Baseball cards conjure up a lot of memories. Depending on your generation, those memories might include putting them in your bicycle spokes, flipping cards with friends, trading with a buddy, carefully organizing them, and even investing for the future. The hobby evolved into a full-blown industry by the 1980s and then receded a bit while maintaining its appeal for more devoted hobbyists.
Cards have been around in various forms since the late nineteenth century. The “tobacco cards” of the early twentieth century are now best known for the T-206 Honus Wagner, which has become the most valuable baseball card ever (one sold for $2.1 million a few years ago). Cards came and went through the years until 1948, when the Bowman company started producing them in the post-war boom. They must have had something there, because Topps entered the market just three years later and bought them out in 1956. Topps remained the only major company around until the 1980s when Fleer and Donruss broke the monopoly and produced cards as well. Demand boomed, and a decade later stores were also stocking wax packs and cello packs from Upper Deck, Score, and a rebranded Bowman (this time as a subsidiary of Topps). There was even a separate Topps set called Stadium Club, which featured players in tuxedos and went for a whopping $10 per pack when it was introduced in 1991. Card stores popped up around the country and baseball card shows became fixtures at local meeting halls.
I posed questions on Twitter and Facebook asking collectors about their favorite baseball card sets and got a slew of responses, indicating just how wide a swath this hobby has cut through the years. Baseball card aficionados mentioned fifty-six (!) different sets from various companies as their favorites, and several sets had multiple mentions. The 1911 T3 Turkey Red and 1933 Goudey set got a couple of the pre-1948 shout-outs. The Topps sets of the 1950s, replete with legendary players who have long since drifted into baseball lore, were favorites of many. The 1956 set got special mention for its superior artwork, along with the fact it somehow had cards for a ridiculous thirty-four future Hall of Famers. The following decade’s 1965-69 sets also got some mentions. The Topps sets of the first half of the 1970s were also popular, culminating with the 1975 set that is prized today for its rich colors and fabulous crop of rookies that included Robin Yount, George Brett, Jim Rice, and Gary Carter. That year, Topps also released mini cards that were only sold in some parts of the country. Largely ignored in their initial release, they came to be revered by collectors later on for their novelty. And really, all 1970’s cards are fun to look at nowadays just to revisit the hair and mustaches on the players.
By the 1980s, the new companies added to the scope of cards available. Growing demand in the go-go decade practically created for a baseball-card spigot. Fleer introduced its Fleer Update set, offering cards of players who had changed teams and rookies who hadn’t been around yet when a year’s original set was produced. Topps offered the same with its Topps Traded editions and often had some of what later became the most valuable cards of the year. The 1984 Topps Traded set, for example, has the actual (and, therefore, most valuable) rookie cards of Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen. The 1983 Topps and Fleer card sets also got high marks by collectors in my surveys, the Topps with their action-shot/head-shot player combos and the Fleer with their minimalist gray background. Several years of Donruss cards are fondly recalled as well: the 1986 set, with its angled banners and dark backgrounds, and the 1989 edition with its multi-colored frames around the player photos.
Meanwhile, Topps continued to chug along as the brand leader of the industry. Its 1984 set, with the teams listed vertically, was something of a stylistic novelty. Two years later, the 1986 set is fondly remembered for its bold colors of team names on dark backgrounds above the posed player photos. The 1987 set is iconic now due to its wood paneling background design, an update of the 1962 set. The paneling was rarely even from card to card, but the format is among the most memorable of all time.
The 1987 Topps set also offered trivia about players on the backs of their cards along with the normal statistics. Chicago Cubs outfielder Thad Bosley recorded a gospel album. New York Mets infielder Howard Johnson once won a rib-eating contest. Yes, it’s true. And Oakland A’s outfielder Mike Davis aspired to have a real estate career after his playing days ended. That, of course, was back before players made a teacher’s annual salary for every plate appearance.
Several great stories have also come from that era of baseball cards. Remember the 1988 Topps card of New York Yankees prospect Al Leiter, the one that proclaims him a “Future Star”? Yeah, that photo is actually of a Yankees minor league pitcher named Steve George. A year later, Baltimore Orioles second baseman Billy Ripken’s 1989 Fleer card had a profanity scribbled on his bat. Both cards are sought after by collectors to this day.
One of the most mentioned favorite sets in my informal poll was the 1989 Upper Deck cards. The first by this new company, it elevated the art of baseball cards entirely with glossy photos, higher quality card stock, and holograms on the corners that made for many collective ooh’s and ahh’s among the industry and hobbyists.
In this era of Wall Street and presumed never-ending economic growth, collectors began to see their collections as investments. The demand for cards kept growing and there were ever more options (3-D cards! Taller cards! Smaller cards!). By the late 1980’s people were practically clawing each other to invest in Gregg Jeffries rookie cards. My friend Ethan was obsessed with collecting Danny Tartabull rookie cards, since they would obviously be worth a lot of money someday. I somehow talked my dad, a man who regularly spent hours tracking down the one missing penny that would completely balance his checkbook, into spending $18 on a Don Mattingly 1984 Topps rookie card. I was getting the most valuable card of my favorite player and making an investment for the future. Win-win!
I spent many hours at card shows back then, scouring the tables at the local Knights of Columbus meeting hall to find the 1987 B.J. Surhoff or 1988 Gene Garber or 1989 Jimmy Key cards that I needed to complete my sets. I traded with friends and for years regretted that I gave in to Ethan and traded him my 1985 Topps Mark McGwire Olympics card for a handful of Jose Canseco rookie cards. A fair trade at the time, it seemed ludicrous by 1998. Of course, by 2016 it’s likely now a moot point. And Ethan still had his stack of Danny Tartabull rookies, so he wasn’t perfect either. The Cal Ripken Jr. Future Stars card, the 1982 Topps card that also featured the immortal Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider? I traded that one away too and still have nightmares about it. Ripken then still had eight years to go before he would break Lou Gehrig’s record, and I figured the odds were against him making it. They were, but of course he did make it. The vagaries of these things, like the stock market and life in general, are just punches you roll with. Not all my baseball card memories are recalled through rose-colored lenses.
I was mostly out of the hobby by the early 1990s, exhausted by the constant introductions of new cards and sets. Fleer and Donruss are long gone now, relics of my childhood that live on in memory and the internet. Topps has an exclusive marketing deal now with Major League Baseball that makes life difficult for its competitors, but Upper Deck soldiers on.
We all have memories of different things when we look back at our baseball cards. Like baseball itself, it’s partly why the hobby remains such a part of our collective consciousness as fans. When I look at the boxes of my old cards still sitting my parents’ basement, I wonder now what to do with all of them. I don’t want to depart with my Mattingly rookie card, or my long-ago prized Roger Clemens rookie card that I once thought would help me pay for college (hey, I was nine), but what about the others? Sure, I’ll hold on to the cards of some of my favorites like Rickey Henderson and Nolan Ryan and many others, but do I just say goodbye to Hubie Brooks? How about Tom Brookens and Bill Madlock? Et tu, Ron Kittle and Claudell Washington? The memories are great fun to sift through, so I guess the answer is “they stay right there.”