Throughout the years, Topps has established some of the most important innovations in baseball card history. One of their more unique ideas was to begin creating baseball cards for members of Team USA’s baseball team.
That move came in 1985, the year after the 1984 Olympics team took the field. Team USA was the host nation as the Olympics were held in Los Angeles that year. Baseball was only a demonstration sport so no official medals were distributed. And with baseball being the nation’s honored pastime, the U.S. team was expected to perform well. Despite the fact that the team featured amateurs and collegiate players, the Americans were a favorite.
Cuba, a team that would have been a favorite to win, did not participate. That helped clear an even better path for Team USA. The team looked strong throughout the tournament. After narrowly defeating Chinese Taipei in their first game, 2-1, Team USA routed Italy and the Dominican Republic by a combined score of 28-1. In the semifinals, the U.S. defeated South Korea, 5-2. But while the Americans reached the final, they ended up losing to Japan, 6-3.
Close, but no cigar.
1985 Topps Team USA Cards
Topps made a deal to feature players from Team USA on cards in its 1985 set. Since then, Topps and other companies have continued the tradition, creating Olympic issues for the baseball team.
Many of the players from the 1985 set made it to the major leagues. However, the subset has always been about one player — Mark McGwire.
Simply put, McGwire’s 1985 Topps card is a legendary one. Well, at least by 1980s standards, anyway. For a while, it was one of the most sought after cards in all of collecting. It even soared to heights of $200 in the pre-graded card era. Today, those same ungraded cards are a fraction of that amount. It isn’t hard to find the card these days ungraded examples on eBay in the $10 or $20 range.
The McGwire card was special because of how early it was printed in relation to his other cards. His first major league cards didn’t come out until 1987 as he was featured in the Topps, Donruss, and Fleer sets. The card was out a full two years before his others and, even though he wasn’t a major league player at the time, it has always been considered by most to be his true rookie card.
There are some other players that collectors will recognize, too. But, if we’re being honest, the cards of other major leaguers, such as Bill Swift, Cory Snyder, Oddibe McDowell, Shane Mack, and company, will hardly warrant much interest. Snyder’s card for a time, along with those of Swift, Mack, McDowell, and Mike Dunne, were all somewhat well regarded. All of those players were top picks in the 1984 Major League Baseball Draft and expected to perform well. But all mostly underwhelmed as major league players and today, their Team USA cards are little more than commons.
The subset is also dubious for what it didn’t include. Specifically, several key players could have been included that strengthened it.
That’s because the team also included Will Clark and Barry Larkin. Ironically, after McGwire, they had the most notable careers of anyone on the team but are not found in the set. So what gives? Well, according to BaseballCardPedia.com, they could not legally have been included because they still had NCAA eligibility. Appearing on the cards would have been in violation of the NCAA rules and potentially have cost them their eligibility.
Their exclusion, thus, makes perfect sense. It was just sort of a shame because they went on to such great careers. Clark would find his way into mainstream 1986 Traded/Update sets but most of Larkin’s notable major league cards did not come until 1987 (even though he did appear in the 1986 Sportflics issue).
While it was a great concept by Topps and has an iconic card in it, the long-term prospects for the subset certainly aren’t good.
McGwire could ultimately gain more consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame but no one else from the set has anything close to Hall of Fame credentials. And while many of the players did reach the major leagues, their careers were not notable enough to warrant much long-term interest.
Further, like most 1980s sets, the cards are not very rare. 1985 Topps is still readily found these days and while unopened wax of it is not nearly as abundant as that for later 1980s Topps cards, it is indeed available.
One bright spot for the set are high-grade examples of the McGwire card, which are in high demand. PSA 10 examples of McGwire’s card are nearly the $1,000 mark and the more elusive Tiffany version of the card is significantly more valuable than that. One sold on eBay in October for more than $4,100.