Was Wally Joyner in the right place at the right time, baseball-card-wise, or did his explosion on the scene in the spring of 1986 push the hobby — and rookie cards, in particular — to new heights?

It’s a cardboard version of the chicken-and-egg question that’s hard to answer definitively more than 35 years later.

Here is what we know for sure, though:

  1. Jose Canseco was hyped all winter long after the 1985 season, and his 1986 Donruss and Fleer (shared with Eric Plunk) came out of packs that spring as $3+ items.
  2. The hobby was teeming with rookie-card mania after a couple of years of RC-driven hobby growth on the backs of young players like Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, Ron Kittle, Dwight Gooden, Vince Coleman, and others.
  3. Wally Joyner was an unknown quantity to most collectors entering the season, but he broke camp as the Angels’ starting first baseman and walloped six homers in April, to go along with a .333 batting average.
  4. Joyner had no Major League Baseball cards.
  5. Card companies were scratching for a leg-up.

And so, as Wally World turned up the gas in May and June, reaching 19 dingers by the middle of that second month, collectors were clamoring for a hunk of Joyner cardboard.

If form held, though, we’d have to wait until November when Topps Traded and Fleer Update made the holiday show schedule just in time to serve up some tasty stocking stuffers.

But …

Like manna from the Wax Pack Gods, news broke in Sports Collectors Digest and other publications: Donruss was going to release a set called “The Rookies” to compete with Topps’ and Fleer’s late-season issues.

This one, though, would consist of only rookie cards.

And, from the very beginning, in hobby ads and press releases, the set had a poster boy, right there on card #1:

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And, though Joyner cooled off in dog days of summer, eventually finishing with 22 home runs and an even 100 RBI, and though he lost out on American League Rookie of the Year honors to Canseco, that bat-on-shoulder shot of young Wally echoes through the decades as an all-time hobby classic.

The question remains, though: did he slot into #1 as a consequence of good timing, or did he Donruss toward innovation?

The answer may lie in dusty and yellowed hobby interviews stacked in someone’s back closet, and it may not really matter. But it would be fun to know for sure, even if the hobby significance of Joyner and The Rookies has slipped over the years.

Today, you can usually find the Joyner card for a buck or so in raw condition, with PSA 9s and 10s ranging from $10-20 up to $50-60. Complete sets of that inaugural “The Rookies” issue generally change hands at $15-20.

And so, like so many cards from the Junk Wax Era, the 1986 Donruss The Rookies Wally Joyner is an opportunity to buy into hobby history on the cheap.

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