(This is Day 26 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
If you wanted to pinpoint one year as the year baseball cards exploded into a full-blown cultural phenomenon complete with national news coverage, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than 1985.
By then, we’d had four full years of real competition in the hobby, and collectors had embraced Fleer and Donruss, warts and all.
And, after nearly a decade of fits and starts, the rookie card craze was in full swing. The progression began with Mark Fidrych in 1976, sputtered a bit, and then was revived by Joe Charboneau in 1980.
Finally, when Darryl Strawberry made his cardboard debut in the 1983 Topps Traded set after mashing his way through the National League that season, collectors were absolutely hooked on rookie cards.
Straw was followed by the mystique and brilliance of his teammate, teenage pitching phenom Dwight Gooden, and the race was on to find the next breakout star before anyone else discovered his cardboard.
Help from Old Friends
Of course, the focus on rookies was not driven by just the youngsters themselves. They had plenty of help from a couple of old-timers, without whom the hobby boom may never have occurred.
First, Mickey Mantle, golden boy of the dominant New York Yankees in the 1950s and 1960s was enjoying a renaissance of popularity as the boys from that era turned into the middle-aged men of the 1980s. They turned their nostalgic eyes toward childhood heroes and pursued Mantle baseball cards — and especially his 1952 Topps “rookie” card — with renewed vigor, and with plenty of money.
Early that year, just as the 1985 season was about to begin, commissioner Peter Ueberroth also lifted Mantle’s ban from baseball, which had been imposed for his association with a casino. Any black clouds surrounding his legend had been blown away, and the hobby embraced him like never before.
Collectors sure seemed to think so, and they bit hard on all his cards, but especially his 1963 Topps rookie. Many hobbyists were soon priced out of the first-year Rose market, but it continued to change hands at a blistering pace, easily surpassing the $500 mark and edging toward $1000 by the time Pete lined an Eric Show pitch into the Cincinnati night for number 4192 on September 11.
The Young Shall Inherit the Cardboard
With these two luminaries of the games as examples, collector resolve to latch onto the next rookie phenom was steeled, and we tore into our 1985 wax packs with the fervor of gold prospectors in the Old West.
The card companies were happy to feed our growing hunger, too, as all three sets were jammed to the gills with rookie cards, even if we had seen some of them in traded or update sets the year before.
Consider some of the rookies we might have found in any given hunk of wax that season: Dwight Gooden, Eric Davis, Roger Clemens, Kirby Puckett, Bret Saberhagen, Orel Hershiser, Jimmy Key, Mark McGwire (thanks to the Olympic team subset), and on and on and on.
Of the guys on that list, some were a year or more from making their first really big splash in the Majors — Puckett, Clemens, McGwire, Davis.
Gooden, of course, was a hot commodity right out of the gates in 1985, and he only got more scorching as the summer heated up and he tore through the league to the tune of a 24-4 record with a 1.53 ERA.
And then, there were the two pitchers who broke through in the same year we were pulling their rookie cards from our wax packs.
Unusual Name = Mound Dominance?
Orel Hershiser was a 17th-round draft pick for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1979 and spent five years working his way up the LA system before turning in a solid rookie performance in 1984 that no one noticed.
As the Dodgers pushed to a division title in 1985, though, everyone took notice of the nerdy mound wizard who won nearly every time out — by the end of the season, Hershiser’s record stood at 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA. Had it not been for Gooden’s dominance, Hershiser might have copped the NL Cy Young award, and his rookie cards would have been among the hottest in the hobby.
As it was, Hershiser’s 1985 issue climbed to a few bucks each.
But it wasn’t just Gooden who cast a long shadow from the mound that season.
Over in the American League, another youngster was stealing headlines and stilling bats.
Despite being picked in the 19th round of the 1982 draft out of high school, Bet Saberhagen spent just one full year in the minor leagues and made it to the Majors for good with the Kansas City Royals in 1984.
As with Hershiser, Sabes’ rookie campaign didn’t raise many eyebrows, but all that changed in the second half of 1985.
With the Royals pushing toward a division title, Saberhagen began winning start after start, his record improving from 7-4 on June 22 to 20-6 at season’s end. Along the way young Bret, 20, managed to reduce his ERA from 3.28 to 2.87, and fans took notice.
The two big questions were …
Was this kid for real?
Would Saberhagen win the Cy Young award?
We’d have to wait a few seasons to know the answer to that first question with any degree of certainty, and a couple of months to find out about the CYA.
But that didn’t stop collectors from chasing Saberhagen’s cards as summer faded and the post-season loomed. By the time the Royals opened their ALCS match-up again the Toronto Blue Jays, Sabes was right there with Hershiser in the pantheon of most coveted young pitchers, a notch or three behind Gooden.
Most of us assumed we’d seen about all there was to see from Saberhagen for the year, though.
After all, the Royals were the weakest of the four division winners with a regular-season record of 91-71.
But in a hard-fought series, the Royals outlasted the Jays, four games to three and, although Saberhagen recorded an unsightly 6.14 ERA, KC was moving on.
It all turned around for Saberhagen in the World Series.
He took the hill twice in what was one of the most exciting and controversial championship tilts in the last half century, and he went the distance both times. His final Series line was 2-0, 0.50 ERA, 0.667 WHIP.
Significantly, that second victory came in Game 7, which was enough to earn Saberhagen the World Series MVP trophy.
So, while Hershiser and Gooden were sitting at home waiting to see how the postseason awards fell out, Sabes was still out there making things happen for his Royals.
And he captured our imagination in different ways than his two contemporaries, too.
Unlike Hershiser, who seemed polished and almost out of place on a ball diamond, Saberhagen was rough around the edges and looked like one of our classmates. You could go out to a high school game anywhere in rural Indiana and find guys who looked and acted a lot like young Bret.
And, while Gooden also reminded us of our peers, his talent seemed to be otherworldly, out of reach of us mere mortals. Plus, he had already arrived. We saw him coming in 1985.
No one saw Bret Saberhagen coming, though, and when he sneaked up on us in mid-summer, we all scrambled to separate his cards from the Benny Distefanos and Buddy Biancalanas and pile them where they belonged — with Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry and, yes, even with Dwight Gooden.
You could pick from among three different Sabes rookies that year, and the Donruss card might be the best-looking of the bunch.
But if you were a kid, or at least a young adult, in 1985, chances are it’s the Topps Saberhagen that rattles through your mind whenever you think about that magical summer.
He’s smiling at the camera from under a KC cap that’s too big for his slender face, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think he just cracked a raunchy joke from the back of Mr. Peters’ health class.
It’s not the most beautiful card of the year, but it’s the cardboard stuff that built our memories.
And in this book, that makes it the best of the year.