcher in the history of baseball here. What, you don’t agree? Come at me.