Bowman Prospect Cards vs. Rookie Cards

This is the second article in The Bowman Series, an in-depth look at Bowman Baseball Cards. In this article I take a look at the difference between a rookie card and a 1st Bowman card. The distinctions between each and why the 1st Bowman is NOT a Rookie Card.

I am going to start off by saying this up front: The 1st Bowman Cards and all other cards that appear in the Prospect subsets of Bowman and Bowman Chrome or the entire set of Bowman Draft are NOT rookie cards. These are prospect cards.

There, I said it. End of article.

Wait, what do I mean “NOT rookie cards”? 1st Bowmans are literally the first card of a player’s professional card. How is that not a rookie?

Ok. Let me explain myself…

A rookie is defined as a player who has reached the Major League level and has not exceeded 130 at bats, pitched more than 50 innings or spent more than 45 days on the active roster in a previous season. These players are still considered Prospects. The one exclusion to all of this is that service time after the September 1st call-ups do not count towards these qualifications.

So the key take away here is that a rookie is a considered a player who has reached the major league level. Rare instances will occur where a card in the prospect subset will feature someone who has played in the Major Leagues. The majority of the time, players in these set will only have Minor League service time.

A Prospect is defined as a player that has not reached the Major League level or has appeared on a Major League roster, but has not reached those minimums as defined above.

The term “pre-rookie” had been thrown around as an alternate label to these cards. While technically correct, it feels inconsistent. We do not label every card that comes out for a player after his rookie season a “post-rookie card.” Rather, they are labeled veteran cards, if any label is to be applied at all.

Far too often on social media and auction websites like eBay the Bowman Prospect cards are referred to as rookie cards. While they might be the first cards to come out of players in Major League uniforms, they are in NO way rookie cards. To call Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 2016 Bowman Chrome a rebooking card would be a mistake. His rookie cards are any cards that came out after his MLB debut, which is almost all of his 2019 cards.

A “true” rookie card is defined in our hobby as the rookie card that appears ion the Topps flagship release, whether it is in the base set (Series 1 or 2) or the Update (Traded) set with the player on a Major League team.

Wait a moment… don’t all Topps cards have pictures of players on a Major League Team? I thought the Topps Flagship release featured MLB players and teams. Well, the answer is no, but let me explain…

The Major League team demarkation is an important distinction because there is a lot of discussion as to what Mark McGwire’s “true” rookie card is: the 1985 Topps #401 or the 1987 Topps #366. The answer plain and simple is this: the 1987 Topps #366 is Mark McGwire’s “true” rookie card.

In 1984 Mark McGwire had no Major League service time as he was drafted in June of that year by the Oakland Athletics. There isn’t even any indication of a MLB team on the back of this card. This card should be viewed like the 1st Bowman card: as a prospect card. The same can be said for the Jason Giambi, Nomar Garciaparra and other Team USA cards that have appeared in Topps releases since the 1980s.

Now, from here you could make the case that Draft Pick cards like the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas or the 1993 Topps Derek Jeter card are prospect cards. I am going to reserve this topic for a future post. My purpose for discussing the Team USA cards is to illustrate their correlation to prospect cards. Team USA cards are solely based on amateur or prospect play and not MLB service.

While not rookie card, prospect cards are still very desirable. Many collectors will “prospect” or “invest” in the 1st Bowman cards in the hopes that the player makes it to the Majors, making that card more valuable. There are two factors that can easily inflate the value of a prospect card. The first is a small sample size of his performance with his Minor League team. A hot streak or a good month off a season can increase the perceived value. Also the Prospect’s ranking on the Top Prospects lists will affect the value. The higher up on the you the prospect is, the more likely that player is to make the Major Leagues.

In addition to the Bowman Prospect subset and Bowman Draft cards there are a couple of other types of prospect cards. Topps Pro Debut and Heritage Minor League feature the Top Prospects in their Minor League uniforms. The majority of the MiLB teams produce team sets of their players from the current season. These team sets are quite desirable as the print runs on many of them are between 1,000 to 2,000 sets. Interestingly enough even though there are lower print runs, these team sets do not hold value like the Topps Minor League sets or the Bowman Prospects subsets.

No matter what type, all of the cards in the sets described above are Prospect cards. To label any of them rookie cards would be incorrect.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to post them below or email me at

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