This is the fifth 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.
Following stops in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984, the next destination for the Collector Time Machine is 1985. If I had to choose a single year where the hobby changed the most, this might well be the year. Yes, 1981 ended the monopoly and 1989 brought us Griffey and Upper Deck, but the 1985 season brought something that both chronicled and (some would say) caused the the baseball card bubble synonymous with the Junk Wax era to burst. It was a magazine.
The first issue of the Beckett Monthly Baseball Card Price Guide came out in November 1984, and I didn’t even notice. But by the time the new packs were out in March 1985 the Beckett, as it was known for short, wielded more power over the hobby than a third-world dictator. “What’s it book for?” was the question that preceded every trade. We all knew the hot cards without having to hit a card show; we just checked the Beckett. And as each new issue came out, we’d check the up arrows (lots of them) and down arrows (not many) to see how our collection–now investments were doing. In short, what the Beckett told us was that the more we spent the richer we got.
My first local card shop
Prior to 1985, I only had two ways of buying cards. One was riding my bike to 7-Eleven. The other was long bus rides to occasional card shows. I think there was a (sort of) local card shop in Beverly Hills of all places, but I never went.
1985 was different. I was in high school now, and we had a card shop just a few blocks from campus. I was also lucky enough to meet a friend who was into cardboard, after operating solo for most of my three years of junior high. Like me, he was obsessed with Dr. K.
The Beckett told us there were other cards to get excited about, but our mission during the early part of the season was to stockpile as many Gooden RCs as possible. We definitely would have saved money just buying singles at the LCS, but our approach was always buying packs, which on our high school kid budgets really meant buying boxes. Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Donruss Leaf, Donruss Action All-Stars, Topps Giant, Topps Stickers, Fleer Stickers, O-Pee-Chee…you name it we bought it!
The end of card shows
At least for me, the luxury of a local card shop eliminated any need to go to card shows. My local shop admittedly didn’t offer much vintage, but all I really wanted was Doc. Besides, the Beckett was rock solid proof that 1980s cardboard was where the real money was. A fixture an annual highlight each of these previous years, I think it would be another 6-7 years before I set foot in another card show.
Other hot rookies
The 1985 sets were gold mines for rookie cards. Nowadays collectors look back on 1985 as the year of Clemens, Puckett, and Team USA McGwire, and definitely at least the Puckett heated up as the season progressed. For my own part, I was putting my money on two other players.
The first played 51 games with the Phils in 1984. He batted .362 with 27 stolen bases, which over a full season would have projected to 86 steals. So yes, I was definitely collecting the second coming of Ty Cobb. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Probably not.
The other guy I hoarded really did turn into a legit MLB superstar, which was impressive considering he gave no clues of it on his 1985 card back or his season in progress. I just thought he “looked really good” and had a baseball superstar kind of name. (Side note: Many fans remember ED’s 37/50 season as perhaps the first hint that 40/40 was even possible. What many fans forget is that this guy–a power hitter–stole 80 bases the year before! Whole teams don’t even do that anymore.)
Beyond Doc, Kirby, Jeff Stone, and ED, the other highly sought after cards on my radar were–
- Mark Langston, whose rookie campaign was almost as good as Doc’s
- Orel Hershiser, who had a funny name but was almost unbeatable on the mound
- Danny Tartabull, the first Donruss Rated Rookie in the set
- Shawon Dunston, whose Topps card reminded you he was the first overall pick in the draft
- Alvin Davis, the reigning AL ROY, and his teammates Phil Bradley and Jim Presley, who were having terrific rookie campaigns themselves
- Joe Hesketh, but I can’t remember why
- Bret Saberhagen, especially as the season wore on
- Franklin Stubbs, mainly because Vin Scully was super high on him
- Razor Shines and Skeeter Barnes – need I explain?
Who made the money?
Levi’s did. Okay, not really, but metaphorically. There’s a story about the California Gold Rush that the guy who got the richest wasn’t the guy who found the most gold (and most people found none) but the guy who figured out they’d all need better pants. This was of course Levi Strauss.
Good luck finding any collector who got rich off his 1980s rookie card collections, but whoever was selling the sleeves, top loaders, screwdowns, safes, and other assorted protective gear we used to archive our treasure was probably the guy making the biggest killing–at least other than Dr. James Beckett himself.
For the handful of 1980s RCs still worth more than the cardboard their printed on, you probably already know today how much of a difference it makes if your mint-looking card is actually a PSA 10 vs 9 vs 8. Here are the corresponding prices of the most recent 1985 Donruss Kirby Puckett RCs as an example:
- PSA 10 for $125 (December 4, 2018)
- PSA 9 for $19 (December 9, 2018)
- PSA 8 for $15 (December 8, 2018)
Back then, if you got if from a pack and didn’t ding it somehow, it was mint. Sharp corners and no creases were pretty much the criteria. Back in 1985, if a Gooden and a Puckett looked the same, the Gooden would ALWAYS be more. Now, of course, it’s all about what a guy with a magnifying glass, your $20, and a three-month wait time decides.
Double premium junk wax
I mentioned 1984 as the year Donruss became at least relatively hard to find–that is the to say the least junky of the Junk Wax. Ditto for 1985 where “hard to find” didn’t really mean hard to find anymore since my card shop stocked EVERYTHING. But “hard to find” did mean the packs cost a lot more because, as my card shop owner explained it, these packs he never ran out of were very hard to find!
Of course, we were now in the mid-1980s so a single level of premium just wasn’t gonna fly anymore. Donruss also issued its companion Leaf set, ostensibly for Canadian fans but more likely to create an even more expensive offering for collectors. I think I paid something like 50 cents for Topps/Fleer packs, a dollar for Donruss, and maybe two dollars for Leaf. To illustrated how soundly even this “double premium” offering fell victim to the Junk Wax bubble, I recently tried to complete my Leaf set, which was missing the Puckett and a couple other cards. When a guy got in touch with me to tell me he had all three, he asked if he could just send me his whole set at no extra charge!
As the 1985 season wound to an end, it seemed utterly impossible that 1986 or any subsequent year would match it. We now knew without a doubt that Dwight Gooden was destined to be the best pitcher ever, and our Becketts told us each month that we were 25% richer than the month before. But here’s what we didn’t know.
Fernando, Ripken, Boggs, Sandberg, Darryl, Donnie Baseball, and even Doc…these guys were nothing compared to the rookie who would take over the hobby in 1986. If you thought these other guys were good, he was like these other guys on steroids. Get ready and hold on tight…our next stop, 1986, will be the year of Canseco.