1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie Card: A Closer Look
When talking about the most recognizable and most valuable cards in the hobby, the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie card is near the top of the list.
Ryan was one of the greatest pitchers to play the game of baseball, and from an early age he was wowing scouts with his fastball.
While he often gets left out of the Top 10 lists for pitchers due to his less than stellar control (Ryan averaged nearly 5 walks per 9 innings over his career), his record as the all time strikeout leader speaks for itself. Ryan’s seven no hitters are also a major league record.
Ryan’s rookie card remains in high demand among vintage collectors, with higher graded copies of his Topps rookie (and OPC/Milton Bradley variations) fetching record prices at auction.
In this piece, we’ll review the career of one Lynn ‘Nolan’ Ryan Jr. while examining his 1968 Topps rookie card, including the existing population, current values and investment potential.
Nolan Ryan's Career As A Baseball Player
Lynn "Nolan" Ryan Jr. has always had a calm demeanor, which derived early on from Ryan's struggles in school. Ryan had dyslexia and a lisp, which led him to having poor grades in school. However there was one certainty among all his struggles--Ryan had a natural talent for sports, especially baseball.
Early on he had dreams of being a star pitcher like his idol, Sandy Koufax. However Ryan also wanted to go to college and even had grand plans of earning a basketball scholarship. Yet, Ryan soon realized that baseball was his true calling.
No one could hit Ryan in the early days and he was a standout success in high school, although control issues were a big problem. Most that watched Ryan knew he had talent, yet they were concerned about his size and his ability to succeed in the big leagues.
However, several scouts, notably those from the Mets scouting team had zeroed in on Ryan's immense talent. Red Murff, a scout with the Mets, is believed to have discovered Ryan and was in awe of his pitching prowess.
"This skinny high school junior HAS THE BEST ARM I'VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. This kid Ryan throws much harder than Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds or Turk Farrell of the Houston Colt 45's.”Scouting card of Red Murff, a former MLB Scout who discovered Ryan for the Mets (from 'The Making Of A Pitcher')
Ultimately Ryan was drafted by the Mets, although not until the 12th round, as size issues kept down his draft position. He would go on to dominate the Mets farm league, first in A ball, where in his first year in the minors, he notched 272 strikeouts in 183 innings. The following year in AA, he was in the middle of a no-hitter when his coach told him the struggling Mets had called him up an he had to leave mid-game.
Ryan was not an early success with the Mets. He joined the team in 1966 as the second youngest player in the league. An injury and a stint with the Army Reserve in 1967 led to Ryan missing the season. The Mets had a solid pitching staff (led by Tom Seaver) and Ryan had trouble cracking the starting rotation. In 1971, Ryan was traded to the Angels in the American League.
Ryan had eight great years with the Angels, amassing 131 wins, a 3.07 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 2,416 strikeouts in 2181 innings. In 1979, however, Ryan, a free agent signed a deal to head to the Houston Astros. In nine seasons with Houston, Ryan secured another 106 wins, a 3.13 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 1,866 strikeouts in 1,854 innings.
Ryan played his last four years with the Texas Rangers and pitched until he was 46 years old. His last season went out with a bang however. In a game against the White Sox, Ryan hit Robin Ventura with a pitch.
Ventura charged the mound, and when he approached Ryan put him in a headlock. Ryan said after the game that it was the same sort of move he used on steers he had to brand on his Texas ranch.
The Fight Heard Round The (Baseball) World
"If you don't think he did it on purpose, you don't know the game," Ventura said at the time. "I'm all right. He gave me a couple of noogies, but that was about it."
-Robin Ventura (on the fight with Nolan Ryan)
Ryan would ultimately enter the Baseball Hall of Fame, finishing his career as one of the greatest fast ball pitchers of his era. Ryan to this day still holds the record for all time strikeouts (5714) and the most no-hitters (7).
Check out footage of Ryan showing off his 100+ MPH Fastball!
How Much Is Nolan Ryan's Rookie Card Worth?
Nolan Ryan's official rookie card is his 1968 Topps #177 card. The card is a 'Rookie Stars' issue from the Topps set which features Ryan alongside fellow Mets rookie Jerry Koosman. Koosman himself was actually a very good pitcher and finished with 222 wins and a very respectable 3.36 ERA.
A perfect gem-mint copy of the Nolan Ryan rookie card (PSA 10) sold for $600,000 in August 2020 at Goldin Auctions.
This set the bar quite high for a gem mint copy of the card. To note, PSA has graded only one PSA 10 - Gem Mint copy, hence the likely reason for the significant premium for the card.
Lower graded copies of Ryan's rookie card can found for much less; in fact an Excellent condition copy (PSA or SGC 5) of Ryan's rookie card has been selling for less than $800, whereas a VG copy (or PSA 3) of Ryan's rookie can usually be found for less than $500. Of course it isn't going to look quite as pretty as that PSA 10!
Here's what a VG condition Ryan rookie tends to look like on average:
This chart from PSA shows pricing along with population for each grade:
I should also remind readers that Milton Bradley, O-Pee-Chee, and Venezuelan Topps also issued their own Ryan rookies as well. All of these are rarer than the Topps issue with the Venezuelan Topps issue the rarest of them all. There are also some differences in the cards. From PSA:
"The Milton Bradley card exhibits a brighter yellow color on the reverse and will sometimes feature a thin white line on one or more edges, which carried over from the white-bordered football and hot rod cards included on the same sheet."
What's An Autographed Nolan Ryan Rookie Worth?
I've seen sales on eBay for an autographed Nolan Ryan Rookie card averaging about $1000 or more. This certainly depends on the condition of the card and whether the card itself has been graded. Here's a nice one that recently sold for $1200:
As shown, it's a clean, crisp auto with a HOF inscription. The autographed cards will definitely sell for more if the clarity of the autograph is highly intact. Some are also willing to pay more for varying types of inscriptions, but some buyers prefer a regular autograph.
Ryan has been a fairly frequent signer over time, and so these aren't necessarily tough to find, but Ryan is of course now in his early 70's, thus it's hard to say how much signing he will be doing in the near future.
Personally, given the wide availability of Ryan's rookie card, I think hunting down a nice autographed copy is a great way to have a more differentiated item. I'd consider an autographed Ryan rookie a better overall investment than let's say a lower graded copy of the rookie card.
What's The Investment Potential?
Nolan Ryan's rookie card remains one of the cornerstone rookie cards for vintage baseball collectors. However it's wide availability makes it less of an exciting investment from my perspective. For those looking for a better investment angle, I'd steer more towards the rarer OPC, Milton Bradley or Venezuelan Topps rookie cards or even better find a nice autographed Ryan rookie. Those in my opinion have better long term investment potential.
Of course if you have any questions on the Ryan rookie card please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org