If you were looking for a hobby time machine to transport you back to the 1980s and flood you with the essence of the hobby boom, you couldn’t do much better than ripping open a pack of 1987 Topps baseball cards.
Of all the hundreds of sets produced during the decade, none measured up to all the excess the era has come to represent quite as well as Topps’ wood-grained beauties.
From a bumper crop of rookie cards to an iconic (though polarizing) design to massive overproduction, this set checked all the boxes when it was building a case as the quintessential Eighties issue. And, though the 1987s never lived up to their early promise as investments — you can find most of them in your friendly local commons bin today — their nostalgic appeal has never been higher.
WE CALLED IT A WOODY
Facing ever-increasing competition from the solid designs and improving quality of Donruss and Fleer cards, not to mention the novelty factor of upstart Sportflics, Topps dipped into their well of creativity in the fall of 1986. Their mission was to overcome the inertia of lackluster designs in 1985 and 1986, and they took an approach that only Topps could — they rolled back the clock 25 years.
Specifically, when veteran collectors tore open our first wax packs in the early spring of 1987, we might have been forgiven for thinking we’d hit the mother lode of a previously undiscovered 1962 Topps hoard. On closer inspection, it was clear that the new pasteboards were not quite duplicates of the hate-it-or-love-it poster over wood from the 1962s.
The motif was close enough, however, that we knew even then the two sets would be forever linked in collecting lore.
While most hobbyists immediately think of those overpowering wood borders when someone mentions 1987 Topps, the design is really pretty simple when you break it down.
Over top of each card “board” is a rectangular full-color photo of the player, with the top left and lower right corners lopped off on a diagonal. In the bottom left, under the picture, is a small Topps logo.
Each player is identified by name in Dom Casual bold font inside a rectangle of color, corresponding to one of the team’s accents. The playful text adds another dimension to the throwback feel of these cards and gives you the definite impression that you’re holding a kids’ collectible rather than a work of art that needs to be under Lucite somewhere.
In the upper left-hand corner, Topps included the team logo, a bit of flair that the old gum company used sparingly throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
For the first time since 1978, some rookies were also honored with the Topps All-Star Rookie trophy on the front of their cards, though the position tended to drift all around the lower reaches of the obverse.
And that’s about all there is to the front of the cards, which lack any kind of banners or additional pizzazz, and Topps even decided to leave off player position.
Of course, no matter how we try to glaze over it, the wood-grained borders are the driving force of the 1987 Topps baseball card design, and the brown borders are as distinctive as any in the long history of the Brooklyn-based card maker.
One interesting facet of these “woodies” is that you can find at least a handful of different grain patterns and tints. Some cards are bright, with smooth-looking ridges, while others are darker, with coarse grain. There is plenty of variation between those extremes, too.
When you turn over one of the 1987s, you’re greeted by the brown stock that you would expect from Topps issues of the era, decorated by an unusual yellow and blue color scheme. Each horizontal card back starts off with a blue number inside of a yellow chevron in the upper left-hand corner that runs into a blue bar to the right, where the player name and position are presented in gray text.
The middle 80% of the card is devoted to complete year-by-year and career statistics in blue text on a yellow background. For players with a shorter career — and fewer stat lines — Topps includes a biographical note and maybe a bit of unrelated trivia in a gray box to round out the middle section.
At the very bottom of the card is a yellow bar containing vital and biographical information about the player, and the whole shebang is capped off by a gray Topps logo in a blue chevron.
HE MAY NOT HAVE BEEN DE GREATEST, BUT HE WAS DESHAIES.
Even though Topps relied heavily on its iconic design for the 1987 baseball set, it did include among its 792-card roll several subsets and special cards that provided collectors with a different look, as well as some fascinating information about the game.
For instance, did you know that Jim Deshaies set a modern day record by striking out the first eight batters he faced in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers late in the 1986 season … when he was a rookie?
You did if you spent any time studying his 1987 Topps Record Breaker card, #2 in the set, over the last 30 years or so.
The complete list of subsets, of both the gathered and sprinkled-in variety:
Record Breakers – card numbers 1-7
Team Leaders – one card for each team, starting at #11 (Cleveland Indians) and spaced about 25 cards apart through the rest of the set
Manager Cards – one for every team
Future Stars – the Topps crystal-ball treatment, yielding such notables as Pat Dodson and Tim Pyznarski (yes, and Rafael Palmeiro, Bo Jackson, B.J. Surhoff, and Dave Magadan) — scattered throughout the set
Topps All-Star Rookie Team – a reprisal of the trophy that had been absent since 1978, gracing the front of 10 rookie cards throughout the set
All-Stars – cards of the real All-Stars — the guys who had made it to the Midsummer Classic in 1986 — on numbers 595-616
Checklist Cards – six cards, the bane of every collector ever, that serve no purpose except to list all the other cards in the set; the pinnacle of frustrating selflessness
It’s a fairly typical lineup of Topps specials, and all of them fall back to the basic design element that dominates the set — that lovely wooden backdrop.
All of these subsets, though, do break from the standard design in some way or another, with the Team Leaders offering perhaps the most striking and appealing departure
Featuring an on-field shot of one or more “team leaders” from each Major League club, each Team Leader fades from the sharp central image through a gauzy shell of foggy whiteness that ends in the familiar wood borders, reduced to just a sliver on all sides. It’s an artistic, dreamy touch that draws from the miniature League Leaders set from the year before and that would make an encore appearance in 1987’s own mini League Leaders issue and the 1988 set.
BIG AND BIGGER
As with every baseline Topps baseball set of the era, the 1987 issue checks in at 792 cards, and there was no shortage of ways to get your mitts on the wooden goodies, either.
First, you had the traditional wax pack, which offered up 15 cards and a stick of gum for 40 cents.
If you wanted a slightly more filling baseball card meal, you could opt for the cello pack, which gave you 31 cards and a slab of pink chicle for 69 cents.
The next step up the volume ladder was the rack pack, showcasing three cellophane-wrapped chunks, each containing 16 pasteboards. Add in the bonus “All-Star Game Commemorative Card” showcasing one of 22 participants in the 1986 All-Star game, and you had 49 pieces to add to your collection.
But Topps didn’t stop there.
This was the Eighties, and bigger and louder was better.
So Topps rolled out their Jumbo packs, a wad of 100 cards plus a glossy “Rookies” card plus three sticks of pink gum.
And if that still wasn’t big enough for you, then you likely had a problem, but one shared by many of your fellow collectors. You also had another option, as Topps offered 500-count vendor boxes, the largest “pack” of cards ever if you discount factory sets from that mix.
Topps cards were everywhere in 1987, and they only seem to have grown in availability since, but hardly anyone was worried about the future of these babies. Baseball cards were like printed gold, and they would go up in value forever, provided that you kept them in tip-top shape with the aid of special storage boxes, plastic sleeves and sheets, and heavy-duty Lucite holders.
And if there ever was a nagging moment of doubt about the viability of the 1987 Topps baseball card set as an investment, all you had to do was look at the lineup of key cards.
After all …
COLLECTORS DUG THE LONG BALL — AND THE ROOKIE CARDS
For as long as most collectors can remember, the rookie card of any individual player has been the most desirable of all his issues.
In the early days, that was mostly because it was assumed that, with each passing year, fewer of those early-career cards would survive, making them as rare as an Ozzie Smith home run by the time a future Hall-of-Famer was nearing the end of the line. There was also the tacit assumption that card companies produced more cards each year as the hobby matured, further adding to the idea that rookie cards were scarce in comparison to later-career cards.
In 1987, when Topps busted out their second set of woodies, though, rookie card mania was in full swing, even if we all understood on some level that there were no guarantees about production numbers and that everyone was saving all their cards.
We all just wanted to be first at something important, and what’s more important to a baseball fan than figuring out who the next big bopper will be?
And of course, the bigger the bopper the better, and our fervor for the home run was only heightened by hot-stove speculation.
Was Wally Joyner for real? How many home runs would Jose Canseco hit when he matured a little? And could Bo Jackson play both football and baseball while keeping all his body parts intact?
So we tore into our wax-pack boxes late that winter and into early spring, gasping at every glimpse of Canseco’s green-drenched Rookie All-Stars card (#620) and the impossible potential embodied in Jackson’s Future Stars (#170).
But the 1987 Topps set was destined to be something more than a three-headed beast, and we could feel the electricity of unlimited promise crackle through our fingers as we shuffled through each 15-card stack, pink energy dissolving in our frothy saliva and further fueling our enthusiasm.
The young man on every other card — or every third at most — seemed to hold the key to impending success for some MLB franchise or other and the prospect of cardboard fortune if the breaks went his way. Among the future immortals who couldn’t miss were:
- Bobby Thigpen (61)
- Wally Joyner (80)
- Randy Myers (213)
- B.J. Surhoff (216)
- Jamie Moyer (227)
- Doug Drabek (283)
- Greg Swindell (319)
- Barry Bonds (320)
- Bobby Witt (415)
- Will Clark (420)
- Tim Pyznarski (429)
- Chuck Finley (446)
- Chris Bosio (448)
- Kelly Gruber (458)
- Kal Daniels (466)
- Dave Magadan (512)
- Eric Plunk (587)
- Glenn Braggs (622)
- Kurt Stillwell (623)
- Rafael Palmeiro (634)
- Bip Roberts (637)
- Barry Larkin (648)
- Robby Thompson (658)
True, not all of these boards were “rookie cards” in the strict sense that the hobby has adopted in subsequent years, but they were the first Topps cards available in wax (and other) packs of the players pictured. And, while some of these names may look pedestrian or even unrecognizable today, they were ALL considered big-time comers as the 1987 season dawned.
There were more, too, as guys like Paul Assenmacher, Rafael Belliard, and Jim Traber had plenty of pundits on their side.
Has there ever been a more astounding rookie-card lineup in one set — or set of sets, if you include Donruss and Fleer in the conversation? Maybe in retrospect, but we had never seen anything like it before that spring, and the combined talent contained in Topps’ 1987 offering threatened to splinter those wood borders to smithereens.
And, by mid-summer, all of these cards had been pushed to the second tier of the hobby’s focus thanks to the exploits of a young Mark McGwire.
Even though Big Mac had appeared on an Olympic card in the 1985 Topps set and was maybe the most popular Rated Rookie ever on card #46 in the 1987 Donruss set, his 1987 Topps issue (366) quickly became a hobby favorite.
By the end of summer, McGwire was selling for several dollars a pop, and many of the other rookies on the list above were approaching a buck each.
Of course, the 1987 Topps set wasn’t all about the rookies, as it was issued at a time when several all-time greats were still stalking the base paths or stomping the mound or at least pondering the game from the dugout.
Among the non-rookie(ish) cards that caused at least a modicum of a stir in 1987 and beyond were three Pete Rose cards (200, 281, 393), Mike Schmidt (430), Roger Clemens (340), Nolan Ryan (757 – a fitting metaphor for his power on the hill), Andre Dawson (345 – the summer of the blank contract), Kirby Puckett (450), Steve Carlton (718), Don Mattingly (500), Wade Boggs (150), Tony Gwynn (530), and any number of other stars of the era.
TOPPS HATES LANCE PARRISH
If all of those rookies and superstars and super-duper starry subsets weren’t enough to make your collector heart swell with splintered love, the 1987 Topps set also offered a taste of that other 1980s hobby obsession: errors and variations.
While there aren’t any “C. Nettles” or five-foot-two cards of “All” Hrabosky among this bunch, there are a handful of error corrections that make building a master set just a bit tougher.
Here is the known list of 1987 Topps E & V, courtesy of The Trading Card Database:
- Card #92 of Urbano Lugo exists with and without the TM symbol next to the Angels logo (or is that Lugo?).
- Card #108 of Jim Gantner has the Brewers logo reversed.
- Card #196 of Randy O’Neal got his career W-L record wrong.
- Jeff Hearron’s 1986 season was so memorable that Topps listed that year twice in the stats on card #274.
- Card #301 of Luis Aquino is missing the trademark symbol.
- Garry Templeton (#325) was born in Lockney, not Lockey as Topps asserts.
- Joe Niekro’s copyright tag can be found inside or outside the right-hand border on the back of the card.
- Dwight Gooden’s All-Star card (#603) can be found with and without the trademark symbol on the Mets logo.
- The same fate befell Don Mattingly and the Yankees on card #606.
- Topps tells us that Lance Parrish was an All-Star pitcher — sort of — on the back of card #613.
- Card #671 of Ray Soff exists with and without a “D” before the copyright line on the reverse.
- Doyle Alexander (#686) was listed as one day younger than he really was. When the news broke, it really hurt his status as a 37-year-old prospect.
- Poor Lance Parrish got dumped on again on card #791 — no trademark next to the Tigers logo.
All told, that’s eight uncorrected errors and five cards with variations, taking the master-set card count to 797.
INSERTS AND PARALLELS
But even at nearly 800 cards, the base and variated woodies were not the limit of what you might expect to receive when you bought a pack of 1987 Topps baseball cards.
Aside from the vending boxes, every Topps package that spring offered a small lagniappe for your patronage.
The rundown of freebies that helped break up the grainy monotony:
Glossy All-Stars featured 11 players from the American League and 11 from the National League who had made their way to the All-Star game in 1986.
Glossy Rookies were first cousins of the Glossy All-Stars from a design standpoint and featured 22 rookies who made their marks during the 1986 season.
Wax Box Cards were eight minis (2 1⁄8 × 3 in), “numbered” A-H and printed two to the side of each box of wax packs.
Wax packs gave even more to collectors in 1987, in the form of redemption cards that could be sent in for a series of thick, glossy cards that were rumored to be printed in very low numbers — at least compared to the base set. In all, there are 60 of the send-in glossies, and the redemption cards themselves have at least some nostalgic value
Of course, excess was never quite enough, especially for Topps and especially in the 1980s, so the OGC filled in the holes in our collections with a series of parallel or standalone issues that were NOT available by purchasing the base cards.
Among these were:
The aforementioned Send-In Glossies.
Mini Leaders featured a design very similar to the “team leaders” cards from the base set, but checked in at a diminutive 2 1⁄8 × 3 in — same as the cards on the side of wax boxes. And speaking of wax, these 77-card glossies were were available in their own standalone packs and boxes — 36 seven-card packs per box.
And then, of course, there was the Traded Set which, by 1987, was a staple in the yearly Topps lineup. As always, this issue featured players traded to new teams during the season and rookies who made an impact among its 132 subject. Key cards this time around included Greg Maddux’s first Topps card and Andre Dawson’s first appearance in a Cubs uniform.
Even with such a stellar lineup, and despite all the bells and whistles and add-ons and adjuncts, the 1987 Topps set lagged behind its competitors almost from the beginning days of the collecting season, and the reason would help shape the hobby for years to come.
MEANWHILE, OUT IN THE WILDS …
When the long, dark winter of 1987 finally drew toward a close, collectors were eager to get our hands on the new cards, as we always were.
For the most serious among us, wax packs in the Easter basket were already full of doubles, so anxious and diligent were we in tracking down the latest issues.
And, boy, did the early returns in 1987 look promising!
Not only had Topps stepped up their game with the woodies, but Donruss had rolled out a very Donruss-y black-bordered offering and Fleer made us all ooh and aah with their gorgeous border fades and improved photo quality.
We could read all about the new cards every week in the pages of Sports Collectors Digest, with monthly color updates in Baseball Cards magazine and Beckett Baseball Monthly.
And we could pick up all the faux splinters we desired, courtesy of Topps.
But if you wanted to hold a real live 1987 Donruss or Fleer card in your hands?
It became apparent early on that something had changed, drastically, in the supply-demand curve for the non-Topps pasteboards that late winter, and you either had to be lucky or have some sort of blackmail-worthy dirt on your dad in order to land your own cache of the new cards.
I happened to be lucky in that our local drugstore had managed to get their full season’s worth of Donruss cards delivered in mid-February, not long after my birthday. I was lucky, too, that my mom noticed the display one Thursday afternoon while running some errands in town. Finally, I was jackpot lucky that my Dad floated me a loan to buy the whole kit and kaboodle, which amounted to about two full cases of wax boxes at 40 cents per pack— no blackmail needed.
I sat on those babies for quite a while and parsed them out at card shows over the next decade-and-a-half, and it was interesting and (sometimes) fun to watch the going price rise to a buck a pack, then two then three before starting to slide back down the scale as other sets stole the ’87s’ thunder and as it became apparent that the Donruss set might not have been as limited as we all thought they were in the early years.
The same can be said for the 1987 Fleer set, which didn’t receive the initial rare-as-a-DiMaggio-strikeout hype that the Donruss issue did, but which eventually gained a reputation as being even more limited than its black-bordered kin.
Before the advent of Upper Deck in 1989 and the “super premium” sets a year or two later, the Fleer and Donruss sets from 1987 set a standard for out-of-the-pack scarcity that drove up their prices with each Mark McGwire dinger or Rafael Palmeiro base knock. By comparison, the Topps set never experienced the same kind of mercurial price lurches but did rise steadily for a few years.
Today, three decades later, you can find complete sets of any of the three for under $15 if you don’t mind dipping into the nostalgia of “hand collation.”
The other “major” set of 1987 was the second-year issue of Sportflics, providing 195 cards of “Magic Motion” goodness. While never all that popular with collectors, this set was the first to offer full-color images on card backs. Sportflics also ditched the wax wrapper in favor of foil, which Upper Deck would use to good effect in the near future.
For a 15-year-old collector in 1987, though, the foil was just one more reason to hate Sportflics and to focus on the Big Three.
And for all of us collectors, the scarcity hype surrounding the Fleer and Donruss sets would serve as an impetus to begin demanding more from the manufacturers — more quality, more accountability, and more choices.
VALUE? IF YOU KNOW WHERE TO LOOK
Thanks to the perceived scarcity of the Donruss and Fleer sets from the same year, and also to the fact that Topps whiffed on Greg Maddux while their competitors didn’t, the 1987 set lagged behind in value for much of its history.
While the 1985 McGwire card and his Donruss Rated Rookies issue raced for the stars in the summer of 1987 and the even BIGGER summer of 1998, his first Topps card as a Big Leaguer struggled to crack double digits.
Likewise, the regular-issue rookie cards of Bonds, Canseco, Palmeiro, Larkin, and all the rest drew strong collector interest but never caused the kind of stir on the local motel show circuit that ensued when someone plopped a freshly slabbed Donruss or Fleer version of the same card into his showcase.
But the sheer volume of could-be guys — could be ROY; could be MVP; could be a Hall of Famer, for goodness sakes — kept us coming back year after year and decade after decade.
Does it matter that you can pick up a complete hand-collated set for about 10 bucks on eBay, or even one of those fancy, colorful factory sets for around $30?
Or does it matter that you could find enough 1987 Topps commons at any large flea market across the nation to paper your whole house in Topps-y paneling and still have enough change left over from your crisp, clean Twenty to buy the kiddos a talking A.L.F.?
Not on your life.
If you’re in your 40s (or later), how long has it been since you’ve even thought about the concept of hand collation or the horrors of a cat-swilling alien? If you’re younger, maybe you’ve never heard of either.
But the 1987 Topps baseball set will get you in an Eighties state of mind faster than you can say “Montreal Expos.”
It’s enough to make you look back fondly on all those craggy old men who told you that baseball cards weren’t worth anything — not really — and that collecting was fine as long as you did it because you loved it.
Don’t expect to get rich, they warned.
Of course, we did expect to get rich, and maybe some of us did. But darn few of us did it on the backs of our cards.
Thirty years on, though, we know what to expect.
The cardboard men we worshiped as our wax pack Gods have triumphed and failed and risen and died and proved themselves to be flawed, and human after all.
And those wooden rectangles that littered our bedrooms and scaffolded our dreams are more common than “wait ’til next year” in Chicago when the weather starts to get hot.
Do they still have any value?
Only if you have a memory and a love for baseball, and for baseball cards.
For that 15-year-old boy starting to let loose his grip on childhood, but secretly curling up with his teddy bear at night when his friends can’t see — that same boy who whispers that your future is boundless even when your kids are leaving home and work is eating at your soul?
For him, the 1987 Topps baseball set will always be a reminder of life’s possibilities, and a sweet tendril connecting him to all the best parts of his world. And what could be more valuable than that?
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