Donut hole

I started collecting cards in 1987. Since  my primary purchases were Topps rack packs at Toys R Us I accumulated a lot* of both 1987 and 1986 Topps that year. I also acquired a bunch of repacks—also from Toys R Us—which featured “old” cards back to 1979**

*A lot for a 2nd grader which means a couple hundred or so of each.

**While I found exactly one each of 1976, 1977, and 1978 in those packs, a single 1979 per repack was usually the oldest card.

I say “old” because for me, anything from 1979 to 1984 was old back then. Not only did they predate my being in school* but the relative rarity of the cards in how they didn’t show up en masse in the repacks and how different they looked with their multiple photos, facsimile autographs, or cartoonish caps made them feel distinct.

*Apologies if this post makes anyone feel super old.

1985 though was different. Especially the Topps cards. They showed up more frequently in the repacks and felt similar enough to 1986 to end up being something I never really paid attention to. Not old or different enough to be interesting. Not new enough to be relevant. I accumulated a couple Giants but outside of those I didn’t pay any attention to that set until after I found my first card shop and discovered that there was a super-desirable (especially in the Bay Area) Mark McGwire card inside.

Even with the McGwire knowledge—which I remember feeling at the time as sort of a betrayal of the concept of a rookie card—I never got to know more about the set. I had other newer cards to acquire and shiny things like Score and Upper Deck to covet. All of which left me in an interesting place where to-date, 1985 Topps remained a complete donut hole in my card knowledge.

I neither educated myself about it like I did with older sets nor is it one I had any actual experience with. I did however get a big batch of it last summer and as a result have had a chance to really take a good look at it for the first time in my life.

Looking through that pile was a bit uncanny since, while I’ve mentally treated it as a border between classic cards and junk wax, in many ways it actually functions as this border. Yes I know people draw lines at 1981 and 1974* but the more I looked at the 1985 cards the more I could see the beginnings of what I expected to see in the cards of my youth in a set which wasn’t quite there yet.

*When I periodized this blog I chose to avoid naming eras and just drew lines in places that felt like logical breaks and listed them as date ranges.

1985 is one of those basic Topps designs that so many people wish Topps would return to. White borders. Simple solid colors. A good-sized team set for each team. It dropped the multiplayer cards that marked so many of the previous releases but it still feels like a classic Topps set that serves as both a yearbook of the previous season as well as a marker of the current season.

The photography is mostly the same as previous sets. Action is increasingly creeping in but there’s nothing really fantastic yet. Catchers are clearly leading the way here but there’s nothing like the amazing action shots which we’d see in the coming years. It does however feel that a lot of the action is cropped a bit tighter than in previous seasons. Feet and legs are frequently out of the frame and there’s an overall emphasis on getting closer to the scene.

There are also a few wonderfully casual images which would fit in perfectly with the variety of 1990s photography. We’ve had candid shots ever since 1970 but they really became a staple of 1990s sets.

At a more technical level there’s an increased reliance on fill flash in the posed photos. Skies are underexposed and there’s more contrast between the player and the background. I’ve seen this described as something distinct to 1985 and 1986’s look but the technique itself is something that is used with increasing sophistication as we get into the 1990s as well.*

*This probably helped by cameras becoming much much smarter in the late 1980s. For example the Nikon F4 was released in 1988 and was a game changer in both autofocus and flash photography.

The last part that presages where the hobby would go comes from the multiple subsets. We’re not talking about things like the Record Breakers and All Stars which have been around a long time. Instead we’re looking at the USA Olympics cards and the #1 Draft Pick cards.

These wouldn’t just return in refined forms in later years but would come to dominate the entire hobby. The concept of printing “rookie” cards of guys way before they debuted in Major League Baseball became the tail that wags the dog as Topps, and everyone else, tried to catch the same lightning in a bottle that they caught with the Mark McGwire.

Team USA cards in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. #1 Draft pick cards for all teams starting in 1989. Bowman turning into the pre-rookie card set. The flood of non-40-man-roster players in card sets throughout the 1990s and into he 2000s such that MLBPA had to be explicit about what was allowed in its 2006 license. 1985 Topps is patient zero for all of this.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

5 thoughts on “Donut hole”

  1. Your post caused me to reflect on what may have been my own “donut hole.” I started collecting in 1978 and knew that set inside out. Meanwhile I engineered a ton of trades for cards 1976 and older, which seemed REALLY old to me at the time. For whatever reason, the 1977 cards most of my friends had didn’t generate much excitement with me. Perhaps it was that all-time greats like Hank Aaron (1976), Harmon Killebrew (1975), Al Kaline (1975 Highlights), Bob Gibson (1975), Frank Robinson (1975), and Willie Mays (1974 WS) had cards in these older sets, whereas 1977 seemed like the same bunch of players in the 1978 set.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good post. It always interesting to read what different sets served as milestones for a collector. I think for me it was 1972, because it was the first set I completed when it was current. I tend to look at my collecting years as before and after 1972.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me, too! I never stopped collecting, but I differentiate up to 1972 — when cards were only available by series and I was on the verge of turning 15 and had other interests taking up my time — from post-1972, when you could buy and acquire a complete set in one fell swoop and sock them away.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Here’s a “donut hole” story that will leave you in tears . . . either from laughter or real pain . . .

    I began collecting as a nine-year-old in the spring of 1967 and painstakingly put together a complete set that summer. During that time I also came into contact with the ’65 and ’66 cards owned by a lot of friends who had gotten an earlier start than I had. I acquired a lot of those cards, eventually turning to early sales catalogues to try to complete those sets as well.

    My mother had a young co-worker who was among the early members of the organized hobby in the Chicago area; by trading him some cards from the early ’50s that had passed down to me from a cousin, he acquired the last handful of cards I needed to complete those two sets at a regional card show in the mid-’70s. He also offered me another complete set he was trying to sell for $40. I knew it was a good price, but I was getting ready to head off to college and $40 was $40 back then . . . so I turned down his offer.

    The card set? The 1963 Topps set . . . in a few years the Rose card alone would be worth ten times that much by itself. But the truth was, it wasn’t the price that had stopped me. It the knowledge of the donut hole I was creating with the 1964 set. Even at that age I was too obsessive a collector to NOT try to collect a complete ’64 set, even though I wasn’t crazy about the design. So I passed, knowing there was no way I could accept not having a complete run back to ’63 and that I had no time to deal with it, at the time . . .

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My foray into collecting was the 1981 Topps Stickers set, but my first card collecting was really about the same time as Nick, in 1986 and, more heavily, 1987. But I read Beckett and competing guides regularly, so my donut hole in knowledge was after I started collecting (I didn’t have a lot of stuff made before 1986 at the time, but I was pretty aware of it, with the 1969 Topps Reggie Jackson being the pinnacle of baseball cards).

    Collecting in the mid-late 1990s was pretty sporadic for me and I wasn’t following the industry so I wasn’t really aware of how things were changing – I didn’t realize companies were producing products at multiple price points so I thought there were 30 companies (e.g. I didn’t realize Flair was a Fleer product). I didn’t quite get that 1994 Bowman wasn’t quite as special as 1992 Bowman. I would occasionally pick up a box at K-mart and so I had odd things like 1994 Score Rookie/Traded, 1995 Pacific (gold crown die cuts were fascinating), 1995 Fleer Update (I got a hot box or hot packs or something like that with a lot of inserts, which was cool), 1996 Pinnacle Aficionado, and 1996 Sportflix. No rhyme or reason, just whatever they had with no real purpose. Then around 1998 I started to get back in though probably more with vintage, lost a little interest around 2000 because I realized I would never “get everything” so I started giving away some of the newer stuff to friends with kids (though I did have the foresight to keep the 1993 SP Jeter I had), and then picked back up in 2001 with a more focused mindset. But have been backfilling things from the mid-late 1990s ever since and still consider that to be one of the most fascinating periods of card production.


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