In a conversation with Andy of the 88 Topps blog, this topic came up: How long has the hobby been obsessed with the rookie card? Or, perhaps more importantly, how long has the rookie card been important to card manufacturers? And has it become more important through the years, or is its importance just a quality we as collectors project?
Andy made the point that historically, rookies had to prove themselves in the minor leagues with at least a few good seasons under their belts, before they made the jump to the big leagues and got their card in a baseball card set. In contrast, in the last 20 years, young players have been on cards from the moment they were drafted, and sometimes even before they were drafted (the Team USA subsets in 1985 Topps and 1988, 1991, and 1992 Topps Traded).
It seemed obvious, at least to us, that the rookie card has taken a much more significant role in sets as the years, and hobby, have progressed. But then after the conversation ended, I got to thinking: Do rookies really take up a larger percentage of today's sets than in years past? I looked at ten random sets: the T206 White Border monster, 1954 Bowman, 1957 Topps, 1966 Topps, 1978 Topps, 1983 Fleer, 1991 Donruss, 1994 Bowman, 1998 Upper Deck, and 2006 Topps. Here are the percentages:
T206 White Border: 2.1% (11/525)
(incomplete tally, though most glaring rookie omission is that of Hall of Famer Harry Hooper, which is surprising considering the set included more than a few cards of flashes-in-the-pan like Lucky Wright.)
1954 Bowman: 1.8% (4/224)
(I didn't count cards of players making their manufacturer debut, like Jim Gilliam and Bill Bruton, much like you can't count Mantle's 1952 Topps card as his rookie card.)
1957 Topps: 5.4% (22/407)
1966 Topps: 16.6% (99/598)
(This set included many team and league rookie cards. In those instances, I counted each individual player, not card.)
1978 Topps: 20% (145/726)
1983 Fleer: 3.5% (23/660)
1991 Donruss: 11.8% (91/770)
(Coincidentally, this set and others in the early 1990s got screwed out of having more true rookie cards because of earlier player appearances in other sets. In this set, the most notable instance is Tino Martinez, whose only 'true' rookie is his Team USA card in 1988 Topps Traded.)
1994 Bowman: 26% (177/682)
1998 Upper Deck: 3.1% (23/750)
2005 Topps: I can't find a single rookie in this set
It's surprising that the second highest concentration of rookies in this list of random sets is in 1978 Topps. I would've guessed that the later sets had more. But what's even more surprising, if we follow our earlier assumptions, is that there were a handful of players pictured in the monster 1909-1911 T206 White Border set that were only in a league for one or two seasons, guys like Harry Gaspar and Lucky Wright (this smacks of the modern-day Bowman plan of giving everybody a card). Their inclusion may not seem important to the makeup of the set, but by including cards of Gaspar and Wright, American Tobacco left others (perhaps more deserving) out of the set, most notably Harry Hooper.
Another interesting idea is raised, this one for modern sets. When a player is included in a set many years before his actual major league debut, can those cards issued directly preceding or after his major league debut be considered rookie cards? Let's go back to the example of Tino Martinez. He made his cardboard debut in 1988 Topps Traded, as a member of Team USA that participated in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. His next cards came three years later in 1991, as a member of the Seattle Mariners. None of his cards from 1991 are considered his rookie card, but is this fair?
Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever your opinion, this issue is an important one that still affects the hobby (thus the need for and adoption of an official 'rookie card' notation in recent years).
(The card shown, 1989 Topps Gregg Jefferies, is not his rookie card.)