by Diane Carter
Walk into a sports card store on this date 25 years ago and it was a three option multiple choice question.
Topps, Fleer or Donruss?
Shop owners and show dealers stocked all three–if they could find the latter two. It was the year after Doc Gooden and Roger Clemens. Who was better? Who would be better in ten years? Collectors picked a favorite and stuffed them away in safe places.
The long term prognosis seemed good.
Then a new era arrived with a 21st century problem.
Look up Jose Canesco’s 1986 Fleer Update card on Amazon.com and what do you find? You can own one for around a buck. His Donruss Rated Rookie, the hottest card in the hobby in the summer of ’86, can be had for a dollar or two.
The same goes for Barry Bonds 1986 Fleer Update Rookie cards.
Why not just buy the entire 1986 Fleer Update set? You can own those for a little over ten bucks–withe the Bonds rookie included. The regular 660-card 1986 Fleer Baseball set regularly sells for under $10 with every card in mint condition.
You will fare little better with 1986 Donruss cards. The 56-card Donruss “The Rookies” boxed set, issued at the end of the season and including Bonds, Canseco, Bo Jackson and others, often sells for around $8.
Those who were buying cards in the mid-1980s and later left the hobby wonder why a 1986 Fleer set or a 1986 Donruss set is worth so little. When they first appeared, baseball card collectors couldn’t wait to buy. In 1986, the sports card market was taking off and sales were booming. The advent of Fleer and Donruss into what had been a Topps monopoly energized the industry and the 1986 Fleer and Donruss baseball sets were greeted with much enthusiasm. To many, their deep blue-colored borders looked sleek and modern compared to the Topps cards collectors were used to seeing.
So, why if in the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when baseball cards were becoming more and more popular and a Bonds rookie might go for $50, are the cards now practically worthless? 80s kids digging through attics and closets who come across their baseball collections are shocked to learn it won’t sell it for more than it cost at the time.
In fact, just the opposite is true. Every day you see people trying to sell their 80s and 90s cards on craigslist for hundreds of dollars. They have a hard time believing that a common card from the 1986 Fleer or Donruss set is pretty much worthless and that Bonds is not worth at least $800.
The market is flooded with cards and buyers are few. Most cards are going for much less than their book value. We now know that in the 1980s and early 1990s, Topps, Fleer and Donruss overproduced cards. In fact, so many cards flooded the market that they became essentially worthless.
Still, up until a few years ago, high grade Bonds and Clemens rookies, Clemens’ first year cards from 1985 and other up and coming young players of the era were selling well when professionally graded at a high level.
Then the government suddenly got interested in what was happening in big league clubhouses.
Everyone might have said Canseco just never lived up to his potential but when he wrote his book, “Juiced,” in 2006, he revealed that not only did he use steroids but he named names–other stars like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire whom he claimed also used them. He was largely unapologetic and claimed steroids usage was widespread.
Any doubters need look no further than the likes of those currently being prosecuted in federal courts–Bonds and Clemens, for instance–to understand why the 1986 Fleer and Donruss baseball cards have declined in value.
No one likes cheaters.
Whether or not the players who have admitted or been identified as steroid users will eventually make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame won’t be known for several years. But the cloud of rampant steroid usage ruined the game not only for the athletes who cheated but for those who bought cards like the 1986 Fleer or Donruss sets hoping they would reap the rewards. It’s also a painful reminder of the perils of investing. The good news is that if you can look past it all, there might be never be a better, easier time to buy cards of the best players of an era. Got a buck?