When Fleer and Donruss entered the baseball card market in 1981, they opened the door for other manufacturers to follow suit, and by the middle of the decade, cards were available for purchase just about everywhere. Collectors ate them up, and demand for new cards was so intense that some retail outlets were not satisfied to sell the same base issues that everyone else carried. They wanted their own cards, and the major manufacturers were happy to oblige, producing a dizzying string of small baseball card boxed sets branded for specific retailers.
Of course, retail-branded sports cards had already been around for decades by the 1980s, but they were almost always available only as a premium to some other purchase and were usually associated with a specific product, such as Kahn’s Weiners or Red Heart Dog Food. By contrast, the retail sets of the 1980s that we’re considering here were available only as complete sets, and they were purchased as standalone items, not as premiums included as add-ons to other purchases.
What follows is a brief catalog of these 1980s boxed sets, ordered chronologically by the year they debuted. There’s also a gallery of images at the bottom. Even 25-30 years later, all of these sets are readily available on eBay–most are cheap– and you can see the current listings by clicking the title of each set.
1982 Topps MVP Series – K-Mart
K-Mart was the first of the “big box” stores, so it’s perhaps fitting that they ushered in the boxed-set craze during their 20th anniversary in 1982. That year, K-Mart teamed with Topps to offer a
44-card set that featured the MVP winners in both Major Leagues each season since 1962. Each K-Mart card depicted a miniature version of the player’s Topps card the season he won the award, including two pasteboards that never existed in real-life.
Maury Wills was not under contract with Topps in 1962, and Fred Lynn was a rookie in 1975, when he shared a Rookie Stars card with three other players. In order to complete the K-Mart set, Topps created mock versions of those two “cards that never were.”
Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez shared the NL MVP award in 1979, leaving Topps and K-Mart with 41 award winners and three slots to fill. They decided to use those three cards to commemorate record-setting performances by Don Drysdale, Hank Aaron, and Pete Rose.
The K-Mart cards came packaged in a garish red, yellow, white, and blue box that featured a checklist on the back and proudly proclaimed on the front that the cards were a “Limited Edition.”
Although no one really knows how many of the K-Mart cards were produced, anecdotal evidence suggests that “limited” might have been true in the literal sense, but certainly not in any practical way. By the end of 1982, the sets were a regular part of K-Mart’s “Blue-Light Specials” and could be found in bulk quantities for years afterward. Even today, more than 30 years later, it’s not hard to find full sets for less than a dollar a pop.
While the 1982 K-Mart set offered little in terms of aesthetics and card values, it was certainly a trendsetter, laying the groundwork for the boxed-set explosion that would follow just a few years later.
1985 Topps Baseball All Time Home Run Kings – Circle K
In a departure from the busy designs that would mar just about every other boxed set during the 1980s, each card in the Topps “Baseball All Time Home Run Kings” set featured a full-color photo surrounded by thin colored piping inside a thicker white border. As the name implies, the cards depicted the top 33 sluggers on baseball’s career home run list at the time and were distributed at Circle K convenience stores.
1985 Topps All-Time Record Holders – Woolworth
Although a bit busier than the Circle K set, the design of Topps’ 1985 “All-Time Record Holders” set is fairly restrained: color photo set off by a wood-frame border and accented by a golden plaque with underneath. Unlike most Topps boxed sets, this issue, which was distributed at Woolworth stores, checks in at 44 cards, rather than 33.
1985 Fleer Limited Edition – McCrory’s
Fleer entered the boxed set field in 1985 with this set that, unlike its Topps counterparts, lacks a real theme. The 44-card set was packaged with six team logo stickers and featured most of the biggest stars in baseball. In retrospect, the design of these cards is relatively subdued and very close to the one Fleer would utilize for its 1990 base issue.
In addition to McCrory’s, the 1985 Fleer “Limited Edition” set was sold at J.J. Newbury, McClellan, Kress, YDC, and Green stores.
1986 Fleer Baseball’s Best – McCrory’s
One McCrory’s set apparently wasn’t enough for Fleer in 1986, so they teamed with the five-and-dime retailer to produce a themed set, subtitled “Sluggers vs. Pitchers,” to play alongside the “Limited Edition” holdover. “Sluggers vs. Pitchers” featured 22 pitchers and 22 hitters, though we might quibble with the “sluggers” label for guys like Tony Gwynn and Willie McGee.
In 1987, after the home run exploits of rookies Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner in 1986, Fleer brought back “Sluggers vs. Pitchers” for another go-round, this time tilting the scale toward the sluggers, 26 cards to 18 for the pitchers. The set made one final run in 1988, when display box bottom panels contained an additional five cards.
1986 Fleer League Leaders – Walgreens
Fleer began to expand their retail partnerships in 1986, working with Walgreens to produce a 44-card set of “League Leaders.” It seems that leading the league in any obscure category was good enough for inclusion, as evidenced by the presence of such luminaries as Joe Orsulak and Keith Moreland.
1986 Young Super Stars of Baseball – Kay-Bee Toys
Topps, too, began to expand their retail offerings in 1986 and sought to capitalize on the growing rookie card craze with this 33-card offering of the “Young Superstars of Baseball.” The set was chock full of many of the names that would drive the hobby over the next half-decade, including Don Mattingly, Kirby Puckett, and Tony Gwynn.
1986 Woolworth Super Stars – Woolworth
Back for a second go-round with Woolworth, Topps cut the five-and-dime issue down to their typical 33-card size for boxed sets and dropped any pretense of a theme. Rather, they pulled from the Fleer model and just threw together the biggest “Super Star” names they could find and shipped them out the door.
1987 Fleer Award Winners – 7-Eleven
Fleer continued to ramp up its production of boxed sets in 1987 with the introduction of a 44-card “Award Winners” issue, sold at 7-Eleven stores across the nation. The catch was that the awards could have been garnered at any point in a player’s career, so collectors were treated to a card of 1984 RBI champ Cecil Cooper, among other head-scratchers.
1987 Fleer Baseball All Stars – Ben Franklin
Yet another new entry to Fleer’s stable of boxed sets in 1987 was the “Baseball All Stars” issue, sold at Ben Franklin five and dime discount stores throughout the country, primarily in small towns. Thanks to rules about including players from all teams and filling out a complete roster, Major League baseball All-Star teams have always included a few suspect selections, and this Fleer set followed suit. Sprinkled among usual boxed-set suspects like Mike Schmidt and Gary Carter are the lesser lights of Mike Easler and Todd Worrell, to name a couple.
1987 Fleer Baseball’s Exciting Stars – Cumberland Farms
Fleer hit every nook and cranny it could find in 1987, and that included the Cumberland Farms chain of convenience stores in the northeastern United States and Florida. Lucky customers who plunked down money for this set were treated to “Exciting Stars” such as Don Aase and Von Hayes, among boxed-set standbys like Roger Clemens and Don Mattingly. Consumers were evidently excited enough to keep the Fleer-Cumberland Farms relationship rolling, because the set came back in both 1988 and 1989.
1987 Fleer Baseball’s Game Winners – Bi-Mart Discount Drug,Pay’n-Save, Mott’s 5 & 10, M.E.Moses, Winn’s
Fleer stayed on its 1987 boxed set roll with “Baseball’s Game Winners,” distributed through Bi-Mart Discount Drug, Pay ‘n-Save, Mott’s 5 & 10, M.E.Moses, Winn’s outlets. In a departure from its usual scattershot approach, Fleer focused this set on the biggest game winners in MLB — league leaders in game-winning RBI and pitching wins.
1987 Fleer Baseball’s Hottest Stars – Revco
Not content with the the drug store market targeted by “Baseball’s Game Winners,” Fleer partnered with Revco in 1987 to produce a 44-card set of “Baseball’s Hottest Stars.” It was a typical Fleer boxed set in that it contained a fairly random sampling of major and minor stars (Larry Sheets, Scott Garrelts) with no particular theme.
Nevertheless, the set returned in 1988, when it was once again sold at Revco drug stores.
1987 Fleer Record Setters – Eckerd Drugs
Fleer rounded out its barrage of drugstore boxed sets in 1987 with a 44-card set of “Record Setters” that was available exclusively at Eckerd stores. As with many of these sets, player selection was somewhat suspect and left collectors scratching their heads. Most would have been hard-pressed, for example, to come up with the record that Gary Ward might have set, and his card doesn’t give us any hints.
Despite that shortcoming, “Record Setters” were back at Eckerd in 1988.
1987 Topps Rookies – Toys “R” Us
By 1987, Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner had lit up the baseball world with their home run derby as rookies the year before, and the hobby was spiraling into rookie card mania. Presumably seeking to capitalize on the burgeoning market for first-year cards, Topps produced a 33-card set of nothing but rookies and distributed them through Toys “R” Us toy stores across the country. The set was loaded with big names, from Canseco and Joyner to Barry Bonds and Bo Jackson, and it enjoyed a brief period of popularity with rookie-hungry collectors.
1987 Topps Stars of the Decades – K-Mart
After a five-year hiatus, Topps returned to K-Mart shelves in 1987 with its “Stars of the Decades” boxed set. The design was nearly identical to the 1982 K-Mart set, with full-color player images replacing the miniaturized regular-issue Topps cards on the K-Mart card fronts. The 33-player set featured Hall of Famers from the 1960s and 1970s, along with a handful of superstars from the 1980s.
1987 Topps Superstars of Baseball – Kay-Bee Toys
Having shifted its young-player focus to the Toys “R” Us rookie set didn’t mean that Topps was going to abandon its other toy store clients in 1987, so the card manufacturer produced a 33-card “Superstars of Baseball” set for distribution through Kay-Bee stores. Player selection was the usual mishmash of big names with no real connecting theme.
1987 Topps Top Run Makers – Boardwalk and Baseball
Boardwalk and Baseball was a short-lived theme park in Florida that purported to cater to the baseball crowd, especially fans of the Kansas City Royals, who moved their Spring Training activities to a new ballpark adjacent to the theme park. The concept never really flew, but that didn’t stop Topps from making a special boxed set to be sold at B & B. If you liked offense, then “Top Run Makers” was for you, because it featured just 33 of baseball’s best hitters — and no pitchers.
1988 Fleer Baseball MVP – Toys “R” Us
With Topps maintaining its presence on Toys “R” Us shelves into 1988, Fleer decided to face their rival head-on by producing their own boxed set for distribution by the toy giant. “Baseball MVP” was a 44-card offering that featured, roughly, the best player from each Major League team, with star-laden squads like the Oakland A’s represented by two or more players. As with most Fleer boxed sets, card backs featured complete player statistics.
1988 Fleer Superstars – McCrory’s
In 1988, Fleer switched out their “Limited Edition” McCrory’s offering for a new “Superstars” set, perhaps a silent nod to the fact that nothing about the boxed sets was limited. “Superstars” contained the usual array of, well, superstars, with a smattering of lesser players like Rick Rhoden and Glenn Davis. The set returned for another run in 1989, sporting a fairly subdued design that looked quite a bit like the base Fleer set that year.
1988 Fleer Team Leaders – Kay-Bee Toys
Not to be outdone by Toys “R” Us, Kay-Bee also worked with Fleer in 1988 to offer a 44-card set of “Team Leaders” that featured more or less the same lineup of players as the Toys “R” Us issue. This was a one-shot run that did not return in subsequent years.
1988 Topps League Leaders – Revco
Revco joined the group of two-boxed-set retailers in 1988 when it offered a 33-card set of Topps “League Leaders” to go alongside its Fleer “Hottest Stars” set. With distribution limited to the eastern United States, print runs for “League Leaders” were likely smaller than for some of the national issues, but that fact has done little to increase demand or prices in the intervening years.
1988 Topps Memorable Moments – K-Mart
Topps was back for another go-round with K-Mart in 1988, focusing on current players for the first time in their partnership. “Memorable Moments” featured cards of 33 players who had recorded some impactful on-field feat during the previous few seasons. Card fronts somewhat resembled other Topps boxed sets, especially the Kay-Bee cards, while the backs gave a detailed account of the player’s memorable event.
1988 Topps Team MVP’s – Rite Aid
Arriving late to the drugstore boxed-set craze, Rite Aid finally joined the fray in 1988 with Topps’ 33-card “Team MVP’s” issue. As with other sets sporting similar names, “Team MVP’s” featured Topps’ approximation of each team’s best player, with a few teams garnering multiple selections.
1989 Fleer Heroes of Baseball – Woolworth
After a two-year absence, Woolworth jumped back into the boxed-set business in 1989 with Fleer’s 44-card “Heroes of Baseball” offering. Although the name is somewhat grand, this set was really just another opportunity for Fleer to produce more cards of current players who ran the gamut from borderline semi-stars to bona fide superstars.
1989 Topps 20/20 Club – Ames
The late 1980s brought us a wave of multi-talented players who excelled in both hitting home runs and stealing bases, and fans were intrigued by that combination. While Jose Canseco famously became the first player to steal 40 bases and hit 40 homers in the same season, guys like Eric Davis and Barry Bonds were consistent threats to go 20/20. To capitalize on the popularity of the milestone, Topps produced a 33-card “20/20 Club” boxed set in 1989 and distributed it through Ames toy stores.
1989 Topps Dream Team – K-mart
Topps and K-Mart were together again in 1989, this time with a 33-card issue titled “Dream Team.” An obvious nod to the popularity of rookie cards, “Dream Team” was divided into three categories of players: AL Rookies of the 1980s, NL Rookies of the 1980s, and Major League Rookies of 1988.
1989 Topps Team MVPs – Hills
For the only time in the boxed-set era, Topps switched affiliations for one of its issues, moving “Team MVP’s” from Rite-Aid in 1988 to Hills in 1989. Collectors may have had to look in a new location for these cards, but Topps still delivered 33 cards depicting the best players from each team.
1990 Topps All-Stars – Ames
After a strong theme set of 20/20 players in 1989, Topps treated Ames toy stores to a much more generic “All-Stars” set in 1990. The 33-card issue, as the name implies, featured players who had made it to the Major League All-Star game at some point. One oddity with this set is that no pitchers were included, which makes some sense in retrospect. After all, we were just a few years from the coming offensive explosion, and everyone dug the long ball.
1990 Topps Hit Men – Hills
Topps and Hills were ahead of their time with the 1990 “Hit Men” set, as each card depicted one of the Major Leagues’ top 33 hitters from 1989, as measured by slugging percentage. If only they would have added in on-base percentage, factored in park effects, and then figured out how many wins all those percentage points were worth, they would have really had something on their hands and might have given Bill James a run for his money.
1990 Topps Superstars – K-Mart
Topps closed out its K-Mart run in 1990 with a “Superstars” set that was fairly uninspiring, even by boxed-set standards. Foregoing any real semblance of a theme, “Superstars” featured a mashup of players from Joe Magrane to Will Clark to Nolan Ryan.
Got all that? As confusing as this list may seem now, it was even more unwieldy for collectors at the time who figured they needed to own at least one of every card ever produced. Sorting out the young superstars from the rookies, and the award winners from the league leaders was almost enough to make us wish for fewer choices. Such was the collecting life in the Wild West of the Eighties, when boxed sets roamed the aisles of every store.