The decade of the 1980s in baseball card collecting was one of explosive growth. Fleer and Donruss rumbled onto the scene in 1981 after being victorious in a legal battle to break Topps’s monopoly for issuing a fully licensed, nationally available baseball card set. By the end of the decade, Score and Upper Deck joined the fray and the overproduction/”junk-wax” era was off and running.
The 1980s was also the decade when seemingly every product imaginable started using baseball players and baseball cards as a way to induce consumers to part with their hard-earned money. Certainly this was nothing new — using baseball cards to bolster product sales was the very reason that baseball cards were invented. But the 1980s in this regard was different. Likely because of the escalating interest in baseball cards as an “investment,” everyone from General Mills and Burger King to Mother’s Cookies, Tetley Tea, and Rite-Aid pharmacies issued small sets of baseball cards.
Not only were national retailers and food companies jumping on the baseball-card bandwagon, but local police and sheriff’s departments across the country did as well. Just as was the case with product-based baseball cards, having police officers hand out baseball cards was nothing new. A search on Beckett.com for “Police” provides the answer that the 1967 Philadelphia Phillies had a thirteen-card set issued. The Washington Senators followed in 1970 and 1971 with ten-card sets. But after 1971, police-issued cards went away.
Police cards did not become more regularly issued until the late 1970s, when NBA teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers (1977-78) and the Seattle Supersonics (1978-79) used the idea. In 1979, ten different sets were issued including two from the baseball world — the San Francisco Giants Police and the Iowa Oaks Police.
I grew up in the Milwaukee area. Police cards came to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982, and they came with a splash: the first ever Baseball Card Day at Milwaukee County Stadium. In a rare show of transparency, the Brewers and the Milwaukee Police Department told kids (and collectors) everything they needed to know through a press release published in the Brewers’ mouthpiece magazine, What’s Brewing?:
The cards featured a simple design — a photo of the player takes up about two-thirds of the front with the player’s name, uniform number, and position immediately underneath. Below that information, the issuing department’s name and any local sponsors are said to be “saluting” or “presenting” a particular year’s Milwaukee Brewers team.
As was the case with other police department cards, the Brewers cards always featured safety tips or life advice ostensibly written by the player in question. For Paul Molitor in 1982, he advised kids that they should not steal anything.
The Milwaukee Brewers cards proliferated in ways unlike any other team. Police and sheriff’s departments across the State of Wisconsin worked with the team and the card sets’ printers to issue their own sets. This got so out of hand that by 1993, the Oshkosh Police Department is listed on The Trading Card Database as issuing four sets with four different sponsors — McDonald’s of Oshkosh, OshKosh B’Gosh, Inc., the Oshkosh Noon Kiwanis, and the Copps Food Center of Oshkosh.
As a Brewers collector, these police sets are both fun and frustrating. They are tremendous fun to try to find, track, and purchase. Most of the time, the sets are not that expensive. Call it the first instances of parallel burnout, but the number of departments issuing sets got so high that people pretty much stopped trying to collect all the variations. That caused demand for all of the sets to decline.
That is also what makes them frustrating. EBay sellers just call them “Milwaukee Brewers Police cards.” While that is true, most of us who are Brewers collectors really are not looking for their fifth set of the Milwaukee Police Department’s 1986 set — we are looking for the cards from Verona, Medford, Hartford, Winneconne, Viroqua, and Mequon. When sellers are vague about what department issued them, it makes it more difficult to determine what a buyer is actually going to get.
In the end, though, they are a boon for me as a player collector in particular. It gives me dozens of variations of cards of Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Dan Plesac, and others to chase and add to my player collections.
They also have led to a lifelong love for 80s oddballs.