Twenty-five years ago, the world of football cards changed permanently. You see, for nearly a generation, Topps had been the only company licensed to produce football cards with Fleer relegated to action shots and a few regional issues. However, as had occurred with baseball cards at the beginning of the decade, 1989 would be as big as a sea change in football as 1981 was in baseball.
First we’ll start with the 1988 Topps football set, or a better way of saying, the last of the old-school sets. The 1988 set would be the last year in which a rookie card would not be in the player’s rookie year but actually a year after his rookie season. That meant key players such as Bo Jackson and Vinny Testaverde, who made their debuts in 1987 would not have their first cards until 1988. Yes, there was a time in which you had to wait a year (or sometimes longer) to get a rookie card.
In 1989, that would all change as both Pro Set and Score, the new kids on the block, issued rookie cards as part of their sets. Pro Set, under the aegis of the legendary Lud Denny, actually secured the rights to be the official card of the National Football League.
Interestingly, none of the other three companies who made 1989 baseball sets issued football sets that year. However, within a year Fleer would issue their first player-based football set since 1963 and in 1991 Upper Deck joined the ever-expanding fun.
What I most remember about the 1991 Upper Deck football set was that dealers were randomly allowed to purchase either 2 or 22 cases. I never understood then how that was determined and now that whole debate seems spurious but in 1991 that was a big deal. Also, the 1991 Upper Deck set followed the baseball model by having their first ‘Hero’ (Joe Montana) with 2,500 signed cards randomly inserted into their packs, further establishing the autographed insert chase we still see today.
The ‘89 Pro Set product did have some production issues but their concept was to make this a living set and update when necessary. Sometimes the update was good if the player changed teams but sometimes the update was sad. Stacey Toran, a defensive back with the Raiders, perished in a car crash and his card was updated with a black band and the ‘1961-1989’ notation in the lower right corner. The card proved how dedicated Pro Set was to updating their sets at all times.
Pro Set kept issuing cards and some of the variations would later sell for a decent amount of money. A couple of their sets really do tell the story of a specific season better than most record books. Of course, Pro Set cranked out way too may cards and had other problems too. After a few years they were out of the hobby for good.
The 1989 Score football set, on the other hand, was very well produced and is printed in lesser quantities than either Pro Set or Topps, which is why it remains the king of the ’89 issues. Score used a simple design featuring green borders and had a nice grouping of portrait cards showcasing that year’s potent draft class including Barry Sanders, Troy Aikman, Deion Sanders and Derrick Thomas. With four of the first picks of the 1989 draft ensconced in the Hall of Fame (only legendary bust Tony Mandarich missed out of the honor), these cards became the best 1989 football rookie cards to own. Today, we would have autographs and relic cards of these players but in 1989, all we had were the basics, but collectors chased them then—and still do today. Score, as well as Topps, would issue Update factory sets to compete with Pro Set’s second wax series.
Topps was also behind the curve in producing their sets. Until the aforementioned update set, their product was issued in all the traditional ways with none of the 1989 rookies having regular issue cards. Yes, we had to wait till the update set for any of the key rookies and that was the first time since 1965 that Topps issued cards of football players in their rookie season (of which the key player was Joe Willie Namath of the New York Jets).
While it took Topps a few years to adjust to the new reality, within a few years, they had also begun to spruce up issuing cards of players in their rookie season and today those cards are an important staple of their releases.
But in 1989, it really took Pro Set and Score to show the way in how cards of actual rookies would drive sales. And as a note, by November, 1989 Beckett Football Card Monthly debuted with an article by free-lance writer Rich Klein included. To show how well that issue sold, the issue I was supposed to receive never arrived and eventually a slightly damaged return copy was sent to me because that was all which was in the house. And know that was true as one of my old Beckett fellow employees Mary Campana told me that she was like the only customer service person in the office the day after Thanksgiving and every phone call she received was seemingly about getting more of that first Beckett issue with Bo Jackson on the cover.
Today, many players such as Johnny Manziel are already well known before they play their first NFL game. I wonder just how many autographs Manziel will sign for 2014 issues but it’s no stretch to say it will be in the thousands. A far cry, for sure, from the simpler days of 1989.