Legendary Baseball Cards That Define the Hobby

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In baseball card collecting, there is something for everyone—there are old cards and new cards, high-end cards, and lower-end. And while all of these difference in preferences between collectors, all of us can agree…some cards are just legendary.

Now, don’t mistake “legendary” for the most expensive cards. In fact, some of the most legendary can be had for just a few bucks. Thus, it’s not the price tag that makes a card legendary; it’s the story behind the card blended with the picture on top of it, and the words written on the back of it.

So, with all of that said, let’s take a look at the most legendary cards this hobby has to offer.

1991 Upper Deck Michael Jordan

The greatest of all time in one sport taking batting practice in another. Little did we know it was a bit of foreshadowing, and while Jordan would go on to have more than a handful of baseball cards to his name, this is by far the most legendary.

Another thing that sets this card apart was we didn’t really have SPs or cards that strayed from the straightforward checklist of simply every player on every team with a few related subsets. This was off the wall and different, and while there were cards like Eric Lindros in 1990 Score, there weren’t many.

1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr.

We’ve talked about this card a lot here, and for good reason—on a list of legendary cards, it’s in the upper half if this were a ranked list. Again, the first card of a game-changing Upper Deck product checklist that just so happens to be the key rookie card of a young great is just too much to handle.

Anyway, I’ll dive into the creation of Upper Deck as a card company thanks partly to another card on this list, so keep reading.

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle

Ok, I said the price tag wasn’t a requirement to be on this list, but I didn’t say we couldn’t have any expensive cards on the list! So yes, pretty much the holy grail of cards, the 1952 Mickey Mantle. I won’t waste your time by explaining the legendary nature of this card…just know that a copy in good condition is so rare that a PSA 10 is one of the most expensive baseball cards ever.

1985 Topps Mark McGwire USA

Besides being the first major league card of a player who changed the game in more ways than one, this is the first time collectors were treated to a “rookie card” of a player not in their major league uniform. Now, I put the rookie card in quotes because it’s a hot topic among collectors. I personally don’t feel the 1985 Topps Mark McGwire should be slapped with the “RC” label because McGwire didn’t make his major league debut until 1986, but doesn’t matter what I think!

2011 Topps Update Mike Trout

Trout came roaring back in 2022, and I’m really glad he did. There was a time there when many new collectors were left wondering, who is this Mike Trout guy, and why is his rookie card worth so much? After a 2022 season that got him back on track as one of the greatest in the game, his 2011 Topps Update rookie shoots to the top of the mindn when it comes to legendary.

One key thing that also sets this card apart is that it’s so much harder to find than any of today’s rookies. Times were different in 2011, and Topps Update wasn’t a mainstream set printed in huge quantities like it is today. So, where you’ll be able to find 2022 Topps Update in any online card store for years to come for $20 or so bucks, finding 2011 Topps Update at all (never mind the price tag) is a feat.

1990 Topps Frank Thomas NNOF

Before the days of big head cards, missing names, and other manufactured “errors,” there was the Frank Thomas NNOF. Standing for “No Name on Front” thant’s exactly what this card was—the Topps rookie card of one of the game’s brightest young stars, but missing his name, and leaving a blank plate on the front of his flagship RC. The card is rare, valuable, and of course, legendary—it’s also often faked, so be careful out there.

1984 Donruss Don Mattingly Rookie Card

So this was a tip from my TikTok audience—I had no idea about the impact this card had on the creation of Upper Deck as a card company. I still haven’t had a chance to read the book Card Sharks where this is mentioned, so I’m going to use a few sources here.

As Greg Morris Cards states:

“In 1988, Paul Sumner and Bill Hemrick hit a major obstacle on their way to starting the Upper Deck Company.

They wanted to manufacture a better baseball card. One that looked better than cards made by Topps, Fleer, and Donruss, and also one that wouldn’t be as easy to counterfeit. By the mid-1980’s, counterfeit baseball cards were a big problem. Pete Rose’s 1963 Topps rookie, Don Mattingly’s 1984 Donruss rookie; fake cards were all over the market.”

Similarly, Fielders Choice Blog mentions:

“The shop’s owner, Bill Hemrick, had been fooled into buying a large quantity of counterfeit 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie cards. He met an executive from a graphics company, Paul Sumner, and the two of them started to plan a new card company that would use hologram technology to prevent counterfeiting.”

So, it sounds like because of the fact that there were so many counterfeit 1984 Donruss Mattinglys out there, they wanted to create a better card company. Legendary.

1989 Fleer Billy Ripken Error

I can’t go into detail on this one, but if you know you know. Perhaps the most legendary card on the list for nothing more than what is printed (mistakenly) on the photo itself. That’s right, this is the card with the bad word on the knob–perhaps the worst word ever. How it made it to print, nobody will know, and Fleer sure tried to correct it (a few times).

1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie Card

This one is on the list because it’s a rare instance where one of the most dominant players of his time doesn’t have a solo rookie card. Sure, there are other examples of great players having to share their rookie card spotlight, but at least for someone like Cal Ripken and others, they had other rookies; Nolan Ryan didn’t. This is it.

1980 Topps Rickey Henderson

I’m not saying this card is perfection because I’m an A’s fan and Rickey Henderson is my favorite player of all time. I’m saying this card is perfection because it is. Between the 1980 design, the stance, the uniform, the facsimile auto, and it being the rookie card of of one of the best to ever do it, the card comes together unlike many I’ve ever seen.

2018 Topps Ronald Acuna “Bat Down”

When it comes to being legendary, it’s about being iconic, and/or a card that stands for something. The Acuna “bat down” variation is the gold standard for baseball card image variations—something so commonplace and expected nowadays. The card basically revolutionized how we look at the rookie card, in that it used to be about chasing the “flasgship” rookie card that is printed in numbers we could never comprehend, to chasing that one unique rookie that is literally a chase.

Now, when it comes to Jeremy Pena rookie cards, Julio Rodriguez RCs, etc., sure their base rookie is cool to find, but they are a dime a dozen.

(We are even getting to the point that between Topps Series 1, Series 2, Chrome, and Update, there are perhaps too many variations?)

About Ryan from Ballcard Genius 211 Articles
Ryan is a lifelong member of the hobby and sports card expert. Specializing in baseball cards, and showcasing a love for flashy 90s inserts and all things A's, Ryan enjoys sharing the ins and outs of collecting, while highlighting the best cardboard options to add to your collections. Last Time Ago LLC dba Ballcard Genius.