This is another one of those sets that probably deserves to be higher, but isn’t because the competition is so fierce. My colleague was shocked that I had 1986 Topps out of the Top 10, simply because he knows I’m kind of obsessed with it, but like I said at the outset: my own personal nostalgia will not enhance the merits of a set. 1985 Donruss is by far one of the strongest Donruss showings of the decade (I would rank it third), with a relatively strong Diamond King class, obviously strong unannounced rookies and of course the Two for the Title card with Mattingly and Winfield. But it isn’t as memorable when it comes to Rated Rookies (I think Danny Tartabull is the big pull), and for a Donruss set to be truly a great set, there needs to be a balance between RR’s and DK’s. This set makes it to the Top 10 based on the fact that it has the most memorable Puckett rookie (I think Kirby’s pontificating on the finer art of ‘rolling a strike,’ or curling oneself into a bowling ball shape and, with the help of friend provide an initial push, rolling down a declined plane towards a makeshift bowling-pin set up. And really, Puckett would know the proper way of excelling at this, as he bared more resemblance to a bowling ball than any other Major Leaguer this side of a late-career Tony Gwynn). It has the most valuable Clemens rookie, which really is a beautiful card.
It also benefits from being released at the height of Donruss’ uncharacteristic ‘Professional-Level Photography’ years, 1984-1987 (when I was actively collecting Donruss sets, I always thought 1989 wasn’t that bad and 1990 was especially optimistic, then they went into a death-spiral until I think it was 1994, which I remember were actually really nice-looking cards. In fact, 1994 was a pretty good year for card design; Donruss, Fleer, Flair, Collector’s Choice, UD—they were all appealing). And the best part about the photography from this set is that it never tries to be more than it is. Nothing gimmicky, just nice head and action shots. Until Upper Deck came along, Topps was really the one company that really ‘got it’ when it came to producing fun cards. Donruss design always had too much of a ‘techie’ feel to include fun cards (not including a few one-offs like the San Diego Chicken; I’ve gone into this before), and Fleer was usually so boring (good call Lang) that the only time they would let their hair down would be at the end of a set (and then only if the poor, tortured Fleer photographer somehow cornered a few straggly stars after an all-night booze session or paid them a few dollars out of his pocket to pal around before All-Star batting practice). Donruss didn’t need to make things more chummy or really even ‘fun’, and in fact, it would’ve ruined the aesthetic if they had tried.
And really, that black border with the little red stripes kicked some serious ass. Ask yourself, if you were Donruss, would you have trivialized the seriousness of a black border with little stripes with ‘fun’ cards? I didn’t think so. Really, it had enough going on already, and perhaps the best way to appreciate just how much, let’s open a pack.
Lou Gehrig Puzzle Pieces #55, 56, 57 Not bad, I got the copyright date information. Could’ve been worse: I could’ve gotten a nothing-doin’ border.
1. Alvin Davis, Mariners This is what I’m talking about: I love pictures where it shows the subject screwing up. Here’s Davis in full Tron getup blatantly checking his swing on a pretty good pitch to hit.
2. Jim Slaton, Angels This is another classic PLP (Professional-Level Photo) from Donruss. The crowd behind Slaton is just out of focus enough to suggest a photo editor at the company actively cultivated a love of Impressionism in his photographers.
3. Frank Tanana, Rangers Diamond King Awesome, a Diamond King! This is really cool, especially because it’s Tanana. In fact, it may be the only card of him where he’s squinting but his mouth is closed. When you look at his cards from earlier in his career, he’s got his mouth open at the most bizarre angles possible, like he’s daring you to figure out how he could accomplish such a thing.
4. Larry Sheets, Orioles Rated Rookie Remember all that crap I just said about there not being any dynamite Rated Rookies besides Tartabull? Well, you can just forget it. May I present to you Rated Rookie Larry Sheets, quite possibly the oldest looking rookie since Fernando Valenzuela. It’s probably Larry’s mustache; it makes him so grown-up.
5. Dave Von Ohlen, Cardinals Here’s something funny: Von Ohlen has blond hair (including an almost unnoticeable blond mustache), but if you look closely he’s got a little chest hair peeking out and it’s definitely brown. It also looks like he may be going bald under that Cardinals cap. If only the Cards adopted the mesh trucker hat…forward-thinking kids could’ve adopted it as a fashionable trend before anyone knew what emo was, and Von Ohlen could’ve grown in some chia-hair.
6. Dave Meier, Twins Wow. So tell me, who’s Dave Meier?
7. Roy Smalley, White Sox Check it out, Smalley’s rocking the ugliest uniform from the mid-1980s. That couple of days’ beard growth definitely helps.
8. Dan Ford, Orioles I loved that Dan Ford always had his shades on, and not cool shades like some guys had, but the Kent Tekulve/George Foster shades: big, unwieldy face-engulfing aviation-style glasses. Now I never once considered Kent Tekulve to be at the height of fashion, but then again, what do I know.
9. Cecilio Guante, Pirates I also loved that sometimes card companies referred to Guante as ‘Matt’. I never understood that. He also had horrible, corn-niblet teeth. I always thought he moonlighted as a bounty hunter. I can picture Guante with a large, semi-automatic machine gun slung over his shoulder and a Frankenstein stitch across one cheek, smoking the end of a Macanudo, nonchalantly holding a machete in one hand and resting the other on his hip. I mean really, can’t you? Take a look at his 1987 Topps card and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
10. Jerry Willard, Indians About as opposite from Guante as you can get.
11. Jackie Gutierrez, Red Sox I’m just impressed that I actually got a Red Sox player, even if it is Gutierrez, though he bears a weird resemblance to Dwight Evans. Also, his dad competed for Colombia at the 1936 Olympics, which is totally awesome, and may be a rare example of Topps filching their back-of-card trivia from another, earlier set (this same factoid appears on the back of his 1987 Topps card).
12. Jeff Robinson, Giants This is a good example of this set’s strong headshot photography. The face is clear, it doesn’t look to be heavily airbrushed (unlike Topps), and the player looks, in a word, normal.
13. Keith Hernandez, Mets This is a good example of the old-style Donruss photo. It is not very good, with poor flesh tones, a slightly out of focus shot, and a posed action shot taken too close. Hernandez should’ve been farther away from the photographer, or better yet, the photographer should’ve splurged on parking and stayed for the game that day; he probably could’ve gotten a nice one of Hernandez in the field.
14. Donnie Scott, Rangers Nothing like a backup catcher trying to look tough. Scott looks so determined! Look at that furrowed brow! He’s even got a black bat! Too bad he’s the backup catcher for a lousy Rangers team–he could’ve taken over the world, one regular at-bat at a time.
15. Ken Oberkfell, Braves I used to confuse Oberkfell with Bob Horner all the time. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that Oberkfell probably got me with some kind of long-distance Jedi mind trick. It must have been the beard, the smiling Caddyshack gopher-esque head and body, because it certainly wasn’t the statistics. He probably had a good time in 1987 when Horner went off to Japan for the year: he had Atlanta all to himself to blow off the IRS, convincing them he was not the Oberkfell they were looking for.
Not great, but not bad, and pretty good as far as photography is considered. And really, you can’t argue against the design: that black border kicks ass no matter who the player is. Backup catcher Donnie Scott does look tough, thanks to the great lighting of his photo and the no-monkey-business black border, not to mention the little red stripes, which suggest there might be blood if you make him angry. And really, if a set can make the backup catchers of the league look intimidating, it’s doing something right.