By 1990, Topps had been issuing traded cards at the end of the baseball season for many years. But that year, the company tried a new innovation — making those cards available in unopened packs.
That might not seem like a bit deal these days. After all, traded and update cards have been available in unopened packs for some time now. In fact, many younger collectors probably cannot recall a time when they were not issued that way. But older collectors remember those days and, well, they weren’t a lot of fun.
The traded and update sets have long been desirable largely because of the rookies they contained. While the regular season base issues did not always contain the key rookies, the best players usually made their way into the traded sets. Because of that, those sets often held the more important key cards.
Unfortunately, the only way to get those cards at the time was to find a dealer offering singles or to buy the entire set. Finding sellers with those cards these days is not difficult with sites such as eBay. But in the pre-Internet days, it was a much stiffer challenge.
Not issuing those cards in unopened product, it could even be argued, was somewhat of a smart ploy since it surely increased the amount of complete sets that were sold. Collectors were forced to buy an entire set when, perhaps, they were interested in only one or two cards. But in 1990, Topps changed the game.
A New Way to Buy
In 1990, for the first time, collectors could buy Topps Traded cards as unopened wax product. Demand was quite significant and again, that had to do with the players in the set that were not in the regular season issue.
At the time, the two key rookies collectors wanted were David Justice and Kevin Maas. Justice won the 1990 National League Rookie of the Year Award after a spectacular season with the Atlanta Braves. Justice clubbed 28 home runs that season while batting .282 and was a star in the making. But, alas, he wasn’t in Topps’ regular season set.
Maas was the other big time rookie that made waves that year. The American League Rookie of the Year that season was catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. But Alomar had already been featured in 1989 sets so his 1990 cards were not as desirable. Maas, meanwhile, was an entirely new player in sets. The 21 home runs he hit in only 79 games with the New York Yankees made him an instant sensation and his cards flew off the shelves like hotcakes. He, too, was not found in the regular season set. The cards of Justice and Maas were the two keys in the set and collectors were more than happy to buy up unopened product for their cards.
With only 132 cards in the set, Topps very well couldn’t offer the standard 16 cards per pack. That would make finding the stars all too easy and result in less sales. So they curbed that by including only seven cards in each pack, instead. The boxes still had the same allotment of packs (36), though, so it still was relatively easy to build a set.
While the cards were essentially the same as ones issued in the complete sets, Topps did make them different.
The backs of the cards from the set still had the bright colored backgrounds that were different from the regular season cards issued in packs. Backs of the traded cards found in packs, however, were missing the bright colored style. Instead, they had the more common dull colored backs as found on the regular season cards.
Collecting them back in 1990, I don’t recall much of a difference in terms of selling price. I recall dealers asking for a bit more for the bright colored factory set cards but the prices seemed to be mostly about the same.
Both variations are shown here.
Unfortunately, the long-term prospects for the 1990 Topps Traded cards (either style) aren’t real great. Premiums are, of course, paid for PSA 10 versions of the key cards. But even high-grade raw cards generate little interest. Justice’s card is still among the most valuable in the set and won’t usually cost you much more than a buck, if that. Unopened boxes can be found on eBay in the $10-$20 range.
Still, despite those low prices, the set was an important one in terms of card innovation as it ultimately made the once-rarer traded/update cards much more accessible.