I just finished reading a rough draft treatment I wrote last year about how the explosion of card production in the early Nineties pretty much set the table for the implosion at the end of the decade. To illustrate this, I had singled out 1991. My thesis was that this year more than any other should be recognized as the true starting point for the premium card era, and that combining perceived value with vast over-production allowed for card companies to claim limited availability while cranking out the crap.
Highlighting this point seems obvious to me; I’m glad that I didn’t publish it on the blog. But there was something in there that I'd like to talk about.
The Evolution of the Donruss Diamond King
The Diamond King subset cards in 1982 Donruss were the first cards to feature out-and-out paintings since 1956 Topps. For nine years, 1982 to 1990, the subset featured the previous season’s stars, one from each team, in goofy headshots on colored backgrounds, each year more outrageous than the last (culminating in the bizarre Alexander Calder-esque background explosions of 1990).
Then, in a move that can only be explained as a Donruss executive realizing the 1990 Diamond Kings kind of resembled dried vomit—albeit in a totally awesome, Tron’n’Skittles way—the brand moved towards a more serious outlook for 1991 with stoic portraits (usually reserved for the oak-paneled walls of an early century gentlemen’s study) replacing the tried-and-true toothy grins and action painting. It was an interesting move, not only because it reflected the collective distance the hobby was putting between itself and the posed, close-cropped sideline portrait photography that had been featured on at least 90% of cards since the dawn of time, but because it essentially robbed Donruss of one of its trademarks: the humanized hero. Without the warm-toned close-ups and headshots, the Diamond Kings felt cold and distant, a meaningless element of a meaningless set.
It’s also interesting to note that while Donruss was busy pushing the camera back, Score was eagerly pulling it closer. 1990 saw the pastel introduction of Score’s Dream Team subset, and while the subset became the Oddly Homoerotic Dream Team in 1991 (at least three cards featured shirtless torsos: Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Kirby Puckett), the factory-set-only Cooperstown insert set took the pastels to their soft focus, ethereal pinnacle. It was almost like Score had out-Diamond King'd Donruss.
It's been almost sixteen years and I still don’t understand why Donruss pulled the Diamond Kings out of the base set for 1992, and I’m not entirely sure it was a good idea. I mean, I get that they were trying to compete in an out-of-control marketplace lovesick on inserts. But isn’t that why they had Donruss Elite? If they really needed a more tangible insert that anyone had a chance of getting in a pack, couldn’t they have put their heads together and created something new? By pulling the Diamond Kings from the base set, Donruss effectively killed their own product.