(This is the 21st in our series of posts about the best baseball cards from the 1980s. Check out the rest of those posts here.)

Although it may sound preposterous now, 1987 Fleer baseball cards were once just about the hottest items in the hobby.

See, in the late winter and early spring of 1987, when the new cards started hitting store shelves across the country, we ran into a snag with the usual scheme of things.

Since about 1984, Donruss and Fleer had worked to build up a reputation as producing slightly higher quality cards than Topps, mostly owing to the newcomers’ use of white cardstock rather than Topps’ standard brown-gray.

At the same time, as Donruss an Fleer recovered their standings from the first couple of icky years of their existence as baseball card manufacturers, demand for their cards increased and — it seemed, at least — they clamped down on their production.

Whereas 1981 Fleer and Donruss were everywhere, the 1986 issues were a little harder to come by.

Still, it was all a nuance until early 1987.

1987 Fleer Will Clark Rookie Card

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By February of 1987, Topps was everywhere, as usual.

Around here (central Indiana), I was able to find a few pockets of Donruss.

But that’s where it ended — there was no Fleer to be had, anywhere, even though I could read about the fancy new design with cloud-fade photos in Sports Collectors Digest every couple of weeks.

And something else was odd, too. A huge chunk of the country was also experiencing this Fleer shortage, judging by the letters and ads in SCD, and that shortage extended to Donruss in many locales.

So I counted myself lucky to be getting acquainted with the black-and-baseball-bordered Donruss set while pining for some Fleer powder blue.

Of course, there was some Fleer product out there, and you could buy it if you wanted to pay two or three (or more) times the retail value. It’s a ransom I would have surrendered without much problem, but my parents weren’t so eager.

Instead, I built my mental checklist of Fleer cards I most wanted when I eventually got around to buying a few packs.

Naturally, I wanted them all, but there were a few key pasteboards that showed up at card shows and in images accompanying reviews and ads all the time, and that looked like must-haves to me.

Barry Bonds, Bo Jackson, Barry Larkin, Pete Rose, Roger Clemens … they all were featured prominently in various print material.

If you look up those cards, you’ll notice that most of them show the player either posed or in a close-up action shot — those are the types of photos that seemed to work best with the picture-frame design that allowed the top edge of each image to extend past its borders.

Or at least that’s the type of photo that Fleer seemed to prefer.

And if there was one guy that was tailor-made for the 1987 Fleer design, it was young San Francisco Giants first baseman Will Clark.

Clark was good-looking, had played for the US Olympic Baseball team, became a bona fide superstar at Mississippi State, and was regarded as one of the best prospects in the game.

His name was a natural fit for baseball, too. Short. Masculine. Evoked images of the old west.

1987 Fleer Will Clark Rookie Card (back)

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So it’s little wonder that the image of Clark in front of a batting cage in his Giants home white jersey and black batting helmet, hand on hip, and swagger smile painted all over his face fit so well on his 1987 Fleer rookie card.

And it’s little wonder that advertisers and reviewers alike picked this card to illustrate their articles.

That Will Clark rookie card became the mental image attached to 1987 Fleer for thousands of collectors as we waited our turn for a few wax packs.

Now, all these years later, with Clark long-since retired from a star-level but not Hall-of-Fame-level career, and with the truth about Fleer’s production levels in 1987 more well understood — well, this is still the card that comes to mind when I think about the set that once felt almost mythical.

That’s the way it is with iconic cards, with the best card a set.

They stick with you forever, no matter what.

For all these reasons, the Will Clark rookie is the best card from the 1987 Fleer baseball card set.

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(This is the 21st in our series of posts about the best baseball cards from the 1980s. Check out the rest of those posts here.)

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