I’ve been cradling a baseball in my hand frequently this week. For those keeping score, it’s scuffed in places, the seams are slightly raised, and the exterior leather is hard. There is a Peoria Chiefs logo emblazoned on the outside; I threw the first pitch at a game once upon a time—it might be the same ball. Lately, I’ve been honing my grip and trying to regain the feel of a curve ball. Statisticians believe pitching is about velocity, pitches thrown, and spin rates. But it’s more about will, practice, and, yes, the feel counts too.
Venturing down the algorithmic rabbit hole of YouTube pitching performances, one can become lost in the golden era of baseball. Jack Morris. John Smoltz. Orel Hershiser. Bret Saberhagen.
Recently, I wrote about a post referencing the miraculous seasons of the Ryan Express. Cosmetically, I like to include images in my meanderings; it’s the photographer trapped deep inside that yells to come out. And so, I dug in the attic and found a Nolan Ryan 1987 Topps card. The cardboard box was hidden behind a saxophone, a series of board games including Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly, and a dusty black and red robot—batteries not included. It didn’t take long to find the Astros card; inside the complete set box I must have sorted them by team thirty-plus years ago.
When I held it in my hand, pristine, I remembered not buying the complete set. I had acquired each card the old fashion way, pack by glorious pack. Eventually, my parents purchased the cellophane-wrapped set, a gift tucked neatly under the Christmas tree, and I kept that tradition going.
The Junk Card Era
As much as I cherish these cards, collectors and many hobbyists online use this term to describe a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the market was flooded with an oversupply of glorious sports goodness. Many believe manufacturers, including Topps, Fleer, and Donruss, produced vast quantities of cards, flooding the market with an overwhelming number of cards because of new technologies that made it easier and cheaper to produce cards, and the emergence of new distribution channels. Baseball card shops were popping up on every corner of major cities. If you’re curious, there is a method to this madness as CVS and Walgreens do this intentionally. Better to cannibalize yourself instead of having a competitor do it for you, so the saying goes.
Because many of the suppliers never disclosed the production numbers (some sources cite hundreds of millions), collectors, looking to make a buck, had invested heavily and discovered Mark McGwire’s Rookie card wasn’t as rare or valuable as they had hoped, and many were left with large collections worth far less than they had paid for them.
Some also call this an age of excess; many cards featured gimmicky designs, over-the-top graphics, and special effects, such as holograms and foil stamps. Yes, Upper Deck, who came onto the card scene in the 90s, cracked the code with these. Air Jordan, I’m looking at you.
Still, There is Gold in Those Hills
For me, the 1987 Topps set stands out for its distinctive design—one has to cherish the wood borders, which is a throwback to a similar style from the 1960s. It’s subtle, but the grain differs on many of the cards. It’s a nice detail and worth calling out along with the font style for Future Stars, Turnback the Clock, and Record Breaker. Who can forget the Roger Clemens card? He recorded 20 strikeouts on a fateful day in 1986. And that feat has only been done four times; yes, The Rocket did it twice.
But there are also several key rookie cards, including those for Bonds and Maddux, sporting an epic stache. Who could forget the veterans and young crop of players? McGwire. Canseco. Ripken Jr. Mattingly. Larkin. Rose. Clark. Brett. Schmidt.
Other honorable mentions of value from the era include the 1990 Leaf set, which features a popular Frank Thomas rookie card. And the 1993 SP set, which was produced in even smaller quantities and includes a sought-after Derek Jeter rookie card.
Never Lose Sight of the True Customer
For the collector, the glorious ’87 set is the pinnacle of the junk card era. But that’s taking the wrong view. Sure, Topps printed too many cards, but we forget about the true customer experience. What about the kid?
For me, I’d ride my bike down to the local grocery store, grab a few packs with whatever money I had scrounged up from Mom and Dad through chores, and hurry back home. From there, I’d tear open the packs (assuming I didn’t do it right outside the store), start chewing the cheap gum (I loved the stuff), and sort my cards. What was the most valuable card, for me? The checklist. Why? Because I’d want to know what I was missing. And away I’d go. Trade the duplicates. Or use them to fuel my motorcycle-sounding BMX.
At times, companies and organizations lose sight of their customers. Today, social media is finding obtaining previous levels of growth difficult. But who is their customer? The end user? Or those buying advertisements? When the online service first launched, I remember finding local concerts, the best pizza nearby, and keeping up with my friends. Now, I’m not sure if my feed shows anything of the sort. Maybe I’m using it wrong. I’m old. Or, perhaps, they have too many masters to cater to these days.
But the Topps trading card company?
I think they knew their client. The same kid who took the lesser-known and Cub cards and wedged them near the spokes to reproduce that special clicking sound. Ruined the card but so be it. One could always buy more, and that still holds true. And each day, assuming they could muster the cash, would return to the grocery store or local hobby shop. Turning back time, I never cared about the value. I wanted the joy of finding the Bo Jackson Future Stars Card. And only Nolan Ryan possessed that immaculate leg kick. There is a reason they overprinted the big names and marque rookies. I like to think it’s because a kid might find them.
Yes, the ’87 Topps set is special. A junk card? Far from it, an ingenious business strategy. If you look up nostalgia in the dictionary, these joyous cards should be listed as part of the definition. Wood border. Cutting-edge printing technology. Classic players. Sure, the real-life depictions of these cardboard gods have lost their zeal and proven to be mortal, flawed like us all. But did I mention the bubble gum? If only I could taste it again, but it’s probably like going to the moon, do we even know how to make it anymore?
- The most valuable cards in the 1987 Topps set.
- Yeah, the gum was worth buying the pack for.
- And the headline picture is my desk with a Peoria Chiefs baseball and Mark McGwire Topps card. There is a fascinating history around the McGwire Rookie, but, maybe, that’s for another post. Also, the desk was built from a tree struck by a bolt of lightning.
- The Natural.
- And we’re getting closer to the moon and beyond.