by: Craig Paulson
The 1985 Topps baseball card set is perhaps one of the best examples of how quickly fortunes can change for not just one or two cards, but an entire set and, in many ways, an entire generation of players.
As early as 1986, it would have sounded like madness to suggest that the ’85 Topps cards of some of the games most popular and productive players would be anything less than golden one day soon. Names like Roger Clemens, Kirby Puckett, Dwight Gooden, and Mark McGwire were on the lips of every fan and their early cards seemed as sound an investment as could be made by any collector with an eye toward the future.
Well into the later part of the 1990s, cards from the ’85 set still held out the promise of lucrative returns to collectors as McGwire chased the coveted single season home run record, Puckett racked up hit after hit and great World Series moments before stepping aside, and Clemens seemingly defied time itself as he continued to dominate hitters well past what some considered the “twilight” of his career.
Then, in 2003, after years of vague speculation among baseball insiders, reports began to emerge of a wide spread, ongoing practice of players using all sorts of performance enhancing drugs both on and off the field. The “Steroid Era” will forever be a black mark on the history of the game and has radically altered the legacies of some of the games biggest names. It would also prove to be the final nail in the coffin for not only the value of the 1985 Topps set, but for nearly two decades worth of memorabilia.
Of course, there are other factors that led to the dramatic fall of the ’85 set’s value other than the personal and/or professional problems of players. The baseball card business is not unlike most others that deal in collectibles and memorabilia in that the value of item is based as much on supply as demand.
Beginning in the mid to late 1980’s, the most popular and profitable card makers began doubling and, at times, even tripling their usual yearly production numbers. The effect was as predictable as it was disastrous for dealers and collectors across the board. The market for cards issued after the planned production flood all but dried up. The arrival of eBay revealed the truth: if you wanted an ’85 Topps set, you had your pick from dozens each and every week.
Scandals and other issues were also eating away at the ultimate value of the ’85 set long before steroids and HGH came to be household words. What would become known to most as “The Pittsburgh Drug Trials” shone a bright and unflattering light on the world of professional baseball. Strikes and open labor disputes robbed fans of a World Series and devastated attendance numbers throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
While it’s hard not to imagine what the ’85 Topps set would have been worth in a different world, the harsh and simple truth is that we’ll never know. But today’s collector can purchase one for next to nothing and part of the appeal is that collectors can afford more of these older sets than ever before.
The fates of the players is also just a part of baseball history and their stories–good and bad–play out on cardboard for collectors and fans. The cards aren’t getting any younger, either. At some point, those who consider 1985 childhood nostalgia may be drawn back and the laws of supply and demand will narrow–at least a bit.
It’s the way of baseball and everything connected to it. Regardless of how bad things look today, there will be a chance for redemption sometime soon. Just like the game itself, there is always next year.