This is the second in a series of Collector Time Machine posts. For those of you who weren’t collecting yet, my goal here is to give you a brief glimpse of what it was like to be a collector back then. And for those of you who lived it, here is a healthy dose of nostalgia.
The second stop of the Collector Time Machine is 1982. If you read the previous post, you will recall the hobby at a crossroads as the 1981 season drew to an end. Would the 1982 season would bring its own hot card(s) that would send pack rippers into a “C” Nettles-like frenzy? Or would 1982 look a lot more like 1980 where the biggest pack pulls would be established superstars like Rose and Bench?
And where would Fleer and Donruss fit into the mix? Certainly Fleer owed most of its success in 1981 to its many errors and variations, but was that really a strategy worth replicating? And could Donruss, whose debut felt like a fizzle, establish itself as a “real” brand of baseball cards? Perhaps the one certainty here was that Donruss could hardly get worse!
The first brand to hit my 7-Eleven was Topps, so that’s where most of my dimes and quarters went. Something super cool that only took a couple packs to discover was that Topps had brought back its “In Action” subset from ten years earlier. I was familiar with the original since a friend of mine had the 1972 Mays In Action, which even at times made it in and out of my collection through trades or late-night card games.
Separate all-star cards of players was another comeback feature from earlier years (most recently 1974), and this set the table for collecting up to three different cards of the game’s top stars, even more if they made it into the Highlights subset. Pete Rose had four cards, for example.
This would be a very fun set for me to collect, so fun that I didn’t really mind not having Fleer or Donruss around to compete for pocket change. Being a huge fan of Steve Garvey, about the only thing for me not to like was that the NL All-Star 1B card went to Pete Rose that year, ending what had been one of the greatest runs ever documented in cardboard–
The Fleer and Donruss cards hit the shelves–at least in my neighborhood–at about the same time. Buying Fleer, of course the main thing I did was hunt for errors. Would there be a new “C” Nettles? One thing I’d learned from the previous year was that you’d better buy early and often to get such a card before such an error could be corrected in the second printing.
For better or worse, Fleer had largely cleaned up its act, and there were only two errors that I discovered on my own.
- An Al Hrabosky card that spelled his name as All on the back.
- A Fernando Valenzuela card that said “he” instead of “the” on the back.
It turned out there were still quite a few more out there, but you either needed sharper eyes than I had or I just didn’t get these cards from packs early on.
Like the year before, Fleer issued a lot of extra cards of the game’s superstars. One of the funnier ones was this one–
Kind of a side note here, but I’m guessing neither Fisk nor Carlton knew what was in store when the Fleer photographer snapped the two of them together. One can imagine an alternate hobby history where Steve Carlton so despises the card that he forces Fleer to halt production almost immediately, lending the hobby–for a time–its modern day Wagner story. (I say “for a time” because at some point it would be discovered that Fleer produced so many cards in 1982 that even the rarest of rarities in such a set would only mean there were millions but not billions of them.)
Opening packs of Donruss was a pleasant surprise. The cards were a bit thicker than the year before and didn’t stick together as badly. Additionally, there was a new kind of card that I really liked and would become synonymous with Donruss for years to come: the Diamond Kings subset.
Of course the hot card among my friends wasn’t a Diamond King, a superstar, a rookie (arguably), or even a human (again, arguably). When I ripped open a pack of Donruss, more than Rose, Bench, or even the Garvey demigod himself, here was the card I was after–
Though the card was no more rare than any other Donruss card that year (meaning there were billions of them), and the card was simply card 531 in the set, “The Chicken” was in some ways a precursor to the various insert or premium cards that would ultimately dominate the hobby.
But what did the grown-ups think?
As was the case in 1981, it took going to a card show to get a better understanding of what was really hot out there. As it turned out, there weren’t a lot of collectors older than 12 chasing The Chicken. What’s more, the top card in all three sets was a third baseman I’d been sending straight to my commons boxes.
It was a weird feeling seeing all the Ripken rookies out on dealer tables. One on hand, it was exciting to think that back at home I might have a dozen or so cards of this wunderkind. On the other hand all the Ripken buzz made me feel like I’d been collecting all wrong that year.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’d never heard of Cal Ripken, Jr. He was definitely baseball’s top rookie, outperforming fellow American Leaguer Kent Hrbek and the National League’s Steve Sax and Johnny Ray. It’s just that I still wasn’t used to a rookie–any rookie other than Fernando–stealing the spotlight from established superstars and/or a chicken.
I went to another show later in the year and the buzz was still Cal Ripken, only this time it was a new card of his that had entered the hobby, numbered 98T on the back. If I remember correctly, you could buy the entire Topps Traded set for $6 or just the Ripken for $5. It may have just been an L.A. thing but Saxy was the next hottest card in the set, outpacing Kent Hrbek and top stars such as Reggie Jackson, George Foster, and Gaylord Perry.
I never did buy the Traded set or even just the Ripken. Too bad since this is one of the very few cards of the decade that actually held its value and then some. Shop around eBay today and you’ll see nice looking raw copies of this card selling for around $100, making it one of the three most valuable cards of the 1980s behind only the 1984 Fleer Update cards of Kirby Puckett and Roger Clemens.
Looking ahead to 1983
I was starting to get it now and felt ready for next year. I knew now that it wasn’t about Rose or Bench or Yaz anymore. It wasn’t even about Mays or Aaron. Collecting was all about chasing the hottest rookies. The only question was who they would be.
Of course there was already chatter around another American League third baseman whose average was flirting around .350. Despite his playing in 104 games in 1982, Topps did not include him in its 1982 Traded set. (Topps needed to get these sets going well before the season ended.)
Where I had spent much of the year chasing the Chicken, it turned out I was on the right track after all. If 192 had been the (first) Year of Ripken, then 1983 would be the Year of the Chicken Man. Of course he’d have to share the stage a bit, but we’ll leave that as my topic for the next post.