When the calendar turns to a new year, there is there is always a new anniversary to commemorate. Last year, among other recollections, we recalled the 25th anniversary of the infamous Bill Ripken “Rick Face” card, which once again got a lot of reaction, especially on social media. To this day, collectors—especially those who were kids at the time– love to reminisce about that.
When we entered the 1990’s, the sports card hobby was still booming and there were seemingly card shops at every corner. It was hard to find a town big or small that did not have a card store or at least an outlet to purchase cards and shows were everywhere. The Beckett show calendar lasted for pages on end.
Today, of course, the shows and stores are somewhat minimal and any new event is seemingly cause for celebration. But as we entered 1990, that future was a long ways away. Some players who were popular as we entered 1990 are still hobby icons while others…well… not so much. The player with the most expensive rookie card back then was two-sport LSU star Ben McDonald. I remember most dealers asking $3 for his rookies at the shows. Upper Deck somehow magically had made an error on that first card, though, printing an Orioles logo on the front instead of the ‘Star Rookie’ logo that was part of a subset McDonald was in. It was eventually corrected and at the time, it was red-hot. Today, the error card is not that expensive, but a check of eBay doesn’t show many available. Looking back over Big Ben’s career, it was really not that bad but way too short. He never pitched a major league game after turning 30.
Two other players who were approaching super nova state during the off-season between 1989 and 1990 were Will Clark and Mark Grace. After the two of them each had sensational 1989 post-seasons, they both seemed destined for long-term greatness. Clark had a transcendent 1989 season while Grace played for the Cubs meaning he was featured on Superstation WGN every day. Clark did carve out a long and successful career, but isn’t likely to reach Cooperstown. Grace had, at the time, what may have been the toughest “rookie year’ card to obtain: the 1988 Score Glossy Traded/Update. A quick eBay check shows five copies available which was frankly more than I thought it would be.
As an aside, when we talk about the hobby’s “overproduction years” we usually see a lot of Topps, almost as many Donruss, less Fleer cards and even fewer Score cards. Now we’re not saying those Score cards are rare in any way, but you will have a much more difficult time coming up with quantities of Score than you will Topps or Donruss. Many dealers broke down tons of Fleer factory sets which turned out to be the best way to get quantities of their products. That was true for most of the late 1980’s.
An acquaintance of mine named Howie Gordon, who was then attending Case Western University in Cleveland, would actually buy 1985 Topps Olympic cards of Cleveland’s Cory Snyder to bring back to New York where he could sell them for a profit. Talk about a regional premium in reverse. And actually that made some sense because every dealer in Cleveland had that card but New York area dealers were not as well stocked and Howie had a fun time selling them. Perhaps the Cleveland dealers knew his career would flame out pretty quickly after that.
In 1990, we were absorbing what had happened with the Upper Deck Company’s explosive debut set and a new world of premium products was starting to unfold. The Leaf brand would return, becoming the second ‘foil pack’ product and collectors were paying big bucks for what were seen as the latest ‘high end’ product…when you could find them. Topps also announced that its Bowman brand would return, but they were doing away with the oversized cards that mirrored the originals and printing the set in the standard format.
Of course, the absolutely hottest athlete entering 1990 was Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson. With the popularity of the “Bo Knows’ commercials and his two-sport fame, the future seemed unlimited for Bo. Any card of his in any sport was hot right out of the packs. Anything Bo could sell from those 1986 cards through the 1989-90 Score cards in which they put him in football or baseball gear in the opposite sport card sets.
In today’s world when most rookies now trade for pennies on the dollar the world was so different in that you could even treat some of those cards as a penny stock market (as well as many rookie cards) and make money on the volume. For awhile, you could actually sell Joey Meyer 1987 Donruss rookie cards for 50 cents each because of his power potential. And because the card companies weren’t producing a large volume of new products each month, they produced cards till the cows came home. I remember using that expression a lot back then.
We’ll talk more about what was happening 25 years ago in coming months but that was a truly a year in which the overproduction era was in full steam.