The summer of 1984 was all about breakout successes in baseball. I mean, consider the stories that developed as that season unfolded, most of which almost nobody expected:
- The juggernaut Detroit Tigers running away from the field starting on Opening Day and not letting up until the final out of the World Series.
- The Chicago Cubs catapulting into contention on the backs of young second baseman Ryne Sandberg and midseason pickup Rick Sutcliffe.
- The New York Mets challenging the Cubs all along the way in the National League East, thanks to second-year slugger Darryl Strawberry and an almost mythical teenager named Dwight Gooden.
- Unknown Don Mattingly taking on New York Yankees teammate and slugger Dave Winfield in a season-long battle for the American League batting crown.
They all added up to a breathtaking tableau of fresh names and exciting baseball in corners of the game that had fallen into the realm of the ignored, if not the forgotten.
Back in those days, it was also all too easy to ignore the San Diego Padres, who had long been short on big-name talent and on-field results, and who played so many of their home games when half the country was asleep or heading that way.
But that, too, changed in 1984.
Not only had the Friars brought in big-name veterans like Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles, Rich Gossage, and Garry Templeton in recent seasons, but they had a homegrown stable of talent who were starting to mature.
Kevin McReynolds was already a hobby darling by virtue of his slugging potential and his inclusion in the first-ever Donruss Rated Rookie subset there in 1984, and he was joined on the San Diego roster by prospects like speedster Alan Wiggins, power threat Carmelo Martinez, and potential ace Andy Hawkins.
By midsummer, all of that talent started to gel into a real team, thanks at least in part to the crafty guidance of veteran skipper Dick Williams.
And, well, thanks maybe most of all to the emergence of 24-year-old rightfielder Tony Gwynn.
Like Mattingly in the AL, Gwynn came out of nowhere — at least for most fans — to streak to the front of the National League batting race.
Just who was this young man with the sweet lefthanded swing who looked like he might never miss a ball again?
In our rush to find out all we could about this new class of superstars, we stumbled all over ourselves rifling through “old” boxes of 1983 cards to find Ryno and Gwynn rookies, and we loaded up on then-current packs of 1984 Donruss, Fleer, and Topps hoping to pull a Mattingly (and a Strawberry, for that matter, but Darryl was no surprise by then).
It didn’t take long for the Gwynn and Sandberg rookies to catch up with Wade Boggs for 1983 supremacy, pricewise, after the latter had busted out for a gaudy A.L. batting crown the year before.
And it might have taken even less time for Mattingly to catch Straw in the 1984 card-prices race, especially when we realized that the 1984 Donruss set wasn’t available in the same avalanche volumes as its cardboard brethren.
By the end of summer, that 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie card was setting new standards for new card prices, and it was laying the groundwork for the 1980s boom to come, and even for the boom we’re seeing now, in the 2020s.
But sort of lost in all the hullabaloo around rookie cards and breakouts and scarce issues (relatively speaking) was a gem of a card that checked almost all of those boxes, too.
Because, while you were rifling through your packs of 1984 Donruss, if you were lucky enough to land any, you just might have thumbed past the second-year card of one Anthony Keith Gwynn in your frenzied pursuit of Mattingly, if you weren’t careful:
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It’s not Gwynn’s rookie card.
And it’s not the most valuable card in the 1984 Donruss set.
It certainly never set the hobby on fire, nor any sort of hobby standards.
But here you have an up-close shot of the guy who would become Mr. Padre, and one of the classiest hitters and humans the game has ever known, and just the way you would have found him in your packs during that long-ago summer when Tony Gwynn announced he was here to stay, and to shine.
And, though this second-year Gwynn remains underappreciated today compared to its set-mates, and to those 1983 RCs, it’s no shrinking violet when it comes to prices.
Indeed, you can expect to pay close to $300 for a copy in PSA 10 condition, with 9s checking in around $35, and 8s pushing $20.
Somehow, that seems just about right, if still a little light.
Because, after all, when was the last time Tony Gwynn hit less than .300 in any walk of life??
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