(This is Day 24 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
In the 1980s, every spring was a joyous occasion for baseball fans, and especially for baseball card collectors.
Not only did we get to enjoy the sights and sounds of our favorites teams reporting to Spring Training, but we also got our first chance to see the year’s new cards in person.
And, while 1981 — with the arrival of Fleer and Donruss — must have seemed like Christmas morning for long-time collectors accustomed to having only one set of cards each year, there was still a long stretch of cardboard winter in front of them.
The 1981 Topps set was drab, with dark photos and colored borders that somehow added to the darkness.
The 1981 Fleer set was maybe a bit less depressing but riddled with errors and blurry images.
And if you “liked” grainy, smeared photography, the 1981 Donruss offering was for you … so long as you also dug thin card stock, cognitively overloaded card backs, and an error or two on every pasteboard.
The 1982 sets were a bit better …
Topps unveiled their infamous hockey stick design that collectors seem to either love or hate, but the overall effect was a bit less dreary than the previous year’s offering.
Donruss improved markedly, replacing an uninspired card design with a simple bat-and-ball look that worked pretty well. They also cleaned up their images and card backs, as well as expanding from 605 to 660 cards.
Only Fleer failed to make appreciable improvements from 1981 to 1982, though they did continue to establish their identity with “Pete and Re-Pete” and a “Big Red Machine” card six years after the fact that featured just a few left over nuts and bolts.
But when collectors tore open the wrappers on our first wax packs in 1983 — oh my goodness!
It was like the hobby sun had finally broken through the last dreary day in March and bathed the snow-covered cardboard landscape in warmth and goodness.
A little corny?
Maybe, but consider …
- The 1983 Donruss set refined the 1982 design, replacing the ball with a glove and crisping up their design elements in general. Photography continued to get better, too, though there were some tinting issues.
- For the first time, Fleer cards sported a distinctive design, one that included brown-gray borders and team logos, which hadn’t made an appearance on card fronts since the 1965 Topps set. Fleer backs were astounding — they included a full run of player stats in a vertical format and a small head photo of the player. Wow! (in 1983 terms, anyway).
- And 1983 Topps — well, it was a masterpiece in cardboard and wax. A fantastic (though somewhat borrowed) design coupled with crisp and sunny photography, innovative subsets, and the usual stellar player selection made this issue an all-time classic.
And so our metaphor holds — 1983 baseball cards were spring wrapped in wax, and I swear birds chirped and shadows lifted every time I cracked open a pack.
Mr. October in the Spring
By that glorious spring of 1983, Reggie Jackson had long since established himself as a future Hall of Famer.
After winning three World Series titles and the 1974 AL MVP award with the Oakland A’s, and after a one-year stopover with the Baltimore Orioles, Reggie signed on with the New York Yankees in 1977.
The relationship was an imperfect match of fire, production, bravado, and personality clashes, but it led to two more World Series trophies and left Jackson with more than 400 home runs when he became a free agent before the 1982 season.
Despite heading into his age-36 season with a growing reputation as a lumbering slugger, Reggie landed a rich long-term deal to the California Angels and headed back to the left coast.
His clashes with other monstrous Yankee personalities — Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner — likely had as much to do with Jackson’s departure from the Bronx as did his age, though a down year during the strike-shortened 1981 season gave the definite impression that Reggie’s best years were behind him.
That may have been true, technically, but you wouldn’t know it to look at his stat line that first year with California: 39 home runs, 101 RBI, .275 BA. It looked like vintage Reggie and was enough to help the Angels win their first division title in the old AL West.
Fans took note of Jackson’s performance, and so did Topps.
So, when the real snow finally subsided enough that February or March (or April) for collectors to make it out to their local drugstore or grocery store to find the first pile of new cards for 1983, who do you think greeted us?
In most cases, it was none other than Reginald Martinez Jackson, front man for every Topps wax box that season:
And that Reggie card had everything that made the set so great:
- In-game action shot under a sunny sky.
- Clean design that accentuated the photography.
- Complete stats on the back.
- Close-up head shot in the picture-in-picture bubble.
And in Reggie’s case, we got some of his personality thrown in, too, along with a bit of 80s flair. We always knew that Reggie’s future was so bright he had to wear shades, but it’s a safe bet that Jackson’s 1983 Topps card itself also had something to do with his eye wear.
Without those dark lenses, he would have been blinded by the brilliance of his own cardboard, or at least of his pasteboard neighbors in the iconic set.
In a year jam-packed with awesome cards and enough rookie talent to make even the most jaded speculator glaze over like a Krispy Kreme, the 1983 Topps Reggie Jackson card is the best of them all.
And if you don’t believe it, just ask Reggie.