The Ten 1990’s Baseball Issues that Killed the Player Collector Completist

I started player collecting in 1989, when the baseball card universe was on the verge of its Big Bang-like expansion. New manufacturers and sets were seemingly popping into existence every week back then. I saw the writing on the wall as far as set collecting was concerned: I no longer could have it all. So if I couldn’t have it all, at least I could have it all of one or two players. That would satisfy my lust to see all the new designs for both base and insert sets, while keeping things affordable and my apartment relatively free of clutter.

Or so I thought. Slowly but surely, the 1990’s killed my dream. I may not have realized it at the time, but some of the innovations that card manufacturers like Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Upper Deck and Pacific were introducing to the hobby were really death blows to the Player Collector Completest: those dedicated collectors that strive to have every card made of a single player. These new innovations were a double-edged sword however. On the one side, they would ultimately make the possibility of being a Completest utterly futile. But on the other, they made the chase even more fun by adding interesting new card innovations available to the Player Collector’s collection.

I chose Mark Grace of my hometown Cubs to be the focus of my player collection. I would attempt to collect every card made for him and picture them on my website By the end of the 1990’s, I’d come to realize it was going to be a Sisyphean task. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying for the past 25+ years.

With that in mind, I present a chronological list of the ten 1990’s issues that made it impossible for modern player collectors to have a complete collection. Not all these issues were recognized at the time as important landmarks, but in hindsight, I feel their contribution to the downfall of the Player Collector Completest can be properly recognized.

Ryne Sandberg Donruss Elite#1: 1991 Donruss Elite
What the Player Collector Thought: Check out the back of these cards! They’ve got machine stamped serial numbers to 10,000! That’s pretty cool having a card with a unique number, but jeez, just 10,000 of them? How am I going to afford one when I do finally find it?

Lasting Impact: This issue introduced machine serial numbering to insert sets. The Elite Series, with only 10,000 cards made per player, were considered scarce at this time, when millions of base cards were being rolling off the printing presses. Player collectors we’re not used to insert sets that commanded anywhere from 10X to 100X the base card price, and some balked at adding these to their want lists. An autographed signature card limited to 5,000 copies was particularly vexing for Ryne Sandberg collectors.

Orel Hershiser Leaf Black Gold 1992#2: 1992 Leaf

What the Player Collector Thought: Hmmm, a one per pack Black Gold card? That’s a bit of a challenge to find my guy. Hope someone at the card show has it! This “parallel” design concept is interesting. Something new to chase!

Lasting Impact: 1992 1992 Leaf Black Gold Parallels, along with 1992 Topps Gold, were the first base card parallel sets: a set that mirrors the base set design but is changed in some small way (border color, foil overlay) and limited in production to make it harder to obtain. With these issues, Player Collectors now had multiple cards from an issue to chase. Over the years, the parallel phenomenon would grow to frustrating levels (see #5 and #10).

Ken Griffey Refractor 1993#3: 1993 Topps Finest

What the Player Collector Thought: Hmmm… what’s this “refractor” parallel everyone is talking about? Some sort of rainbow effect, how do you tell? Oh my god, they’re selling for that much! This is going to seriously hurt my wallet. Why can’t anyone tell me what the print run of these cards are though?

Lasting Impact: Refractors from 1993 Topps Finest were one of the biggest and most impactful innovations of the early 1990’s. Collectors were drawn to them by their shiny appearance and limited availability. Up until this point, cards limited to 10,000 were considered scarce. 93 Finest Refractors for any one player were calculated to have a print run of 241 based on insertion odds and production cases. Their extremely limited availability in pre-Internet times (when one couldn’t simply go online and fine multiple sellers of said card) defeated many player collectors.

1994 Topps Superstar Sampler pack

#4: 1994 Topps Factory Set

What the Player Collector Thought: What’s with these 3-card “Superstar Special” cards previewing upcoming releases? And you can only find them in factory sets? What will they think of next?

Lasting Impact: A sneaky issue, this is probably the one item on this list that wasn’t widely acknowledged at the time. I included it because these cards, only inserted in 3-card cello wrappers within 1994 Topps factory sets, were the birth of the “preview” and “sample” cards: cards issued and marked as a coming attraction for a soon-to-be released issue from the same manufacturer. By the end of the decade, preview and sample cards would be the bane of many player collectors. Their various means of distribution, lack of production information, and elusive nature made them a headache for completists. You can see various packs and singles on eBay here.

#Select 1996 Mark McGwire5: 1996 Score Select

What the Player Collector Thought: Mirror Golds only have 30 copies made? Plus there are Mirror Blues and Reds to chase? Oh man, this “rainbow” of parallels is going to be super tough, and expensive! I’ll never find them all.

Lasting Impact: 1996 Score Select gave us the “rainbow,” a collecting term that has generally come to mean a series of three or more parallel cards in different colors. Players in this issue had a base card; Red, Blue and Gold parallels; and super limited Mirror Red (90 copies), Mirror Blue (45 copies) and Mirror Gold (30 copies) parallels. Finding, and affording, the Mirror cards was just too much for many player collectors, and they resigned themselves to never being able to add them to their collections. Hardcore completists consider these a cornerstone of their collection if they’ve been able to land them.

#6: 1996 Studio

Cecil Fielder Leaf Studio Silver Press Proof 1996What the Player Collector Thought: Silver press proofs with only 100 copies – it says 1 of 100 right on the card! Plus they are only distributed in hanger packs (magazine packs)? I don’t even have a chance of pulling this card out of a hobby box, gotta find some dang retail store that sells those fat packs!

Lasting Impact: I remember attending a card show held in a local shopping mall in 1996, and one local dealer waving me over to his table. “Hey, you’re the Mark Grace guy, right?” he asked. “Have I got a card for you!” He then showed me a 1996 Studio Silver Press Proof card in a big Lucite holder, and turned it over to point out on the back, around an inset photo of Grace’s head, where it said “One of 100.” I was floored, both at the excitement of owning a card so limited for my collection, and at the asking price from the dealer. I walked home with a light wallet that day, seriously considering if I could keep affording every Grace card being made. The wrinkle this issue introduced was its distribution method. You couldn’t pull these cards out of hobby boxes, only the fat “magazine” packs you find hanging from retail store hangers. Having to chase distinct hobby and retail became a daunting task for player collectors.

Barry Bonds 1997 Flair 1-1#7: 1997 Flair

What the Player Collector Thought: Oh my God. They’ve gone and done it. A “masterpiece” card with 1 of 1 stamped on it – “The Only 1 of 1 Masterpiece!” I can own a card no one else can have? Well that does it, I’ll never have a complete collection again.

Lasting Impact: 1997 Flair was truly the nail in the coffin. For the first time, a parallel was created with only one copy of it available per player. That fact alone spelled the end of having a 100% complete player collection. With 1997 Flair, only one Cal Ripken or Ken Griffey collector could hope to have a complete collection, and soon, with the proliferation of 1 of 1 cards, it was an impossible feat for any collector to do so. More than any other item on this list, 1 of 1 cards can be pointed to as the death-blow of the Player Collector Completist.

1997 Pinnacle Printing Plate#8: 1997 New Pinnacle 

What the Player Collector Thought: Are you kidding me? They’re cutting up the printing plates they used to produce the cards, inserting them in packs, and there’s only 1 per ink color? How the heck am I supposed to find these? Eight (front and back plates in cyan, magenta, yellow and black were made) 1 of 1’s from one product – just ridiculous!

Lasting Impact: The dispersal of 1 of 1 printing plates was a novel idea in 1997, so much so huge rewards were offered to anyone that assembled all four plates of a player (a reward that to the best of my knowledge went unclaimed). Having printing plates added to a player’s checklist exponentially compounded the statistical likelihood of finding every card made of a modern player to nil.

#Tony Gwynn 1997 Upper Deck Game Jersey9: 1997 Upper Deck

What the Player Collector Thought: Whoa… they’re cutting up actual game-worn jerseys and putting the swatches into the card! How can I keep collecting my guy with these $100 cards coming out?

Lasting Impact: While the introduction of memorabilia cards in 1997 Upper Deck was limited to three players (Griffey Jr., Gwynn and Ordóñez), the concept was an instant success and soon memorabilia cards were everywhere. In their infancy, the novel new jersey and bat cards were in high demand and came with big price tags that many player collectors couldn’t afford.

#10: 1998 Topps Tek

Bernie Williams Topps TekWhat the Player Collector Thought: Seriously, 90 different cards of my guy, plus 90 super rare diffractor parallel versions of it? This is getting insane – I quit! 

Lasting Impact: Topps Tek was a player collector’s worst nightmare: 180 different cards of your player to find from a single issue! It was the first of what I refer to as the “mega parallel sets,” which I define as any issue having 20 or more parallels of a single player. The diffractors were seemingly impossible to find, and even today I’ve never seen or heard of a collector in possession of all 90 diffractor patterns of their player. Mega Parallel sets became a staple of Donruss/Leaf/Playoff brands in the following decade, and remain some of the most challenging aspects of player collecting.

And there you have it, the ten 1990’s issues that killed the player collector completest. But don’t misinterpret that statement. They didn’t kill player collecting. To the contrary, the innovative card introductions from this decade reinvigorated player collector passions by creating new and interesting cards to chase. Low print run cards were trophies to be hunted down, and capturing them became a way for the hardcore player collector to set his or her collection apart in the hobby. It may merely be semantics, but the death of the Completists gave rise to the Supercollectors  those devoted hobbyists that have the single-mindedness, passion, time and financial resources to assemble the most complete player collections realistically possible in today’s hobby.

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