The 1980s may be recalled by some as the era it rained baseball cards, when the hobby as we once knew it went away for good. But if you were there, it was also a very important time in hobby history for many reasons, one of which was the advent of the rookie card. Prior to that time, no one really gave ‘rookie cards’ a second thought. It was a term rarely heard. Now, of course, it’s everywhere.
So with those thoughts, we thought we’d offer a quick tour of the 1980s rookie cards that will be hard to forget.
1980 was the last year of the Topps monopoly and the Rickey Henderson rookie is the key card in this set. In fact, this is the only rookie card of any real long-term importance and is very hard to find in a true mint condition. Henderson was also one of the key ignitors in the rookie card explosion as he had a great 1980 season and collectors were clamoring for his cards all season.
In 1981, we are selecting the Topps Fernando Valenzuela rookie card not because this is the most expensive card but also to both salute “Fernandomania” which gripped America in 1981 and the inclusion of Mike Scoscia who has become better known as a manager than he was as a Dodger catcher. Who knows, if Scoscia can win another World Series or two and become a Hall of Fame manager, someday we may call this the Mike Scoscia rookie card.
There is no real option for 1982 other than to select Cal Rpken Jr. as our key rookie. The Fleer rookie is an action photo of Ripken early in his career. What is interesting is Donruss not only has a Ripken Jr. Rookie card but a rookie card of his dad Cal Ripken Sr. How many times have we opened 1982 Donruss packs, seen the name Ripken and been disappointed when we realized the card was Ripken pere.
By 1983, the card market had stabilized. While the three company battle continued, the places were pretty much set. Topps still made more cards and was more popular than the other two companies and were the only ones with an update set. All three companies had the same basic key rookies but the long-term “best” rookie is now considered to be Tony Gwynn.
The 1984 Donruss set was a major change in the hobby. Along with Fleer, who garnered much less publicity, Donruss produced far less cards in 1984. The 1984 Donruss set is in the pattern of the 1953 Bowman or 1957 or 1967 Topps with full color photos with very little front text or design. That clear design was perhaps the most beloved in the 1980’s and no card was hotter than Don Mattingly’s rookie card. The 1984 Fleer Update set once sold for over $400 based on minor scarcity and the inclusion of Kirby Puckett and Roger Clemens.
1985 Topps had a special subset featuring players from the 1984 U.S. Olympic team who had finished their college eligibility. While such future stars as Will Clark or Barry Larkin could not be included as they were still in college, the other players on the team were eligible and were placed into the Topps set. The best of these players turned out to be Mark McGwire who would break the single-season record during the magical 1998 summer. McGwire’s card once traded at over $100 but the steroid issue was the pin in the balloon. Puckett and Clemens each had their moments and for a time, the 1985 Topps set was scorching.
By 1986, Donruss had been using the “Rated Rookie” term for four years, three of those on the front of their cards as a way of showing they were paying attention to the best young players. Entering 1986, and continuing for years later, the best rookie in 1986 was Jose Canseco ,whose career began as a possible Hall of Fame career including becoming the first player to blast 40 homers and steal 40 bases in the same season. There was a time in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s when the Canseco rookie could actually sell for more than $100.
1987 was to be the year in which the Fleer set would become the hardest to acquire. While there is no real shortage of 1987 Fleer cards, there are significantly fewer of them available then either Donruss or Topps. The most expensive of these cards is Barry Bonds but a card which is almost always guaranteed to sell at a reasonable price is the Bo Jackson rookie card. Although Bo had cards in all the 1986 Update sets, the world still considered these rookie cards.
We’re going to cheat a little in 1988 and use a card which is not technically a rookie card. 1988 also saw the addition of a fourth major manufacturer in Score, who did create a set with color photos on each side and far less of those cards existing then of the other three companies. Score, realizing that the other companies were also making update sets did their own. There are a couple of key cards in the Update set but we’d focus on Craig Biggio, who did not have any cards in the 1988 base set.
The four existing manufacturers would get company in 1989, one that revolutionized the hobby and our 1980’s tour concludes with the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card. It’s still the key 1989 card and always will be. Great photo, good fortune in being the #1 card and the dawn of a new era in card collecting make it among the most important post-War baseball cards ever issued.
Whether you recall the decade fondly or not so much, we won’t see one like it again.
Click here to see 1980s baseball rookie cards on eBay.