May 28, 2006

Best Set Countdown: #9 – 1985 Donruss

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.

Pack Analysis
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.


Eric B. said...

Another great piece!

Call me geeky, but one of the pleasures I've always gotten from baseball cards was the slight cognitive dissonance that comes with seeing a posed shot of a players somewhere that is so clearly NOT their home stadium -- for instance, that shot of Ken Oberkfell standing in front of the iconic roofline of Dodger Stadium's outfield pavilion. I mean, if Donruss wouldn't foot the bill to send a photographer all the way to Atlanta to shoot the Braves players, couldn't the photographer at least have chosen a more neutral background so that the viewer wouldn't know it? There was just enough of that going on that I'm surprised there wasn't a card somewhere with Don Mattingly posing in front of the Green Monster or something...

Captain Easychord said...

I started collecting baseball cards in 1983 but it wasn't until 1986 that I started buying cards for myself... I had a few cards from 83, more from 84 and then there was 1985... clearly, this wasn't a good year for my family because there's this amazingly huge gap in my collection that year... a buddy of my dad would pass along some fleer (mostly commons and doubles), just a small handful of topps and absolutely no donruss... not a one... I think to this day the only 1985 donruss card I have is the rickey henderson (since I was always a huge rickey fan and endeavored to collect his every card)...

that said, my initial belated reaction to the 85 donruss design was: WTF? looking at it anew, I'm still unimpressed although maybe I can kinda see where donruss was headed with this... it looks like they were sorta trying to simulate a 3D-ish experience like an old sega master system game (I'm looking at you, space harrier) by thinning the width of the red line as one moves up the card... I mean out of any context it seems kinda silly, but hey, it was a first step... the baseball card equivalent of an 8-bit videogame... fun and sorta nostalgic, but easily surpassed before too long...

Anonymous said...
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voluntarheel said...

I think Donruss may have been retroactively inspired by the previous post when they designed the aformentioned Jim Slaton card. Could they not have put that Angels Logo in a different place? And how much did Jim pay them for this placement in order to make his case at pubs on the road. I can just imagine that Jim carried this card like a business card in his wallet. The only way it could have worked out better for him is if they had done a facsimile signature, and he submitted his phone # instead.

And about that previous post. Do these guys have nothing else to do? How do they find spots to post on? They seem to follow me like Van Snider did in 1989. You think you may have the next great Reds rookie next to Sabo, and then a while later you feel completely sleazy for just thinking about Sabo.

Anonymous said...

Yuriy -

Care to share your thoughts on the difficult to obtain 1984 Donruss Omar Moreno card? What's that...I don't understand Russian. aren't into are just a friggin troll trying to get us to surf to a Russian porn site and upload a virus to our computers that will allow you to steal our identities? Well count me in brutha!!

Phillip said...

I cannot believe you didn't mention that the placement of the Angels' logo in the corner of Jim Slaton's card looks like... well use your imagination.

(And yes, I am in my late 20s.)

Anonymous said...

That last piece would only be relevant if the Playmates and Pets were opening boxes of '85 Donruss. Now that would be hott.

fulchmeister said...

Taking a second look at the Jim Slaton card makes me wonder... Is the Angels logo hiding something Donruss didn't want us to see? I mean it's not like it's an '89 Fleer Billy Ripken.

voluntarheel said...

Speaking to that last post, I think Donruss had similar things in mind when designing the aformentioned Jim Slaton card. I mean, did they have to put the Angels logo right there? It leaves one with a certain impression about how "blessed" Jim is. Who knows, maybe Jim asked them to use this photo so he could use it as a pick-up tool in the pubs at away games. It would have only been better for him if it were a facsimile signature card and he submitted his phone number.

As to that previous post. Is there a place on the web that isn't safe from porn? They're everywhere. It reminds me of Van Snider in 1989. He showed up in every pack I opened. This excited me as I felt he was the next great Red rookie after Chris Sabo. Then after a year or so, you feel really sleazy that you even thought about Sabo.

Mike C. said...

My brother and I bought a pack of cards at Target that was 99 cents, it was repackaged old cards? Like from the sets you're reviewing?

And in it... was a 1987 Donruss Mookie Wilson and... man, it was like five Christmases at once.

The blog is good, long live the blog.

The Rev said...

How do you know that pitch to Alvin Davis wasn't outside?

And to Eric B... just like all of those Fleer cards that were posed at Vet Stadium in the early 80's. Fleer was based in Philly, and used to get their shots of players when they came into town to play the Phillies. Imagine having your baseball card immortalized in Vet Stadium... yeech!

josh Mueller said...

I have the Two For The Title error card. Perhaps I'll throw it up on the site later. I actually have a ton of 85 Donruss that I enjoy, especially cards of Mike Schmidt and Nolan Ryan as well as the Mark Langston RC.

Anonymous said...

Call me immature, but I can't believe nothing was said about the logo placement on the Jim Slatton card. Gross.

Chuck Cox said...

Why the necessity of critcizing the fashion of the uniforms of twenty-one years ago? I would have to believe that what we are wearing and what we think is fashionable in 2006 will be very out of style in 2027. I fail to understand the need to criticize what baseball players dressed like, or how they wore their hair, or other attacks on their "fashion".

Why can't the cards be enjoyed because they represent a great game, and the accomplishments of a professional athlete?

Just my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

The background on the Slaton card is artistic, but the placement of the Angels logo... sheesh.

horatiosanzserif said...

Whoa -- what's with the "state" between Jim "Big Unit" Slaton's legs? Didn't Donruss have photo editors? I can't believe my parents let me collect these things.

Anonymous said...

On that Slaton card, the California logo is badly placed.