If you had to pick the one baseball card most responsible for the hobby boom of the 1980s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate that the 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie card.
Today, he may be just the mild-mannered, clean-shaven, middle-aged manager of the Miami Marlins, but there was a time decades ago when Mattingly was one of the best players on the planet and climbing toward the echelon of the all-time greats.
And as he ascended, the young first baseman from Indiana put the baseball card hobby on his back and lifted it to new heights.
It all started around mid-season in 1984.
By the time May gave way to June, we all knew the Detroit Tigers were streaking their way toward history and that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to stop them from nabbing a World Series title. Luckily, and as always, there were plenty of other baseball stories to keep us interested as summer heated up.
The lowly San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, and New York Mets were all making early playoff pushes.
The National League was brimming with young superstar talent, including Tony Gwynn of the Padres, Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs, and Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden of the Mets.
And in the American League, even though the New York Yankees were languishing behind the Tigers, there was excitement in the Bronx, thanks to a race for the batting title that featured long-time fan favorite Dave Winfield and an upstart named … Don Mattingly.
Mattingly had been drafted in the 19th round by the Yanks in 1979 out of Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, and had moved steadily up the chain thanks to an ability to make solid contact and get on base. In four full(ish) minor league seasons, Mattingly hit .349, .358, .316, and .315. Solid performances, to be sure, but not enough to register with anyone outside of New York, thanks in large part to a lagging power swing that never produced more than 10 home runs in a season.
After two partial seasons with the big club in which he hit .167 (in 13 plate appearances) and .283 (in 305 PA), Mattingly stuck in 1984.
He also stuck in Winfield’s craw as the veteran zeroed in on what might have been his first batting crown. Mattingly stuck with his elder, though, and Winfield led the race .3410 to .3395 entering the last day of the season. Against the Tigers, Mattingly went 4-for-5 while Winfield struggled through a 1-for-4 day.
Mattingly won the batting title, .343 to .340.
Now, there was some scoffing among older fans because Mattingly batted third in the Yankees lineup and saw plenty of “protection” courtesy of Winfield himself in the fourth slot. The youngster was also viewed by some as a flash-in-the-pan since he’d never had that kind of success before.
But, for most fans, and especially for baseball card collectors, Don Mattingly — along with his 23 home runs, 110 RBI, and 44 doubles — had arrived.
Wax Pack Driver
Back in those heady early days of a hobby on the verge of explosion, we already had some notion about the importance of rookie cards.
The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card was already legendary.
The 1963 Topps Pete Rose card was heating up the aisles at card shows across the country.
Among younger players, Cal Ripken, Darryl Strawberry, and Ron Kittle had already staked their claims as hobby darlings, and their rookie cards had benefited accordingly.
Even Sandberg and Gwynn were causing something of a rookie-card frenzy as collectors dragged out our piles of 1983 cards looking for first-year issues from 1984’s breakout talents.
But Don Mattingly was different.
He had found his power stroke and could hit anything thrown at him.
He was a sweet-swinging lefty.
He was a Yankee, for gosh sake, and maybe (likely) the next Mickey Mantle!
But more than any of that, Mattingly was streaking across the baseball firmament in a season when collectors could still go to the corner store, plunk down their change, and pull his rookie card.
The longer Mattingly hung with Winfield and the more dingers he smacked, the more rabid the hobby grew over its new savior. All three major sets — Topps, Fleer, and Donruss — featured a first-year Mattingly card, and collectors slobbered over all of them.
We already had some anecdotal evidence, though, that 1984 Donruss cards were somewhat scarce. They just didn’t seem to show up at card conventions or drug stores with the same frequency as their Topps and Fleer counterparts. And so, the 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie card became the pasteboard of the summer, and of the decade.
By the time Mattingly put the finishing touches on Winfield on September 30, the rookie-card mania which had been a tender bud in the spring had blossomed into a full-blown bouquet.
Peak and Fall
In the ensuing years, Mattingly would prove that collectors had the right idea about him.
He won the AL MVP award in 1985 and finished second in 1986 during what was arguably his best season.
In 1987, Mattingly recorded his third straight 30-homer season and batted .327, the fourth year in a row that he’d finished with an average above .320. Hardly anyone noticed that he managed to play in only 141 games.
As Mattingly’s legend continued to grow, so too did the status of his most sought-after rookie card. Everyone wanted a 1984 Donruss Mattingly, and no price was too much if that hole still existed in your collection — $50? $75? $100?
It was all fair game at one point or another.
And, along the way, the rise of Mattingly and his most famous swatch of cardboard lifted the status of the entire 1984 Donruss set. Every star sold for at least a few bucks, and even commons traded for 10 cents at a time when Fleer and Topps counterparts were cheaper by a factor of two or three.
Every once in awhile, someone would “discover” a pack or box or case of unopened 1984 Donruss product, and it was as if we’d all found a vein of gold ore in the corner of our local card show.
Everything about Mattingly and 1984 Donruss were golden, it seemed.
But then came 1988, when Mattingly hit only 18 home runs.
And 1989, when he hit “just” .303.
And, worst of all, 1990, when a bad back limited him to 102 games, five homers, and an ugly .256 batting average.
Mattingly was able to play more-or-less full seasons in 1991 and 1992, but he was not the same superstar that he’d been before. His playing time dwindled again in 1993 and by the end of 1995, just as the modern Yankees dynasty began, Mattingly was done.
He finished his 14-year career with 2152 hits, 222 home run, and a .307 batting average.
It was a great career, but anyone who witnessed it in the moment knows … it could have been so much more. Mattingly could have been “the one.”
Instead, he was baseball’s version of Tiger Woods, minus the scandal and monster ego.
But old dreams die hard, don’t they?
Somewhere deep in the recesses of your mind, you think you still have a shot at the Majors even though you’re 40 (or 30 or 50 or 70), out of shape, and haven’t touched a baseball in 10 years or more.
Or maybe you’re going to write that novel of yours when you retire.
As it turns out, you wouldn’t be alone in that opinion.
Because, even as Mattingly’s back gave out and his career petered out, his 1984 Donruss rookie card stood strong on the hobby landscape. Oh sure, it lost a little luster and its price fell a few dollars or ten, but everyone still had to have one.
And even as Mattingly was surpassed by Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr., and Alex Rodriguez and, closer to home, Derek Jeter, that Donruss card was there.
And finally, even as the hobby itself came crashing down around collectors who had counted on their baseball cards to fund futures full of college educations, big homes, fancy cars, and more baseball cards, the Don Mattingly rookie card held its ground, more or less.
While it’s true that there were more ’84 Donruss cards produced than we thought and that the raw Mattingly rookie dropped in value, the advent of card grading gave the darling pasteboard another lease on life. Scoring a PSA 10 became the new “high” for modern collectors, akin to how it felt to pull a Mattingly rookie from fresh wax during that magical summer of 1984.
And so, today, more than 30 years after his breakout performance and more than 20 since his retirement, Mattingly still holds sway with collectors. According to the PSA Population Report, more than 5500 Mattingly rookies have been sent for grading, with a scant 211 scoring a perfect 10 (GEM-MT).
So the chase continues, which wouldn’t make any sense at all for anyone other than Don Mattingly.
For example, at any given time, you might find 200 copies of Mattingly’s 1984 Donruss rookie card for sale on eBay. While you can land ungraded specimens for $10 or less, a PSA 9 will set you back $50-100, and a “10” can fetch more than $500.
Compare that to Wally Joyner’s first card in the (arguably) limited 1986 Donruss “The Rookies” set, which brings less than $10 in GEM-MT, graded condition. To boot, you will find only a handful of Joyner listings, graded or not.
Joyner is one of Mattingly’s closest statistical comps and, like Donnie Baseball, took the baseball world and hobby by storm with a breakout performance.
So why the discrepancy in their card prices and popularity?
Because, while Wally Joyner was propelled along by the rookie-card craze, Don Mattingly created the rookie-card craze.
Maybe not singlehandedly, and maybe not first, but he certainly did it the best.
Mattingly came on the scene at the exact moment in hobby history when collectors were just waiting for someone to blow the whole thing open.
Armed with a New York Yankees first baseman’s mitt, a smooth lefty swing, and his 1984 Donruss rookie card, Don Mattingly stepped into the breach and led us into hobby glory.
For that, we’ll always love him.
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