Say what you will about Albert Belle, but the man could do almost anything with a bat in his hand.
Home runs? Yep, with a career high of 50 in just 143 games in 1995 and 381 over his 12-year career.
High average? Check, with a .295 batting average and a high of .357 in 1994.
On-base ability? You bet, as his .369 lifetime OBP attests.
Speed? Belle was no Rickey Henderson, but he did steal 23 bases in a season (1993).
Add in 389 doubles, 21 triples, 974 runs, 1200+ RBI, 1700+ hits, and you have one of the greatest 12-year runs in the last 30 years.
Of course, Don’t-Call-Me-Joey Belle was a challenge in left field, and his churlish personality was even more of hurdle to his popularity … not that Albert seemed to care.
For awhile there, collectors did care, though, and so did card companies.
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In fact, if you check out the Albert Belle Master Set checklist over on the PSA website, you’ll find nearly 400 items to satisfy just about any 1990s cardboard hankering that might strike you.
One of the neat features of those Master Sets is the “weight” column, which gives you an indicator of the relative importance of a given card, factoring in things like value, scarcity, and historical significance.
If you sort Belle’s cards and put the “heavies” on top, you’ll find his 1996 Select Certified Mirror Gold card, with a perfect 10.00. That’s a fancy, flashy card, to be sure, but …
Step down one slot, and there with a score of 8.00 is Belle’s 1993 Topps Finest Refractor card.
Now THIS thing is historic, from a hobby standpoint.
By 1993, we had been through several years of companies ramping up the card-quality stakes … Upper Deck to Leaf to Fleer Ultra to Stadium Club to premium base sets.
Everything was spiraling upward.
And then, in 1993, came Topps Finest … super glossy, massively thick, $3.99 per pack MSRP, announced production runs.
Collectors gobbled it up, and packs soared to $20 each or more before you could blink.
Part of the allure was an insert set Topps called “Refractors” — exact parallels of the base cards but with a special plastic laminate on front that made the Refractors do fun things with light.
What’s more, a bit math allowed collectors to deduce that there should have been only 241 of each Refractor produced. Instant scarcity!
We went bonkers for these things, and we never really regained our senses.
Even today, nearly 30 years on, you find traces of the Finest legacy all over the place, from gimmicky card technologies to tiny production numbers to extreme hype.
The hobby simply wouldn’t be what it is today without the Finest legacy behind it.
For better or for worse.
Same way the game wouldn’t be what it is without Belle’s legacy considering that he was sort of a Sabermetrics darling before we really even knew what that was.
Fitting, then, that the two trendsetters — again, for better or for worse — should have found each other on one hunk of Refractor-ed cardboard bliss … don’t you think?
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