June 23, 2006

Best Set Countdown: #3 – 1984 Donruss

How many sets can seriously lay claim to being a ‘standard bearer’? Seriously, can you name me five or six sets more monumental than this one? If we’re talking about the Eighties, I can only think of a couple, and none of them came out before this. This set was the biggest thing to happen to baseball cards since Topps lost the backroom poker game in 1981 to those two mangy upstarts, Fleer and Donruss.

So why is it that this set is so great? Sure, it’s got a hell of a design, both front and back (that turquoise makes me feel like the world’s gonna be alright), and it’s got the strongest checklist of any of the regular issue 1984 sets, but what makes the cards in this set worth so goddamn much? This set came out just before the height of collecting in the late Eighties, so we can’t put the value up to the Landfill Theory. Can it be that it was ’86 Donruss Redux (or is it Pre-Dux?), and little kids psyched themselves out trying to go for the Mattingly and so never actually purchased any of the cards? Or do we have Mr. Mint to thank for a tightly controlled supply? So many theories…I guess because I don’t really know what the deal was, I’m going with ’86 Predux because I know that that’s what I would’ve done if I had been old enough to make pack-buying decisions in 1984: pined away, chickened out and bought Topps.

In a minute I’ll get more into the out-of-focus, Impressionistic backgrounds that elevated many of the photos into instant classic status, but first I want to make a rather bold statement. While it didn’t recognize itself as such, this set was the first premium set ever made. I know, I know, it’s quite bold of me to suggest, but hear me out. I don’t think you could name me an earlier example of a premium set because the hobby didn’t call for one.

When I think of the term ‘premium set’, I tend to think of it as strictly post-Upper Deck, with examples like 1993 Topps Finest, 1990 Leaf, 1991 Topps Stadium Club, 1992 Bowman, 1994 Flair and so on. There were premium sets made in the 1980s, (1987 Fleer comes to mind, as do the string of Topps Tiffany sets) but because there was no prerequisite history, I would say it took collectors a while to recognize sets as such.

By 1984 the competition among the three sets had reached a fevered pitch, so much so that even the slightest screwup could hurt a company’s standing (see Topps Traded, 1984). Basic sets and building basic sets were still very much the core of the hobby, so when Donruss inserted extra cards with special numbering (the Living Legends cards), it threw the whole set-building universe into a ‘completist’ mania of epic proportions. Of course, I’m being really over-dramatic, and there are other things that make this set awesome, but the crux of my argument rests on these two ‘insert’ cards.

And the funny thing is, I can’t stand insert cards, but somehow I like these. I guess this stance is true for all inserts put out in sets from 1984 to 1991 (after 1991 things got really out of hand).

So what makes a set a ‘premium’ set? A whole handful of things: I think first you need stellar photography (check). Add a fantastic design (check), the unveiling of some sort of new technology (hello insert cards) plus equal parts desirability, flawless checklist and nice card stock (check, check and check). Here are a few illustrated examples of these points and others:

The strongest checklist of the early Eighties, and by far the strongest of the year. And here’s the kicker: it wasn’t hard for Donruss to accomplish this, thanks to Diamond Kings and the first year of the Rated Rookie as a subset with front-of-card denotation. Look at who they got their DK on: Yount, Boggs, Murray, Schmidt, Guerrero, Le Grand Orange, Bruce Sutter and a handful of others. The success rate is 50%, plus all those error cards (not one but two chances to get a Matt Young Diamond King! Yikes!). As for the Rated Rookies, Mike Fuentes was in some pretty good company: Carter, Darling, Sid ‘Ask Me Why I Put 50 On The Back Of My Uniform And I’ll Tell You An Awfully Long Story About Hawaii’ Fernandez, Tony Fernandez and Kevin McReynolds. That’s a pretty great Rated Rookie class to launch a set with. Then Donruss did a funny thing that they never really did up until that point: they put most of their star cards all in a clump at the beginning of the set. So it’s kind of a bummer when you get a good long stretch of crap cards (see #428 to #503 for example) right in the middle there, but it’s interesting too, because it’s like someone at Donruss saw just how strong the first fifty cards were and got the idea to ride the wave to 100 or so, then found out at card 70 that they didn’t have enough stars and sort of just stopped it mid-stream. Plus, it started another instance of Donruss being spectacularly lazy, just like they were in 1983 when they made minor changes to their 1982 design: if you look at the star clump at the beginning of the 1984 set and the one at the start of the 1985 set, it’s almost the same checklist.

• The inserts had value. Really, how could they not? Also, can you name the next premium set to get away with insert cards? I think you may have to go all the way to 1993’s Topps Finest Refractors (more on Finest in a minute), because after 1989 I don’t think you can count Upper Deck as a premium set.

• The rest of the set had value too. If you’ve followed card prices obsessively from when you were a kid until now, you know that this is one of the few sets that has retained its value over the years. Sure, the Joe Carter isn’t worth $60 anymore, but that’s not the point. The point is that cards of stars like Murray, Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, these guys would cost you maybe $0.75 to $1.25 in near mint condition in any other set put out before 1986, but in this set their cards regularly list for $5.00 and above. Cards like Rose, Ryan, Ripken and Gwynn follow suit, ranging anywhere from $10 to $25 apiece. Naturally, the prize of the set—the Mattingly rookie—is still top dog, usually somewhere around $40, making it only one of a handful of cards worth nearly as much today as when it debuted. Does this surprise anybody besides me? The next set where this is true (and the cards have retained their value) is the Topps Finest set from 1993. Seriously, nearly every major rookie from the Eighties has gone through a meteoric rise and crash (and in some cases rise again), but there are very few cases of a value holding firm for over 20 years. I mean, that’s crazy. That’s like some set from the Sixties. It’s astonishing.

• The card photos are some of the best of the decade. Look at these two of Lee Smith and Jack Morris. Really great lighting on Smith, and a nice play of shadow on the Morris. Or the one of Ron Kittle—sure he’s got bad, razor-edge teeth that are a little on the grey side (the tell-tale sign of bulimia, right? I heard La Russa was tough, but jeez…), but check out the reflection of the photographer in his aviation-style glasses…actually, ‘aviation-style’ is too cool a term for Kittle, so let’s call them ‘IBM-style’…the photo is just that crisp. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this set is a lesson in the art of the crisp headshot (even Dave Kingman looks like a real human being, though they couldn’t make Scotty Garrelts look like a young rookie on his rookie card). But the real masterpieces of this set are the action shots. And not even really the action in the action shots—the real hero is the ubiquitous out-of-focus background. Look at this one of a spry Robin Yount. It’s really not an action shot, as there’s not so much ‘action’ as there is ‘anticipation of action’, which, like unrequited sexual tension, is much more electric. Apparently nobody ever told Mr. Donruss baseball cards are the antithesis of sexy.

In keeping with the trend, let’s open a pack.

Benny Ayala God, check out that background. Ayala kind of looks like Larry Sheets, which is kind of weird, as his career offensive numbers resemble one year of Sheets biggest numbers.
Doug Gwosdz That reminds me, whatever happened to Joe Zdeb?
Mike Hargrove Some guys make better managers than players (like Eric Wedge), and others make better players than managers (see Butch Hobson). Then there are others who succeed at both (like Mike Hargrove).
Glenn Hoffman Yeah, boyeee, a Red Sox! Sure, it’s Glenn Hoffman, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Steve Carlton Wow, I actually got a good player. He was still relatively good in 1983 and 1984…says here he was traded straight up in ’72 for Rick Wise. Do you think Wise would have had a harder time in the league if his nickname had been Dick instead of Rick? I think so.
Chris Bando There were a few guys I always confused about. Chris Bando was one of them. Was he really also Sal Bando? And was Sal Bando really also Sal Butera? And what about Bert Campaneris? Was he also really Al Campanis?
Charlie Hudson I don’t know anything about this guy, but I think he fits well into the ‘Anonymous Pitcher’ category, along with Floyd Youmans, Ken Hill (for most of his career, anyway), Darren Oliver and James Baldwin (though how can you be anonymous with a name like ‘James Baldwin’? I wonder if the other players used to ask him all the time if Giovanni’s Room was written from the heart…).
Rick Lysander One of the few action shots featuring actual action, though there are no blurred-out fans in center field, so it was probably a batting practice shot.
Steve Garvey Man, that Padres uniform is hideous. How did he get all those ladies?
Carney Lansford Yet another shot of Lansford holding a tiny bat. Also, you can also just make out that he’s rocking a John Lennon Sgt. Pepper’s mustache.
Living Legends: Gaylord Perry & Rollie Fingers I think it’s fair to say that Perry and Fingers are two of my favorite old-school Seventies players. Did you know that Fingers only grew his mustache because Charlie O’Finley paid him $500 to do so? It’s true, though I can’t remember where I read it. Also, did you know that Gaylord Perry was created in a laboratory in an old Bavarian castle and terrorized the citizens of the surrounding small boondock town with his incessant nightly howls, but all was forgotten when he was enlisted—against his will by the town PTA—to play the neighboring boondock town in a much-anticipated and much-heated game of fast-pitch softball? The PTA wanted to see him lose badly, so they could pin him with the inevitable loss (they even brought pitchforks and torches) but to their surprise they found out that Frankenperry pitched lights-out. Actually, I don’t think that’s true, but I wish it was.
Dave Hostetler Didn’t he change his name after retirement and went on to blow out a couple knees with the NY football Giants?
Ned Yost Another great baseball name: Ed Joost. Here’s the real question: are these two last names pronounced the same way? And because ‘Ned’ is a nickname for ‘Edward’, could these two in fact be father and son, or perhaps estranged brothers? For them to be brothers, their parents would have to be lunatics, like George Foreman, for naming their kids all the same.
Kelly Paris Finally! A baseball player with a pornstar name! Oh, Kelly Paris, you don’t know how long we’ve waited!
Joe Simpson So, before Jessica and Ashlee were born, Joe Simpson played for the Royals. No wonder he craves so much power—his horrible batting average shows he never had too much control of his destiny at the plate.

This is clearly the best Donruss set of the 1980s, hands down. No question. And as much as I hated it when they copied one year into the next, it’s too bad they didn’t take more of the strong points of this set (like the photographs) and used them year after year.

That’s right, Bryan, only two sets left.
And yes, that is a baseball.
Now get back in the bullpen!


Anonymous said...

Right on man.

geordie said...

beautiful set,always loved it,was also told one of the short printd sets.some day topps will do a heritage of it!!