The baseball card hobby exploded during the 1980s, and nothing was hotter during the decade than the rookie card of the latest phenom. While the sets of the era are home to the debut issues of many Hall of Famers, plenty of other “budding superstars” fizzled out on the road to Cooperstown. In between is a group of players who put together stellar careers but who have slid in popularity over the last 30 years for various reasons. Their cards may not be ‘rare’ but they were extremely productive players who definitely belong on a list of ten underrated baseball rookie cards of the 1980s.
1981 Donruss Tim Raines (#538)
Though he amassed more than 2600 hits and stands fifth on the all-time stolen base list, left fielder Tim Raines spent his 23-year career in the shadows of bigger names and tallied some of his best seasons with the Montreal Expos. While the Expos were a solid team during much of the 1980s, they consistently fell short of the playoffs, and they just didn’t garner the attention of teams in the US. That left Raines struggling to get the recognition he deserved, though he has appeared on “underrated” lists like this almost since he broke into the Major Leagues in 1979.
Collectors have been a bit kinder to Raines, and his 1981 Topps rookie card has been up and down the hobby popularity ladder over the years, while his Topps Traded issue from that season garners a bigger price tag these days. Often lost in that mix is the fact that Raines also has a 1981 Donruss rookie card, and it’s his first solo card since it was released during the ’81 season. The Donruss card is a sharp, bright card of the young star that can be purchased for a couple bucks.
1982 Topps Lee Smith (#452)
He may not have had a 19th-Century handlebar mustache or the strength of a championship team behind him, but no one inspired more fear in opposing batters in the late innings during the 1980s than Chicago Cubs fireballer Lee Smith. At 6’6″ and 22o pounds, Smith was a dominating hulk on the mound who parlayed his talents into 478 saves, a 3.03 career ERA, and nearly a strikeout per inning over an 18-year career.
Relief pitchers have had a hard time getting into Cooperstown, though, and Smith is on the outside for now. As a consequence, his 1982 Topps rookie card remains a decent bargain at less than $15 for graded MINT copies.
1982 Topps Brett Butler (#502)
Hardly anyone got excited when Brett Butler came to the plate during his 17-year career, but the diminutive spark plug just went about his business anyway and kept finding his way into the top slot of Major League lineups. After stops with five different franchises, Butler hung up his spikes in 1997 having slashed and nibbled his way to 2375 hits, 1359 runs, and 558 stolen bases to go along with a healthy .290 batting average.
Butler won’t make it to the Hall of Fame, but his 1982 Topps rookie card sells for very little. Heck, you even get Larry Owen thrown into the deal!
1983 Topps Traded Darryl Strawberry (#108T)
Darryl Strawberry stands as a cautionary tale for hotshot young athletes who suddenly have the world at their doorstep. But, even though he failed to live up to expectations, Strawberry kept coming back — from colon cancer, trouble with the law, and multiple bouts of drug abuse — to make a mark in the Major Leagues. Many will point to his as a case of favoritism toward talented athletes, but the fact is that he managed to crush 335 home runs among more than 1400 hits in a 17-year career that established him as one of the top 40 or so rightfielders of all time.
His rookie card in the 1983 Topps Traded set was arguably the first card to create a buzz for those year-end issues and helped establish the 1980s rookie card market. These might cost a little more than you’d think (PSA 10s have sold for $100 and up in recent days) but you can snare a ‘9’ for around $20-30 or a lower grade version for less.
No matter where you put him in the field or in which city he played, Joe Carter was a productivity machine, at least in terms of traditional baseball statistics. Managers would wind him up in the spring and put him in the lineup, and by fall, Carter would have about 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in while hitting around .270. If you were lucky enough to get to the post-season, Carter might just carry you to the promised land, too, as his dramatic home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series can attest.
With just under 2200 hits and 400 home runs, Carter falls short of Hall of Fame caliber, but his rookie card in the tough 1984 Donruss set is underrated at $20-25 for mint, graded examples and just a couple bucks for many ungraded specimens.
1986 Donruss Fred McGriff (#28)
When it came to steady excellence, few have been better than slugger Fred McGriff. During a 19-year career, the Crime Dog smacked 30 or more home runs 10 times and topped 100 RBI on eight occasions. Though he never won the award, he regularly landed in the top 10 in MVP voting and finished just seven dingers short of the 500 home run club.
His 1986 Donruss rookie card enjoyed a spirited hobby ride during the boom of the early 1990s. Today, even though prices have dropped, McGriff is still extremely popular. You can find a nice example of his first card for less than $5.
1986 Fleer Update Will Clark (#U25)
Will Clark has been one of the more outspoken former players when it comes to deriding his contemporaries for alleged steroid use, and maybe for good reason. Clark’s numbers — .303, 2176 hits, 284 HR in 15 years — would look even better if not set against the background of gaudy stats put up by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and others of the era.
Clark will likely never make it to Cooperstown, but the fact that you can barely give away his Fleer Update rookie card just seems wrong.
1987 Donruss Kevin Brown (#628)
Quick: who does baseball-reference.com rank as the 46th greatest starting pitcher of all time, ahead of legends such as Don Drysdale, John Smoltz, and Red Ruffing? That would be Kevin Brown, who played for 19 years in the Majors, picking up 211 wins to go along with a 3.28 ERA and scoring one of the richest contracts ever, with the Dodgers in 1999.
Collectors and fans were always lukewarm on Brown at best. This card–and all of Brown’s early issues–were victims of overproduction.
Edgar Martinez didn’t become a regular for the Seattle Mariners until age 27, and he was done in the field by 32. The next 10 years at DH, though, helped establish Martinez as a superstar and redefine the “position.”
His late start limited Martinez to less than 2300 hits and just over 300 home runs, but plenty of fans still think he should be in the Hall of Fame. If that ever happens, his 1988 Fleer rookie card will likely become a hot commodity and you can buy them in quantity for $1 or less.
1989 Fleer Update Albert Belle (#U25)
Who was the most hated baseball superstar of the 1990s? If you throw out the steroid guys — who were adored at the time — the easy answer is Albert “Joey” Belle. From 1989 through 2000 when he walked away with Baltimore’s money, Belle smashed 381 home runs, hit .295, and was a perennial Top-5 MVP candidate.
His surly attitude and actions (corked bat, anyone?) decimated his popularity, though, and today his 1989 Fleer Update rookie card can be yours for just a buck or two.
Though you could make the case for several other players and pasteboards, it’s hard to argue with these 10 as being among the most underrated baseball rookie cards of the 1980s. The players made their teams go, and the cards helped make the hobby what it is today.