Every year, just when you think winter might go on forever and we’re all doomed to an eternity locked in snowbanks or ice capsules, the signs of Spring start to pop up like blades of green grass breaking through the brown sludge.
A warm day — above, say 40 degrees — sneaks into your week.
The groundhog sees his shadow, or doesn’t.
College basketball winds down and sprints headlong toward March Madness.
The Super Bowl becomes a distant cloud of dust in your rearview mirror.
Pitchers and catchers report.
For baseball card collectors, though, there is no surer sign that winter is losing its grip on the world than the first appearance of new baseball cards. These days, that means hobby boxes and Mylar packs and chase cards and all sorts of complicated (to me) stuff.
But in the 1980s and before, Spring came to the hobby with an onslaught of new wax packs.
I was well acquainted with this phenomenon as we started to dig out of our winter doldrums in February of 1987, and I was thrilled to find those first green packs of Topps baseball cards. Those woodgrain beauties are hobby classics and some of my favorite cards of all time.
What I really wanted, though, were 1987 Fleer and 1987 Donruss cards.
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See, we had already gotten word through hobby magazines like Baseball Cards and (especially) Sports Collectors Digest that both of Topps’ main competitors had dramatically scaled down their production for the new season. My experience at early local card shows bore out that notion, too — lots of Topps cards on the show floor, but very few Donruss and Fleer cards. And when a dealer did pop open a box or two of Donruss or Fleer, the suggested retail price went out the window.
It was pretty shocking, actually — the first time I saw new packs priced a $1, $2, $3, and they were selling. Like hotcakes.
If you paid close attention to the ads in SCD, though, you could see that not all areas of the country were created equal. In fact, it seemed that some states had plenty of Fleer cards, and others had no shortage of Donruss. (We were all awash in Topps.)
Collectors from different regions of the country started swapping Fleer for Donruss, or Donruss for Fleer, basically box-for-box. It was crazy, and awesome, to watch.
And that’s mostly what I did — watch from afar. I was just a kid with no access to these “scarce” cards and no resources to speak of. But then, ‘long about the middle of February, the unthinkable happened — one of the drug stores in town got a case of Donruss.
At 40 cents a pack, a whole box could be yours for $14.40. It’s a number that’s indelibly etched in my memory, because I somehow convinced my dad to float me a line of credit. Basically, he financed my attempts to corner the local market on 1987 Donruss.
I pretty well succeeded …
That first drug store yielded maybe 12 boxes, and then a couple more local business got their Donruss cards, too. The next few weeks were a mad dash to various stores every day after school to see if any more of the cards came in. When they did, I sucked them up as fast as I could.
I ended up owing Dad something like $500, which means I must have eventually shagged down about 35 boxes. I had been dabbling in “dealing” cards at local shows by that point, and my newfound bounty only heightened my interest. I sold 1987 Donruss packs for years, well after the peak had passed and well after we found out that none of the 1987 sets were all that limited.
I do think I ended up repaying my dad, though not necessarily solely on the backs of the Donruss cards themselves.
Still, after all these years and all that has happened in the hobby and in life, not many sights can get my heart pounding like the gorgeous (to me) orange-brown of a 1987 Donruss wax wrapper, or the baseball bat on a 1987 Donruss wax box, or even the black-and-baseball borders of the 1987 Donruss cards themselves.
In just about every way I can imagine, they’re an embodiment of Spring and the hope for better, warmer days just ahead.
Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.