In the 22 years since they were shipped to troops in Saudi Arabia, the 1991 Topps Desert Shield baseball cards have gained quite a following. However, there aren't many current followers of the set who can say they were stationed in the Middle East at the time and actually came home with the cards. Virginia collector James Dial is one of them, a former soldier and passionate fan of what will go down as one of the rarest, but mainstream sets of the modern era.
“I have been a collector since my childhood, starting in 1973. I remember buying packs of cards from the local 7-11 and trading with my friends," he told Sports Collectors Daily. "Of course back then we kept them in shoe boxes and trading for your favorite player was more fun than putting a set together.”
Dial knew he wanted to keep the cards with the little gold embossed palm tree and desert logos on the front but many soldiers just grabbed the bubble gum from the packs and tossed the rest away. Some weren’t big baseball fans. Others knew it would be a challenge to hang on to anything but their vital necessities while doing their duty in a land thousands of miles from home. The fact that Topps and the U.S. government was sending baseball cards over was a novelty had many of the soldiers chuckling.
“Pure humor,” Dial told Sports Collectors Daily of the initial reaction. “Our thoughts were, ‘Why would they be giving out packs of baseball cards to soldiers, when we are busy with the war?’ For me it was like having a piece of home over there with you.”
The packs themselves had no distinguishing marks on them and non-collectors may not have grasped the uniqueness either. Some swapped what came from the 15-card packs with each other just to pass the time but nothing much came of it.
“Some soldiers thought they were pretty cool, and others really didn’t care,” Dial recalled. “I remember one soldier used one as a book marker for the book he was reading. A few of us who were old enough to remember how to play ‘flip’ played a couple of times, but not a lot. We were busy doing missions and training. I didn’t know any other collectors at that time.”
Believe it or not, some would up meeting a fiery death almost immediately. Dial and other soldiers recalled bonfires and 55-gallon drums filled with ’91 Topps heading to the trash. Little did they know that little logo on the front of each card meant they would someday be worth a significant amount of money.
Topps placed the Desert Shield logo on the front as part of a special printing job that sets the cards apart from the far more common regular issue 1991 Topps Baseball issue. It’s believed that only about 6,500 cards of each player were made for the Desert Shield set. Of the cards that weren’t tossed out, many suffered the same fate of those collected years before: they were handled and jostled around to the point of being well south of ‘mint’ condition when they made it back home.
Thus, high grade cards, especially graded examples, can sell for a lot of money today, especially the Chipper Jones rookie card and stars like Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey Jr. and Greg Maddux
Be wary counterfeits, however. Because of the cards’ value, crooks looking to cash in have tried to fool collectors by creating their own Desert Shield logos and stamping them onto regular 1991 Topps cards. How to spot a fake Desert Shield card has become required reading for anyone who deals in them.
Dial owns one graded set and two ungraded. He still has a couple of unopened boxes.
At the recent National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago, Baseball Card Exchange, which specializes in unopened material, had three unopened boxes and sold them quickly at $5,000 each. The interest—and the lure of what highly graded singles could bring—drives prices upward.
“I think the unopened wax boxes and high end graded cards will always be desired and valuable,” Dial stated. “There are currently over 25 collectors who are collecting the set in graded condition. Since the set is also contains many current and future Hall of Famers, I am sure that there are collectors who have no interest in the set, but do collect their favorite player.”
Dial isn't alone as a collector who was serving in the military at the time and brought the cards home, though. U.S. and coalition forces drove Saddam Hussein's Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in good order and many soldiers shipped stateside not long afterward. For some, they provide a good memory amid what was even in victory, an often unpleasant experience.
Dial, who spent more than 24 years in the Army, has often used card collecting as a sort of therapy for his Desert Shield expeerience and other intense tours of duty in recent Middle East conflicts. His main interests are vintage Hall of Famers and vintage oddball sets. He’s seen much of the world as a soldier but won’t forget how those wax packs helped perk up life in the desert 22 years ago.
“I think it was a great gesture by Topps and something I think the soldiers who served during that conflict will one day really appreciate. Due to the rarity, I think that the Desert Shield set will go down as one of the greatest sets of the modern era.”
Click here to see the current market for 1991 Topps Desert Shield cards on eBay.