Veteran1990-Donruss-Chicago-Cubs-Team-Set collectors at the time might have been forgiven for ignoring the prognostication presented to us in each wax pack of 1990 Donruss baseball cards that spring.

After all, the powerful Oakland A’s had ascended to their rightful place as World Series champions in the fall of 1989 after being rudely dispatched by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Kirk Gibson the year before. But as the 1990s dawned, the Bash Brothers — Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco — were poised to lead a cast that included 1990-Donruss-Wax-Boxperennial Cy Young candidate Dave Stewart, budding relief legend Dennis Eckersley, and a lineup of fellow mashers to a string of championships.

And, while the Cincinnati Reds had had a nice run as contenders in the National League West, all of that came to an end when manager Pete Rose embroiled the team and the game in a gambling scandal that still taints the era. There was no reason to think we’d see any kind of Red October outside the theater for years to come.

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Yet, Donruss was adamant that the Reds, or at least “red” was not necessarily dead, and they shouted that message to us from every card front.

(Looking for 1990 Donruss baseball card values? Check out our rundown of the 25 most valuable cards from the set, right here.)

Bonus:  This post is part of a series of guides to some of the most iconic baseball card sets of all time. Click here to be notified when a new post in this series goes live.

Notice This 

By the spring of 1990, the baseball card market was growing crowded, with Bowman, Sportflics, Score, and Upper Deck having joined the traditional triumvirate of Topps, Fl1990-Donruss-Barry-Bondseer, and Donruss on store shelves. And, with budding anticipation that new brands would be joining the premium fray, the old standbys were under a lot of pressure to stand out.

And what better way to distinguish yourself than with a bold, maybe even controversial, design?

For Donruss in 1990, this meant using color in a way that no other card maker had ever tried before.


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In particular, the front of each 1990 Donruss card is dominated by a bright red border punctuated by a swath of colorful bubbles in the middle two thirds of the left and right margins.

The top of the card starts off in the upper lefthand corner with a black-and-white “Donruss ’90” logo. Beneath that bit of branding are two rule lines with the player’s name scrawled in white script, angled up across the staff.  On the second line, the player’s position appears in white block lettering, and his team name is given the same treatment, perched on the thin black upper border of the picture.

Oh yes, there is a full-color player photo covering the bottom 80% of the card, though the photo quality is nothing special. As was typical of Donruss during the ’80s, photos range from head shots to fuller-body poses to in-game action shots. Notorious for funky tinting and exposure inconsistencies, Donruss at least seemed to have most of that under control in 1990, as the majority of photos were bright if not especia1990-Donruss-Howard-Johnson-Backlly clear.

The 1990 card backs are a prototypical Donruss production, with the card number in a baseball in the upper lefthand corner of the horizontal design, set against a pale pink-orange background. Next to that paper horsehide is the player’s full name in bold black on top of a block of vital stats and biographical information.

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The middle third (or so) of the card back displays as many as the most recent five years’ worth of statistics, along with career totals. Each card wraps up with information about the player’s contract status and some career highlights in the bottom section.

A Rated Splash of Royal Variety

If you didn’t like the garish red borders of the 1990 Donruss baseball set, then you had plenty of other options in the market. But i1990-Donruss-Robin-Venturaf you just wanted some variety in your card design — while retaining that special bloodbath look-and-feel — then Donruss had you covered among their expansive 716-card offering.

As had been the case for each of their regular-issue sets since 1982, Donruss allocated the first 26 slots of their checklist to the Diamond Kings, special cards depicting one superstar from each team as rendered by Hall of Fame artist Dick Perez.


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Well, “superstar” might be a bit strong, as Bo Jackson and John Smoltz were joined by such luminaries as Chris Bosio, Bryn Smith, and Kelly Gruber. At1990-Donruss-Kevin-Mitchell-Diamond-King the time, Donruss tried to cycle through a different DK for each team each season, and the pickings were growing slim after eight previous incarnations.

The Diamond King brand also made an appearance on card #27, the DK checklist, and card #665 of Nolan Ryan, the “King of Kings.” The Ryan Express was also featured on a 5000k commemorative card, #659.

Cards numbered 28-47 were dedicated to the Rated Rookies, another beloved Donruss device that in 1990 yielded first cards of Robin Ventura, Sandy Alomar, Jr., and Juan Gonzalez, as well as lesser lights
such as Pat Combs and Mike Fetters.

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Taking a page from Topps’ playbook, Donruss featured separate All-Star cards for 10 AL and 10 NL standouts, scattered among the last 80 or so numbers in the set. Also like their older baseball-card brethren, Donruss dedicated seven cards to checklisting the set’s other cards, seeding them on the 100s — card #s 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, and 700.

Finally, card 588 showed collectors what a completed Carl Yas1990-Donruss-Harold-Baines-All-Startrzemski puzzle would look like, and the set wrapped with a Bart Giamatti memorial card at #716.

A Yaz Puzzle? How’d You Get That?

That Yaz puzzle could be1990-Donruss-Wax-Packs collected three pieces at a time, courtesy of a “puzzle card” inserted into every wax pack of 1990 Donruss cards. Those packs sold for 50 cents each and contained 16 cards in addition to the thick hunks of Yaz. You needed 63 total pieces to complete the puzzle (21 puzzle cards), so each 36-pack box would presumably have gotten you there with cardboard to spare.

If you wanted more red bang for your buck, you could have opted for the 37-card cello packs, which also delivered two blocks of Y1990-Donruss-Baseball-Factory-Setaz puzzle pieces, for 99 cents a pop. They came 24 packs to a box.

Stepping up the volume a bit more were the 48-card, three-Yaz rack packs, loaded 72 to a case.

Finally, Donruss offered up a whopping 78-card blister pack, which came in cases of 48.

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Of course, if you wanted to skip the hassle of building your collection piece-by-piece, you could have opted for a factory set, which came with all 716 card1990-Donruss-David-Justices plus all of the Yaz puzzle pieces.

Red and Loaded

Even before the set ever saw the light of day, collectors assumed that 1990 Donruss baseball cards would be more common than a Yankee managerial change.

And so, no one was surprised to find those orange wax packs at Wal-Mart and Osco Drugs and card shows and gas stations and school bookstores. Coupled with those bloody borders, that evident overproduction could have completely buried 1990 Donruss from the beginning had the issue’s lineup been anything less than stellar.1990-Donruss-Bernie-Williams

Luckily, the checklist was absolutely loaded with rookie cards, and who wasn’t willing to take a chance on finding the next Kurt Stillwell or Buddy
Biancalana amid all of the Major League hopefuls?

Among the players making their red-cardboard debuts were Ventura, Alomar, Gonzalez, Todd Ziele (29), Juan Gonzalez (33), Marquis Grissom (36), Albert Belle (390), Sammy Sosa (489), Dean Palmer (529), Bernie Williams (689), David Justice (704), and John Olerud (711).
Add in the usual superstar lineup of Cal Ripken (96), Nolan Ryan (166), Rickey Henderson (304), and the other standouts of the late 80s and early 90s, and there was enough red-clad talent to keep collectors coming back for more Donruss, even though we knew we could never soak it all up.

Wait, There’s More!

Donruss seemed to be oblivious to our plight when it came to choking down all the regular-issue cards they loaded on our plates in 1990, because they augmented that generous offering with several parallel and special focus sets.

Among the extra helpings that Donruss whipped up in 1990s were:1990-Donruss-Aqueous-Test-Cal-Ripken

  • Pre-release promos: Issued to master distributors and dealers who bought directly from Donruss, the early promos featured 12 cards with white backs and include among their ranks a Todd Zeile specimen sans the “Rated Rookie” designation, Bo Jackson, and Jerome Walton with a different photo than was eventually released in the “real” set.
  • Aqueous Test: This 264-card issue is identical to the corresponding base set, except the aqueous cards featured a glossy finish and were labeled “AQUEOUS TEST” on card backs. This test issue was rumored to be sold in wax boxes, and several packs have surfaced in recent years, selling for $200+1990-Donruss-Blue-Test-Alan-Trammell apiece.
  • Blue/White Test: Long rumored to exist for various players, the blue and white test cards are identical to the base cards, but have either blue or white borders. Members of the Freedom Card Board forum have identified 228 blue/white test cards — 114 players available in both blue and white versions.
  • Super Diamond Kings: Available only through mail-in offer, SDKs are 4 7/8″ by 6 13/16″ versions of the regular Diamond Kings.
  • Bonus MVPs: The Bonus MVPs were 26 cards, one for each team, of the best players in the game with an “MVP” backdrop to their photos. These cards were inserted randomly across all types of base Donruss packs in 1990.
  • Grand Slammers: An homage to hitters who connected for four-run homers in 1989, Grand Slammers featured 12 big boppers and were inserted in cello packs.
  • Baseball’s Best: Issued as two separate factory sets, Baseball’s Best featured 144 “stars” from the American League and 144 from the Na1990-Donruss-The-Rookies-Sandy-Alomar-Jrtional League. The cards were very similar to the Donruss base set but showcased all-new images inside blue borders and included full stats on card backs.
  • The Rookies: Donruss’ answer to the Topps Traded and Fleer Update sets, The Rookies returned for its fifth rendition. Focusing on first-year players and seeking to capitalize on the rookie-card craze of the time, The Rookies was sold as a 56-card factory set and included holdovers from the base set as well as true “first Donruss cards” for others. In all cases, photos were new, and the design was a green-bordered version of the regular 1990 issue.

A Reversal of Fortune … and Images

And if a1990-Donruss-Nolan-Ryan-King-of-Kingsll THAT weren’t sufficient to make collectors turn and run for the Hills (Hit Men box set by Topps), the 1990 Donruss issue was home to enough error and variation cards to make a true master set about as easy to put together as a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of an earthworm in a mud storm.

So take a breath and behold the (partial) list of variations that these rubicund rectangles offer up:

  • Virtually all of the All-Star cards exist with backs that claim to show either “All-Star Game Performance” or “Recent Major League Performance.”
  • Several cards, including #639 of Jack Morris, exist with and without black lines slashing through various parts of their obverses.
  • The Ruben Sierra Diamond King (#3) can be found with and without a black notch on its top back border.
  • The Brian Downing Diamond King (#10) and the Juan Gonzalez Rated Rookie (#33) exist with reversed and corrected front images.
  • All of the checklists exists with multiple variations in terms of card numbers listed.
  • The Nolan Ryan King of Kings (665) can be found with #659 on back, with and without the information from that 5000K Ryan card.1990-Donruss-Kevin-Brown
  • Several players, including Kelly Gruber on card #113, can be found with correct or erroneous birth dates.
  • Card #343 tells us about how Kevin Brown was “signeed” with the Rangers.

Are there other missteps and resteps in the 1990 Donruss set?

Given that just this partial list brings the master count to about 750 cards, chances are pretty good.

How Much You Want for the Whole Thing?

So, w1990-Donruss-Baseballs-Best-Will-Clarkith this glut of product and a dizzying variety of cards available, are there any 1990 Donruss baseball cards worth collecting?

As with virtually all issues from the 1980s and 1990s, it depends on your motivation and perspective.

If you’re looking for high-dollar collectibles, these red “beauties” probably won’t float your boat since complete sets often sell for lest than $10 more than a quarter century after their release. Even the reverse-negative Gonzalez rookie can be had for less than a buck in solid raw condition, though high-grade slabbed copies can bring close to $1000.

Likewise, graded copies of the aqueous test issue for the biggest stars can bring hundreds of dollars (or more) in top condition.

For the most part, though, the 1990 Donruss set is loaded with commons-bin fodder, and there is likely enough remaining unopened product to keep collectors up to their ears in wax for generations to come.1990-Donruss-Wax-Pack

Is that good or bad?

Again, it depends on your perspective, but there is something to be said for a palm-sized time machine that you can buy for less than the cost of a pocket full of lint.

And, if you have an astute eye for detail, that pack of 1990 Donruss baseball cards that you fished from the bottom shelf at the local junk shop just might give you some insight into the future. After all, who else could have predicted that the Cincinnati Reds would storm all the way back to win the World Series over the vaunted Athletics that October?

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