Looking back, 1988 was a relatively dull year for baseball cards. Among the junkiest of the junk wax era, not much has significant value from that time period. Sure, there are some notable things from 1988, such as the traded/update sets. But in general, there’s a lot of low-value stuff from 1988.
1989 has a lot of low-dollar stuff, too. But (and with all due respect to the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken error) a greatly improved rookie card crop as well as some new brands made 1989 a pretty landmark year for the hobby. 30 years later, let’s take a look back.
That title might be a little misleading since I don’t know that 1989 has one of the best rookie classes of all time. But comparing it to 1988, 1989 was a goldmine for good rookie cards.
Ken Griffey, Jr. sits at the top of the list, obviously. His cards are often the most expensive in the sets in which he appears. Griffey even made it into some base sets and his 1989 Upper Deck card is considered one of the most iconic cards in the entire hobby. Even as one of the few big talents not tainted by the steroids scandal, Griffey’s raw rookie cards are still very affordable with many being available starting at about $5. And his Upper Deck rookie is even cheaper than it used to be, starting on eBay at around $30 or so. But if you think it ends with him, think again.
Also found in 1989 sets are rookie cards of Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. Johnson was one of the most dominant pitchers of his era. While his career got off to somewhat of a slow start (he didn’t win even 15 games until the age of 29), he went on to have many good seasons, ultimately landing him in Cooperstown. Johnson’s rookies are an even bigger bargain than Griffey’s. Today, many of his lesser ones are often found in dollar boxes.
Add Curt Schilling to the list, too. Schilling was left out of most 1989 sets (even the traded/update ones) but did appear in the 1989 Donruss set. A six-time All-Star, he’s another very good player starting out in major league sets in 1989. His one that’s pretty cheap and often in the $1-$2 range. And to somewhat of a lesser degree, there are other key rookies from 1989 as well. Those include Albert Belle, 500-home run hitter Gary Sheffield, and two-way star Deion Sanders, among others.
Some others have cards that can be considered rookies as well. John Smoltz, for example, has 1988 Fleer Update rookie cards but did not land in most sets until 1989. As a result, things like his 1989 Topps, Donruss, Score, Bowman, and Upper Deck cards are all often considered rookies. Same for Craig Biggio, who is found in the 1988 Score Traded and Fleer Update sets. Biggio’s 1989 Upper Deck, Donruss, and Topps cards are also considered by many to be rookie issues. Additionally, Jim Abbott is found in the 1988 Topps Traded set as a member of Team USA but his 1989 cards (including his 1989 Topps card showing him as a recent draft pick) are usually considered rookies, too.
New and Emerging Brands
What 1989 is most remembered for is probably the addition of new brands into the fold.
Most notably, Upper Deck began printing cards in 1989. Not only was that their inaugural year, but with a $1 per pack price, they were much more expensive than other cards out there. The cards also had the unique hologram on the back and were leaps and bounds ahead of other sets in terms of aesthetics.
But while Upper Deck was the talk of the town, other sets are important to remember here, too. Topps-owned Bowman also re-debuted after a long absence. While the company had cards in the 1940s and 1950s, 1989 was the first set that was printed for the brand in decades. The cards also had a distinctly different appearance. They were oversized (causing all sorts of storage headache), included replica signatures, and had a back with a unique statistics format.
Finally, while Score had been around in 1988, 1989 was a big year for the company. Returning for a second year showed collectors they were probably in the sports card business for a while. And beyond baseball cards, they also produced their first set of football cards in 1989. With rookie cards of Barry Sanders, Troy Aikman, Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, and others, it is considered to be one of the more notable football sets from the junk wax era.
Most cards from 1989 may not be worth a whole lot but there’s little doubt that it was an important year for the hobby.