What do you get when you combine a sweet-swinging left-handed rookie home-run hitter patrolling right field for the New York Mets with a collecting public just itching to get its hands on his first-ever — though non-existent — pasteboard? Why, you get the Darryl Strawberry baseball card that almost single-handedly turned the concept of a “traded set” into a hobby phenomenon, of course!
The summer of 1983 was notable for many baseball developments, but maybe none of them more important from a collecting standpoint than the sudden re-emergence of young power bats as a focal point in the game. In particular, the Mets and the Chicago White Sox both broke out of obscurity on the backs of a pair of rookie sluggers.
In Chicago, 25-year-old Ron Kittle finally stuck in the Big Leagues after six seasons in the minors and after an astounding power display that saw him swat 40 home runs in 1981 in Double-A action and 50 in 1982 at the Triple-A level. He wasted little time in feasting on Major League pitching in ’83, and his 35 home runs helped lead the Sox to the best record in the game.
Collectors, of course, went bonkers for Kittle, and we flocked to his 1983 Fleer rookie card. It was the only mainstream issue for Kittle issued that summer, and it gave Fleer a considerable leg up on its competition.
As great as Ron Kittle was, Darryl Strawberry was a different sort of phenomenon altogether.
Selected as the number-one overall draft pick in 1980, Strawberry made short work of the Mets’ minor-league system. On May 6, 1983, he made his Big League debut at the age of just 21, and fans were instantly transfixed.
The frame was powerful, the poise was palpable, the swing was gorgeous. He was going to be the next Ted Williams, according to the early hype.
And then, he delivered.
In just 122 games, Strawberry smacked 26 home runs, drove in 74, and collected 19 stolen bases. Strawberry won the National League Rookie of the Year award, and the Flushing faithful hardly noticed that the Mets languished in last place.
Finally, they had hope.
The Strawberry Mystique
But as the temperatures rose and Strawberry continued to smash baseballs, collectors became more and more desperate for a first glimpse of him on cardboard. Those were the days before pre-rookie cards and full-out speculation, remember, so there was little incentive for card companies to include players who had no MLB experience in their sets.
Thankfully, observant collectors knew we wouldn’t have to wait through the winter, too, because Topps had changed their game in face of direct competition from Fleer and Donruss in 1981.
In particular, the Old Gum Company had taken to releasing standalone “Traded” sets at the end of each season to catch up on players who had switched teams during the season. In 1982, they had also used the extra real estate to grace us with dedicated cards for young players who had previously shared a card with other rookies — “FUTURE STARS,” in the Topps vernacular of that year.
The major beneficiary and target of collector adoration to that point had been Cal Ripken, Jr.
But, while Ripken was already a superstar by 1983 — he won the AL MVP award — all of the mystique was already gone for card collectors.
The same could be said for Kittle and, the next year, for Don Mattingly. Collectors could grab rookie cards of those two guys in the midst of their breakout seasons, and the 1984 Donruss Mattingly card, of course, helped change the hobby.
With Strawberry, though, we were foaming at the mouth by the time November rolled around. We gladly shelled out $10, $20, $30 for the 1983 Topps Traded set when it was finally released. It didn’t hurt anything that Topps chose to print the cards on a premium, hard white stock rather than it’s typical soft brown mush, or that they also included their first Ron Kittle card in the set.
Changing the Hobby
For maybe the first time, a confluence of events had ensured the success of a set of baseball cards long before they were ever released. From that point forward, throughout the hobby boom, Topps Traded sets were eagerly awaited and flew off dealer shelves every fall.
They also helped set the formula that card manufacturers would follow and refine to make the boom a reality: produce a high-quality set full of hot rookie cards and create an air of anticipation and scarcity wherever and whenever you can.
It was a model that would be invoked again and again as the hobby exploded throughout the rest of the 1980s.
In the ensuing years, Strawberry reached even greater heights on the diamond before hubris and personal problems diminished his awesome potential. In the end, his career stats look good but not great, and anyone who was around in his heyday can’t help but wonder what might have been had he stayed on his initial trajectory.
Kittle’s star descended much more rapidly, and he was a journeyman bouncing from team to team by late 1980s.
With its two major drivers diminished significantly, and with the proliferation of sets that would flood the hobby in the coming years, the 1983 Topps Traded set slowly slid down collector’s must-have list. It never disappeared completely, though.
Still a Staple
Today, you can find complete sets for $30 or less, while the Kittle rookie will set you back a buck or two.
And the once-vaunted Darryl Strawberry rookie card? It’s not completely dead.
You can find nice “raw” copies for $10-15, and specimens graded at PSA 10 (GEM-MT) run about $100.
Those prices are a testament to the revolutionary combination of the Strawberry mystique and the masterful positioning of the 1983 Topps Traded set.
Without them, the hobby “boom” might not have been so resounding.
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