Chasing rookie sports cards may not be new for collectors. What is relatively new is that sports collectibles have undeniably joined other collectibles as an alternative asset class. Collectibles now compete for the same money directly against stocks, bonds and real estate. With a new day trader mentality, many card-chase rookie buyers are putting their fortune and collection at risk.
With packs of cards selling out as fast as they can hit the shelves and with grading services backed up for months (or more), investors, dealers and collectors alike are buying up everything pack they can buy. And there are endless hopes of pulling hot rookies in every pack break.
What happened leading up to 2020 and into 2021 is that vintage sports cards are not alone in commanding hundreds and thousands of dollars for card prices – or more! A unique 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Mike Trout Superfractor rookie card (signed) recently sold for $3.936 million. This has not been the only monster baseball card sale of a modern era player.
Collectors Dashboard knows that chasing hot rookie cards has been going on since at least the early 1980s. The difference between the frenzy of 2020 and 2021 and the frenzy of $20 and $25 rookie cards in the mid-1980s does not even come close to the hot rookie baseball cards now.
Collectors Dashboard also has a dire warning for unsuspecting card buyers — $10 rookie cards today will not automatically rise into the hundreds of dollars, and $100 rookie cards today will not all rise into the thousands of dollars. In fact, many of the hot rookie cards will ultimately become worthless.
Baseball history is littered with many players who were either Rookie of the Year or were hot in the chase who fizzled out due to injury or who just lost their edge. And there can also be those not-so-rare instances where scandals hurt the reputations of young and older players alike.
Card prices of the 1980s and the junk-wax period of the 1990s faced their own issues at the time. Player strikes did not help, and over-printed runs of card brands like Topps, Donruss, Fleer and Bowman started to have even more competition for the same dollars and attention from Upper Deck, Leaf and other one-off or limited editions. Still, collectors chased hot rookies even during those years.
Many of those old hot rookie cards now have the same value or less than paper used to help start fire logs burning. All those baseball players had massive promise at the time. What may seem to be a minor injury on the surface can take away a season or end a career.
From 2020 to 2021 it has become quite common to see rookie and special edition cards of the “Juniors” of Ronald Acuna and Fernando Tatis, Jr. sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Ditto for the likes of special edition rookie cards of Aaron Judge, Shohei Ohtani, Juan Soto and others. And some of these players just have countless and endless rookie card populations that make only the rarest and highest grade (10 etc.) sought out. Will these players and other hot rookies all endure the tests of time?
Make no mistake here. This is not a prediction that any of these players named above will face career-ending injuries. It’s also not a prediction that their talent just will not live up to expectations nor that they will fall into scandals. In fact, this is not even a prediction that any of these players’ rookie cards will tumble in value. And as of now, it would seem to be a safe bet that these named players will one day be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
When investors are speculating on any asset, even hot baseball cards, it can drive up the price to levels which are often hard to explain. Now imagine a time where card dealers are taking drastic measures to get new pack allocations at the same time adults and kids all want these rookie cards as anchor cards in their collections. These factors alone will not create a bubble in all modern cards, but there is a long history of new players vanishing from baseball almost as fast as their rookie seasons went by.
Here are just some of the hot baseball rookie cards of recent decades that are worse than major disappointments for collectors and investors alike. And do not forget the lesson here — All of these players were briefly on their way to be being considered among the next greatest baseball players of their era and whose rookie card prices are now worth scrap.
Joe Charboneau rose through the ranks of minor league teams in the 1970s and a knee injury sidelining Andre Thornton gave him a shot to play for the Cleveland Indians in 1980. His .289 batting average was the best for a rookie hitter in the 5 years before and after his debut, and Charboneau hit 23 homers and batted in 87 RBIs. Joe took the American League Rookie of the Year and he has rookie cards from the 1981 Topps, Fleer and Donruss sets. His 1981 Fleer card even graced the cover of the annual Sports Americana Baseball Card Price Guide (see image below).
The growing world of sports collectibles thought Charboneau was going places when his rookie cards were issued in 1981. Cleveland even had a local hit song “Go Joe Charboneau” for him. The young player was known for antics from brawls to beer drinking through his nose to hair dyeing and more.
Charboneau was barely hitting .200 after a back injury in the 1981 season when the MLB baseball strike hit, and he was sent back down to the minor leagues as the teams returned playing. The sad reality here is that those few players who win Rookie of the Year just do not get sent back to the minors.
Charboneau returned to the Indians in August of 1981 and finished the year with just a .210 batting average, with just 4 home runs and only 18 RBIs. After a back surgery after the 1981 season, Joe was sent to the minors again after just 22 games in the 1982 season he was sent down to the minors again. The last time he would put on a uniform as a player in “the show” was as an extra in the film The Natural, playing one of Roy Hobbs’ teammates.
Barbaro Garbey was an early 1980s player who started out with a story that could have become a major movie had his career gone the other way. It could have even been the Anti-Scarface movie. This Cuban defector arrived in America during the wave of Cuban immigration in the “freedom flotilla” in 1980. He went on to play in the minor leagues after scoring a contract while still in a U.S. holding center. Garbey left Cuba as the first national baseball team player to leave, but he also left after a baseball scandal in a local gambling scheme of run-shaving.
Barbaro Garbey’s major league start was as part of the 1984 Detroit Tigers after 4 years of playing in the minors. He was considered at that time to be a contender for Rookie of the Year. Looking at his stats, and considering how strong his U.S. career took off, Garbey could have won Rookie of the Year in many other years.
Tigers manager Sparky Anderson had previously referred to Barbaro Garbey as the next Roberto Clemente. As the Tigers got off to a very strong start, Garbey was batting over .400 with 15 RBIs in just 45 at bats. Had that momentum held up even a tad better he could have likely been the American League Rookie of the Year. By the end of the 1984 season, Garbey still had a respectable .287 batting average and had the third best average of the main roster in his rookie year. Alvin Davis won out as ROY with a .284 batting average but he played in 152 games versus the 110 games played in by Garbey.
Where things went off kilter was that Garbey finished off the 1985 season with a mere .257 average and with only 86 games played. His MLB career as a player ended with the Texas Rangers in 1988, with only 30 games played and a mere .194 batting average.
Garbey’s true rookie card is from the 1984 Topps Traded set. That card was sought after by collectors and dealers alike. The real rookie card was then followed in 1985 by regular rookie cards from Topps, Fleer and Donruss. Dealers were also buying those cards up in hopes that Garbey would develop into a great star. Zoom forward to today and any of Garbey’s ungraded and unsigned rookie cards effectively have no value to speak of.
BUT WAIT, THERE ARE MORE
You have already been told about how investing in the Rookie of the Year or investing in hot rookies does not always pan out. Collectors Dashboard would point out that there were many other hot rookies whose baseball careers fizzled out. Their baseball cards, including rookie cards, are all over eBay and the prices under $5.00 are generally to cover a seller’s shipping cost and to pay for a fraction of their time.
Chris Coghlan won the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year and he had the best average in the majors after the All-Star break that year. He also had 40 hits in back-to-back months (August and September). His ball playing career was hampered by injury and underperforming expectations. While his career ended in 2017, his last 4 seasons were under 100 games and he only played 100+ games in 3 seasons. After a .321 batting average in that rookie year, he never hit .300 again and struggled to even hit .200 in some years. Chris Coghlan rookie cards are for sale on eBay for under $5.00.
Angel Berroa won the 2003 Rookie of the Year for the American League as shortstop. Most of his career was with the Royals after getting to play in 15 games in the show in 2001 and 20 games in 2002. That rookie year was based on a .287 average, but he also hit 17 homers and had 73 RBI. The man he beat out for the ROY was Hideki Matsui. His hitting went downhill and one dubious honor was reportedly being three straight seasons of leading the league in fielding errors. Berroa’s 9-year span included 4 MLB teams, but he never topped his rookie year’s average and he only played the equivalent of one season during his last 3 seasons as a player.
Bob Hamelin won the AL Rookie of the Year in 1994 and even earned the nickname “The “Hammer” with a .282 batting average and 24 home runs. His rookie card is actually the 1990 Upper Deck, but his official rookie year was not until 1994, and that year was cut short by the strike. Hamelin beat out Manny Ramirez in the ROY chase. Injuries and eye issues sent his career down the drain after 6 years with a mere .246 batting average. eBay had a 22 card lot Bob Hamelin Upper Deck 1990 rookie cards that was up for grabs, with no bidders early on.
Again, the hottest modern era rookie baseball cards are not all destined to be worthless. Some of these players are likely to be hot items and league leaders for years. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking for a split-second that the next hot rookie card has a guaranteed explosive profit attached to it in the years ahead. This is proof that not all hot rookies, even the Rookie of the Year players, will deliver profits for investors nor satisfaction to collectors.