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.

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The Grand TCMA Decade Sets (Some of them anyway)

Followers of this blog and our Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a bit TCMA obsessed since several of us gathered in Cooperstown for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit in May. A chance run in with Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA founder Mike, touched off a bit of TCMA frenzy. (I’ve known Andrew and Mike for a few years, so I’m glad others in our card world are getting to know them).

My own recent TCMA interests have circled around the big baseball decades sets (and the football, basketball and hockey sets). Not all of them, actually, only the 1950’s and 1960’s sets. These are all beautiful, simple cards, with magnificent photos, as you’d expect. I picked up the entire 1950’s set at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown (where else?), which started over 40 years ago as the TCMA flagship store.

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The cards are wonderful, the checklist is wide ranging and they look wonderful signed. Released in 1979, the 291 card set is a must have.

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With that set safely acquired, I marched forward to get both 1960’s sets, but was warned at Baseball Nostalgia that they’re harder to find than the ‘50’s set, and pricier. This proved to be true. The first set, released in 1978 with 293 cards was easier to spot, but I didn’t want to buy that series without the more difficult second series attached. (I learned this lesson when I picked up a cheap TCMA football base set and still find myself struggling to get the 12 card update at a reasonable price. I’d have been better off waiting to buy both sets.)

The 1981 (yay Split Season!) series 2 has 189 cards, but the problem is that about 1/3 were printed compared to series 1 (according to the Standard Catalog). Whenever that series would appear, it was too pricey for me.

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Well, as of last night, my long waiting is over. I got both sets for a good price and they’re on their way! I can’t wait. Like the 1950’s cards, the 1960’s sets have fantastic variety of names, from superstars to non-stars to Jim McKnight.

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And they look wonderful signed.

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Fun Buttons, Not Food

I asked people to send me their “junk wax” faves at the end of this post on Fleer Classic Miniatures and I got a lot of solid suggestions. The 1985 Fun Foods set was one, and I took it to heart. I am now the proud owner of a complete 133 button set.

I was not unaware of the Fun Foods set; I’ve always had a soft spot for it. I’ve had the Seaver button, and only the Seaver button, for decades.

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The beauty of this little item was not lost on me, but I never went for the whole set. Not a cost issue, the set should run $20 tops, more of a storage issue. Where would I put 133 buttons – in a box? In sheets? I really couldn’t figure it out, so I passed.

When I started pursuing the 1964 and 1971 Topps coins sets, I ended up with some coin sheets whose pockets were too small. Too small for the coins, but perfect for the buttons! (Never throw anything out!). Here’s how they display:

It’s a super attractive set – the colors are vibrant, the photos are sharp, the checklist is terrifically 1984/1985.

They’re thick enough that my binder won’t close now, but I’m not worried. It’s a binder full of metal discs, not cardboard. No bent corners here!

I won’t claim to doing much looking into this issue: they were sold as complete sets and in packs of three, though I never saw those packs in the wild. As to Fun Foods, I have no idea what they did, or made, or how much fun their product may or may not have been. Maybe all they made were the buttons, maybe the buttons were meant to be eaten. I have no idea (though don’t do that.)

Whatever business Fun Foods was in is of no matter to me. They made cool buttons, I now have them all, and that’s enough for me.

Junk Wax for the win!

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of a collecting snob. As a vintage collector I tend to thumb my nose at modern and recoil instantly at anything that shines, refracts, redeems, rainbows, or retails for more than 30 cents a pack. So what was I doing this past weekend up to my ears in junk wax?!

Card collecting at its best…REALLY!

The plan hatched innocently enough. Following my baseball card presentation at our last SABR Chicago meeting, a few of the attendees and I were in the parking lot chatting about cards. One of the members, Rich, mentioned that he had a lot of unopened 1989 Fleer from the early (uncensored F*Face) print runs and would happy donate a cello box to the right occasion.

Meanwhile, one of my best buddies from high school, a guy I opened thousands of packs with back in the day, was up from Los Angeles on a work assignment. Abe no longer collected cards, but I knew there would be plenty of room for at least one evening of waxing nostalgic.

Abe on a more typical evening

Also joining the fun were Bill, whose chapter newsletters must be the best in all of SABR, and John, who writes on here as Baseball Law Reporter and is also the man behind the incredibly ambitious and useful Baseball Sites Project.

After some pizza and a few innings of Astros-Yankees on the main floor, we headed down to the basement, and Rich brought out the 1989 Fleer. How he had resisted opening the packs all this time was a mystery to me, but it worked out well for us. Or more specifically, it worked out VERY well for Abe, who managed to land all three of these gems!

Inside joke but Abe himself was the “Luckmaster” this past weekend!

As for my own stack of 1989 Fleer, it’s possible not a single card is worth more than a quarter (if even!), but it didn’t stop me from being excited any time I pulled a good player. Eddie Murray, Kirk Gibson, Dave Parker…the hits just piled up. As much as I love cards of the 1930s, the truth is it was THESE cards where I knew all the players, saw many of them play, and remembered the feeling of finding them in packs. Junk or not, nostalgia is in the memories, never the value.

From there we went on to 1981 Fleer, which brought back my age 11 memory of pulling the “C” Nettles at a card show and literally fainting! Riding his earlier hot streak, Abe (of course!) was the one to pull a Nettles, but it was the corrected Graig Nettles version. Of course he still managed the best hit of the box, the Fernand [sic] Valenzuela rookie card. Yes, I know the card is available on eBay for $1, but I still couldn’t help being insanely jealous of the pull.

You had ONE job, 1981 Fleer typesetter!

One thing that caught our eye with the 1981 Fleer box to retailers informing them of the two free packs (hence 60 cents extra profit!) contained in each box. And sure enough, there were those two extra packs, crammed sideways between the main stacks of wax. As card-obsessed as I was as a kid, this was wholly uninteresting to me back in 1981 but today reveals an important marketing strategy Fleer used to establish a foothold in the newly competitive baseball card retail space.

We also had some fun opening my 20 or so assorted 1988 Score packs and a box of 1988 Donruss. Every 20 minutes or so, one of us would run up to see if my 1981 Donruss box had been delivered, but sadly it never did arrive on time. Still, opening packs was only half the fun we had planned for the night.

At least partly to troll John for his recent article on the worst baseball card set ever, I brought out my never-been-played, had-to-empty-my-TV-remotes-for-batteries 1989 Main Street Baseball game. Of course there was no way we were using the ugly cards that came with the game, not when we had heaps and heaps of 1980s wax sitting right in front of us!

John, I hope it’s cool I stole your photo!

For what must have been the next 90 minutes, we proceeded to dig through our stacks of freshly opened cards, trying to find actual baseball cards of each of the players on our team. One fantastic attribute of junk wax became immediately apparent as readily handed off our Nolan Ryan, Tony Gwynn, and George Brett cards to whichever guy had the adhesive stat strip for the player. WE COULD GIVE THESE CARDS AWAY FOR FREE AND NOT CARE AT ALL!

This would have been unthinkable back in the 1980s!

Yes, the fact that many cards in our collections are worth money can feel like a positive sometimes, and the fact that we can probably flip a $80 card for at least $75 down the road makes us feel a little less crazy spending nice-dinner-out-with-the-family money on a little square of cardboard.

But let’s face it; the value of our cards is also the single greatest barrier to enjoyment. When your cards are worth money, it’s hard to give them away, it’s hard to even make trades, you’re not going to flip them, they won’t go near a bicycle tire, and you might not even want to touch them! What kind of hobby is this?!

Meanwhile, here we were with our junk wax not only sharing them freely (except Billy Ripken!) but even…YES!…putting stickers on them! (Side note: Did Puckett’s 1988 Score bio really say, “Sporting a shaved head and a chunky body shaved like a bowling ball…?” YES!)

Hoping my son can crack the code and build me a secret weapon player who homers every at-bat!

I’d say the game was anti-climactic after all the fun we had finding the cards we needed and affixing bar codes, but would that really do justice to a 4-3 thriller featuring a lead-off homer from Rickey, 8 strong innings from Orel Hershiser, and an oh-so-close ninth inning rally that left the tying run on third and winning run on second?

Sure the graphics were little red blips and the game seemed to skip an inning on us randomly, but the truth was this 1989 electronic baseball technology was far superior to anything I actually played as a kid!

The simple, intuitive interface inspired Steve Jobs as he was creating the iPod

Back to the cards, though, here is what the evening brought home to my snobby collecting self. There is a place in EVERY collection for worthless cards, the kind you can trade, give away, keep in your wallet, put stickers on, or—as Rich did at one point in the evening—use as a beverage coaster. There really is a certain kind of fun you can only have with worthless cards.

Junk wax connects us to the purity of the hobby in a way that no other cards can. It allows us to know the feeling of opening a pack of 1933 Goudey or 1952 Topps. Yes, the players are different, but more importantly the experience is the same. Like our hobby ancestors, here we are opening packs of cards for no other reason than a love for little pieces of cardboard with baseball players on them. That, my friends, is winning!

Worst Baseball Card Set Ever

Main Street Toy Company was a 10-person outfit that was formed in the wake of Coleco’s demise. Main Street’s founder, Gene Murtha, was a former vice president of marketing for Coleco.  He assembled a small team of executives to run a new toy company poised to “learn[] lessons from Coleco’s mistakes.”

Main Street found quick success with Slap Wraps, a plastic-coated steel strip that would automatically curl around the wrist when slapped on one’s arm. The company sold upwards of $4 million worth of Slap Wraps in 1990. Unfortunately, this was the only successful product in its lineup and by 1991, Main Street had been gobbled up by a competitor and dissolved.

But, what does all of this have to do with baseball cards you ask?

Well, Main Street Toy Company marketed the worst baseball card set ever in 1989. Patented by video game stalwart Eric Bromley and assigned to the fledgling company, Main Street Baseball was an electronic game that used statistics for individual MLB players to help determine game play outcomes. According to the box, you could “Steal a base like Vince Coleman” or “Pinch hit like Kirk Gibson.” Wow!

Player information was embedded in bar codes that were printed onto small stickers designed to be affixed to the back of that player’s baseball card. In theory, this was not a bad idea at all. In practice, however, the kids who wanted to play Main Street Baseball were encouraged to deface baseball cards of their favorite players and then slide them through a slot to scan the bar code. Oh, the humanity!

Main street bar codes

The game included bar codes that contained the 1988 statistics for over 100 players, along with an offer to purchase bar code stickers for each of the 26 teams in MLB at the time. And have I mentioned that the Main Street Baseball game was packaged with the worst baseball card set ever?

Officially licensed by the MLBPA, Main Street was authorized to use the names and statistics for the superstars of the day and produced a 24-card set that featured standard-sized cards. The complete set includes:

NL players: Bobby Bonilla, Will Clark, Andre Dawson, Kirk Gibson, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Tim Raines, Nolan Ryan, Ryne Sandberg, Benny Santiago, Ozzie Smith and Darryl Strawberry.

AL players: Wade Boggs, George Brett, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Dennis Eckersley, Carlton Fisk, Don Mattingly, Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett, Alan Trammell, Frank Viola and Dave Winfield.

The backs of the cards are unnumbered and list only biographical information and rudimentary statistics from each player’s 1988 campaign— batting average, home runs and stolen bases for position player and won-loss record, ERA and strikeouts for pitchers. And, of course, a spot was designated for the bar code sticker.

Main street back

Although the production run is unknown, these cards can be difficult to find. So why would a difficult-to-find set comprised of half Hall of Famers be so brutal, you may be asking?

Well, the cards do not include photos or illustrations of the players.

Main street al front

What? Wait a second. A set of cards that was licensed by the MLBPA does not include any player photos? Not even pictures with the team logos airbrushed out?

Nope.

Main street nl card fronts

Strictly for completionists, the Main Street Baseball cards are the worst ever—unless you have a thing for wholly generic baseball art and a dearth of statistical information. As for the game—who knows. I was never willing to destroy my cards to play it.

Sources:

Anthony Ramirez, “Turning Profits Hand Over Wrist,” New York Times, October 27, 1990.

Pamela Klein, “Fad Wanes, But Marketers, Creators Still Feud,” Hartford Courant, September 2, 1991.

“Canadian Firm Gets Main Street Toy Lines,” Hartford Courant, November 27, 1991.

United States Patent Number 5,026,058, issued June 25, 1991.

http://electronicbaseball.blogspot.com/2014/06/main-street-toy-company-main-street.html (Note: Author’s blog with further information and photos)

Before Ohtani, there were …

Before Shohei Ohtani arrived with the Angels as both a pitcher and position player (or least, a designated hitter), few major leaguers in recent years had played with some regularity on the mound and as hitters. We’re not talking about guys sent in to finish up blowouts, but those who actually were major-league-level pitchers and good enough hitters to play other positions.

The two most noted examples this century have been Rick Ankiel, who came up as a pitcher, and Brooks Kieschnick, who added pitching to his role as an outfielder and pinch-hitter to extend his career. Ankiel stopped pitching in 2001, except for a brief appearance in 2004. He reinvented himself as a power-hitting outfielder in the minors before returning to the Cardinals. Both have numerous cards with them on the mound and at bat.

The Angels have another two-way possibility in Jared Walsh, who was up briefly earlier this season. Although he has pitched in earnest at the AAA level, his only work on the mound with the Angels so far has been in lopsided affairs.

The most famous pitching convert obviously is Babe Ruth. Contemporary cards of Ruth as a pitcher—the 1916 Sporting News version being the most familiar—are expensive and hard to find. A few of Ruth’s contemporaries also pitched and played some at other positions, but since World War II, it’s rare to find a player with significant time in the majors as both a pitcher and a position player. And almost always, those who did it made a permanent conversion.

Kieschnick was one of the few who kept doing both with the Brewers, who for a while were happy to have him as a two-way player. Another was the 1950s Pirates infielder Johnny O’Brien. He switched mostly to pitching in 1956 and had a decent year, playing 10 games at short and second and hitting .300. But he was so bad on the mound in ’57 that he went back to being a full-time infielder. He had Topps cards before he pitched and after, but none listing him as a pitcher. His ’58 Topps card mentions his having pitched. Johnny’s brother and fellow Pirates infielder, Eddie, also pitched in a few games.

The Pirates also had a light-htting infielder/outfielder in Dick Hall, who has a card in the ’55 Topps set. Hall spent that year in the minors, working on his pitching (and still hit .300). He was back with Pirates mostly as a pitcher in 1956 and went on to a long career in the bullpen with the Orioles.

Until Ohtani resumes pitching (if he does), the only “modern” card era player who pitched in 15 games or more and played substantially at another position in the same season is far more obscure: Willie Smith of the 1964 Angels. Smith came up as a pitcher with the Tigers and was traded to the Los Angeles to bolster the bullpen. He ended up as a regular in the outfield and hit over .300.

Smith never had a card showing him as a pitcher, although the back of his 1965 Topps card raves about his pitching. Although primarily an outfielder after the middle of the ’64 season, he pitched a few times for the Indians and Cubs after he was traded by L.A., never yielding a run.

Two other players in the ‘60s came up as outfielders before switching to pitching. Mel Queen with the Reds was the most successful and converted quickly. His 1967 card lists him as “P-OF.” Danny Murphy was an outfield prospect with the Cubs and played a bit in 1960, ’61 and ’62. He made the long road back to Chicago, but to the South Side with the Sox, in 1969 and ’70 as a pitcher.

Going back farther, Hal Jeffcoat came up with the Cubs in 1948 as an outfielder before converting at the big league level to pitching in 1954. He spent the rest of the decade on the mound. Jeffcoat appeared on Bowman cards as an outfielder from 1951 through 1954 and on Topps cards in 1952 and 1953. His 1955 Bowman card is his first as a pitcher, and his 1956-59 Topps cards follow suit.

Baseball Reference.com has a listing of every non-pitcher who ever pitched and played more than five times as many games at other positions, if you’d like to see how rare it is for players of the past 100 years to make the switch.

I’ve always been fascinated with these two-way players. It led me to write the BioProject essays on Willie Smith and Hal Jeffcoat. If you know of others from the Bowman/Topps card era I’ve missed, please let me know.

Not Cool for Katz (1979-1984)

Steve Wynn sang about it on The Baseball Project’s 3rd album.

Tyler Kepner and I talked a bit about it over dinner and cards in Cooperstown.

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I experienced it myself, from 1979 – 1984.

Did you?

I can tell you that cards became, if not uncool, then put in forced hibernation, before my senior year of high school. Up to that point, I wasn’t shy about having people know I collected cards. Kinda late, now that I think about it. Why were baseball cards (and other cards) something to be proud of, well, if not proud of then unashamed by, through 11th grade, but not 12th?

I have no idea. I do know that bailing on cards when I did bit me in the ass, at least when it came to hockey cards. I bought the complete Topps set every year until 1979. Yeah, 1979 was the first year I stopped buying complete sets. Yeah, 1979!!!!!

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I missed cards during those years and I could have very easily kept up on the down low. No one needed to know but me. Still, there were a lot of things that went on during those years – leaving high school, having first relationships, going to college, graduating from college, getting a job. Looking back, cards would have provided me some much needed comfort, very similar to what they give me these days.

I’m not sure I thought they were uncool. Despite my vaunted record store running background, I was never the cool-type. I had my aesthetic, and that appealed to some and worked for me. Actually, staying with cards would have enhanced that image, not taken away from it.

Hard to say how I felt then. All I can remember is my first inching back, my toe-dipping into the pool.

It was September of my senior year at SUNY-Binghamton and a bunch of us were driving to Cornell to see Graham Parker. It was his tour behind The Real Macaw.

Right out of campus, we stopped for gas and I bought a couple of packs of 1983 Topps baseball. I don’t know who I got in those packs, but I was stirred, though not moved enough to go all in.

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I graduated in May 1984, had a job and lived with my parents in Staten Island. I needed all the comfort I could get and dove back into cards, catching up on the sets I’d missed (Topps, Fleer and Donruss) but only baseball. (My second, and last chance, at the Gretzky rookie!). Lucky for me, I started piecing together some older sets I had started pre-1979.

Though my card interest has had its peaks and valleys since then, it’s never gone away and there isn’t much I missed that I regret (maybe 1986 Fleer basketball, but that’s more monetary than emotional.)

Nick Vossbrink’s recent post about his kids and their joy in the hobby is a wonderful read. I hope they stick with it as long as they love it, and not be influenced by what others may or may not think is cool or worthwhile. Most of us have failed that test at least once, with cards or without.