It might be time for collectors to dust off their 1990 Topps sets.
Mark Dupray was at home on July 12, organizing his sports card collection during the coronavirus pandemic. Dupray, 46, was trying to make room for some new cards since he was edging back into the hobby after a dozen years. He was sifting through a shoebox of baseball cards stashed in a closet when he made an interesting discovery.
The cards included a stack of 1990 Topps. Dupray knew about the Frank Thomas rookie card error where the Big Hurt’s name is missing on the front (known to collectors as the “NNOF” card), but he was unprepared to find nine of what is now known as 1990 Topps blackless error cards.
“I just heard of these things a few weeks ago,” the North Phoenix resident said.
Dupray found a Marcus Lawton rookie card (No. 302) with part of the outfielder’s name obscured. After rummaging through the 1990 cards again — he had thrown them into a recycling bin — Dupray found ten more blackless cards. Two of them were duplicates.
So Dupray did some research and said his eyes popped when he saw that one of the blackless cards was being offered for four figures on eBay.
“I saw one posted for $5,000,” Dupray said. “I thought it was just some crazy thing.”
In addition to the Lawton card, Dupray unearthed blackless cards of Kevin Tapani (No. 227), Fred McGriff All-Star (No. 385), Darrin Jackson (No. 624), Julio Franco All-Star (No. 386), Jeff Russell All-Star (No. 395), Carlton Fisk All-Star (No. 392), John Morris (No. 383) and John Hart (No. 141).
Other blackless cards that have been identified, along with the Thomas rookie, are Craig Biggio All-Star (No. 404), Joe Magrane All-Star (No. 406) and Jim Acker (No. 728).
According to Brian Gerrans, a collector from Grand Haven, Michigan, who owns all 13 blackless cards, a 14th card — Paul Assenmacher (No. 644) — may qualify as an additional variation.
The cards are part of a production sheet problem that suddenly makes a mundane Topps set kind of interesting. And that is a tall order coming from a set produced at the height of the junk wax era.
“It is a fascinating set and extraordinarily rare,” said Gerrans, 44, a financial adviser who worked in a baseball card shop as a youth in his native Muskegon.
For Dupray, the twist was that he originally bought the cards as a teenager while his family was living overseas at Yokota Air Base in Japan.
“It was so rare to get baseball cards on a military base,” Dupray said.
It was mid-1990, and Dupray and his friend, Kolin Koizumi, were opening Topps rack packs. They were not impressed, although Koizumi did pull a Thomas NNOF card. The cards had printing defects, were off-centered or miscut, and some were even blurry.
“To us, we thought we just got ripped off by Topps,” Dupray said. “Our theory was that Topps gave us garbage, you know, packs that were sent to the military.
“Because of that, me and my friend switched to Donruss.”
Despite his disappointment, Dupray did not throw away the cards. And his mother was one of those good parents who saved her son’s childhood cards. She gave them back to Dupray after he graduated with a degree in business administration from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in 1997.
“My mom knew, that before I discovered girls, the cards were important to me,” Dupray said. “I didn’t even know my mom saved them until she gave them to me.”
The existence of the 1990 blackless cards has been known for more than a decade. In 2009, a forum post by Ross Clark on the Collectors Universe website referenced the cards. Through the years, collectors have commented on the post, which is now 24 pages long.
“It was fascinating to me to read and discuss,” Gerrans said. “How it was part of a layer error pattern.”
On his website, BigHurtHOF.com, Clark presents a detailed explanation of how the 1990 Topps cards were produced. He believes the Thomas NNOF and the blackless cards were random, unintentional errors that occurred during a press run that was halted when the mistake was discovered.
Topps manufactured the set through offset lithography, according to Clark. In this process, ink is transferred from a printing plate to a rubber “blanket,” and then to a printing medium.
Personal observation. I can recall in my early newspaper days (we’re talking the 1980s) having to collect four transmitted pages of a wire service photograph for the production department because each represented a color plate: black, cyan, magenta and yellow. Put them together and, voilà — color photography (thank goodness now for digital technology).
Clark advances three interesting scenarios to explain the blackless cards: Either the black printing plate was damaged, or it was dirty. Or, the rubber blanket was dirty. This photo offers an enhanced look at how the sheet was impacted.
Clark speculates that these cards — which were on the same sheet that included the Thomas rookie — were missing ink on the black edging around some of the borders.
It is a plausible theory. And a collector would have to be sharp-eyed to notice the difference.
“Nobody saved them,” Dupray said. “They were just commons.”
Dupray got his start in cards when he was 10 when his brother sent him a complete 1989 Topps set after the family moved to Japan.
“Cards were cheaper on the base,” Dupray said. “It was less than a dollar for a rack pack. They didn’t charge you a mark-up fee on the base.”
College, business, marriage and raising a family took precedence after Dupray put the baseball cards away. But when he found the cards, he posted his discovery on the Net54 forum and asked for help.
“I don’t know how serious one dealer is, but I was offered $5,000 each for the Fisk and Tapani,” Dupray wrote. “I was also offered $4,000 for the Morris. I don’t know if this is a scammer or a legit offer.”
“Believe the guy who sends you a cashier’s check for $4,000,” one Net54 poster answered.
The poster was right. The $4,000 offer magically disappeared.
Before completing his own set of variations, Gerrans had offered Dupray $750 apiece for the Fisk and Russell cards but was turned down.
“I’ve been offering these guys (who also had the variations) a thousand and they were saying no,” Gerrans said.
Happily, for Gerrans, he bought eight PSA graded packs from Joe Schembri, known as RookieWax on the Collectors Universe forum. Gerrans cracked the packs open, pulling the pulling the Fisk from one pack and the Russell in another. He was able to trade the Russell card for Hart, which completed the set.
Brian Gerrans has a complete set of blackness cards, plus a Paul Assenmacher card he believes could be the 14th card among the variations.
Eleven of his cards are already graded, and Gerrans said he is sending the Fisk, Hart and Assenmacher cards out this week.
Dupray said his favorite card in the bunch was Russell’s. The Rangers pitcher looks like there is a white bedsheet behind him as he delivers a pitch.
“How was that (variation) not recognizable?” he said.
The differences on some cards is extremely subtle and identifying all the blackless cards is not easy, Gerrans said, noting that the Jackson card was the toughest one to single out. He also said the Acker and Hart cards were difficult.
Meanwhile, the Biggio, Fisk, Franco, Lawton, McGriff and Russell cards are much more obvious.
“If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy,” Gerrans said.
Dupray sent his cards to Beckett Grading Services. He concedes the cards were not pristine, having been “jostled around” in the shoebox through the years.
“If everything comes back a 7 or better, I’d be happy,” he said.
The Thomas NNOF has been submitted to PSA 219 times, with only one graded 10 and another rated PSA 9.
Just 37 of the other blackless cards have been graded. Only the Tapani has come back with a PSA 10 grade. There is one PSA 9 Lawton card and the only Hart card graded is a PSA 7. The rest of the cards grade no higher than 8.
Gerrans had a large card collection which he sold in 1993 to finance his “college education and college lifestyle.” He wonders if any of the blackless error cards may have slipped away back then.
“I remember we were loading 5,000-count boxes,” Gerrans said. “Who knows if any of that (1990) stuff was in there? (The) 1990 Topps (set) would not have had that kind of allure.”
Gerrans returned to the hobby after the death of his mother in May 2017, concentrating on Bill Ripken error cards. Then he decided to chase after the 1990 blackless cards.
The pandemic is also playing a role in the renewed interest in cards among collectors and has caused prices to rise, even for cardboard from the junk wax era.
“Prices have ticked up. Interest has ticked up,” Gerrans said. “In today’s world, with message boards and Facebook, there are some people I’ve networked with that I’ve never met face to face.
“Technology is probably driving why we know about the 1990 Topps cards.”
“So many people thought they were garbage cards,” said Dupray, who also believed that for the longest time.
They are no longer trash, that is for sure.