Insert cards are nothing new. But while many existed before the 1990s, that decade was really when things started getting interesting.
By the early 1990s, new trading card companies were being formed. Score joined the ranks of Topps, Donruss, and Fleer in 1988. Bowman and Upper Deck followed in 1989. And by the early 1990s, companies were creating premium brands to appeal to collectors looking for high-end cards.
With a large base of collectors, there were plenty of sales to go around for everyone. But companies were still determined to stand out from their competition. One of the ways they did that was through insert cards.
Inserts became popular in the early 1990s–and in a hurry. Topps became famous for creating a parallel insert set of ‘gold’ cards, which they first issued in 1992.
Interestingly, their 1991 Desert Shield baseball cards (distributed overseas to military members in the Gulf War) served as a precursor of sorts. Those cards had a special gold foil stamped logo on them to distinguish them from the domestic base set. Topps must have learned that the gold stamping was a hit. In 1992, they responded by issuing cards with player names and teams in gold as inserts found in packs.
Donruss Insert Craze
Also in 1991, Donruss got into the act. Their 1990 Donruss set is largely a dud and, while the 1991 set is, too, that year Donruss produced an ultra rare insert set of cards called Donruss Elite. Donruss had printed a few inserts earlier, but few, if any, were big hits. That changed in 1991 as Donruss Elite became highly desirable cards. Donruss Elite cards weren’t printed in super scarce quantities. However, they were difficult to find simply because of the sheer volume of Donruss cards that were printed. The Donruss Elite cards are one of the few reasons to bother opening 1991 Donruss packs these days.
As a response to collector demand for inserts, Donruss also made its Diamond Kings set an insert set. Previously, the cards were generally presented as a subset as part of the larger base set. But starting in 1992, the Diamond Kings cards were a separate insert product.
Like Donruss, Fleer had been producing inserts for a few years by the early 1990s. But they also decided to up their game in the 1990s. While they ultimately produced numerous inserts in both Fleer and their premium Ultra brand, one of their earlier notable attempts was through the Pro Visions set – a sleek, 12-card insert set of colorful artwork featuring star players and eye-catching backgrounds. The cards weren’t glossy and weren’t terribly expensive, but they were popular. Despite the glitz and glamour of other cards, they proved that inserts could be desirable without gloss or super shortprinting.
Find the Reggie…and the Mickey…and…
Also in the early 1990s, we saw some special inserts that went above and beyond. Instead of merely including shortprinted inserts in packs, some companies had an eye on the future and included autographed cards.
Upper Deck was one of the first in the door with its 1990 Reggie Jackson Heroes autographs. Not only did the company produce a small insert set of unsigned Jackson cards, they also had 2,500 autographed by Mr. October himself. The cards were extremely difficult to pull, highlighting just how many packs of Upper Deck were distributed. But it was an early glimpse into the future.
Another brand jumping into the autographed game early on was Score. In 1991, Score produced a special insert set of Mickey Mantle with the highlight being 2,500 personally autographed cards signed by Mantle himself. Like the Jacksons were, these were heavily desired cards that weren’t seen too often, thanks mostly to a very large production run.
But collectors wanting autographed cards didn’t have to settle for the nearly impossible odds of landing a Jackson or Mantle. In 1991, companies like Classic and Star Pics began marketing collegiate players to collectors and created sets of players that were headed to the professional ranks. Their products also included inserts of autographed cards that were a bit more attainable to the everyday collector as more of them were produced.
As time went on, the insert game became more cutthroat with things such as die-cuts, game-used cards, and an abundance of more autographs. Companies also drastically began limiting production, taking us to the 1/1 days we’re currently in.
These days, many inserts aren’t really that special and, while a good number of them are printed in small quantities, the days of wild excitement over pulling an autographed card are mostly over. Some products even guarantee a certain amount to be contained per box and that sort of takes the fun out of finding one.
Safe to say, the insert game has changed quite a bit over the years.