(This is Day 27 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
If you were to wake up tomorrow to find the year was 1986, you might be shocked by the state of the baseball card hobby.
Depending on how deep you were into the cardboard world, your mailbox could be jammed packed each month with Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, Baseball Cards magazine, Baseball Hobby News, Baseball Card News, and multiple issues of Sports Collectors Digest.
You could find at least one card show every weekend in a nearby city. Sometimes, there would be multiples to choose from.
At retail stops all across the country, you had more options than ever before …
Donruss, Fleer, and Topps base sets were joined by the ballyhooed but unusual Sportflics cards, with their revolutionary full-color photos on the backs.
At the end of the season, Topps gave us their normal Traded set, Fleer was back with a third update set, and Donruss debuted The Rookies.
And there were all kinds of cool(ish) stuff issued in between: Fleer Minis, Topps Mini Leaders, Donruss Action All-Stars, Topps 3-Ds, boxed sets for retailers from Bangkok to Calgary.
At last count, PSA listed 148 different sets issued in 1986. That may not sound like much compared to the largesse of the 1990s and 2000s, but was a veritable avalanche of cardboard if you’d been collecting for a few years.
On the field, some amazing individual and team performances were driving the new-card and nearly new-card market to places we couldn’t have imagined just a few years before.
In 1986, New York had Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra, Wally Backman, and a roster full of other big-time contributors who helped the team win, night after night.
In Cincinnati, Pete Rose was the unquestioned all-time Hit King and, as manager, had the Reds contending for a division title.
Mike Schmidt was hitting the ball with authority for the Philadelphia Phillies once again and was on his way to a third National League MVP award.
And in the American League, the Boston Red Sox and California Angels were heading toward postseason play, unaware that both teams would land near the top of the list of all-time collapses.
Heck, old Bill Buckner set a career high for home runs (18) and surely had no idea the fate that awaited him in October.
It was Buckner’s teammate, right-hander Roger Clemens, who really set the baseball world on its ear in 1986, though.
In his third year in the Boston rotation, Clemens reeled off 14 straight wins to start the season en route to a 24-4 record and 2.48 ERA that would eventually net him both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.
Part of Clemens’ support system in Boston was third baseman Wade Boggs, who was at the forefront of a new breed of young players who hit for a high average.
Like, a really high average.
In 1985, Boggs led the AL in hitting with a .368 BA, after recording marks of .361 in 1983 and .325 in 1984. Boggs would hit .357 in ’86 to cop his third title in three years.
In the NL, Tony Gwynn had “slipped” to .317 in 1985 after leading the league with a .351 average in 1984. Willie McGee picked up the NL slack in ’85, though, taking the crown with a .353 mark before Gwynn bounced back to .329 in 1986.
It wasn’t just the veterans who were driving fans’ fervor, though. This was the era of the rookie and rookie card crazes, after all, and 1986 did its part to feed the frenzy.
In California, Wally Joyner got off to a hot start for the Angels, smacking homer after homer as the team built a winning record, and the “Wally World” phenomenon was born.
Before long, though, Jose Canseco of the Oakland A’s showed us all why he had been one of the most hyped rookies in years and eventually surpassed Joyner to win AL Rookie of the Year award.
The best part was, among all the sets on the market, there was sure to be at least one card of each of these rookies available at any given time, and collectors ate them up.
King of Cardboard
But as heady as those times were, with young players threatening to make us forget legends at every position, one superstar stood out as the undisputed king of the hobby.
New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly had burst onto the scene out of nowhere — at least as far as most fans and collectors were concerned — to win the 1984 AL batting crown over teammate Dave Winfield, posting a gaudy .343 mark.
Then, as an encore, Donnie Baseball turned in a monster season in 1985 that featured a .324 BA, 35 home runs, 145 RBI, 107 runs, and 48 doubles.
Do that in pinstripes, and folks are bound to take notice. They did.
Mattingly won the 1985 AL MVP award, and his 1984 Donruss rookie card shot to the top of all sorts of hobby lists. As 1986 dawned, there seemed to be no limit for Mattingly or his early cardboard, and prices pressed to $50 and beyond.
Mattingly was even better in 1986, smacking “just” 31 homers, but upping his doubles to 53 and his average to a career-best .352. He lost out on a second MVP award but retained his slot as baseball’s best player in the minds of most fans and collectors.
As it turned out, that age-25 season would be Mattingly’s peak, but of course, we didn’t know it at the time.
All we knew was that we wanted more — more Mattingly rookie cards, more second-year Mattingly cards, more new Mattingly cards.
And the 1986 sets obliged us, with Mattingly peeping his mustache-sans-beard mug into everything we bought.
By that time, Donruss and Fleer had established reputations for putting out higher quality products than what Topps offered, at least when it came to base sets, and both company’s blue-bordered 1986 offerings enjoyed strong collector demand.
The Mattingly cards from each of those sets came out of the pack that summer “worth” well over a buck a pop.
And you could choose from any number of “special” Mattinglys, from boxed issues to subsets to pricey parallels.
But when you spread out all the 1986 Mattingly cards on your bedroom floor, it’s the simplest one that really stands out.
There on card #180 of that “boring” Topps base set is the best player in the game, hustling out of the batter’s box after slashing another of his countless hits between unsuspecting defensemen somewhere on the diamond.
Not only was he super talented, but he was hustling his butt off.
And the card itself?
It was all black-and-white goodness, from its simple header to the pinstripes on Mattingly’s #23, the entire design of the set seemingly concocted just to make this one piece of cardboard look as good as it possibly could.
Amid a sea of glitz and hype, the 1986 Topps Don Mattingly was the best the year had to offer.