They are called “closers” and oftentimes it seems like ice is running through their veins. They are called on to preserve leads in tight baseball games at the most critical junctures. They are Major League Baseball’s relief pitchers who were even referred to as “firemen” in years past because of their ability to douse rallies staged by the opposing team’s hot batsmen in late innings. Through the history of MLB, several of these closers have risen to the top of their profession and left lasting legacies.
Here’s a look at sought-after rookie cards of 10 top MLB relievers whose collective careers cover six decades’ worth of America’s favorite pastime, starting with a contemporary closer and going as far back as 1952.
Kimbrel, a hard-throwing right-hander, is just 30 years old heading into the 2019 season and has already amassed 333 saves and has earned All-Star status seven times. He has recorded at least 31 saves in each of his first eight MLB seasons and earned a World Series ring in 2018 as a member of the Boston Red Sox. His 2011 Topps Chrome single is his most coveted rookie. Its shiny Chrome surface, however, can easily be scratched. Of the 48 submitted, 32 have been recorded as PSA 10s.
In 16 MLB seasons split between five different teams, Wagner was a seven-time All-Star who posted a career 2.91 ERA with 422 saves. A 5’ 10” southpaw, he showcased an overpowering fastball. His ’94 SP RC is considered his best and its foil finish is difficult to find blemish free. A rare, die-cut version is also available, but demand far outweighs supply. Of just 28 that have been submitted, only one has been graded PSA 10 and only four have earned PSA 9 status.
Rivera is certainly a cut above most relievers in many respects. First, he was elected into Cooperstown in 2019 as the Hall’s first ever unanimous selection. Second, he owns the record for career saves with 652 over a 19-year campaign with the New York Yankees. Third, he recorded 30 or more saves in a season 15 times! His Bowman RC shows a very slender Rivera sporting street clothes; it’s a card that can generally be uncovered in high grade. Of the 5,306 submitted, 1,299 have been graded PSA 10.
Did you know that Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman was selected as a shortstop by the Cincinnati Reds in the 11th round of the 1992 MLB Draft? He converted to a top-notch relief pitcher quickly and would go on to record 14, 30-save seasons, the bulk of which were posted during his 16 seasons with the San Diego Padres. His white-bordered Bowman rookie card shows him as a member of the Reds and is generally easy to obtain in high-grade condition. There are 601 PSA 10s that have been graded thus far – an interesting number since Hoffman recorded a total of 601 saves for his career!
Smith, a 6’ 5” right-handed flame-thrower, was a perennial All-Star who led the league in saves four different times. Well-traveled by playing for eight different clubs during his 18-year MLB career, Smith racked up a league leading 478 saves at the time of his retirement following the ’97 season. His Topps RC is regularly found with poor left-to-right centering because of its far-right edge positioning on the print sheet. Of the 883 submissions that have been evaluated, only 43 have earned PSA 10 status.
In 1984, while pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, Sutter set a then-NL record with 45 saves. It was one of five times he topped the league in that category. He began his career in 1976 with the Chicago Cubs, which is the team uniform he is sporting in his ’77 Topps RC, and gradually turned into a prolific closer with a league-leading 37 saves in his fourth season. To date, of the 1,813 that have been submitted, only 29 have been graded PSA 10.
Although he began his MLB career as a starting pitcher for 12 seasons, Eckersley truly made a name for himself after being transformed into one of the most dominant closers in history. In five years with the Oakland A’s (1988 to ’92), he averaged 44 saves. In ’92, in fact, the 6’ 2” righthander notched 51 saves to go with a 1.91 ERA to earn not only the AL Cy Young Award but MVP honors as well. His ’76 Topps RC, which shows him with the Cleveland Indians, is quite elusive to find in top grade because it’s rarely found well-centered. Of the 3,120 submitted, just nine PSA 10s and only 136 PSA 9s have been recorded.
The 6’ 3” Gossage had a menacing stare and could throw fastballs reaching three-digit speeds. In all, throughout his 22 years of MLB service, he notched 124 wins and 310 saves and was eventually inducted into Cooperstown in 2008. His ’73 Topps RC shows Gossage with the White Sox (his first team in ’72) and is often hard to find properly centered (top-to-bottom). Of the 1,836 that have been submitted, there have been only 11 PSA 10s recorded and 179 PSA 9s.
Fingers was one of MLB’s best relievers during his 17-year career (1968-85) and is best known for his trademark handlebar mustache. The HOF right-hander completed his MLB career with 114 wins, 341 saves, a 2.90 ERA and was even named the AL’s Cy Young Award winner and MVP in 1981 while pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers. His ’69 Topps RC, which he shares with two other AL pitching prospects (Bob Floyd and Larry Burchart), is often plagued by print defects and poor left-to-right centering. Of the 2,670 submitted, there have only been 14 PSA 10s registered and 129 PSA 9s.
Workhorse would best describe the late Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm. Although he didn’t make his MLB debut until age 28, the knuckleball pitcher went on to play 21 seasons in which he recorded 143 wins and a league best 228 saves at the time of his retirement in 1972. His ‘52 RC landed in the high number Topps set and is often difficult to find properly centered. Of just the 635 that have been submitted, there has been only one PSA 10 recorded, six PSA Mint 9s and 53 PSA NM-MT 8s.