The 1984 season was a magical time for many in the game, one that provided about as many refreshing surprises as you could rightly ask for from a simple game.

Surprises like …

  • The juggernaut Detroit Tigers, who pretty much salted away the World Series title by mid-April.
  • The emergence of Tony Gwynn and San Diego Padres.
  • The emergence of Ryne Sandberg and the Chicago Cubs.
  • The total dominance of rookie Dwight Gooden and the concomitant sudden leap in fortunes for the New York Mets.

It was an amazing time to be a fan, and the hits just kept coming all season long, like when Pete Rose came back to Cincinnati as player-manager of the Reds in August.

And, on June 3, the season took a turn that would crank up the heat in baseball’s biggest market.

On that day, New York Yankees rightfielder Dave Winfield went 5-for-6 against the Blue Jays in Toronto to lift his batting average from .295 to .315.

Now, the Yankees themselves weren’t going to gain much attention (other than being the Yankees) as they jockeyed for position way behind the Tigers in the old American League East.

But two days later Winfield did it again — a 5-for-5 performance jumped his average to .335 and right onto the AL leader board.

Waiting for him not only in the neighborhood, but in the exact same house — .335 Big Stick Lane — was Yankees teammate Don Mattingly, a second-year first baseman who no one really knew at all but who had had his own BA bouncing between the upper .200s and the mid-.300s all spring.

Even non-Yankees fans were happy to see Winfield climb the charts — he was a long-time star, one of baseball’s good guys, and if he could boost his own star without the Bombers taking yet another title, well, good on him.

And Mattingly?

Well, he was an upstart who would soon fade, the Yanks’ answer to Detroit’s Barbaro Garbey.

Mattingly would benefit from watching his seasoned teammate rocket past him in the batting race, and maybe the youngster would even have a shot at doing something good, down the line, himself.

It sort of played out that way, for awhile, as Winfield pushed his average to .368 by the end of June, almost obscuring Mattingly’s own improvement to .344.

A month later, both had cooled to some extent, but Winfield still stood at .346 and Mattingly at .339 as August dawned.

By that time, collectors had pretty much decided that New York’s young first baseman was for real, and coupled with what seemed to be drastically reduced supplies over previous seasons, had pushed Mattingly’s 1984 Donruss rookie card to unheard of levels for brand new cards — $3 right out of the pack, often more.

Over the next few seasons, as Mattingly’s star continued to climb, that RC redefined hobby boundaries and fueled the 1980s boom, right alongside the Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose rookies.

But that was later.

As the 1984 season entered its dog days, Winfield and Mattingly settled in for a friendly (?) battle.

Both men maintained averages in the .340s throughout August, with Winfield occasionally jutting into the .350s and Mattingly dipping to .339 a couple times.

On August 19, though, Mattingly went 3-for-5 to raise his mark to .342, and set it on an upward trajectory over the next week or so before a slight fallback left him at .349 at the end of the month … but still three points behind Winfield.

September did little to clarify the picture, as both men more or less stayed the course, though Winfield did open up a ten-point lead — .352 to .342 — on September 16.

But Winfield’s average fell steadily over the last two weeks of the season, while Mattingly just sort of stayed where he was.

And on it went, until the final day of the season, when the division-champion Tigers rolled into Yankee Stadium. That morning, Winfield woke with a .341 batting average, two points better than Mattingly’s .339.

It all came down, then, to their performance in a contest that meant nothing in the standings.

In that game, a 9-2 Yankees romp, Mattingly got hits in his first three at-bats, while Winfield went 1-for-2 with a walk. In the end, Mattingly went 4-for-5 to Winfield’s 1-for-4, and the youngster had won the batting title — .343 to .340.

The next spring, Donruss capitalized on their own burgeoning popularity and the heated batting race that had caused a frenzy even in the midst of an already historic season by issuing a card of the battling teammates …

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While “Two for the title” may seem corny and gimmicky to today’s collectors who weren’t there to experience the thrill of the moment, it was as an immensely popular card right out of the pack, an instant classic from the love-them-or-hate-them black-bordered 1985 Donruss set.

And, true to the hobby mores of the day, the card can be found in one of two variations — with the player names in yellow or white letters.

The white-letter version is the more common of the two, fetching $10-15 in PSA 9 condition and $65 or more in PSA 10.

The yellow-letter beauty, meanwhile, brings in around $50 in PSA 9 and often north of $100 as a perfect 10.

Fitting, as you couldn’t have asked for much more of a “perfect” batting race than the one Mattingly and Winfield waged in that sweet, sweet summer of 1984.

(Check out our full series of posts on the history of Donruss baseball cards.)

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