(This is Day 25 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
We all stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us.
That goes for scientists, who build on the discoveries of the generations before them to push forward our understanding of the natural world.
It goes for athletes, too, who pick up training methods and expectations from their older teammates and break through to new heights.
And it even goes for baseball cards and baseball card collectors.
The cards and trends we see today are the result of decades of change and jostling, trials and failures.
One of those collective mood swings that “stuck” in a big way was the rookie card craze.
But even though we take rookie cards as an inextricable part of the hobby fabric today, it wasn’t always that way.
A Bird, a Super Joe, and a Straw Walk into a Ballpark …
In fact, up until the mid-1970s or so, you’d probably have had a hard time finding a collector who even knew what “rookie card” meant.
Then, in 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych broke onto the Major League scene with the Detroit Tigers and grabbed the baseball world by the throat with his unbridled enthusiasm and monster success on the mound at just 21 years of age.
The next summer, boys everywhere and (especially) Tigers fans tore through pack after pack of Topps baseball cards looking for the first cardboard of The Bird — his rookie card.
Though Fidrych basically fell apart after that stellar first season, he had planted the seed for rookie mania, and thus for rookie card mania.
The idea lay dormant for a few seasons, but when Joe Charboneau lit up Municipal Stadium for the Cleveland Indians in 1980 and was followed in short order by Fernandomania in 1981, the rookie card craze was back.
But Charboneau flamed out and Fernando Valenzuela cooled down, leaving rookie cards to simmer with steady performances by youngsters like Cal Ripken, Jr., of the Baltimore Orioles and Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos.
In 1983, though, former Number 1 pick Darryl Strawberry landed on the New York Mets’ Big League roster, and we had the offensive equivalent of Valenzuela — a hulking, colorful slugger plying his trade in the biggest of markets.
By then, of course, the hobby was starting to boom for real, and we were fully ready to embrace the buzz that Straw created en route to his Rookie of the Year performance. By the time the 1983 Topps Traded set debuted — with the first MLB card of Strawberry in tow — in November, we were frothing to get our hands on anything related to Darryl.
The craze continued into the spring, and Strawberry appeared in all three major sets — Donruss, Topps, and Fleer — driving the new-card market like perhaps no player before him.
Sharing the Burden of Greatness
Not only were the lowly Mets winning games early in the season, they had apparently found a mound phenom who might pair with Strawberry to carry the team into a brighter future.
In particular, reports emerged of a young fireballer named Dwight Gooden who was doing amazing things every time he took the ball.
Striking out better than a batter an inning courtesy of a fastball that was rumored to hover near 100 miles per hour, Gooden burst onto the scene with a string of electric performances that ignited a national stir.
Hardly anyone outside of New York even knew what the guy looked like, but we could barely wait to hold the first Gooden cards in our hands. The Bird and Charboneau and Fernando and Strawberry had all conditioned us for the rookie card hunt, and Dwight rung the bell that set our collectors’ mouths drooling in Pavlovian style.
Gooden was named to the All-Star team, and we’d get a glimpse of him here or there courtesy of This Week in Baseball or a grainy newspaper photo, but he mostly remained a phantom until late in the season. The upstart Mets gave the surprising Chicago Cubs a few scares in the run to the NL East title, but the guys from Gotham fell six-and-a-half games short of the playoffs.
Collectors joined in with the rest of the world in watching the Detroit Tigers’ march toward a seemingly predestined World Series championship that October, but we never lost our hunger for the rookie card of the elusive young man who might rewrite all of the pitching record book.
We hit dealer tables hard on that November weekend when the 1984 Topps Traded set first became available, and there was only one guy on our mind — Dwight Gooden.
And what a beautiful hunk of cardboard it was!
There was young Dwight on the mound in his Mets pinstripes, having just tossed a ball. He was long and lean, and the intense stare emanating from his square headshot in the lower left-hand corner made you feel like there was plenty more greatness to come.
If you pulled out your base 1984 Topps Strawberry card and set it next to this one, you’d see the future of the Mets — heck the future of the game — in the span of less than 20 square inches of blue-branded cardboard.
Oh, sure, Gooden also appeared in the 1984 Fleer Update that fall, and that’s the set that really took off in terms of dollars and cents. It’s a great card, but it’s not the one we waited all summer to see.
But if you were a fan and a collector in the summer of 1984, all you wanted was a Dwight Gooden card.
When you finally got it, you knew it was the best of the year.