If there was ever a true “rock star” made out of cardboard, it was the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan rookie card during the heady days of the hobby boom in the early 1990s, thanks to a confluence of events that no one could have predicted.
For most of his career, Ryan was a silent enigma who went about his business of being a fireballer with occasional streaks of wildness who couldn’t quite crack the top tier of the pitching firmament.
While Steve Carlton drew comparisons to Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn, and Tom Seaver threatened to move into Walter Johnson territory, Nolan Ryan bounced from the New York Mets to the California Angels to the Houston Astros. He entered the 1989 season as a 42-year-old starter who had won 20 games just twice — way back in 1973 and 1974 — and having just signed a free agent contract with the Texas Rangers.
He had managed to outlast Carlton and held the all-time strikeout record, but Ryan had also never won a Cy Young award and finished in the top five just five times in his first 22 seasons. All indications were that the 1989 season would be a swan song for a flawed hurler who might have been a threat to throw a no-hitter a decade earlier but who was mostly an afterthought as the 1990s dawned.
Not Ready for Pasture Yet
Instead, Ryan looked solid out of the gate, winning two games in April and then finding his stride as spring turned into summer. His fastball was stifling, as always, his control was good enough for umpires to give him the benefit of the doubt on close calls, and his conditioning was outstanding.
By the end of the season, Ryan had racked up a 16-10 record with a 3.20 ERA and a league-leading 301 strikeouts.
At an age when most players were well into retirement, Nolan Ryan had found his third or fourth wind and captured the imaginations of fans everywhere. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time, as baseball was reeling from the Pete Rose scandal, a development that also deflated one of the most important cards in the hobby, the 1963 Topps Pete Rose rookie card.
And so it was that the Ryan Express picked up the kind of steam that he’d never had in his prime, and Nolan rolled on at 43 … and 44 … and 45 … and 46.
When he finally retired after the 1993 season, Ryan had sailed past the 300-win plateau, added two more no-hitters to his lore (for a total of 7 no-nos), and finished up with an inhuman 5714 strikeouts. Sure, he also set the all-time record with 2795 bases on balls, but we were willing to give him a bye on that front, especially since he had’t handed out as many as 100 free passes in a season since 1983.
A Chill in the Hobby Air
At the same time that Ryan was bull-rushing American League batters with his geriatric heat, that 1968 rookie card of his, the one (#177) that he shared with fellow New York Mets phenom Jerry Koosman, was demolishing the status quo of the hobby.
Every time Ryan took the hill, we knew he might throw a no-hitter or strike out 27 men. He was making history even if he’d been around long enough to witness most of what’s written in our history books.
And, in the era before really big men started slamming really big home runs on a regular basis, we were hungry for powerful heroes, and Nolan Ryan played the role of graying Superman to perfection.
We had to have his cards.
We had to have his rookie card.
And the price rose, from $50 to $100 to $500 to $1000 and beyond.
When Ryan was in the midst of his Texas resurrection, you could always tell when a dealer had a Ryan rookie at a card show by the level of buzz in the room. The moment you walked through the door, you would hear the murmuring and whispering, and soon enough you’d be pulled into the vortex of the crowd, directed by some Ryan Jedi force to the display case where young Nolan gazed up at you from under his hat brim with guarded hesitancy.
“How much you want for your Ryan?” would have been Google’s Number 1 search term among participants at a Ryan-blessed show had a baseball-card-show-specific search engine for the spoken word existed at the time.
As is usually the case with our Wax Pack Gods who achieve a truly iconic status, though, the buzz around Ryan dampened when he sauntered off into the Texas sunset. His cards stabilized in price, then softened a bit, and finally rebounded some when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999.
Ryan issues also slid down the same muddy hill that sullied the rest of the hobby in the new century, but that rookie remains one of the most celebrated pieces of cardboard in history.
The PSA population report shows that 6000+ Ryan rookies have been submitted for grading, which is more than twice as many as even the Rose rookie.
And if you want to buy a Ryan?
You can find them all over eBay, but be prepared to pay several thousand dollars for a really nice copy.
No matter what happens to the market in the future, the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan rookie card stands as a reminder of the spellbinding power that a simple piece of cardboard can hold over little boys and grown men alike, especially when heroes are involved.