In the mid 1980s, you would have been hard-pressed to find a more popular piece of cardboard in the world than the 1963 Topps Pete Rose rookie card.
By the time Rose left the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1983 season at age 42, it was pretty clear that he was going to hang around long enough to break Ty Cobb’s record for career hits.
The only question at the time was WHERE he was going to play out his career, and it looked like that might happen north of the border when he signed with the Montreal Expos in January of 1984.
Fans and collectors yawned or gasped at the news, depending on how closely we followed Rose, and we were all a bit shocked by the sight of Rose in his red, white, and powder blue togs that spring. We braced for the weirdness that would ensue when Charlie Hustle showed up in his Expos uniform that fall in traded and update sets.
Before we ever got that far, though, the Cincinnati Reds swooped in and traded Tom Lawless (irony?) for Rose to set up one of the most ballyhooed baseball homecomings of all time.
Though we may not have realized it at the time, the move also kicked off, in earnest, THE big hobby craze of the 80s: rookie card mania.
Not to Mention Hume Hysteria
Sure, before Rose found his way back to the Riverfront, collectors chased after the rookie cards of their favorite players because they wanted to have everything. There was also the general perception that rookie cards in good condition would be the rarest of all a player’s cards, due to attrition if nothing else.
But when Rose became the Reds’ player-manager on August 16, 1984, the entire baseball universe coalesced on the idea that the chase was on.
Rose would be chasing Cobb’s ghost while wearing the hometown Cincinnati Red — the same Red he had bled since childhood.
Leading the way, of course, was that 1963 rookie card.
Like a Cardboard Clown Costume
Visually, the card was striking, if not exactly attractive.
As was the case with most rookies during the 1960s and 1970s, Rose was relegated to the multi-player card treatment by Topps, who liked to hedge their bets on young, unproven talent.
In this case, card #537 featured a bright yellow background with four tiny, circular head shots of (clockwise from the top left) second baseman Pedro Gonzalez of the New York Yankees, third baseman Ken McMullen of the Los Angeles Dodgers, shortstop Al Weis of the Chicago White Sox, and Rose (listed as a second baseman).
Each floating head was ironed on over a red background, and a big blue rectangle at the top of the card proclaimed in white block letters that these were “1963 Rookie Stars.”
As it turned out, only Rose played regularly in 1963 and hit over .250 (though Weis managed the feat in 99 games), and he was rewarded with the National League Rookie of the Year award.
Twenty-one years later, Rose was the clear winner of the four-man lineup, and the rush to pick up his cards had pushed his rookie card values into the stratosphere. By Christmas of 1984, collectors and dealers were trying to catch their breaths and make sure they were stocked up for the 1985 season, when Rose needed needed a scant 95 hits to
So collectors from Cincy to Philly to Indy to NY to LA snatched up all the Roses we could find, and the prices on those pasteboards climbed skyward. eclipse Cobb.
It was the first time in the modern hobby era that we had an active player gunning for immortality AND a huge number of collectors gunning for his cards at the same time. Collectively, we burned up the card show circuit and kept the hot stove blistering throughout the winter.
The Rose rookie traded briskly at around $500 that holiday season, and you were ecstatic if you could scoop one up for less than $400. And back then, we cared about condit
ion, but there was no such thing as a graded card, so we did the best we could.
On September 11, 1985, when Rose slapped Number 4192 into the Riverfront outfield and stomped on first base next to a smiling Steve Garvey, then with the San Diego Padres, the Rose rookie was closing in on $1000 in eyeballed-mint condition.
That moment was the high-point of the Rose hype, but his rookie card — and his other issues — continued to make steady gains as he led the Reds into strong second-place finishes each year from 1985 to 1988.
And then, being the frontrunner that he is, Rose was at the forefront of the bust that would threaten every aspect of the hobby in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
What Goes Up May Go Up Again
Of course, the downfall of Rose’s cards mirrored the downfall of the hero himself, and lifetime banishment for betting on the game he loved tarnished all aspects of his public persona.
Baseball cards were simply along for the ride, and prices fell precipitously.
Over the years, however, many fans have softened their stance on Rose, whether due to comparisons with the transgressions of steroid-era players or just thanks to the passage of time. And, as more and more of the new generation realized what a great player Rose was on the field, his card prices began to rebound.
This was especially true for graded older issues, and, naturally, the blue, yellow, and red monstrosity led the way again. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a graded copy of his 1963 Topps rookie card in PSA 7 (NM) for under $1500.
Love him or hate him, the Cobb-buster changed baseball forever.
And, ugly or not, the 1963 Topps Pete Rose rookie card ushered in a new era in collecting mania and set the stage for much of the hobby explosion to come.
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