After yielding exclusivity in the baseball card market when Donruss and Fleer entered the fray in 1981, Topps had to take some bold steps. Its 1983 set was the answer, with a pleasing design, sharper photography, a nostalgic look back and, as it turned out, some key rookies.
Readers of Baseball Hobby News had voted Fleer as the best set in 1981 and tabbed Donruss as the best of 1982. Topps sat up and took notice, producing what was considered a stellar product in 1983.
The 1983 Topps set is arguably the nicest looking set from its 1980s catalogue and is a welcome change from some of the more mediocre designs from the previous five years. It also precedes the junk wax era, meaning that while there are plenty of 1983 Topps cards to be had, it was not massively overproduced.
The cards could be found in 15-card wax packs that sold for 30 cents apiece and contained a stick of gum; there were 36 packs to a box.
There were also 24 pack cello boxes of 24 packs each that went for 49 cents. For big spenders, there were 36-card “grocery rack” packs and 51-card standard rack packs. Later in the year, collectors could order a factory set exclusively through the JCPenney catalog.
There were also some futuristic “test packs” produced with very limited distribution. More on those later.
Topps dipped back into its vault of card designs and created a look that hearkened back to the 1963 Topps set. In this 792-card set — the same number as the 1982 set — each card has a large action shot on the front, along with a smaller, circular portrait shot near the bottom of the card, which makes it similar to its counterpart from 20 earlier.
The Topps logo is “connected” to the outer frame of the card in the 1983 set, with it seamlessly becoming part of the design. The design itself is crisp and clean, and its photography stands in contrast to the murkier photo quality of its competitors. The design is vertical, and team colors frame the cards, which measure 2 ½ inches by 3 1/2 inches.
The player’s name, position and team are located at the bottom left-hand corner of the card.
The card backs are dominated by a burnt orange color. The horizontal design is highlighted by the player’s year-by-year statistics, vital statistics, and his name in bold black letters at the top of the card.
With space permitting at the bottom of the card, there are personal highlights from the 1982 season and other bits of trivia. The card number is in the upper left-hand corner, with a Topps logo placed above a player batting.
The 1983 Topps set is notable for the rookie cards of three future Hall of Famers: Tony Gwynn (No. 482), Wade Boggs (No. 498) and Ryne Sandberg (No. 83).
Other notable rookie cards include Willie McGee (No. 49), Jim Eisenreich (No. 197), Dave Dravecky (No. 384), Gary Gaetti (No. 431) and Frank Viola (No. 586).
The 1983 Topps set kicks off with a subset at the beginning with six Record Breakers cards. All-Star cards (Nos. 386 to 407) deviate slightly from the main design, using a star icon in place of the portraits on the base card.
Team checklists showcase a top hitter and pitcher on the front of the card. League Leaders cards (Nos. 701-708) have several categories with the top players from each league. Manager cards are solo cards that pay more attention to each skipper’s career.
Super Veterans has a “then and now” concept, taking it a step further than Topps’ “Boyhood Photos of the Stars” subset that appeared in the 1973 set. In the 1983 version, rookie photos are paired in a horizontal design with a current photograph of the player as a veteran. The card backs include highlights, season bests, and key dates in their careers.
This is probably the finest group of players Topps has ever gathered together in a subset.
Some of the Super Veterans featured in the 35-card subset include Hall of Famers like Rollie Fingers (No. 36), Johnny Bench (No. 61), Steve Carlton (No. 71), Fergie Jenkins (No. 231), Mike Schmidt (No. 301), Nolan Ryan (No. 361), Gaylord Perry (No. 464), Reggie Jackson (No. 501), Carl Yastrzemski (No. 550), and Tom Seaver (No. 581).
Other Super Veterans of note who are not in the Hall of Fame include Pete Rose (No. 101), Dave Kingman (No. 161), Luis Tiant (No. 179), Reggie Smith (No. 283), Al Oliver (No. 421), Tug McGraw (No. 511), Sparky Lyle (No. 694) and Bobby Murcer (No. 783).
Michigan Test Packs
The Michigan Test Packs were a regional experiment. Cards were sold in, you guessed it, in various markets in Michigan. Like wax packs, they have 15 cards and a stick of gum. Unlike wax packs, these cards were housed in Mylar-type wrap with two tamper-resistant crimped ends. Crimped end boxes contain 36 packs.
The crimped ends made it tougher for unscrupulous collectors to tamper with the packs. This concept would become the norm years later. Plus, without a wax seal against the cards, there were no damaged cards inside, meaning the chances of pulling pristine rookie cards and those of Hall of Famers were much higher.
For the third consecutive year, Topps introduced a Traded set. The 1983 version has 132 cards and have the same design as the flagship set. The difference is that the numbers on the card backs have a “T” after the number to designate them as part of the traded set.
The set includes traded players, new managers and up-and-coming rookies.
This set contained the first cards of Darryl Strawberry (No. 108T) , Ron Kittle (55T), Julio Franco (No. 34T) and Mel Hall (39T).
More than 118,000 cards from the 1983 Topps set have been sent to PSA for grading. Not surprisingly, the three rookie cards have been graded the most. The Gwynn card, for example, has more than 23,000 submissions, with 686 coming back as Gem Mint 10.
Sandberg’s rookie card has more than 14,000 submissions to PSA, with 658 earning a 10. Meanwhile, the Boggs rookie has more than 13,000 submissions and there are 368 examples of PSA 10 cards.
Nolan Ryan (No. 360) has 89 PSA 10 cards out of nearly 600 submissions, while Rose’s base card (No. 100) has 393 Gem Mint cards out of more than 2,300 examples. Cal Ripken Jr. (No. 163), who shared his 1982 Topps rookie card with Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider, has his own card for the 1983 main set. He also had a solo card for the 1982 Topps Traded set. His 1983 base card has more than 5,500 submissions to PSA, with 416 rated 10 by PSA.
Despite the presence of three popular rookie cards, there’s enough supply to keep prices for standard, ungraded NM/MT complete sets at a relatively modest $75-$125. The Boggs, Gwynn and Sandberg rookies vary greatly based on condition, of course. Those wanting a graded, mint rookie card can expect to pay around $200-$225 for Gwynn; $100-$125 for Boggs and $80-$90 for Sandberg.
Current costs are around $1,000 for a 1983 Topps wax box and a little more for a cello box.
The 1983 Topps set has held up well through the years. It is packed with Hall of Famers and key stars from the 1980s and has a pleasant design. It was a statement by Topps that they knew they had competitors and were ready to take them on.