A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to stumble across a yard sale selling John Elway's rookie card, a Topps 1984 #63, graded and priced to move. I didn't hesitate when I bought it; retired HOFs are usually a safe investment. The purchase did get me thinking about rookie cards in general, however. Elway was drafted in 1983 by Baltimore (Colts), traded to Denver after one summer flirting with the Yankees and major league baseball. He would start for the Broncos opening day and begin the long and arduous journey from hyped rookie to elite quarterback. In the world of cardboard, Topps included him in their 1984 set (along with fellow future hall of famer Dan Marino). But if John was drafted (and started) in 1983, why not feature him in the previous year's set? The answer lies in how much the hobby has changed in the last 28 years.
Before short-printed inserts and rookie speculation were driving factors in the hobby, card enthusiasts' primary focus was on set and team building. Only two manufacturers were printing and selling football cards in the early 1980s: Topps and Fleer. The former's 396 card set was an early year release highly anticipated by collectors for its focus on current and emerging superstars. Unlike today, rookies were less important; players were sometimes featured years after their inaugural season. Combined with the fact the set came out before the start of the football season, and it's easy to understand why Topps held off on including rookies like Marino and Elway until the following year.
As the 80s moved on and interest from investors caused the hobby to explode in popularity, Topps borrowed a page out of their baseball playbook. Beginning in 1989 and continuing through 1990, Topps put out a short-printed, supplemental set called Topps Traded that highlighted midseason trades, acquisitions and high profile rookies. Players such as Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith made their first appearance on cardboard in these Traded sets.
By 1991, card collecting became a national obsession and manufacturers Score, Pacific, Pro Set and Upper Deck joined the fray. Unlike Topps, their sets were massive (up to 700 cards) and featured rookies drafted in the same year. Topps had no choice but to follow suit, expanding their yearly set to 660 cards (and including rookies). After the bubble burst in the mid ‘90s (taking much of industry with it), set sizes would come back down to earth (e.g. Topps 2012 base set is 440 cards with a handful of variations). Never again would rookies be neglected, however. In fact, the chase for the next John Elway (or Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, etc.) continues to this day. Cards featuring autographs of rookie QBs Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are currently fetching hundreds on EBay, and neither has played a down in an NFL game.
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