Today, it is difficult to imagine a world in which there are not plenty of cards issued with low print runs. Some of the most expensive issues such as Panini Flawless have ‘base cards’ with print runs of as few as 25 copies. Imagine, in 1989 when I was telling collectors at shows about Tiffany cards with stated print runs as low as 5,000 copies and how ‘rare’ that was. Of course, serial numbering was basically unheard of at that time outside of some secondary companies and selected products.
In an article I wrote recently, we discussed the 1993 Finest Refractor print run of 241 copies and how no one ever refuted that information while by 1995, as a partial reaction to the decline in sales caused by the 1994-95 baseball strike and hockey lockout, more inserts were serial numbered. During the early 1990’s very few inserts were serial numbered including autographed Upper Deck Heroes and Donruss Elite. However, usually they were serial numbered in the thousands.
By 1996, the hobby decline was continuing and the path to “hits” was getting more necessary with every product issued. We had the Signature Series cards inserted one per pack and then Pinnacle, which by then had taken over Leaf/Donruss was continuing to look for ways to foster collectors getting better hits out of boxes. The way this was created was in the 1996 Select Certified release and the Mirror Gold parallels.
For manufacturers, parallels are a great way of producing cards with shorter print runs in the least expensive manner. There’s no need for new photos in creating parallel cards and also since these are parallels they are not counted towards any possible limit a company might have on issuing cards of a certain player in a particular issue.
Although the 1996 Select Certified Mirror Gold cards were not serial numbered, the stated print run for these cards were 30 copies and the prices of all mirror gold singles immediately exploded when these were released.
I do remember at the Beckett offices, we received several letters or phone calls from collectors who gave up their player collections when these cards were issued. Basically, although a terrific short term move, the long-term drawback was many collectors just gave up after 1996 further reducing the collecting pool. However, within a year stated print runs of 30 cards were not enough. One dealer was adamant that the card companies would soon drive the single player collector, often the most passionate and devoted collector in existence, out of the hobby. Who knows how many people started giving up when they realized these cards were beyond their means.
And if you think 30 cards was a small print run, well the middle of 1997 had quite a surprise for you. The 1997 Flair Showcase product, released just before the Cleveland National that year, featured cards which were issued as 1 of 1’s. That is correct, in 1997 we crossed the Rubicon and reached the level beyond which we could go no further in lowering the amount of a card available. I remember a few years later, long-time hobby figure Rich Bradley, who was then with Fleer, took responsibility for that idea and is still unsure about whether that was a good development.
The whole concept of the first 1 of 1’s was such as a big deal that I remember we wrote articles in Beckett Baseball Card Monthly about the people who chased some of these cards and the large amount of money spent on the quest. I think one person tried to get (he may have succeeded) in getting all three Griffey 1/1’s in the 1997 Flair Showcase and I think he paid $10,000 each for those cards. Today, if he wanted to spend $30K on Ken Griffey Jr. cards, he probably could buy several thousand different cards and have one heck of a collection.
If you have any memories of your first major “hit” or serial numbered card from the time when they were new, we'd love to hear your stories. Drop me a note at [email protected].