1986 Donruss “The Rookies:” A Cautionary Tale

Though 1978 was the year I fell in love with baseball cards, 1985 was the year I lost all control. The rookie crop that year was ridiculous, and I had an utterly insatiable appetite for Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, Orel Hershiser, Eric Davis, and Jeff Stone. (If that last one surprises you, check out the stats on the back of his card!)

The effect of my season-long bender was that I entered 1986 with a monster hangover not even Jose Canseco could cure. I saw the new cards hit the shelves, I saw the constant barrage of up arrows in the Beckett, and I saw the local card shop get more crowded than ever, but I just wasn’t feeling the itch. Nothing in 1986 could match the thrill of pulling a Dr. K rookie, so why bother. For the first time since I started collecting, I found myself in the cardboard doldrums.

And then the earthquake came.

Here it was, the box set to end all box sets. Not since the 1951 Topps Connie Mack All-Stars had a set ever been more packed with can’t miss, first ballot Hall of Famers.

Just a sampling of the names on the set’s checklist included (and yes, all caps are appropriate here!) BARRY BONDS, WILL CLARK, BO JACKSON, and JOSE CANSECO—practically the Mount Rushmore of the Junk Wax era—Junk Waxmore if you will.

Within a couple months, the set had TEN players listing at triple digits in the Beckett’s high column, not to mention Bobby Bonilla, Todd Worrell, and Andres Galarraga.

Source: January/February 1987 Beckett

At my card shop I think the price on these sets started around $10 but quickly bolted up to $20, that is, if there were even any left on the shelves. The 1985 version of me would have bought one (if not more) in a heartbeat, but the 1986 version of me somehow went without. As the years went on and the players from this set became bigger and bigger stars, I regretted this hole in my collection more and more.

What I never would have guessed in 1986 or the decade that followed was that the set’s megastar-studded 56-player checklist would fail to produce a single Hall of Famer. From a set that screamed “Cooperstown or bust,” we got no Cooperstown, all bust.

There is an obvious lesson here for collectors spending excessive amounts of money on today’s young stars. No player is a can’t miss. Every player is gamble. You may win a few, but the House always wins more. You can even go 0 for 56.

However much this sucked for collectors paying $4 for Jose Canseco or $2.25 for Pete Incaviglia in early 1987, I have to imagine the hangover will be even worse for collectors spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on today’s equivalent of “The Rookies.”

Sample of eBay sold listings pulled July 12, 2019

However good today’s rookies and prospects look right now, the 1986 crop looked even better, which they may well prove to be. Buyer beware.

I’ll end this article with a puzzle. I just reported (accurately) that the 1986 Donruss “The Rookies” checklist didn’t manage a single Hall of Famer. Nonetheless, were you to buy this set today (going rate: about $10), you would indeed find a Hall of Famer in the box. Stumped? Scroll down for the answer.



Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

12 thoughts on “1986 Donruss “The Rookies:” A Cautionary Tale”

  1. We were all going to retire with our fortune in Rookie Cards back in the day!! A great piece and a cautionary tale. Only spend what you can afford to lose.


  2. An “amen” to your wisdom about no player being a can’t miss: the couple of Chris Davis rookie cards I snapped up on ebay a few years back. But I balance that with my Rendon rookies. At least he panned as I hoped. And after I had given up on my Giolito rookie, he’s getting it done this year. Sometimes you have to wait a while and/or get lucky.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always found it presumptuous on the part of the card companies to issue individual cards for rookies, whether or not they are highly touted. Having been raised in the hobby on the two rookie per card model, I never understood why a rookie should get his own card before he proved himself. The multiple player rookie cards are no less valuable for the guys who become stars. Furthermore, the less renowned rookie sharing the card becomes a baseball card history celebrity, i.e., Bill Denehy, Hank Allen, Jerry Koosman. There are just so many rookie busts that all these individual cards become clutter.


    1. No doubt! I grew up on the 3-4 rookies per card model with exceptions coming when a guy really did something like Eddie Murray and got his own card. Of course that was back when you bought packs hoping to get Reggie or Tom Seaver or in my case Steve Garvey. Sometime in the early 1980s (1981 in L.A. due to Fernandomania, but as late as 1983/84 in other parts), it became Rookie Card or bust.

      I have to imagine when I was buying 1978 Topps if someone offered me the choice between a box of 54 rookies or a box of 54 random players it would be a laughably easy choice!


  4. Awesome article I just came across your piece and never put the lack of only Hammerin’ Hank being the only HOFer in the set. My favorite is Will Clark and my hope is someday his contributions to the game don’t get overlooked and gets the call someday. Thanks for writing this, Great Work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That rookie class defined the era and really kicked up the card boom into another gear. This set along with the ’86 Topps Traded were fantastic. I’ve long speculated that Donruss brought in a new art director after the ’84 set. Their first years were pretty bland with white borders and uninspiring graphics. Then, in ’85 they went really bold with the black border and red stripes… plus they unveiled the iconic Rated Rookie logo and created the Highlights set. That boldness carried over to ’86-87, with more black frame design variations and those two top notch “The Rookies” sets.


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