If you ever wanted to know what a “too big to fail” attitude looks like in cardboard form, flip through an album of 1989 Topps baseball cards someday.
By the time the Old Gum Company’s 38th full set hit store shelves that Spring, collectors were bracing for big changes, expecting big improvements.
Upper Deck had released their first promo cards — of DeWayne Buice and Wally Joyner — in the summer of 1988, and hobbyists were drooling at the thought of an entire set with such a clean design and crystal clear photos. And holograms!
The inaugural base UD issue delivered on that promise, though some collectors bristled at the inflated per pack price of $1.
Score was back for its second season and, though much of its thunder as the new kid was stolen by Upper Deck and the Kid, produced a solid set.
You could always count on Donruss doing something funky with their borders, and 1989 was no exception, with a design that told you right away who made the cards.
And, of course, Fleer and Billy Ripken gave the hobby a verbal middle finger that resonated for years and made packs of the gray-bordered issue one of the most chased wax offerings of the 1980s.
But Topps? They didn’t need innovation, great photos, or fancy designs. They were Topps, for gosh sake — purveyors of huge sets, thick brown card stock, airbrushed photos, and tradition. So they crammed all of those hallmarks into their last set of the decade, wrapped them in wax, and stood steadfast while the hobby accelerated around them.
To be fair, there is nothing really wrong with the 1989 Topps design. And, as with the Donruss cards, the issue is immediately identifiable as a Topps product.
Each card front is dominated by a large player photo surrounded by a thin team-colored piping with a rounded upper left-hand corner.
At the bottom of the card, large and whimsical two-tone font announces the team name, the last letter of which opens into a banner than fans back to the left underneath the club identifier. The player’s name is printed in block capital letters across the body of that slender pennant.
This team/player combo is right justified and sits over the bottom portion of the player picture.
In either the upper or lower left-hand corner is a black-letter Topps logo, unobtrusive in its rendering but conspicuous in its placement.
As with most Topps issues, the entire front is set off by a thick white border on all four sides that helps to give each card a clean look but does little to advance the company’s status as an innovator.
And, while the photos are generally crisp by Topps’ standards, they seem to have made a conscious decision to eschew on-field action. An abundance of players are pictured in head-and-shoulders poses, and a few, like Andre Dawson (#10), treat us to what might be considered “glamor” shots — learning forward with a faux casual posture, beaming for the camera.
The posed photos fit well with the classic design, especially in retrospect, but they further lent to the perception at the time that Topps was stuck in the mud while their competitors were at least trying new ideas.
Card backs, while also quintessentially Topps, do break out of the printer’s mold to some small extent.
Each horizontal reverse starts off with the card number in a baseball in the upper left-hand corner, right next to a simple text bar that includes the player name and position. In the right-hand corner is another baseball, this one devoted to the Topps logo.
Beneath that header is a block of vital and biographical information, and then the heart of the real estate is devoted to complete year-by-year and career stats, as usual.
Where space allows, there is a brief note under the statistics block, and below that is where Topps got all crazy-creative.
The bottom of each card — again where space allows and with apologies to long-tooth marvels like Nolan Ryan (#530) — showcases a “1988 Monthly Scoreboard.” Tallied there are two key stats from the previous season, broken down month-by-month from April through September. The stats vary by player so that, while Jose Canseco (#500) tracks home runs and RBI, Tony Gwynn is more interested (at least according to #570) in hits and RBI.
Overall, it’s a solid card design that was exactly what we might have expected from Topps had we not been expecting more from every company just a year out from the start of a new decade.
Turn Up the Heat — There’s a Draft in Here
As winter turned to Spring in 1989, the hobby was still bonkers over rookie cards, and we were getting hungry.
We had eaten like kings from the RC cornucopia that the wax pack gods bestowed upon us in 1987, and we expected we’d always have a cache of first-year riches waiting in our packs when each new season dawned.
The 1988 sets quickly disabused us of that notion, and we spent the year sorting through our new stacks over and over, searching for a gem that we had overlooked. By October, we were left to conclude that it had been a one-year aberration and that the rookies would return en force in 1989.
Upper Deck certainly did their part by tabbing Ken Griffey, Jr., as the #1 card in their first-ever set, and Junior immediately set off on a trajectory that would land him in Cooperstown and his cards in the hobby Hall of Fame.
Fleer and Donruss also managed to get Griffey under wraps for their 1989 base sets, but Topps somehow whiffed — apparently they missed the hype that the youngster was causing throughout baseball.
Topps did tip their caps to the rookie-card segment of the hobby in a very significant way, though, and in so doing they foreshadowed a trend that would become standard practice within a few years.
Sprinkled through the set were “pre-rookie” cards of the top ten picks from the 1988 amateur draft. It was the first time that any company had undertaken such an endeavor — a similar subset in 1985 Topps showcased the first pick from each of several drafts rather than digging deep into the most recent class.
The idea seemed a bit gimmicky at first, but plenty of us were happy to have cards ofBill Bene (#84), Willie Ansley (#607), and Ty Griffin (#713) years before they turned into the superstars they were destined to be. That none of the 10 subsequently put together a Hall-of-Fame career doesn’t diminish Topps’ efforts on this front or the precedent it set.
In particular, by the mid 1990s, the resurrected Bowman line was teeming with “prospects” who were years out from their MLB debuts and plenty who never did much of anything at all.
Of course, Draft Picks weren’t the only rookies in 1989 Topps.
They anointed five players as FUTURE STARS, and their batting average was pretty solid with this group.Steve Searcy (#167), Gregg Jefferies (#233), Gary Sheffield (#343), Sandy Alomar, Jr. (#648), and Mike Harkey (#742) produced more big moments and could-be-Cooperstown-bound discussions than any five men might be expected to warrant.
There was also a group of guys who we already thought were pretty good based on their 1988 performances, and whom Topps honored as All-Star Rookies, complete with trophies on their 1989 pasteboards. Among those 10 were Cecil Espy (#221), Ron Gant (#296), Mark Grace (#465), and Chris Sabo (#490).
As always, Topps also peppered their set with plenty of other rookies who garnered no special designation but turned out to be pretty decent players, anyway. You know, mostly inconsequential guys like Ramon Martinez (#225), Rob Dibble (#264), John Smoltz (#382), Randy Johnson (#647), and Brady Anderson (#757).
So Topps gave us plenty to sink our teeth into when it came to 1989 rookies. Is it their fault that the one they missed out on lit up the baseball world for two decades?
Well, yeah, I guess it is.
Topps — Still Special After All These Years
Topps resisted change — hard — for decades. If you were a fan of the special subsets that had become a staple by the late 1980s, then that was good news for you.
In addition to the flood of rookies and the standard array of superstars like Cal Ripken (#210), Pete Rose (#505), Nolan Ryan (#530), and Barry Bonds (#620), Topps gave us plenty of variety in their 1989 offering.
Among the subsets and theme cards were:
- Record Breakers (#1-7)
- Manager Cards (starting with Tom Kelly at #14 and spaced about every 30 cards thereafter)
- Team Leader Cards (starting with the White Sox a #21 and spaced throughout the set)
- All-Stars (#386-407)
- Draft Picks (10 cards — not consecutively numbered)
- Rookie All-Stars (10 cards — not consecutively numbered)
- FUTURE STARS (5 cards– not consecutively numbered)
- Checklists (starting with #118 and spaced every 130-140 cards thereafter)
- Turn Back the Clock (#661-665)
That’s a lot of uncommon cardboard, but Topps had plenty of room. As was the norm at the time, their 1989 set was brimming full at 792 cards.
Buy This, Get This
By 1989, Topps was in full swing when it came to populating the earth with their cardboard goodies every Spring. Gone were the days when you might hop and hunt from store to store all summer long looking for a straggling wax pack that might help you fill a gaping hole in your set.
No, 1989 Topps cards were everywhere, and you could buy them in just about any form imaginable. And most of those packs came with a little something extra.
Here is a rundown of the distribution methods in play that season, as well as the bonus that each offered hungry collectors:
- Wax packs — 15 cards plus a stick of gum (yay!) plus a mail-in card that could be collected and then mailed in for one of six sets of 10 special glossy player cards
- Cello packs — 29 cards
- Rack packs — 48 cards plus one of Glossy All-Star inserts
- Jumbo packs — 100 cards plus one of 22 Glossy Rookies inserts
- K-Mart Jumbo packs — 100 cards plus one of 22 Batting Leaders insert
- Vending boxes — 500 cards — no bonus required
- Factory sets — all 792 cards
If you bought an entire wax box or found a friendly store owner willing to give you his empty wax boxes, you would also find one of four 4-card panels that looked an awful lot like regular 1989 cards but featured different photos.
Or, if you were looking for something more high-end, you could buy the Topps Tiffany set, an exact parallel to the base issue, done up in fancy white card stock and slick-as-snot gloss.
Topps rounded out our collecting year, as always, with their 132 card Traded Set, which also featured white stock, but no snot. They did finally manage to get Griffey under the Topps logo, though, on card #41T. Topps Traded also came in a Tiffany version.
And, if you wanted something that looked different and BIGGER than the base set, you could opt for either Topps Big or the resurrected Bowman line. Both played on the nostalgia of the past, and the latter would spend a couple of years finding its niche before eventually developing into the biggest rookie-card vehicle on the planet.
At the other end of the size spectrum, Topps Minis was back with its player-in-a-cloud design on, yes, white stock with glossy fronts.
Well, That’s … Interesting
The 1989 Topps set was more or less a button-down mashup the features we had come to expect from the company over the years. Most of those were positive if boring. A few, like the soft brown card stock, were sore enough spots to cause some collectors to avoid the brand entirely.
Topps also broke out their airbrushes in earnest after several years of improving and less soft-edged photos. Some are obviously attempts to get players in new uniforms, like the Pena and Anderson cards above.
Then there are beauties like the Pete Rose number over there to the right. It makes no sense that the card would be airbrushed since he had been with the Reds all year long in 1988, and maybe it’s not. It sure doesn’t look right, though. Perhaps it was a harbinger of strange doings brewing for Charlie Hustle that year?
Another departure from the straight and narrow came when Topps adorned #560 with a nickname. Montreal’s pre-eminent speedster had been “Tim” Raines to baseball card collectors for as long as we had known him, dating back to 1981, but he was “Rock” on his 1989 Topps card. The cynical among us might think this was a dig at his extracurricular activities rather than a nod to his muscular physique and steady lineup presence.
But Topps wouldn’t do that … right?
What Topps most definitely would do was make a mistake or flub their printing process occasionally, even when they should have been tightening up the ship to better compete with the upstarts.
Maybe they thought that the error-card craze was due for a reboot or maybe their QA folks were on strike. Whatever the case, 1989 Topps is riddled with printing gaffes that were corrected to varying degrees up and down the lineup. Some cards are missing copyright lines, some are missing an asterisk here and there, and some are plagued with stray lines or triangles that disappear (or not) in subsequent print runs.
If you want to try and collect all possible variations, then you’ve probably found your lifetime set at last. It’s a virtually impossible task, and “new” miscues are being uncovered all the time.
For those who won’t be denied despite the looming futility, Junk Wax Gems maintains a running list that might help you at least identify your white whales.
Enough of each 1989 Topps card exists to fill all of the craters on the moon with commons and still have enough star cards left over to build a bridge back to Earth — roughly.
The good news is that we knew, or at least suspected, that such was the case as soon as the cards popped out of the pasteboard oven.
Topps’ 1988 set was already bleeding out of every hobby pore, and even the beloved 1987s were everywhere.
So, more than a quarter century after their release, no one is really surprised that 1989 Topps baseball cards sell for $5 or less — per box or per set. It’s the classic case of collecting for the love of collecting, and not for potential value because,when it comes to hobby royalty, this issue never had a chance. Big or not.
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1989 Topps Baseball Cards Complete Your Set U-Pick (#'s 601-792) Nm-Mint
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End Date: Monday 04/10/2023 15:55:59 EDT
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