By 1990, Donruss and the other baseball card companies were beginning to understand that their industry was in a very different place from as little as three years before. Following the initial across-the-board quality of Upper Deck, the others suddenly found their market shares smaller. In order to stay competitive, they had to find the intersection between maintaining a traditional set and adapting to the competition with bells and whistles.
From what I can tell, Donruss’ idea of “bells and whistles” was to go red. Eye-catching, hellfire, mid-life crisis, love-it-or-hate-it red. That’s not to say their strategy didn’t work. I, for one, was both shocked and pleased to see them shake their black and blue funk (every year’s design from 1985 to 1989 had either been black or blue). The new color, coupled with the risk-taking cursive signature player name on the front, helped the set stand out in the crowd.
They made two other significant changes from the previous year. First, they put together a fantastic checklist with Diamond Kings you wanted, an intriguing “insert set” (MVPs), kick-ass ‘King of Kings’ and ‘5,000 Ks’ Nolan Ryan cards and one of the strongest Rated Rookie classes in years. Second, they let the presses fly without bothering to hire proofreaders.
Obviously that claim isn’t true, but consider the circumstances: just a year before, one of their competitors (Fleer) grabbed endless headlines after one of its cards (Billy Ripken) featured an obscenity. In order to prolong the news (or simply because they didn’t know how best to handle the situation), Fleer corrected the card not once but four different times throughout the season, resulting in five available versions of the card and guaranteeing a hard-to-find, highly collectible product.
Granted, it’s hard to monitor quality on every single card of a set, but 1990 Donruss featured eight error cards, with two of those being high-profile Nolan Ryan cards and one coming in the insert set (Glavine for Smoltz). Makes you wonder about motive.
Like other strong Donruss sets, in order for it to be truly great there had to be rookie balance over the entire checklist. This was certainly the case for 1990. Donruss had a track record of including great Rated Rookies since Bill Madden put together the first on-card-denoted subset back in 1984, but ran into trouble sometimes when it came to seeding rookies into the rest of the checklist. No such problem in 1990. With eleven desirable Rated Rookies (the most since 1987), the set found balance with rookies of Sosa, Larry Walker, Bernie Williams, John Olerud, David Justice, John Wetteland and flameouts like Junior Felix, Dwight Smith and Jerome Walton.
Yes, the base set lacked a Frank Thomas rookie (and so did the boxed Best of AL and end of year Rookies sets), but in this instance (unlike with 1990 Bowman or Fleer) it didn’t matter. Bowman nor Fleer had Rated Rookies to divert the attention away from the glaring Thomas omission.
Regardless, despite its overall quality and the changes the company made for 1990, this set finds Donruss at a crossroads. Yes, it has a checklist with more than a few highlights. Yes, it has the company’s third foray into insert cards. And yes, it was done with an eye-catching palette. But with the introduction of Leaf as a premium brand, created to compete and out-do Upper Deck on its own level, 1990 was the first year Donruss was the other brand for the company.
You know, it’s funny, but some companies seem to be able to cope year to year; their releases make sense as a cohesive whole. On the surface, this seems to be the case with Donruss (at least in terms of design). But if we dig a little deeper and examine the sets they released from 1990 through 1992—the first three in their role as secondary brand—the company seemed to go a few steps forward in 1990 (clearly their best set of the early Nineties, and their best since 1987) and then two or three giant leaps backward the next two years (crap in ’91 and more of the same for ’92).
It’s as if Donruss simply didn’t know what to do with the brand now that it was number two. Two series? Full color fronts and backs? Save rookies for an insert set? Did anybody even notice? Or care? Despite creating a great set for 1990, it was the beginning of a sad period for the brand.