It's fitting then that of all the position players that debuted in mainstream 1987 sets - a list that includes Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro - Larkin will be the first to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Named on 86.4% of ballots cast by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the perennial all-star was elected this January in his third year of eligibility.
"I was glad to see that he made it in with such a high percentage of the votes; that surprised me," said Kevin McHolland, who is tied with several other collectors for the No. 1 Larkin Rookie Set on the PSA Set Registry. "I think the voting also speaks to the generation of players he played against and the impact of steroids. The case for Barry was made even stronger since he has not been linked to any performance-enhancing drugs."
Throughout his career, Larkin was considered a model of integrity and decency. He was named the Roberto Clemente Award winner in 1993 and the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award recipient in 1994 - both accolades are largely based on a player's efforts in their community.
Phil Hollinden, owner of the registry's No. 2 Larkin Master Set, points out that the generous infielder was only the second captain in Reds' history.
"Barry was always respected and admired by his teammates as a player and as a person," said Hollinden. "He played the game with class and with great humility. He idolized Latin players Dave Concepcion and Tony Perez growing up. He did not have a Latin background himself, but he went to school to learn Spanish. Larkin later used his Spanish to converse with Latino teammates, gaining him even more respect."
Chris Reed, a longtime Larkin collector who has documented his collection on his blog, agrees.
"In any article you read, he seems to be well-liked by all of the players he played with and against," he said. "He just seemed like a pretty stand-up guy."
Of course, not every kind-hearted player and good teammate is honored with a plaque in Cooperstown. Larkin was also outstanding on the field. Born in Cincinnati in 1964, Larkin starred for his hometown Reds for 19 seasons, racking up 2,340 hits, a .295 batting average, 198 home runs and 379 stolen bases.
One of the best all-around shortstops in baseball history, Larkin was selected to 12 all-star games, captured nine Silver Slugger awards, won three Gold Gloves and was named the 1995 National League MVP. The highly respected infielder also hit .353 in the 1990 Fall Classic to lead the Reds to a World Series title.
But despite his resume, it took him until his third year of Hall of Fame eligibility to gain election.
"Barry is deserving of the Hall of Fame by any standard. He was the best shortstop in the National League for a number of years," said Hollinden. "The problem was Larkin played in the enormous shadows cast by the likes of Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. He didn't quite get the recognition he deserved. It didn't help that he also played in a small media town."
This also explains why his cards haven't been widely collected over the years. Five Larkin sets - Basic, Master, Rookie, Basic Topps and Master Topps - exist on the registry.
"People have been buying Larkin's rookie cards consistently for the past year, anticipating [his induction into the Hall of Fame]," said Roger Rumsey, co-owner of 4 Sharp Corners. "We get his rookies in and they sell out. That's how it has been for the last year."
Rumsey says Larkin's 1987 Fleer Glossy rookie (#204) is one of the longtime shortstop's most coveted cards. A glossy parallel that was available exclusively in factory sets, this single was reportedly limited to a print run of 75,000 to 100,000. There are just 43 PSA GEM-MT 10s.
"The borders are a little bit fragile, but what I see most with that card is left-to-right centering," said Rumsey. "That card is typically off-center - not necessarily to a huge degree, but outside of the parameters for a PSA 10."
The prices realized for PSA 10 examples have jumped significantly since Larkin's induction.
"I noticed on eBay that a 1987 Fleer Glossy Barry Larkin PSA 10 recently sold for $227.50. I bought my PSA 10 example about a year ago for less than $30," noted Hollinden.
Another coveted rookie parallel is Larkin's 1987 Topps Tiffany single (#648). Similar to the Fleer Glossy rookie, these cards were only available in factory sets (reportedly just 30,000 produced), and they have also skyrocketed in value since the induction announcement. Of the 907 submitted, there have been 143 PSA 10s.
"We sold our last PSA 10 example for $50 in November, and right now, they're trading between $135 and $200," said Rumsey in a mid-January interview.
One lesser-known Larkin rookie that's difficult to find in pristine condition is his 1987 Toys "R" Us single (#18). Available exclusively in the toy store chain, this card was part of a 33-card set that was distributed in a custom box and sold for $1.99. Reed says the black borders on this single are often chipped. Just five PSA 10 copies exist.
But the rarest 1987 Larkin issue is likely his 1987 Kahn's Wieners card (#15). This limited edition, red-bordered single was part of a 26-card team set distributed to Reds fans at a home game on August 2, 1987. No examples have been submitted to PSA, but Hollinden plans to send his in shortly.
But it's not just Larkin's rookie cards that have been in demand in recent months.
"There's been quite an uptick in activity in his non-1987 cards," said Rumsey.
One of Larkin's most coveted Master Set singles is his 1993 Finest Refractor (#114). With a reported print run of just 241 of each card, this is arguably Larkin's highest profile insert. Because these cards are not labeled, collectors must look for their distinct rainbow tint to differentiate them from the regular 1993 Finest cards. Of the 115 evaluated, there are 16 PSA 10s. One PSA MINT 9 copy fetched $30.07 on eBay in February 2011.
Another 1993 parallel card that's difficult to track down is Larkin's 1993 Pinnacle Cooperstown Dufex single (#26). This is a limited edition foil version of Larkin's regular 1993 Pinnacle Cooperstown card. In a 2007 interview, B.A. Murry, owner of Bam! Cards in Carbondale, Illinois, noted that the 1993 Pinnacle Cooperstown Dufex set was "a non-commercial set" offered as a prize to Sports Collectibles Association International (SCAI) members that attended every meeting leading up to the November 1993 SCAI conference.
At that time, Murry owned a copy of the letter that accompanied these sets. The letter revealed that 1,000 sets were produced and that some were mailed out in February 1994. However, there were nowhere near 1,000 SCAI members in attendance at these meetings, so there's some debate as to what happened to the leftover sets. Jim Kramer, owner of Southpaw Cards in Roseville, Minnesota, stated in a 2007 interview that he believed that only about 150 to 200 of these sets were still in existence. Only 12 Larkin cards from this issue have been submitted to PSA, and just four have been deemed PSA 10s. One PSA 10 sold for $24.99 on eBay in January 2012.
Larkin's 1996 Select Certified Mirror Gold single (#41) is even rarer than the Dufex card. Part of a limited issue that features gold foil versions of the 144 cards in the 1996 Select Certified set, just 30 Larkin cards were manufactured and none have been evaluated by PSA.
With Larkin set to become a Hall of Famer this July, Rumsey believes that demand for the legendary shortstop's cards will remain steady. McHolland adds that Larkin's hobby popularity doesn't rival that of players on The Big Red Machine, but it's still fairly strong.
"I see him being the guy for his generation; and his popularity and the appreciation for what he did [is] on the rise," he said. "Since he was not over-the-top flashy, I think that may have kept the interest on his items depressed for a little while. But that is changing."
Reed expresses similar sentiments.
"Larkin is the one bright spot in the last 20 to 25 years for the Reds," he said.
The fact that Larkin's name has come to stand for integrity and decency should also help his long-term hobby popularity.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. 4 Sharp Corners, Kevin McHolland and Phil Hollinden provided scans to the author for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of June 2012.
Which Larkin rookie is the toughest to find in PSA GEM-MT 10?
|Card||Total No. of PSA Submissions||Total No. of PSA 10s||% of Submissions that are PSA 10s|
|1987 Kahn's Wieners #15||0||0||0%|
|1987 Topps Toys "R" Us #18||56||5||8.90%|
|1987 Fleer #204||1,076||123||11.40%|
|1987 Fleer Glossy #204||374||43||11.50%|
|1987 Topps Tiffany #648||907||143||15.70%|
|1987 Donruss #492||1,325||322||24.30%|
|1987 Topps #648||783||205||26.20%|
|1987 Classic Travel Update Yellow-Green Back #133||12||4||33.30%|
|**1986 Sportflics #34||251||99||39.40%|
|1987 Donruss Opening Day #191||139||66||47.50%|
|1987 Classic Travel Update Yellow - Yellow Back #133||40||24||60.00%|
*Population Report statistics as of June 2012
** A small group of hobbyists believe that the 1986 Sportflics Larkin should be declared his sole rookie because it was issued in 1986; however, due to the fact that Sportflics is not widely regarded as a mainstream manufacturer, this lobby has not gained significant momentum.