nolan-ryan-rookie-card

1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie Card: A Closer Look

Updated Oct 04, 2023

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The 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie card is one of the most iconic and valuable baseball cards in the hobby.

Ryan was one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, and from an early age, wowed scouts with his fastball.

But, Ryan often gets left out of top ten lists for pitchers due to his less-than-stellar control. Ryan averaged nearly 5 walks per 9 innings over his career). Yet, his record as the all-time strikeout leader speaks for itself. Ryan's seven no-hitters are also a major league record.  

Nolan Ryan cards remain in high demand among vintage collectors. Higher grade copies of his Topps rookie (and OPC/Milton Bradley variations) continue to fetch record prices at auction

In this article, we'll explore the career of Lynn 'Nolan' Ryan Jr. and delve into the details of his 1968 Topps rookie card. We'll look at its availability, current value, and its potential as an investment. 

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What Year Is Nolan Ryan's Rookie Card?

Nolan Ryan's official rookie card is his 1968 Topps #177 baseball card. 

The card is a 'Rookie Stars' issue from the 1968 Topps baseball card set.

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The Ryan Rookie card is the top rookie and most valuable card in the 1968 Topps set.

The 1968 Topps set is one of the landmark sets for Topps from issued during the 1960's due to rookie cards of Ryan and HOF catcher Johnny Bench

The 1968 Topps set had a retro design with a dotted brown background. Card fonts used bright colors meant to represent a player's team colors.

Nolan Ryan is featured on the 'Rookie Stars' card alongside fellow New York Mets rookie Jerry Koosman.  

Koosman himself was actually a very good pitcher and finished with 222 wins and a very respectable 3.36 ERA.  

The back of the card features a biography for both players, noting Nolan's remarkable 1966 rookie season in which he struck out 313 batters with Greensville.

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Back of the Ryan/Koosman 1968 Topps Card

Topps Milton Bradley, O-Pee-Chee (OPC) & Venezuelan Topps Rookie Card Variations

Readers should also be aware that there are three other Nolan Ryan Rookie card variations.

These include a Topps Milton Bradley, O-Pee-Chee, and Venezuelan Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie card.

Each baseball card is identical in appearance on the front, which makes distinguishing between the four cards a bit of a challenge. 

Here's the back of a 1968 Venezuelan Topps Ryan rookie card, which is the rarest among all the Ryan Rookie cards; PSA has graded less than 40 copies. This one is easily distinguished due to the 'Venezuela' text at the bottom of the card.

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Ryan Rookie Venezuelan Topps Back - easily identified by the 'Venezuela' copyright at the bottom of the card

As for the Topps Milton Bradley rookie card variation, this one can be a bit more challenging to tell. Topps issued these cards in partnership with board game maker Milton Bradley. 

From the PSA website:

"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."
milton-bradley-ryan-rc

A signed copy of a Topps Milton Bradley Ryan/Koosman rookie card. The white line on the left of this version is a clear tell that it is a Milton Bradley variation although not always easy to tell if the card is centered. 

If the white borders aren't showing, the back of the card is often used to help differentiate. The Milton Bradley cards have a brighter yellow back where the Topps rookie card tends to be a bit more gold in color, and a bit more dull. It's not easy to tell the difference online, so opting for a graded card is your best bet. 

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Back of a Milton Bradley Ryan rookie card -- which has a brighter yellow color.

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Topps Ryan rookie card back has a duller goldish color as compared to the Milton Bradley card.

The OPC Nolan Ryan Rookie card is the Canadian based version of the Topps card and is also a lot tougher to find in comparison to the Topps Ryan rookie.

PSA has graded less than 200 of the O-Pee-Chee Ryan Rookie cards.

Like the Venezuelan Topps Ryan rookie, the OPC Ryan can be distinguished by the copyright section at the bottom of the card. On the OPC Ryan it says 'PTD in Canada'. 

opc-ryan

How Much Is A Nolan Ryan Rookie Card Worth?

A perfect Gem-Mint (PSA 10) copy of the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan rookie card sold for $600,000 in August 2020 at Goldin Auctions.  

This set the bar quite high for a gem mint copy of the Topps rookie card.  To note, PSA has graded only one PSA 10 - Gem Mint copy, hence the likely reason for the significant premium for the card. 

goldin-ryan-10

Lower graded copies of Ryan's Topps rookie card can found for much less; in fact an Excellent condition copy (PSA 5) has sold for less than $800, whereas a VG (PSA 3) version 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:

A VG Condition Nolan Ryan Rookie Card --aka PSA 3

auction-prices-realized (40)
The Topps Nolan Ryan's rookie card isn't exactly rare; PSA has graded over 11,000 copies of the card.


This chart from PSA shows pricing along with population for each grade:

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Are The OPC, Venezuelan Topps and Milton Bradley variations worth more?

All of Ryan's rookie card 'variations' sell for a premium as compared to the Topps card. This is due to the relative scarcity of each card.  Here is a look at the graded population for all four Ryan rookie cards.

There are over 15,000 PSA Graded Topps Nolan Ryan rookie cards!

As you can see the other three variations are much harder to find. However, this will come at  price.

Topps
Milton Bradley
OPC
Venezuelan Topps
Total PSA Graded Copies
15,160
594
169
35

 
A BVG 3.5 graded OPC Ryan rookie sold for $2175 recently, whereas a comparable Topps Ryan rookie in a similar grade is worth about $600, less than 4x the price of the OPC copy. I'd argue the OPC card should sell for even more. 

Topps Milton Bradley Ryan rookie card variations amazingly only sell for just a slight premium to the Topps rookie card. Collectors for some reason don't show a lot of demand for the Milton Bradley rookie. 

The Venezuelan Topps Ryan rookie is exceedingly rare with only 35 PSA graded copies. The last sale at auction happened in June 2022, where a PSA 2 graded copy sold for $8600!

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:

ryan-auto

As shown, it's a clean, crisp auto with a HOF inscription.  The autographed cards sell for more if the clarity of the autograph is highly intact.  Some are willing to pay more for varying types of inscriptions, but some buyers prefer a regular signature.

Ryan has been a reasonably frequent signer over time, so these are relatively easy to find, but Ryan is now in his early 70s; thus, it's hard to say how many signings he will be doing soon.

Given the wide availability of Ryan's rookie card, hunting down a nice autographed copy is a great way to have a more differentiated item. An autographed Ryan rookie is a better overall investment than a lower-graded copy of the rookie card.

This Ryan autographed rookie card sold at a discount due to the smaller autograph and the poor placement and lack of clarity in Ryan's autograph. 

Is Nolan Ryan's Rookie Card A Good Investment?

The Topps Nolan Ryan rookie card remains one of the cornerstone rookie cards for vintage baseball collectors. However, its wide availability makes it less of an exciting investment from my perspective.

For those looking for a better investment angle, I'd steer more toward the rarer OPC, Topps Milton Bradley, or Venezuelan Topps rookie cards. Or, even better, find an autographed Ryan rookie. Those 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 chris@allvintagecards.com 

Nolan Ryan's Career As A Baseball Player

Lynn "Nolan" Ryan Jr. has always had a calm demeanor, derived early on from Ryan's struggles in school. Ryan had dyslexia and a lisp, which led him to poor school grades.

However, there was one certainty among all his struggles--Ryan had a natural talent for sports, especially baseball.

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Early on, he dreamed of being a star pitcher like his idol, Sandy Koufax. But Ryan also wanted to attend college and had grand plans to earn 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 who watched Ryan knew he had talent, yet they were concerned about his size and 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 only in 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, and he had to leave mid-game.

Thus, Nolan Ryan's actual rookie year was in 1966 with the New York Mets. 

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.

Ryan won one World Series as a member of the Mets in 1969, in which he made one relief appearance, pitching 2 1/3 shutout innings. He would never make it to another World Series for the remainder of his career.  

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.

Nolan 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 as a Houston Astro, 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. His previous season went out with a bang, however. In a game against the White Sox, Ryan hit Robin Ventura with a pitch.

Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan hits Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox after Ventura charged the mound, Aug. 4, 1993 in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Linda Kaye)

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)

Nolan Ryan aka 'The Ryan Express' would ultimately enter the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. He finished 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!

All Vintage Cards

About the author

Chris Rogers, is the founder of All Vintage Cards. Launched in 2018, All Vintage Cards is the hobby's leading resource for vintage sports cards. Chris is also the author of 'The Complete Guide To Selling Your Sports Cards'. Chris remains an avid collector and can be reached at chris@allvintagecards.com.

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