(This is part of a series of posts about the 2017 Hall of Fame inductions. Read them all here.)
If you were looking for a superstar face for the conundrum of the so-called Steroid Era in Major League Baseball, you couldn’t do much better than Jeff Bagwell.
Here was a player who looked like a good bet to someday land a roster spot with the Boston Red Sox until they traded him to the Houston Astros for — guh — Larry Andersen at the 1990 trade deadline.
At that point, Bagwell had never hit more than four homers in a minor league season, though he did smack 34 doubles for the New Britain Red Sox while recording a .333 average.
Despite the questions about his power, Bagwell opened the 1991 season as Houston’s starting first baseman and never looked back. He was named National League Rookie of the Year after an opening campaign that saw him hit .294 with 79 runs and 82 RBI.
What was really surprising, though, was his power stroke — good enough for 15 dingers.
His muscle continued to ratchet up over the next few years, peaking with a monster 1994 that saw him hit 39 homers with 104 runs, 116 RBI, 15 stolen base, all backed by a gaudy .368 batting average.
And he did all that in the span of just 110 games during a strike-ruined season.
Bagwell had established himself as a legitimate and consistent power source, because after the boys of summer resumed their fairy tale story in 1995, Bags reeled off eight straight 30-homer seasons from 1996-2003. Three times during that span, he topped 40 homers and narrowly missed on two other occasions.
But, as we know now, that was the heart of the steroid era.
And Bagwell had built himself from a so-so power source in the minors to an outright slugger in the Majors.
And Bagwell had admitted to using androstenedione back in 1998.
In case you don’t remember, androstenedione was the substance that reporters spied in Mark McGwire‘s locker as he chased down Roger Maris that same summer, and it was in many ways the beginning of the scrutiny that led to the villainization of power hitters throughout the game.
While Bagwell never admitted to taking anything stronger, and while there have been scant few whispers about him and the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) — aside from Jose Canseco’s rants — Bagwell has nevertheless paid a price for the era in which he played and the shape of his career.
Consider that Bagwell it 449 home runs with a .297 average and 202 stolen bases over his 15-year career, all with the Astros.
Or that his Sabermetrics super scores – WAR (79.6) and JAWS (63.9) — rank him as the sixth greatest first basemen of all time. The only guy ahead of him who has seen the inside of a baseball stadium during the last 50 years is Albert Pujols.
Wouldn’t you expect the sixth best first baseman ever and the best to come up for election in at least 60 years to sail into the Hall of Fame?
You might, but Bagwell didn’t.
In fact, he received only 41.7% of the vote on his first ballot in 2011. That year was right in the heart of the PED outrage that gripped the game by the throat, and even the hint of extra muscle on your frame could buy you a heap of scrutiny.
But without any real beef against him, Bagwell made a steady climb up the HOF ladder in subsequent years until he finally broke through in January 2017.
So, regardless of what the whispers may have said about this legend over the last 15 years, and regardless of how long it took him to claim his spot, Bagwell has landed where he belonged all along.
A Flood of Baggy Cardboard
All that’s left for us now as collectors is to dust off his old cardboard, or go buy some, and enjoy the magnificent player that he was.
If you had designs on building a complete Bagwell master set, well, you can probably forget about that. PSA lists 859 items on the complete checklist, and even the most ardent of Bagwell collectors is only a little over a third of the way there.
But Bagwell began his career back in our day, during the boom years of the hobby.
That means there aren’t that many different early cards to consider, and most of them are still available in goodly quantities.
With that in mind, here is is a rundown of Jeff Bagwell’s rookie cards, all of which you can pick up on the cheap.
And who doesn’t love a good deal on Hall of Fame rookies?
By 1991, Topps had already issued two Bowman sets with middling success. While collectors enjoyed the retro feel of the issue, the 1989 cards were too big to fit in standard sheets and holders.
And the 1990 set was just sorta … boring.
But in 1991, Topps hit on the formula that would make Bowman a staple to this day: rookies!
Lots and lots of rookies … and pre-rookies, too.
Had Bowman made this switch a year earlier, we probably would have a major card with Bagwell card in his New Britain Red Sox uniform. As it is, we have an early Astros card that pays homage to his 1990 Eastern League MVP trophy with a foil stamp in the upper left-hand corner.
It’s a solid first-year card of a Hall of Famer that you can buy for under $5 in nice raw condition.
When Donruss debuted “The Rookies” in 1986, baseball cards were like paper gold and rookie cards, in particular, were seen as can’t-miss investment vehicles.
By 1991, it was pretty clear that everything printed after about 1981 was scarce as dirt, but we all still loved our rookie cards enough to make “The Rookies” an annual favorite.
They were like your lame cousins lame birthday party that the whole family goes every year even though they know nothing exciting will happen. It’s the possibility and the family obligation that keeps you coming back.
And Kirk Dressendorfer, of course.
These days, the whole shebang will set you back less the $5, and Bagwell himself comes in under two.
Bagwell collectors of the day were probably relieved when their guy didn’t appear in the 1991 Fleer base set — he had avoided the Yellow Borders of Death!
Any associated smugness evaporated that fall, though, as Fleer made sure to include the up-and-comer in its year-end Update set, replete with canary borders.
While this card is as ugly as it wants to be, it’s still a first-year Bags issue that you can snag all day long for less than a buck.
What their yellow horror lacked in collector appeal, Fleer attempted to recoup with the premier of their premium set in the summer of 1991
Fleer Ultra was positioned to take aim at Leaf and (later) Stadium Club, and it’s an attractive offering that was really attractive at the time. Still, like pretty much every other set of the era, Ultra was grossly overproduced.
The late-season Ultra Update may exist in slightly fewer quantities, but you can still find Bagwell for a few dollars in nice ungraded condition.
Bagwell didn’t benefit from the rarefied air of the 1990 Leaf set, and he wasn’t included in the follow-up base issue in 1991.
Leaf did think enough of the young first-sacker to include him in their 1991 Leaf Gold Rookies set, though.
Today you can find raw Bagwells for a buck or two each, and even PSA 10 copies only fetch $20 or so.
In 1991, Donruss decided that we needed to see the … um … flirtatious (?) sides of our favorite baseball stars.
To accommodate that mandate, they created Leaf Studio, featuring black-and-white photos of 264 players in various “studio” poses, many with a sort of candlelit feel.
Bagwell’s entry fits that general description, as we find the young, hatless Astro half-smiling at us over his bat barrel while arching an eyebrow in our direction.
Are we buddies?
Is he going to ask us out for coffee?
It’s always open for interpretation with Studio, but this enigma can be your own for about a dollar.
Score was another company who missed out on Bagwell with their 1991 base set but made up for it later in the year.
There is nothing really remarkable about Bags’ Rookie and Traded card, other than maybe that big, powerful uppercut swing that we see just past the point of full extension.
If you like this card, you can probably own one for about $2.
What Leaf was in 1990, Stadium Club was in 1991.
That is to say, Stadium Club was the summer sensation that sent collectors scurrying for their own copies, enticed dealers to hoard whatever boxes and cases they could find, and rocked prices through the stratosphere.
A super premium issue from the most staid of companies — Topps — Stadium Club reset our expectations for baseball card quality and new-card prices.
Alas, as was ultimately the case with almost every issue of the era, Stadium Club turned out to be as common as Sunday-night dread.
Not even Jeff Bagwell was immune to the subsequent deflation, and you can buy this HOF rookie card for a couple dollars on eBay and elsewhere.
Topps wasn’t content in 1991 to make the most slam-boom-crash sparkling opulent baseball cards of all time.
Nope, they wanted to turn Stadium Club into an actual club — and so they did.
For an annual fee, you could join the Members Only club, a commitment which netted you a neat little package that included:
- A subscription to Topps’ magazine (really!)
- A Stadium Club key chain
- A “bronze ingot” of Nolan Ryan
- A four-sport, 50-card Members Only boxed set
You can buy the Bagwell for, like, belly button lint today. Still a cool card, though.
Topps didn’t do any better than its contemporaries when it came to having the foresight to include Bagwell in their base 1991 set.
But, also like the others, The Old Gum Company saw fit to issue a Bags card in their year-end Traded Set.
Bagwell looks a bit, um, uncomfortable in this shot and certainly nowhere near as inviting as on, say, his Studio card.
Still, this is the first official Topps (non-Stadium Club division) card of a bona fide Hall of Famer, and it can usually be yours for about a dollar.
Sitting here in the late 2010s, you might be tempted to conclude that Upper Deck beat their competition to the punch when it came to Jeff Bagwell rookie cards.
After all, Bags made it into the “Upper Deck” set, not the “Upper Deck Rookies and Traded Update Opening Day We’re Catching Up” set.
Only … Bagwell sits at #755, which means he was part of the high-number 100-card series issued later in the season.
So, when you plunk down your 99 cents for this Bagwell rookie, you really are buying an “Upper Deck Rookies and Traded Update Opening Day We’re Catching Up” card.
Don’t let that sap your enjoyment, though, because it’s still a great RC.
Man, I’ll tell you what …
I mean, first it was the Mylar packs and the card-back photos and the card-back holograms … then it was the Reggie Jackson chase cards … then it was the revolutionizing of multi-player rookie cards.
OK, so maybe revolutionizing is an exaggeration (and feels like it’s possibly not even a real word), but this “Rookie Threats” card is a thousand times better than Topps’ old four-heads-in-a-grid layout, isn’t it?
Depends on what you mean by better, I suppose.
Aesthetically, it’s great.
Value-wise? About a buck.