By Rich Klein
As I was watching the All-Star game last week, I realized again what MLB does so well and what they do so poorly. Not ensuring that Yasiel Puig was on the All-Star team was a marketing mistake by MLB as they should always understand to market to young fans. Everyone in baseball needs to understand the closer in age the player is to young fans, the more they engage with the game. While seeing Bryce Harper do so well in the Home Run Derby and Mike Trout hit a double, so there was some nod to Baseball’s future.
Even though when you were 10 years old and collecting the 1970 set, those players who seemed old were actually in some cases very close to you in age. In retrospect, Topps should have had Johnny Bench in their first series or two so all the kids could have his cards. Instead, he was in the final series and there are less 1970 Johnny Bench cards then there should be. He was 22 years old and already a rising star, Topps missed that one in many ways back then.
However, what MLB did perfectly, with a little help from the players was honor Mariano Rivera, who will be noted as the greatest relief pitcher of all-time. The players’ universal respect for Rivera was apparent as both dugouts stood up and clapped for him and let Rivera have the field to himself. In nearly 20 years of major league service, I cannot recall one case of anyone saying something personally negative about Rivera, who will be the last player to wear uniform number 42 on a daily basis. For many modern fans, he’s going to be almost as well known for that number as Jackie Robinson was.
I was thinking after the game about how sometimes card companies do certain aspects right and other aspects totally wrong. To me, the 1984 Donruss set is an example of both events. What did Donruss do correctly in 1984? The Donruss set was perhaps the most attractive 1980’s set. Most of the full color photos fit the card perfectly and there was not very much clutter. Within two years the key player in the set was Don Mattingly, honored by an absolutely gorgeous full face photo. For those reasons, as well as less availability in hobby stores, made this the set for the rest of the 1980’s and spurred Donruss to a long-term popularity spike that in hindsight, crashed down in 1988-92 with severe overproduction. My old friend Steve Gold, actually used 1988 cards as wallpaper in his card shop’s bathroom. 1984 Donruss, on the other hand, is not nearly as available, even to this day.
Unfortunately, things didn’t start off so well for Donruss. We’ve discussed their 1981 baseball cards including the terrible distribution and card quality. For example, I would say more than 90 percent of the Keith Hernandez cards have surface creases and the box distribution was frankly awful. If you had the boxes with 10 or more Tim Raines’ or Mike Schmidt’s or even Mookie Wilsons you were thrilled but if your players in quantity were Bill Almon, Bombo Rivera or Rick Miller, you would have been cursing out your dumb luck.
Somehow, they sold enough in ’81 to keep moving forward. But what if Donruss had been able to produce the quality of the 1984 set in its debut season of 1981? Would the hobby have treated the company any better as an entity in those days and would Donruss have been able to approach Topps’ production level even earlier?
The distribution problem would take a couple of years to totally fix.
Fleer had box distribution done correctly from their very first issue. Now, if took some years for Fleer to produce really nice sets (frankly many collectors like what Fleer did in the 1984-87 area culminating with their 1987 set). But, Donruss was the first card company to have a major presence at the National Card Convention. By the end of the decade Sportflics would be important at those shows along with Upper Deck. Today, of course, one of the highlights for attendees is the major corporate section at any National Convention. That shows that Donruss was on top of understanding what would be the hobby future and importance of who would be buying their cards long-term.
Remember Topps definition of PR was non-existent and Fleer was, well, just there. If Donruss had been great from the start, would hobby history been changed in any way? Although with Topps’ long-standing presence and history, it would be doubtful that someone replace them, one never knows when we step back in time if a small detail might have changed history. Let’s see, a late season 1981 Donruss “The Rookies” Cal Ripken? Now that would be a special card indeed.
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]