It might not be the most glamorous position, but relief pitchers are an important part of the modern game.
Most tend to be called upon as a result of poor performance, high pitch count, or injury to the starting pitcher, and can turn the tide; even if they’re kept in reserve for the majority of the time.
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Here’s a list of some of the greatest relief pitchers to play the sport, along with their best rookie cards.
Best Relief Pitchers of All-Time Rookie Cards
We’ve looked at everything from stats to popularity when coming up with this list of the best relief pitchers. As for their RCs, we’ve chosen the rarest options, as they also make for great investment options if you look at graded copies.
1992 Mariano Rivera Bowman Baseball RC #302 (buy on eBay)
Mariano Rivera recently came third in our list of the best Yankees’ RCs of All-Time, and he crops up again when looking at the greatest players in his position. Seen as one of the
Rivera was the best relief pitcher to grace the game, his dominant performances ensured he received 100% of the vote in the 2019 Hall of Fame ballot, becoming the first player in major-league history to be elected unanimously by the BBWAA.
A simple RC, it features an image of a casually dressed Rivera, leaning against a foundation in the back of a stadium. The lack of branding makes sense as he was a free agent at the time, so there’s nothing more than a classic Bowman logo at the top, and a small nameplate at the base. It also benefits from a thick white border, so it’s easier to find gem mint copies at auction.
1976 Dennis Eckersley Topps RC #98 (buy on eBay)
One-time World Series champion Dennis Eckersley (10/3/54) pitched for the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics, and St. Louis Cardinals respectively in a decorated 24-year career.
Eckersley’s only official rookie card is found in the ‘76 Topps set. It features a posed shot of the pitcher in his Indians jersey, with a blue sky background that gives it a great look. The card has a thin pink border, helping to complete the retro feel.
There’s also an O-Pee-Chee version that is identical aside from French text on the reverse, and it sells for a similar price when looking at graded versions.
1992 Trevor Hoffman Bowman RC #11 (buy on eBay)
Another Hall of Famer, Trevor Hoffman was inducted in 2018. A closer for the Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres, and Milwaukee Brewers, he was the first player to reach the 500 and 600-save milestones and held the all-time record for five years.
The Hoffman RC we’ve chosen is the 1992 Bowman, which features a posed shot of the pitcher with a wide grin on his face. He’s in the pitching position, while he’s in a Reds uniform, despite never playing in a game for the franchise. It’s one of the more affordable cards to make the list, as it’s possible to pick up PSA 10 copies for roughly $100.
It’s a great budget option, which has a decent scope for growth from an investment perspective.
1969 Rollie Fingers Topps Bobby Floyd, Larry Burchart, Rollie Fingers RC #597 (buy on eBay)
Roland “Rollie” Fingers played for 17 years as a relief pitcher, helping to revolutionize the role as he operated much like a modern closer. As a three-time World Series champion, a seven-time All-Star, a four-time Rolaids Relief Man of the Year, and a three-time saves leader, he won it all, and his RC is priced accordingly.
It’s actually not just ‘his’ RC, as rookies from the ‘69 set came in trios. Cleveland Indians pitcher Larry Burchart and Baltimore Orioles infielder Bob Floyd complete the set, although they didn’t achieve much of note compared to Fingers. The Hall of Famer is found on the right, wearing a green Oakland A’s cap.
1952 Hoyt Wilhelm Topps RC #392 (buy on eBay)
Another player who helped to change the role of the relief pitcher, Hoyt Wilhelm fought in WW2 before starting his major league career at the age of 29. He still managed 21 seasons in the majors and became the first reliever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was never going to miss out on a spot on the list.
His 1952 Topps RC is found in one of the most popular post-war baseball sets of all-time. (Yes, the one that includes that Mickey Mantle rookie.) Wilhelm’s card is found in the tough high-number series (311–407), which means it’s considered to be a short print. It features a beautifully illustrated close-up of the player, with a vintage Giants logo at the bottom, and the blue-sky background made famous by the set.
“Be wary of the many reprints and fakes on the market. For older cards such as this one, we’d strongly recommend looking at graded options.”
1982 Lee Smith Topps RC #452 (buy on eBay)
Lee Smith was one of the best closers in history, while he held the major league record for career saves from 1993 until 2006 until he was surpassed by none other than Trevor Hoffman. He joined the National Baseball Hall of Fame in December 2018, as part of the Veterans Committee vote.
As for his RC, the 1982 Topps is arguably Smith’s most popular release. We’ve picked it as high-end grades of this card are scarce, while prices have spiked following his late entrance into the Hall of Fame. The addition of two parallel lines running down the left side of the card make it noticeable, and it features a posed shot of the player as he stares at the camera.
Donruss and Fleer also have rookies, while there’s also a 1980 TCMA Wichita Aeros XR.
Best Relief Pitchers of All-Time and Their Rookie Cards: Investment Outlook
Above all, they might be back up to the main man, but these relief pitchers could be a great choice if you’re looking for investment pieces that have the potential for growth in the future. There’s something for everyone depending on the budget, with options like the Wilhelm card which helps to serve more expensive tastes.
There’s a lack of modern-day relief pitchers who manage to match up to the stars of yesteryear, so it’s often better to stick to Hall of Famers that are tried and tested. The majority have seen prices rising over the past couple of decades, while they’re scarce when looking at cards that have achieved a high grade.