By the time the first wax packs of 1990 Topps baseball cards hit store shelves that early spring, the pressure was already off for the Old Gum Company (OGC).
All illusions of scarcity for their base brand had been cast to the wind during 1988 and 1989, when Topps cards were rumored to be found growing from sidewalk cracks in New York City and sprouting inside tumbleweeds outside El Paso.
Even the loaded 1987 Topps set was starting to lose luster as collectors found cache after cache in junk shops and closeout bins across the country.
Strangely, though we didn’t expect much from Topps, we were all eager to hold the new cards in our hands, same as every year.
But this time, we were prepared to scrutinize and compare Topps more than at any point since Fleer and Donruss entered the field in 1981.
Because, while all three companies were searching for the right path forward as the hobby boom continued, newcomers Score and, especially, Upper Deck had raised the bar on collector expectations.
We were pretty sure that Upper Deck would deliver another top-quality premium set chocked full of beautiful photography against a super clean design, but how would Topps respond to the swelling demand for top-notch collectibles?
Chiclets in a Wax Pack
As we tore open those first waxy, Topps-y green packs, our hopes of a revolutionary new design from the OGC were instantly dashed.
Instead of a clean, new look, Topps took an approach that only they could and which has worked so well for them in more recent years: they stepped back into the past to revise a classic design.
In this case, Topps reached back 15 years to channel the spirit of their controversial 1975 set, which featured the most colorful borders in the company’s history.
For their 1990 resurrection, Topps endowed each card front with a fairly uncluttered front that featured a large full-color photo of the player surrounded by a thin two-color border. In the top lefthand corner, the team name was presented in a color that matched a box in the lower righthand corner and contained the player name in black letters.
If the card design had stopped there, or if the size of the photo had been expanded so that the thin inner border became the only border, then Topps might have had a blueprint to compete with UD and the coming “ultra premium” sets — especially if the package included white card stock and high-def photos.
But Topps didn’t stop there, instead wrapping each card in a razzmatazz border that featured one color in multiple shades, fading and dotting and strobing from dark to white to light and back again.
Looking at one card was interesting, maybe even refreshing.
Thumbing through an entire wax pack of 15 cards was jarring and made you feel like you were holding a Frankenstein representation of several different sets — much like the 1975 Topps baseball cards had done a decade and half earlier.
You might have expected such a color explosion to be accompanied by a pack of fruity Chiclets, but Topps opted instead for their normal slab of pink confection that only added to the perception that OGC was not quite ready to respond to the innovations of their challengers.
Another big clue came when you turned over a 1990 baseball card and it became obvious that Topps was sticking with their traditional soft, brown card stock.
The result was a card back that appeared dingy in comparison to the bright white stock of Topps’ competitors and left no doubt about its origin.
Dominated by a mustard yellow background, the reverse of each 1990 card contains all of the usual design elements, beginning with the card number in gray on black in the upper righthand corner, perched atop a black Topps logo against a gray background.
Next to the card number is a long gray box with the player’s vital and personal stats, with his name and position in gray against a black background rounding out the top section.
As usual, the most prominent element of the back is the stats section, which occupies the bottom 80% and shows complete career numbers. For those players with just a handful of seasons to their credit, Topps squeezed in a biographical paragraph under the statistics.
All in all, the 1990 Topps set created an aesthetic that didn’t leave much room for middle ground: either you loved the garish borders, or they gave you a headache.
Based on anecdotal evidence, most collectors were reaching for the Tylenol bottle after slicing through a few wax wrappers that spring, but that didn’t necessarily keep us from stocking up on the cards.
After all, we had burning questions, like …
And the answer to that question would eventually be “the 1990 Topps baseball set,” or at least a handful of its key cards.
In particular, Juan Gonzalez (331), Ken Griffey, Jr. (336), Frank Thomas (414), Sammy Sosa (692), Bernie Williams (701), and Larry Walker (757) all made their regular-issue Topps debuts in the first set of the new decade. All but Griffey were rookie cards, as The Kid had made appearances in several 1989 base sets and the 1989 Topps Traded boxed deal.
While this lineup of rookie cards may not have created quite the buzz that 1987’s fabled group of youngsters stirred up, collectors had our eyes on these six guys from the very beginning. And it didn’t take long for them to start cranking home runs and establishing themselves among the best players of the 1990s.
Add in hype surrounding the speedy Eric Anthony (608), multidimensional Marquis Grissom (714), and big righty Ben McDonald (774), and there was plenty of rookie craze to fuel interest in the 1990s regardless of how they looked.
Of course, checking in at the usual 792-card count, Topps’ 1990 effort had plenty of room to include all the biggest stars of the game. Among the hottest names at the time were Don Mattingly (200), Roger Clemens (245), Rickey Henderson (450), and Cal Ripken, Jr. (570).
And nobody was hotter in the early 1990s than Nolan Ryan, who had eclipsed the 5000-strikeout plateau in 1989. Topps obliged Express-hungry collectors by kicking off the set with FIVE Ryan cards, starting with his base issue and following up with a 5000K special showing Ryan with each of his four Major League teams — New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros, and Texas Rangers.
Tonight, On a Very Special Topps Baseball Card
The Ryan onslaught on cards 1-5 was just the beginning of the subsets and theme cards peppered throughout the 1990 set. From All-Stars to Record Breakers to manager cards, the issue had most of the Topps goodies that you could ever ask for. Here is a complete listing of the “specials” you might find in your packs that spring and summer:
- Nolan Ryan (cards #1-5)
- Record Breakers (#6-8)
- Manager cards (starting with #21 — Jeff Torborg — and seeded about every 30 cards thereafter)
- Six checklist cards starting with #128
- All-Stars (#385-407)
- Turn Back the Clock (#661-665)
About the only subjects missing were team cards, but it would have been impossible for Topps to settle on one border color for each club anyway.
Get ‘Em This Way or That, and Get Something Extra
What Topps lacked in innovation in 1990, they attempted to overcome by offering a blinding variety of avenues through which collectors could acquire their cards. Among these were:
- The good old wax pack, which came 36 to a box at 50 cents each
- Traditional cello packs containing 30 cards for 89 cents, and stacked 24 to a box
- Rack packs offered 24 to a box, each containing 44 cards for $1.49
- “Jumbo” cello packs, each containing 100 cards
- K-Mart “blister” packs loaded with 100 cards
- Vending boxes with a whopping 500 cards
- Factory sets in fairly plain white boxes
- Christmas factory sets in stylish seasonal boxes
So, as usual, Topps cards were everywhere throughout 1990, and most of these distribution options offered a little something extra for your patronage.
In particular, you would find:
- One of 22 glossy “1989 All-Star” cards in each rack pack
- A glossy “1989 Rookies” card, very similar in design to the above All-Star glossies, seeded one per Jumbo pack
- One of 22 “Batting Leaders” cards in each K-Mart jumbo
- A redemption card in wax packs that you could collect and send in for Topps Glossies, consisting of 60 cards in all
They also gave us more to collect, and if it’s one thing that collectors love, it’s “more.”
You Can’t Read This Subtitle Because I Forgot the Ink (NNOF)
Something else that collectors really dug in the early days of the hobby boom were errors and variations.
If a player’s name were spelled wrong, or if his height were listed at 5’2″ instead of 5’10”, we were all over it.
And if those errors were corrected in later print runs?
Break out the good china, Mabel, ’cause we’re in the money now!
Errors and, especially, variations, meant scarcity — one version would always be less plentiful than the other — and that meant value.
And, while our E & V mania may have been subsiding a bit by 1990, we were still vigilant enough to notice that:
- Darrell Evan’s home run total was incorrect on card #55.
- Card #222 (Kurt Stillwell) misspelled “graduate.”
- Sandy Alomar wasn’t a “Jr.” on card #353.
- Marty Barrett “slugged” .056 in 1982, not .56.
- Checklist card #376 didn’t alphabetize “Higuera” correctly.
- Card #496 credits Cecil Espy with the wrong number of stolen bases for 1988.
- Mike Dunne (#522) is listed with the wrong birth town.
- Card #538 purports to show Billy Spiers but actually depicts George Canale.
- Scott Scudder’s card #553 introduces us to hacker-speak and secure passwords with a reference to “Cedar Rap1ds.”
- Kirt Manwaring’s 1988 stats on card #678 were so enticing that Topps printed them twice.
- Sadly, Mark Parent (#749) did not bat .80 in 1987; the real figure was .080.
Card #414 of Frank Thomas was a different animal, though.
Not only was the pasteboard the rookie card of a Number 1 draft pick who looked like he might be something special, but collectors discovered early on that some of Thomas’ cards existed with no player name on the front.
While many hobbyists considered the Thomas card to be nothing more than a printing mistake — black ink left out of the process somewhere along the line — the “no name on front,” or NNOF, variation was noticeably scarcer than the “correct” version. Coupled with Thomas’ rising star, investor speculation turned NNOF into the 90s version of “C. Nettles” and drove the card into four-figure territory.
Most of the furor around NNOF has long since died down, but high-grade specimens can still fetch $1000 or more.
Topps may have relied on rookies and variations to generate whatever middling excitement they could in 1990, but they also continued a tradition that never really seemed to catch on in its day but which many hobbyists thought should have superseded the base set each season.
For the seventh consecutive year, Topps released a Tiffany set to accompany its “normal” 1990 Topps set.
The Tiffany set was a complete 792-card copy of the base set, but printed on high-quality white stock and featuring a super glossy coating that made each card “slick” to the touch. It’s not known exactly how many of the 1990 Tiffany sets were printed, but previous years saw between 10,000 and 25,000 of the premiums issued, a far cry from the overabundance of base cards.
Often considered too expensive and unnecessary when they were released, the Tiffany sets gained in popularity as other premium issues became more prevalent in the 1990s and 2000s. Today, the Tiffanies enjoy a strong secondary market.
One add-on that was always popular as soon as it was issued was the year-end Topps Traded set.
The 132-card 1990 Topps Traded set never had the firepower of its 1982-83 counterparts, but it still offered collectors our first glimpse of Carlos Baerga (6T), Travis Fryman (33T), David Justice (48T), and John Olerud (83T) on OGC pasteboards.
It also treated us to the strange sight of Dave Winfield (130T) in a California Angels uniform.
The 1990 set is one of the first that never experienced much of a price boost as its rookies and superstars set off into the Major League world to make a name for themselves.
Hobbyists had a pretty good idea from the outset that the cards weren’t limited in any way, and there were enough options available by that spring that the rainbow set never generated much buzz.
Even the Thomas NNOF error couldn’t do much for overall prices since it wasn’t part of the set and would generally only be found for sale as a single. The chase for missing black ink may have sold a few extra packs for a while, but that excitement was short-lived.
So we’re left with a set that debuted like all Topps issues of the era did, available in the $15-30 range depending on who was selling it and whether the set was of the hand-collated or factory variety.
And more than 25 years later, that’s about where the issue stands now. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find complete runs for less than $15 and sometimes even under $10.
No one will ever get rich by selling 1990 Topps baseball cards, but they’re a colorful reminder of what life was like on the diamond during the pre-expansion years of the 1980s and early 1990s. If you’re looking for an affordable time machine and memories of a simpler time, you can’t do much better than these wax-wrapped Chiclets.
(Check out our rundown of the most valuable 1990 Topps baseball cards right here.)