For a release that features a slew of variations for its time, 1991 Topps served as an early preview of how baseball cards would evolve into the future—whether they intended it or not in some cases.
While Chipper Jones may be the only Hall of Fame rookie card in the set, printing errors led to a number of variations that have become sought after. Some of the these are more valuable on the open market than Larry Jones’ first Topps card, who was nicknamed “Chipper” because his dad saw him as a “chip off the old block.”
There was also a “Desert Shield” set released to soldiers serving in the Middle East, which has become one of the most desired sets of the 1990s due to its scarcity and condition sensitivity. Thirty years later, more variations have surfaced and speculation about how many Desert Shield cards actually exist continues to make rounds.
So even though it’s a set considered to fall into the “junk wax era” category, there are still some hidden gems and an iconic rookie card that reside in 1991 Topps that have continued to gain popularity over the years. Here’s a look at a few cards that might be worth your time digging through a few boxes to find.
The Kingpin: 1991 Topps Chipper Jones RC
Before photoshop, photographers had to hustle to track down quality images that Topps could use for baseball cards. Even if that meant driving to a high school to snap a quick picture of a teenager posing in front of a chain link fence with an aluminum bat—i.e. Chipper Jones.
At the time, Chipper was a high-school standout who was a star on the baseball diamond for Bolles School in Florida. His rookie card features him in his “Bulldogs” uniform, as the set was released before any photos of him in a Braves uniform existed. Today, Topps would likely just photoshop an image of a Braves jersey, but there is something nostalgic about seeing a Hall of Famer in his high school uniform.
While Jones will go down in Braves history as one of the best players to ever swing a bat for Atlanta, he almost certainly would have been a Detroit Tiger had it not been for Todd Van Poppel’s refusal to play for the last place Braves—who went 65-97 in 1990 and had been the doorstep of the division in three of the last four seasons. Van Poppel was being compared to Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan, and wanted little to do with the organization.
It was a case of “be careful what you wish for,” as Van Poppel would fall to 14th in the draft and never reach the heights scouts had anticipated. Meanwhile, the Braves were about to embark on the longest division-winning streak in the history of the game after drafting Jones #1 overall. Starting in 1991, the Braves won 14 straight titles and would appear in the postseason every year until 2006. Van Poppel would retire in 2005 with a losing record and career ERA of 5.58.
Gem Mint PSA “10” Chipper rookies are now bringing three figure prices as they continue to climb alongside other graded Hall of Fame rookie cards. Ungraded copies can still cost you less than $10 if condition isn’t important.
The Gold Mine: Desert Shield
Shipping cards to a war zone doesn’t generally bode well for condition. But such was the case for 1991 Topps Desert Shield cards, most of which were shipped to soldiers stationed in the Middle East and featured a gold logo that distinguished them from the original set.
It has been reported that less than 7,000 cards of each player were produced, making them exponentially more rare than their junk wax counterparts which were often printed in the millions. There have also been soldiers who were stationed in areas like Saudi Arabia at the time who claim to have seen 55-gallon drums full of Desert Shield cards being disposed of. That being said, it’s extremely hard to discern how many copies of each survived a war and round-trip flight to and from the Middle East.
While PSA population reports show that just under 65,000 cards from the Desert Shield set have been graded as of now, only 31 Chipper Jones Rookie Cards have received a gem mint “10” grade (there’s one on eBay now that’s set to bring a big price). There are 152 Chipper Jones that received “9s” and 262 “8s” that have been graded by PSA.
BGS has graded a total of 4,458 Desert Shield cards, while SGC’s population report lists a total of 2,459 graded Desert Shield cards. In all, less than 75,000 cards have been graded by the three companies—a relatively low figure considering 1991 Topps was a 792-card set.
Considering the value, Desert Shield cards have been faked quite frequently, so buying an already graded version from a third-party authenticator can save you from buying one of the many knockoffs that are floating around.
Diamonds in the Rough: Variations
Topps typically does a stand-up job of fitting their images snugly inside their chosen border design for the year, but there was an exception in 1991 Topps that has become one of the more desirable cards from the set.
Mark Whiten—who once hit four homeruns in a game and totaled 12 RBI—is one of those variations from 1991 Topps that continues to escalate in price. While Whiten’s career didn’t end up being Cooperstown worthy like Chippers, his 1991 Topps variation usually outsells the Braves legend due to scarcity.
The variation card features Whiten’s arm extending past the border, while the much more common correction shows his arm inside the border. The variation is fairly rare but a few can usually be found online. Don’t be fooled by the listing as several claim to be the variation card, the true error is extremely noticeable once your eye becomes aware of it.
There were also a coupe of less noticeable variation cards featuring Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd that Topps also eventually corrected. While the error is much harder to notice than Whiten’s, a tiny pink dot can be seen next to the hand of Boyd if you look closely.
It’s not worth nearly as much as the Whiten variation, but still an interesting add to any collection. You can own one for less than $10 ungraded, usually referred to as the “Pink Flag” variation.
The second Boyd variation features his hand over the Topps 40th anniversary logo—albeit barely. These are harder to find but are one of the more valuable cards in the set. A few are floating around on eBay in the $50-$100 range.
There is also a Doug Drabek error card that has picked up steam recently, but you will have to look closely to see the miscue. Inside of the white border found on all 1991 Topps cards is an inset border that can range in color based on the team. For Drabek, a white inner border means you have a relatively valuable card while the more common black borders won’t fetch much at all.
Only 12 of the “white inner frame” cards have been graded by PSA. Just one received a gem mint “10” while only six received a “9.” Mint condition copies have sold for as little as $30, but if you want to own a high-end example, expect to pay quite a premium.