Dan Skrezyna and I had a conversation* a week or so ago about what should be considered the "rookie card" (RC) for Korean players who pre-date the licensed KBO sets (which started in 2014). Dan's interested in getting rookie cards for several players graded and was trying to figure out what cards those would be.
*"Conversation" in this case means we were texting back and forth via Facebook Messenger since he's in Korea and I'm the US.
Now I have not collected MLB cards for about 20 years now so I've not paid a lot of attention to how the hobby has defined what a "rookie card" is. I'm apparently suffering under the misconception that it's the player's first card. Since BBM has published a card of pretty much every player taken in the regular phase of the draft in the following year's flagship set every year since the 1993 draft, there's not a lot of question in Japan about what card is the player's rookie card. Probably the biggest argument over the last 30 years or so is whether Hideo Nomo's 1990 Takara card is his rookie card or if it's his 1991 BBM and Calbee cards. Since I go with the first card so I'm picking the 1990 card. The difficulty with Korean cards is that there were only licensed cards for a couple years around the turn of the century and then not again until 2014.
The first player we talked about was Oh Seung-Hwan. Oh made his debut with the Samsung Lions in 2005 and spent nine years playing for them before moving to NPB with the Hanshin Tigers in 2014. He left Japan for North America in 2016 and spent two years with the Cardinals, part of 2018 with the Toronto Blue Jays and the rest of 2018 and 2019 with the Colorado Rockies. He rejoined Samsung in 2020. So which of these five cards should be considered his rookie card?
|2009 Konami WBC Heroes #118|
|2010 KBO Game Set #AS-004|
|2014 BBM 1st Version #195|
|2016 Topps Chrome #98|
|2020 SCC Premium #SCC-P1-20/L05|
I think there's an argument to made for all of these. The 2009 Konami card is the earliest card that I'm aware of for Oh (and his only WBC card that I know of). The 2010 KBO Game set is his first card showing him with his actual professional team although the set is unlicensed. The 2014 BBM card is his first licensed card showing him with an actual professional team and his 2016 Topps Chrome card is his first card with an MLB team. His 2020 card is his first licensed card showing him with a professional team from his home country. So which one is his RC?
According to the BaseballCardPedia page on Rookie Cards: "The 'Beckett Definition' of the rookie card (or "RC") states that a "rookie card" must come from a fully-licensed (both MLB and MLBPA), nationally-distributed set that is primarily focused on current Major League players. It must be a base card and cannot be an insert, parallel, or redemption card. A player may only have one RC per set. If he has more than one base set card in the same set, then the 'rookie card' tag is given to the 'regular' card (assuming that the other card is from a special subset). If a player has more than one base set card in the same set, but the two cards are produced in different quantities (i.e. one is short-printed and the other is not), then the more common card is given the "rookie card" label."
Taking this at face value then the 2016 Topps Chrome card is his RC as it's the only card we're talking about here that's from a set licensed by both MLB and MLBPA (and, hey, it SAYS "RC" right on it!). That seems like a rather provincial attitude to have. My inclination would be to treat the 2009 Konami card as his "rookie" card (as opposed to the RC).
The next player Dan brought up was Park Han-Yi. Park's professional career didn't start until 2001 with Samsung but as a collegiate player he played on the Korean team for the 1999 Asian Championship which was a qualifier for the 2000 Sydney Olympic games. Because of this, he had a card in the "Korea Dream Team" insert set in the 1999 Teleca Premium set:
|1999 Teleca "Korea Dream Team" #D-24|
But wait - the Beckett Definition says the rookie card can't be an insert card. What's his next card? Well, Park had the misfortune of starting his career just after the two years Teleca did KBO cards and he didn't appear in the unlicensed 2010 KBO Game Set so it wasn't until the 2014 Superstar Baseball Season One set that he had his next card:
|2014 Superstar Baseball Season One #SBC01-004|
But wait - this card is a short-print! I'm not sure if the hair-splitters over at Beckett will accept that or not. His next non-short printed base set card is from the 2014-15 Superstar Baseball Blue Edition set:
|2014-15 Superstar Baseball Blue Edition #SBCBE-173-N|
My feeling is that probably the 1999 card should be considered his rookie card, even if it is an insert. It kind of reminds me of how everyone treats the 1985 Topps Mark McGwire Olympic card as his rookie card although that's not directly comparable - the McGwire card is a base card in the 1985 Topps set.
Next up is Lee Bum-Ho. Lee played for the Hanwha Eagles from 2000 to 2009 before joining the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks for 2010. He returned to Korea to play for the Kia Tigers in 2011 and retired during the 2019 season. He has a card from the 2000 Teleca set that's actually labeled as a "Rookie"card:
|2000 Teleca #R9|
But alas - this is also an insert card. If this can't be his rookie card than one of these could:
|2009 Konami WBC Heroes #130|
|2010 BBM 1st Version #306|
|2014 Superstar Baseball Season Two #SBC02-099|
|99 Teleca #69|