About a decade ago, a designer at trading card giant Panini America was tasked with performing a resurrection. The goal was to rebuild in Illustrator a logo first created in the mid-’80s, one can assume, with a T-square, drawing board, mechanical pencils, and a seemingly flagrant disregard for some basic typographic principles.
Undeniably bold, but also sort of italic, the tails on this mark’s most prominent feature—a set of two capital Rs—underlined two promise-filled words stacked atop one another: “Rated Rookie.” Even though it combined every Microsoft Word text shortcut known to man, the logo, featuring a shade of radiant baby blue outlined in black and white, became an iconic stamp of approval. It survived the mid-’90s trading card market crash and began this decade in its newly digitized form to once again grace trading cards and nostalgia-fueled shirts. The Donruss Rated Rookie logo, it seems, will outlive us all.
“What’s funny is, if a designer tried to design something like that now, intentionally, I’d probably be upset with them,” said John Mata, an art director of Panini America, which has owned the Donruss brand since 2009. “It looks like it’s breaking a couple design rules.” And yet, Mata said, laughing, he still considers the Rated Rookie mark as “perfect.”
What’s funny is, if a designer tried to design something like that now, intentionally, I’d probably be upset with them.
The Rated Rookie logo, in all its glorious wonkiness, carries cachet in certain circles. A variation of the logo was the Insta-avatar of the Baseball Card Vandals up until the doodling brothers got a book deal and replaced it this spring. (You can still find patches for sale that pay homage to it on their website.) You can also find any number of online shops selling knock-off t-shirts featuring the mark, though Panini America is trying to put a stop to that. The company has done a few promotions that featured Rated Rookie shirt giveaways, but only issues them sparingly to pro athletes and company employees. There aren’t any for sale from the company that holds the trademark to the phrase and mark, but there are Rated Rookie cards galore sprinkled across all of Panini’s Donruss-branded properties, from football to basketball to baseball.
The “Rated Rookie” phrase initially billowed across a windswept red, white and blue banner along the bottom of 20 special baseball cards in the 660-card 1984 Donruss set. Donruss tasked New York Daily News writer Bill Madden with declaring which players’ nascent careers were worthy of being “Rated.” Generously, Madden batted about .300 on his first picks as long as you don’t count two glaring omissions who were so good they’d later play first base and right field for Mr. Burns’ power plant squad.
The Donruss Rated Rookie logo, it seems, will outlive us all.
Trading card designs change from year to year, or program to program in card-designer speak, and the initial Rated Rookie logo was scrapped after one year, too. But the concept of spotlighting the most promising young talent stuck, and helped propel sales for the likes of Donruss, Topps, Fleer, Score and just about any brand that produced trading cards in the 1980s and 1990s. Tracy Hackler, the hobby marketing manager with Panini America, said that to this day rookie cards drive the trading card industry, no matter the sport.
“If you look at it in simple terms, the rookies are the only thing that change every year, right?” said Hackler, who has also worked for Beckett, the industry’s biblical pricing guide. “The veterans and the legends, sure, some of the established superstars may change teams from year to year. But by and large, it’s a lot of the same players, and you are trying to create them in different ways using different designs and treatments. If we have a strong rookie class, that’s what people collect.”
The Rated Rookie phrase, along with the long-lasting second iteration of the logo, was first registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in December of 1985. The sample marks included in the trademark paperwork consist of five 1985 Rated Rookie cards. The collection does a decent job of encapsulating the drunken dart toss that is projecting the careers of professional athletes. There’s beloved Chicago Cub Shawon Dunston, who played for 18 years, made two All-Star Games and won’t ever need to buy his own Old Style tallboy in Wrigleyville as long as he lives. There’s Steve Lyons, who is well-known, but more for his broadcasting than as a sparingly used player whose pants once fell down at first base. Then you have Doug Loman, Russ Stephans and Alfonso Pulido, two of whom have Wikipedia pages.
For that moment in 1985, though, their promise was immeasurable, with the Rated Rookie logo signifying grand futures ahead. As Hackler said, “Just that the sense of untapped potential or that sense of impending greatness I think is really what sparks all of it.”
And what about the mark helped spark that feeling? The Donruss brand leads the league in changing ownership since two Memphis brothers named Don and Russ sold it to General Mills in 1969. As the trading card market consolidated, it’s since been under the corporate tents of Leaf, Inc., Pinnacle Brands, Playoff Corporation (aka Donruss Playoff LP) and now Panini America. Only a few longtime Donruss vets still work for Panini America, and the designer of the still-standing Rated Rookie logo is not one of them. Which is how I found Hackler, Mata and Panini America creative director, David Tierney, trying to channel what the Donruss designer or designers at the drawing board in the mid-’80s had in mind. “The skewed font with that little turn to it, it’s pretty genius when you think about it,” Tierney said. “Subtle little moves give it some more action and some boldness to it.”
Hackler said he’s spoken with a former Donruss employee who said that little turn, a tilt to the mark’s axis that has it pointing north-northeast on the face of most cards was intended to mimic a rising stock. I posited a similar theory, and added that perhaps the hue of blue was chosen because it looks like the color of a stereotypical cigar wrapper you give a dad who had a baby boy, which, you know, is a kind of rookie. Nope. Mata and Tierney guessed instead that it was chosen because it was a team-neutral blue.
“I’m trying to get into the mind of a designer who probably designed the logo (with a deadline of) about 10 minutes,” Mata said. “They’re probably going, ‘You know what, this is probably far enough away from every team color that it will stand out.’”
The skewed font with that little turn to it, it’s pretty genius when you think about it.
Mata grew up in Dallas, home to Panini America, and recalled biking with his brother and cousin to the nearest sports card shop every time any of them managed to save up enough for a pack of cards. A lifelong Texas Rangers fan, he squirreled away every Juan Gonzalez card he could get. For his 10th birthday, his parents bought him the complete set of 1990 Donurss cards, which included Juan Gone’s Rated Rookie card. (He didn’t say whether the set included the regular one or the then-infamous error card that accidentally featured an inverse image of him batting left-handed in backwards laundry.)
“I was so excited,” Mata said. “I immediately knew the value of what I thought baseball cards were gonna give me, and I never thought that I would be designing them someday. It’s definitely a great feeling being able to combine two things I love, which are sports and design. Just knowing that I may design a card that somebody will find in an antique box someday … that’s a great feeling.”
As a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, pulling out a Rated Rookie from a pack of cards signaled to Mata and others (I am writing this with a worthless-but-cherished Jose Canseco Rated Rookie at my side, by the way) that they’d struck pay dirt. “If you got the right Rated Rookie, that feeling that you got was like you just hit a home run yourself,” Hackler said.
That feeling can’t be taken away, but the supposed value of just about every trading card made in the ’80s and ’90s sure was. I remember my dad driving me to Sports Cards Unlimited to buy a complete set of 1990 Leaf cards for an unfathomable $100 because he reasoned I would spend all my money on cards anyway (true) and that it thus made sense to funnel future allowances into a collection sure to accrue in value (false). Massively mass-produced sets were coveted, bought and mothballed like they included the next multimillion dollar Honus Wagner T206 card. But there are maybe 60 Honus Wagner T206s in existence. A stiff breeze in 1990 could have blown 61 Cecil Fielder cards directly into your mouth. The lack of product scarcity, coupled with 1994’s disastrous Major League Baseball strike, crushed the value of that era’s trading cards. The crash has been explored in great detail by the likes of The Economist and in Davie Jamieson’s book, “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.”
Today, scarcity is a major concern to trading card companies, and to the leagues they deal with. Card companies create uber-limited runs of specialty items, like Panini’s Flawless program, which promises minuscule amounts of signed or memorabilia-infused cards. Sports leagues limit production of licensed cards with exclusive deals. Major League Baseball only licenses its team logos to Topps. Panini America holds the sole licenses with the National Football League and National Basketball Association. Panini America, like Topps, has a license with the MLB Players Association, meaning it can still release baseball cards featuring all the star players, just not with the team logos on them.
While the industry has evolved, Mata said the mission of a designer remains similar to when he grew up. “We’re trying to create mini-posters,” he said.
In May, he and the Panini creative team will gather many of the NFL’s latest class of rookies for a photoshoot that will be source material for all kinds of Panini products. Each of tomorrow’s top players, guys who were born two decades after the Rated Rookie logo was, will get a gift bag, award show-style. It will include a Rated Rookie t-shirt. And if this class is like every other class of athletes, Mata said, they will absolutely freak out about it.
“It’s funny,” Mata said. “They may have created this thing in a matter of minutes, but it’s definitely something that’s going to last longer than our careers, I believe. Because it’s not going anywhere.”