Sports Collectors

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

As it pertains to borderline Hall of Famers, articles making an argument for who the next “Ted Simmons” should be have been written in many spaces. Jim Kaat, Dick Allen, Dale Murphy, Lou Whitaker, Minnie Minoso et al, lead the cast of players whom every collector knows. However, in this piece I want to come purely from the standpoint of featuring great, largely forgotten players with rookie cards that would be cool just to have in your collection. And someday, to coincide with the changes in baseball, the HOF may/will have to change it’s entrance criteria, and some of these players just might get a closer look. This is a niche that is a ton of fun for me and one that I believe is largely overlooked by collectors.

Today I want to feature 10 of these cards out of around 100 -that I cherish. NOTE: Stats are from Baseball Reference and biographical information is from Wiki, ESPN, and the cards themselves.

1. 1934 Goudey #68 Bob Johnson 

Johnson is unknown to most collectors because he played on mostly lousy teams and never had that three or four year dominant run. Instead, over a 14-year career he was Steady Eddie, with nine seasons of 20 or more homers, eight of 100 or more RBIs, five of hitting .300 or better, to go with eight All Star nods. He finished his career among the AL’s top five right-handed hitters in career RBIs (1,283), runs (1,239), slugging percentage (.506), walks (1,075), and total bases (3,501).  You can own his ’33 Goudey card in respectable condition for under $50.

2. 1948-49 Leaf #49 Del Ennis 

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

Ennis is a guy whose cards you see everywhere and never give them another thought. However, as an outfielder for the Phillies in the post-World War II years, Ennis averaged better than 23 home runs and 100 RBIs over 11 seasons and was the key player on the 1950 pennant winning team.

His 259 home runs with the Phillies rank third in franchise history behind Mike Schmidt (548) and Ryan Howard (382). Additionally, his 1,124 RBIs also rank third among modern Phillies, again behind only Schmidt (1,595) and Howard (1,194).  This one is an easy pickup for under $30.

3. 1958 Topps #420 Vada Pinson

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

Even though he played 18 years, you don’t think of Pinson as coming up only 243 hits shy of 3000. He is your classic jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of player. Toiling predominantly for the Cincinnati Reds, Pinson appeared in 2,469 games, compiling a career line of hitting .286, with 2757 hits, 256 homers, 1169 RBIs, 305 stolen bases and a .769 OPS.  Nice ungraded examples of his rookie card are available for under $20.

FUN FACT: Pinson attended Oakland’s McClymond’s High School, the same high school as Frank Robinson, Curt Flood, and Bill Russell.

4. 1961 Topps #506 Willie Davis 

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

In 1961, Davis replaced the legendary Duke Snyder in center field, and stayed there for 13 years. In 1962, he and Maury Wills batting one-two set the table for Tommy Davis to knock in 153 runs, an all time Dodger record. Willie had 13 seasons of 20 or more stolen bases and holds the Los Angeles Dodger club records for hits (2091), runs (1004), triples (110), at bats (7495), extra base hits (585), and total bases (3094). His ’61 Topps card is beautiful and inexpensive.

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FUN FACT: His 31-game hitting streak in 1969 remains the longest by a Dodger, breaking HOFer Zack Wheat’s previous record of 29.

5. 1965 Topps #473 Orioles Rookie Stars (Paul Blair/Dave Johnson) 

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

Rarely do you see one rookie card that contains two players so central to a team’s success. Along with Powell, Belanger, Brooks, Buford, Blefary and Andy Etchebarren, this card captures the heart of the great Oriole teams of the late 60s and early 70s. Though neither had eye-popping stats, they each made major contributions. Blair was known for his speed and defense, stealing 171 bases and earning eight Gold Gloves in his career. Orioles ace Jim Palmer once commented that Blair “was worth two runs, defensively, every game.”

Johnson played second throughout the Orioles’ run of four World Series appearances from 1966-71, winning the AL Gold Glove award in the last three of those seasons. After being traded to the Braves at the end of the ‘72 campaign, Johnson clocked 43 homers, tying Rogers Hornsby’s record for most single-season home runs by a second baseman with 42. (He hit his 43rd as a pinch hitter). After his retirement in 1978, Johnson embarked on a very successful managerial career, including manning the dugout in the Mets’ miraculous 1986 World Series win over the Red Sox.  This one is readily available in a variety of grades, but $25 or less will still buy a very nice raw copy.

6. 1966 Topps #424 Reds Rookie Stars (Lee May/Darrell Osteen)

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

Nicknamed “The Big Bopper from Birmingham,” May hit 20 or more homers and knocked in 80 or more runs in 11 consecutive seasons. After being named The Sporting News NL Rookie of the Year in ‘67, Lee became a seminal member of The Big Red Machine and was their most productive player in the 1970 World Series against the Orioles. In his 18-year career, May posted a .267 batting average, with 2031 hits, 354 homers, and 1244 RBIs in 2071 games.  Very sharp raw copies of his rookie card are less than ten bucks.

FUN FACT: May and Frank Robinson are the only players to be elected to both the Orioles and Reds Halls of Fame.

7. 1969 Topps #82 Pirates Rookie Stars (Richie Hebner/Al Oliver)

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

Oliver is another guy you would never think was only 257 hits short of 3000. But the fact that he hit over .300 eleven times in his 18-year career and was the 1982 NL batting champion bears that out. Oliver was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates teams that won five NL Eastern Division titles between 1970 and ’75 and won the World Series in ‘71. A seven-time All Star, Al finished his career with a .303 batting average, 2743 hits, 219 home runs, 1326 RBIs, 1189 runs and a .795 OPS.  While interest in this card has picked up a bit in recent years, it’s still modestly priced.

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FUN FACT: Oliver hit the last home run at Forbes Field and had the first RBI at Three Rivers Stadium.

8. 1972 Topps #761 AL-NL Rookie Stars (Ben Oglivie/Ron Cey/Bernie Williams) 

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

Cey was part of a legendary Dodger infield that included Steve Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second and Bill Russell at short. The four infielders stayed together as the Dodgers’ starters for eight and a half years on a team that won four NL pennants and one World Series title, for which Ron was named MVP. In his 16-year career, Cey batted .261 with 316 homers, 1139 RBIs and a .799 OPS in 2073 games. FUN FACT: Cey was nicknamed “The Penguin” for his slow, waddling gait.

BONUS ROOKIE: Ben Oglivie had a stealthily stellar 16-year career, posting a .273 batting average, with 1615 hits, 235 homers, and 901 RBIs in 1,754 games. With Milwaukee, he smacked 41 homers in 1980, good for a tie with Reggie Jackson for the AL lead. It’s rare to have one rookie card that features two solid players with so much pop.

As a high number in a popular set, this is one of the more valuable cards on our list.

9. 1974 Topps #600 Rookie Infielders (Ron Cash/Jim Cox/Bill Madlock/Reggie Sanders)

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

This card is available for about the price of a fast food lunch–or less.

Nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his fiery temper, Bill Madlock racked up four NL batting titles between 1975 and ‘83, a record for a third baseman at the time. Not surprisingly, he was the first player to earn multiple batting titles with two different teams. While chasing his second batting crown in 1976, Bill was neck-and-neck with Ken Griffey going into the last game of the season, when he rapped four singles to raise his average six points to edge Griffey out. Madlock’s four batting titles is the most of any player in MLB history who is not enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

10. 1977 Topps #491 Rookie Pitchers (Mike Dupree/Denny Martinez/Craig Mitchell/Bob Sykes) 

10 Cheap Rookie Cards of Some Underappreciated Baseball Stars

Another guy who many collectors sleep on, “El Presidente” won 245 games and posted a 3.70 ERA over a steady 23-year career. In fact, on September 28th, 1993, Martinez won his 100th game for the Montreal Expos, becoming the ninth Major League pitcher to record 100 or more wins in both the American and National Leagues. (NOTE: Six of the eight he joined are in the HOF). Moreover, HOFer Juan Marichal was the winningest Latin pitcher in history until Martinez passed him by recording his 244th victory on August 9, 1998.  The dirt cheap price on his rookie card makes it worth grabbing.

FUN FACT: On Sunday, July 28, 1991, Martinez, pitching for the Expos, hurled the 13th perfect game in history, becoming the first foreign-born player to pull off such a feat.

Of course, this short list contains only a small fraction of players that could have made it. If you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it, maybe it’s time to take a break from the economic pressure the hobby can bring to bear and just enjoy collecting for collecting’s sake.

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