The Rookie Card craze didn’t hit really reach critical mass until card collecting became en vogue in the 1980s, really reaching its pinnacle with the 1987 monster rookie card class of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, Greg Maddux, Jose Canseco, Bo Jackson, and Rafael Palmeiro. The sheen of this rookie class led collectors and speculators to stock up on rookie cards of Gregg Jefferies, Kevin Seitzer, Kevin Maas, Phil Plantier in coming years.
Collectors were aware of rookie cards and collected them before the 1980s. Phenoms existed well before FernandoMania in 1981, going back to the 1960s with Marv Throneberry and Tony Conigliaro. The 1970s were highlighted by meteoric debuts of players who went on to have useful, albeit more anonymous careers.
Vida Blue started a handful of games in 1969 and 1970, exhausting his rookie eligibility with decent numbers in these abbreviated campaigns. His 6 starts in 1970 (20 hits allowed in 38.2 innings) provided some foreshadowing of what was to come in 1971. Blue started 39 games that season, going 24-8 with 301 strikeouts in 312 innings on the way to a sparkling 1.82 ERA. He swept the American League Cy Young and MVP Awards in his first full season.
He fell to 6-10 the following season, then rebounded to another 20-win season in 1973, and had another in 1975. In total he compiled an impressive 209 victories in a 17-season career. He battled drug addiction and pleaded guilty to attempting to purchase cocaine following the 1983 season. He is involved with several charities and currently works as a baseball analyst for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
Fred Lynn accomplished the unthinkable in 1975, batting .331 with 21 homers and 105 RBI as a rookie on his way to collecting both AL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. His Red Sox captured the pennant before falling to the Big Red Machine in an epic World Series. He bettered those numbers in 1979, slugging .333 with 39 homers and 122 homers, finishing 4th in the MVP balloting to Don Baylor, Ken Singleton, and George Brett despite finishing with superior numbers to that group. His numbers collapsed after that, partly due to injuries suffered from crashing into outfield walls and breaking up double plays, and he was traded to the Angels, where he put up solid, if unspectacular stats for 4 years before winding down his career with the Orioles, Tigers, and Padres.
In 1983, he hit the only grand slam in All-Star Game history. He finished his illustrious career with 306 career home runs, 1111 RBIs, and 1960 hits.
Mark “The Bird” Fidrych became a national sensation the following year, coming out of nowhere to post a 19-9 record with a 2.34 ERA for the Detroit Tigers, all while capturing America’s imagination with his antics of manicuring the mound, talking to the baseball, and throwing out baseballs that still had hits in them. He captured the 1976 AL Rookie of the Year and finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting. He published an autobiography following the 1976 season entitled “No Big Deal”. He signed a three-year contract worth $255,000 and appeared in Aqua Velva TV commercials.
Fidrych tore knee cartilage during spring training in 1977, and was never the same. He then tore his rotator cuff early that season, and only pitched in 11 games that year. It was already the beginning of the end for Big Bird – he would only pitch in 16 games over the following 3 seasons before retiring after the 1980 season with a career 29-19 record.
Fidrych’s star burned perhaps the brightest of any young star in the 1970s, but like Conigliaro he became a tragic baseball figure – a brilliant career, and life, cut short. Fidrych died April 13, 2009 at the age of 54 while working on a dump truck at his home in Massachusetts.