Jim Abbott and Rookie Cards

During one of the never-ending discussions about rookie cards and what constitutes them I had a realization that when I was a kid there were four different completely-defensible Topps Rookie Card possibilities for a player to have. Those four are:

  1. A team USA card which is part of Flagship or Traded and features the player before he turned pro.
  2. A Flagship #1 Draft Pick card that features him as a brand-new professional who has yet to play professionally.
  3. A Topps Traded card that marks his MLB debut.
  4. A post-debut Flagship Topps card that marks his first appearance as a MLB player in a flagship set.

It’s worth noting here that, both personally and as one of the editors of this blog, I encourage everyone to decide what counts for you and treat neither the RC badge nor any price guide’s ruling as gospel. I’ve encountered collectors who choose every different option here and have seen plenty of Twitter chops busting (or worse) when differing opinions encounter each other.

Anyway I looked at these options and immediately began wondering if there were any players who had all four types of Rookie Cards. It turns out that there’s not a huge checklist to pick from.

Team USA cards are only part of 1985 Topps, 1988 Traded, 1991 Traded, 1992 Traded, and 1993 Traded. The 1985 predate the #1 Draft cards and of the rest, not all those guys who made it were actually #1 Draft Picks. While I did not click through everyone’s name, I did check  the obvious choices. Much to my surprise the only name I found that had all four cards was Jim Abbott.

His 1988 Topps Traded USA card is a classic. I remember watching Team USA practice at Sunken Diamond in Stanford back before the Olympics and not believing the people who were talking about a one-handed pitcher. Did. Not. Compute.

When I got the 1988 Traded set that winter though, finding the Team USA cards inside was a fantastic surprise. The stars and stripes twist on the team name was a lot of fun and the entire set gave me my first sense of the addiction of prospecting. Plus they had even won the gold medal this time.

In 1989, the #1 Draft Picks cards were a similar breath of fresh air to me. Yes, both the USA and Draft Picks cards are ideas that can be found in 1985 Topps but the 1989 version is also a prospecting thing.* Seeing the college uniforms was fun but the real appeal was the sense of promise that this was the guy your team had decided to bet its future on.

*A couple years later I would realize that I should take these cards to Minor League games and try to get them signed.

That this subset was coincidental to Scott Boras sort of breaking Draft Pick signing bonuses also explains why it resonated so much with me. Draft Picks were big news. So not just the future of the club but also part of the big signing contract buzz as well.

Abbott ended up being one of those guys who stormed through the minors and made it to to the show super-fast. That his Traded “MLB debut” card* is the same season as his #1 Draft Pick card is impressive as hell. I like the fact that this would normally be an XRC but he already has two “Rookie” cards which pre-date it.

*I call this an MLB debut card because cards of rookies who debuted in MLB that year has always been half of what Traded is about. Topps did release its first official MLB debut set in 1989 as well. This is a confusing set since it’s listed as 1989 but uses the 1990 design. Also I’ve not come across any collectors who treat any of those cards as rookie cards whether they were release in the MLB Debut set or as part of Update. But yes Abbott has a card in that set as well.

It’s worth noting here that Abbott has cards from other late-season sets like Bowman, Fleer Update, Score Traded, and Upper Deck Extended. This suggests that the Topps Traded card has the most-logical claim as the definitive Topps Rookie Card since that’s where the manufacturer consensus is.

But for people like me who prefer the base flagship cards, Abbott’s 1990 Topps card, complete with Rookie Cup, is the old-school choice. A card you can pull from packs and on which, when you turn it over, you find a single line of Major League stats.

For a lot of players this is the best they could ever hope to get as their rookie card. For Abbott though it probably comes in a distant fourth when ranking which of his cards people consider to be his rookie card. It’s neither his first flagship card nor his first card as a Major League player. And it definitely wouldn’t qualify for the RC badge in today’s hobby.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

9 thoughts on “Jim Abbott and Rookie Cards”

  1. Cool stuff! I had never thought to look at these variations on rookie cards. I was a big fan of Abbott and bought a second 88T card so I could send it out for an autograph … and never got it back.

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  2. In addition to the XRC that Dan mentions, there were any number of variations of the concept in the late 80s and early 90s. There are all the F*C cards, with FTC being the first Topps card, FFC being the first Fleer card, etc. Tim Raines has an RC in 1981 Donruss and Topps, but an FFC in 1982 Fleer because that was his first Fleer card. They discontinued F*C beginning with 1992 sets because there were so many new sets.

    But there were also asterisks. A single asterisk meant that a player had his first card in a traded set from any manufacturer in the prior year, so Strawberry’s 1984 cards (Donruss, Fleer, and Topps) carry an RC* tag because he had an XRC in 1983 Topps Traded. Mattingly’s 1984 cards carry an RC tag because he had no prior cards (those are the examples Beckett uses). Yes, Bonds’ 1987 cards were RC* in that world.

    A double asterisk meant a player had one or more cards issued more than a year earlier. The example Beckett uses is that Charles Nagy had a 1988 Topps Traded XRC, so his 1991 Upper Deck card, which was a FUDC, was a FUDC**. The 1987 Fleer Update Mark McGwire is an XRC** due to the 1985 Topps McGwire; the 1988 Fleer McGwire is an FFC**.

    According to the January 1993 Beckett, the 1988 Topps Traded Abbott was an XRC, the 1989 Topps Abbott was an RC*, and the 1989 Topps Traded and 1990 Topps cards don’t have any designation. Abbott’s other 1989 cards (Bowman, Donruss Rookies, Fleer Update, Score Traded, and Upper Deck) are RC*. Ted Wood, who was in that 1988 Topps Traded Team USA subset, had all sorts of RC** cards in 1992. He may have the record for most double asterisk cards, one, which like Keith Hernandez’s GW RBI record, may never be broken because they eventually stopped that nonsense. But those designations were important for awhile.

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    1. I stayed out of the weeds here because those designations, while important in how they’re trying to make sense of things, ultimately mean nothing because it’s up to us as collectors to figure out what we choose to recognize in our own collections.

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      1. I agree that it is up to collectors to decide for their own collections, and in some of the mid-90s Becketts you can see a major shift in discussion to “best” cards as opposed to rookie cards. That discussion was certainly happening earlier, but I think the introduction of super premiums really spurred it on.

        I pinpointed the beginning of the asterisks in Beckett to the January 1989 issue, and they are discussed by Jim Beckett in the Owner’s Box on page 1 right after you open the front cover. They seem to be meant only to provide some additional information as to how much earlier a player might have appeared in one of the major sets, which is probably a relic of an era when one couldn’t just pull up a list of a player’s cards on any number of websites to figure out when the earlier cards were issued. I’m certain I noticed the asterisks in the price guides back then, but as heavily involved as I was in collecting cards as a 1 0-14 year old during that era (and not having many other responsibilities) I probably just ignored them because they weren’t actually telling me anything I didn’t already know, at least for reasonably popular cards.

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      2. Yeah 89 was also the beginning of my peak collecting years and I remember bits of this. I also remember that by then I had already decided that anything in Traded/Update didn’t count for me as a “rookie” though I hadn’t decided (and still haven’t decided) what my opinions are about #1 draft pick cards. I like them a cards but I’m not sure I’d treat them as RCs

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