(This is Day 28 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
It may sound ridiculous now, but the start of the 1987 baseball card collecting season was marked by a frenzy of scarcity.
Now, this doesn’t and never did apply to the 1987 Topps woodies that are so iconic these days. I remember going to a flea market in late December of 1986 and already being able to buy 5000-count boxes of ’87 Topps cards that dealers had chucked into their discard piles after extracting the stars.
But by Valentine’s Day of 1987, all of the new cards should have been on retail shelves across the America … they weren’t.
Again, Topps was everywhere, but depending on where you were, Fleer and Donruss were almost non-existent.
Word spread fast, too, and any boxes of Fleer or Donruss that did make their way to local shows sold for ever-escalating premiums. Packs that retailed at 35 cents quickly moved past 50 cents, then a dollar, and two, on their way to three bucks or more.
The interesting thing was that this scarcity seemed to be regional — in central Indiana, we had some pockets of Donruss wax but Fleer was like the Loch Ness monster: often discussed but seldom seen. The situation was reversed in other areas of the country.
These circumstances led to the first large-scale networking that I remember happening within the hobby. The ads in Sports Collectors Digest were sprinkled with collectors and dealers offering up their excess Donruss wax for an equal quantity of Fleer product, and vice versa.
This deal-making helped to level out the market a tad, but there were still plenty of collectors scrambling for Donruss or Fleer cards, or both, by the time the season began.
And even well into the summer, those cards carried a significant premium over their Topps counterparts.
Of course, the summer of 1987 was also notable because it marked the return of serious, widespread power to the game for the first time in decades.
Towering home runs were flying out of ballparks at a record pace, and old-school fans cried foul: the balls were juiced, the mound was lower, the umpires were rigging at-bats, batters were too muscular.
Plenty of explanations were proffered for the power surge, but the upshot was that fans loved the renewed fireworks. We always do, right?
But the one guy who really captured our imaginations was Mark McGwire of the Oakland A’s.
Just a year after teammate Jose Canseco had nearly toppled the rookie home run record — Jose finished with 37 to Wally Berger‘s 38 for the 1930 Boston Braves — McGwire entered the All-Star break with 33 dingers.
This young giant might not just eclipse Berger’s mark but also seemed to have a bead on Roger Maris‘ single-season home run record of 61.
The marriage of baseball card scarcity and monstrous young power was pure gold.
Now, we already had a McGwire card to chase in the form of his 1985 Topps Olympics card, but it had its detractors. For one thing, it wasn’t very attractive — it didn’t even show him in his A’s uniform.
For another, it was a Topps card, which at the time gave it the stigma as being of lower quality, from a production standpoint, than Fleer or Donruss products.
Despite those drawbacks, that 1985 McGwire took off and priced many younger collectors out of the Big Mac market.
But those hobbyists could turn their attentions to current-year product because both Topps and Donruss had included him in their base sets.
The Topps card sold well and rose in value, but it suffered from the perceived higher quality of the Donruss issue in general and from the fact that it was McGwire’s second Topps card. Fleer whiffed completely and would have to wait until their Update set after the season to join the Big Mac party.
A Clear Winner
So collectors turned to the 1987 Donruss Mark McGwire Rated Rookies card in droves.
As McGwire kept slamming balls into the Oakland night, we soaked up any and all available Donruss wax like a Mojave sponge dropped into the Great Salt Lake.
The cost of ownership for that hunk of cardboard rose to $5 and then to $7, $10, and more. By the time McGwire ended the season with 49 homers and the American League Rookie of the Year award, it looked like the card would go up in value forever.
Subsequent years saw Big Mac bounce up and down in production and popularity until he put it all together with the St. Loius Cardinals in the late 1990s, including setting a new single-season mark with 70 home runs in 1998.
By then, we knew that none of the 1987 products were as limited as we had thought they were, but McGwire’s late march through the record books and past career homers gave his rookie cards new life.
Things aren’t always as they seem, of course, and much of the sparkle has been rubbed off Big Mac’s accomplishments by the taint of the Steroid Era.
Today, you can buy his 1987 Donruss rookie card for a couple bucks a pop in solid ungraded condition.
But for anyone who lived through the McGwire-and-Donruss boom the first time around, we know there is more to the card. The mere sight of Big Mac in his batting stance in front of hundreds of empty stadium seats, with the Rated Rookies logo and the swatches of baseballs embedded in black border, punctuated by the bright red alarm bar at the bottom of the card makes our breath catch.
Because we remember it all.
And, for all it meant and all it still means, we know this is the best card issued in 1987.