June 06, 2006

Best Set Countdown: #7 – 1987 Donruss

It really is incredible, but all three major issue sets from 1987 are remarkable, top 10 sets. Why is that? Seriously, there’s usually one lousy set per year, no matter how strong the potential ingredients (see 1985 Fleer or 1989 Score). But it’s like the planets aligned and somehow Donruss, Fleer and Topps each managed to turn out one of their better-designed, stronger-checklisted sets of the decade. It wasn’t exactly like the companies peaked in 1987 (each had a set as strong or stronger before ’87)—it was more like the swan song of the decade. By the time Upper Deck bowed in 1989, the hobby was their oyster.

But back to the set at hand. 1987 was one of the very few sets in the decade where Donruss couldn’t find a way to fuck it up. The design is attractive, if a little derivative of 1985 with the black border (though they did subtract the blood-red
three-dimensional striping for a single thick stripe of gray baseballs, which could’ve been either an homage to the 1982 design, or just a design anomaly seeing as how it actually featured a symbol of the game; either way it was the third-most literal design of any Donruss set of the decade, behind the one-two punch of 1982 and 1983, the ‘Hey-I’m-a-fuckin’-baseball-card-here’s-
a-ball-and-or-glove-to-prove-it’ years).

Besides the design, this set doesn’t fall victim to the Major Rookie/Pile of Commons illness that plagues the 1986 Donruss and Fleer sets; in fact, 1987 Donruss may be one of the few major-issue sets of the decade where there are as many stars and meaningful rookies as commons. Ok, that can’t possibly be true, but there are literally tons of great cards in this set. I really don’t want to unfold the list I made of all the great rookies from 1987, partly because I don’t remember which pants pocket it’s in, but mostly because I know it almost by heart.

And it’s a long one, with much historical and cultural weight. So while I’m not nailing it to the door of a gigantic German church, no one can deny the names on it reformed baseball, for good and bad. Here’s just a sample: Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, BJ Surhoff, Dan Plesac, Doug Drabek, Kal Daniels, John Cangelosi. A normal set, like 1982 Donruss, had one rookie wave; Cal Ripken and George Bell and Steve Sax and Lee Smith all were good during the same time and their cards got hot and then either stayed hot or didn’t. Better sets, like 1986 Topps, had two rookie waves: Vince Coleman and Lenny Dykstra (first wave) and Cecil Fielder (second wave) peaked at different times, so collectors kept coming back to the set over the years. But those pale in comparison to the three major issues from 1987. I don’t really know how many rookie waves there have been from this Donruss set. Or, actually, maybe it was just one massive wave, like a venerable tidal wave made up of hyped rookies, unhyped rookies, big stars, little stars, role player rookies, no name rookies and guys with one card.

1987 was a watershed year: every team had at least one major rookie, except for maybe the Dodgers (though I’m sure a name will come to me by the end of this post). Here’s a handy list, broken down by team, of the rookies from the Great Rookie Crop of ’87:

Red Sox
Mike Greenwell
Ellis Burks*
Pat Dodson (the only one worthy of Rated Rookie and Future Star)

Wally Joyner
Chuck Finley
Devon White

Jim Deshaies

Pete Incaviglia
Ruben Sierra
Kevin Brown
Mitch Williams
Bobby Witt
Oddibe McDowell
Mike Stanley

BJ Surhoff
Dan Plesac
Chris Bosio

Doug Drabek
Bob Tewksbury

Will Clark
Robby Thompson
Matt Williams*

Mark McGwire
Jose Canseco (honorary)
Terry Steinbach

Bobby Bonilla
Barry Bonds
John Cangelosi
John Smiley*

Greg Swindell
Andy Allanson
Cory Snyder

Kal Daniels
Barry Larkin

Mike Henneman*
Matt Nokes*

Greg Maddux
Rafael Palmeiro
Jamie Moyer

White Sox
Ron Karkovice
Bobby Thigpen

Randy Myers
Rick Aguilera
Kevin Mitchell
Kevin Elster
Dave Magadan

Todd Worrell
Joe Magrane
Spanky LaValliere

Bo Jackson
Kevin Seitzer
David Cone

Bruce Ruffin

Mark Portugal

Blue Jays
Fred McGriff*

Andres Galarraga*

Benito Santiago
John Kruk
Bip Roberts

*Player had rookie in update/rookie/traded set. Well, except for Galarraga and McGriff (RR, 1986 Donruss). McGriff’s first Topps and Fleer cards were in update/traded sets in 1987. Galarraga’s first Topps card was in the regular set.

These players shaped the league for the next fifteen-plus years. And what’s incredible is that they all came up at around the same time through nearly 20 different organizations. Only 4 teams aren’t represented on this list: the Braves, Mariners, Dodgers and Orioles, but all four were poised for major breakout stars in the next 3 to 5 years.

Every set benefited from this cache of rookies, but the reason that Fleer and Topps rank higher than Donruss is because Donruss didn’t know what to do with all of them. Okay, now let’s say you’re Mr. Donruss (and your wife, Mrs. Leaf, always seems to be a puzzle you can’t quite put together…get it? Puzzle? She’s a puzzle? Just like Clemente and Snider and Ruth and Gehrig and Yaz? And you can’t figure her out cause you keep getting the same goddamn pieces every time you open a lousy pack of cards? Wait a minute—if your name was Mr. Donruss and you somehow got into McGill University and met Ms. Leaf and you two got married, would that make you Mr. & Mrs. Donruss-Leaf? And would your kids have dual citizenship? And would Mrs. Donruss-Leaf wake up every morning and look in the mirror and wish to God that she hadn’t danced with you at McGill’s annual Under-the-Sea Dance, but with Mr. Topps instead? And if one of your kids somehow met a down-and-out Mr. Score on the street and he convinced the kid to take a trip back in time to when you and Mr. Donruss first met, would Mr. Donruss disappear right in front of your eyes and Mr. Topps take his place? Or would Mr. Donruss be replaced by your own kid, so that you somehow got married and had kids with one of your own kids? Because that’s pretty fuckin’ sick, Mrs. Donruss-Leaf, if I may say so myself.)

But seriously, let’s say you’re Mr. Donruss. You have a system to your sets, where you have a limited number of Rated Rookie spots, and you know going in that 1987 will be a particularly strong year. You’d probably want to get as many of the star rookies in as Rated Rookies as possible, right? But you need enough other good rookies to keep the rest of the set afloat, so you’ll need to spread them out a little bit too.

Here’s the actual Rated Rookie checklist for 1987:

28. BJ Surhoff
29. Randy Myers
30. Ken Gerhart
31. Benito Santiago
32. Greg Swindell
33. Mike Birkbeck
34. Terry Steinbach
35. Bo Jackson
36. Greg Maddux
37. Jim Lindeman
38. Devon White
39. Eric Bell
40. Willie Fraser
41. Jerry Browne
42. Chris James
43. Rafael Palmeiro
44. Pat Dodson
45. Duane Ward
46. Mark McGwire

That’s a 52.63% success rate. Not bad, but there’s definitely room for improvement (pulling a Jerry Browne or Chris James RR is not very enticing, especially when kids were paying upwards of $2 for a pack). What could have made this set one of the best of the decade was if Gerhart, Birkbeck, Lindeman, Bell, Fraser, Browne, James, Dodson and Ward were replaced. My Rated Rookies would be as follows:

28. BJ Surhoff
29. Randy Myers
30. Kevin Seitzer
31. Benito Santiago
32. Greg Swindell
33. Barry Bonds
34. Terry Steinbach
35. Bo Jackson
36. Greg Maddux
37. Mike Greenwell
38. Devon White
39. Barry Larkin
40. Ruben Sierra
41. Will Clark
42. Bruce Ruffin (because you always have to include a shitty Phillie)
43. Rafael Palmeiro
44. Todd Worrell
45. Doug Drabek
46. Mark McGwire

I’ll admit, Donruss would never guess a perfect 100% on rookies panning out like this, but the great thing about this set is that even with 19 star RR’s there are enough other rookies to hold up the rest of the set. Also, another interesting point: Canseco’s RR in 1986 was I believe the first time that the major rookie from the set was a Rated Rookie. Mattingly wasn’t a RR in 1984 (Joe Carter was), and neither Clemens, Gooden or Puckett were in 1985. So it’s not entirely surprising that neither Will Clark nor Barry Bonds were RRs, but if they had it would’ve been more on pace with the post-Canseco world. It’s weird, to be honest with you: in 1988 and 1989 it’s almost like Donruss got bored with the set after the Rated Rookies (Alomar and Grace were RRs in ’88, and Sheffield, Griffey and Johnson were in 1989). The Glavine in the 1988 set and the Smoltz and Schilling rookies in the 1989 set are not enough to balance out their respective sets. This could be another reason why these sets aren’t so hot.

To recap:

• 1987 was a banner year
• Enough quality rookies to fill a prison bus (including guys with names like ‘Spanky’ and ‘Wild Thing’)
• Donruss didn’t know how to drive said prison bus (Topps and Fleer did)
• Mr. Donruss-Leaf loves Mrs. Donruss-Leaf, who loves Mr. Topps and would even rather be married to one of her own kids (possible after a series of crazy, madcap time-traveling escapades with Mr. Score) than go on one more day with Mr. Donruss-Leaf.


King Of The Universe said...

I had many of these cards... that was the first year I was really into collecting baseball cards. It's funny I was so into them then that I still recognize those pictures when I see them. But I havent been into it in a long time and pretty much lost them all.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say Duane Ward was a bust. He had six good seasons and two rings in Toronto. But I suppose if it was between him and Bruce Ruffin...

greymatter said...

I just found this site, and I absolutely love it. I've gone back and read since the beginning of the year. You've done one hell of a job!

One of my favorite early posts was the "Life's Just One Big Warren Spahn Puzzle." The Super Mario 3 reference had me laughing out loud, because it was true!

Anyways, keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Oh how this set brings me back. This is the set that got me into collecting seriously. My family went to Atlanta to see the Braves play the 'Cards(subliminal pun?) and my Dad let me pick up a rack pack of Donruss in the grocery. I pulled a Bo and above all, a Dale Murphy DK. As I look back through that year of collecting, I was left with quite a collection of Greg Swindell's, but not a single Greg Maddox. But isn't that the way it always works. My only complaint is those dang black borders. For a 10 year old in the back seat with 2 brothers on a 4 hour car ride back from Atlanta, with everyone wanting homage time with Murphy, those corners had no shot.

Desuko. said...

Gotta love that Mexican serape background on Ted Higuera's Diamond King card. Perhaps it's just Mr. Donruss-Leaf's way to provide a public service by telling everyone, "Hey! Didja know Teddy Higuera was from Mexico? Didja?"

And as for Dodger rookies that year, I give you Craig Shipley. Not because he had much of an impact during an 11-year MLB career, but because he is (I believe) the first Australian-born player to make it to the majors.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the placement here of the '87 Donruss. I would add that the Clemente puzzle and header cards are of great design. You didn't mention the Diamond Kings which I feel are interesting for their inclusion of young players like Joyner and Canseco. Sadly, there was not really any special card insert, like say the 85 Donruss "Two for the Title" or the 86 Donruss blasphemous "King of Kings" Pete Rose card.

The Rookie crop in '87 Donruss is remarkable. I think the inclusion of a young Greg Maddux is one of the best early RC inserts in a regular set of all time. See 83 Donruss Franco, 84 Donruss Joe Carter and 85 Topps McGwire.

As for value, I picked up a factory set for $20, opened it and found the cards to be GEM.

Sadly, the downfall of the set may prove to be Steroids, with three of the big RC's, Bonds, McGwire and Palmeiro, all suffering as a result.

Kudos to your reference of the 1987 Donruss Rookies set. the 86 set gets all the attention due to the Bonds RC, but the 87 set has an amazing crop including: Bo Jackson, G. Maddux, M. McGwire, R. Palmeiro, Matt Williams XRC, and minor RC's like Santiago, etc. You can get these for around $5 a set if you shop. Amazing!!!

Anonymous said...

Regarding the Rated Rookie selection:

Donruss didn't just pick and choose for the Rated Rookie subset. It was comprised only of players who were still classified by MLB as rookies that season. Hence they were "rated" rookies, despite having played the previous year. Without doing too much research into service time and innings pitched/at-bats, I'd assume most or all of the guys you mentioned as being left out weren't eligible for the subset. Bonds, Larkin, and Clark I know weren't eligible off the top of my head (Same for Mattingly, Puckett, Clemens, and Gooden in past years).

Sports_for_you said...

i have this set! I love it. Oil can is the man and always will be. Maddux looks like he is from mexico city and bond's card is proof that he is a juicer. done. out.

JoJo said...

I found a baseball card album with I first movied into my house 7 years ago. I still have it today and have never touched them. on the cover it says 87 Donruss set. Under that it says wrth. Clemente Puzzle, 87 Rookie set, and 87 opening day set. This album has over 1000 cards in it. Now keep in mind, I know nothing about them. I have noticed in you list of the RR you list is 28-46. This set has 47-Bruce A. Feilds. Is he apart of the 87 RR set?

Anonymous said...

For anyone who is interested, here is a picture of the Maddux Rookie...nice moustache-

1987 Donruss Greg Maddux Rookie