Donruss baseball cards began life as a sort of surprise for collectors who were eagerly anticipating the arrival of Fleer baseball cards to the hobby landscape in 1981.

After all, it was Fleer who had spent a decade or so in court battling against Topps’ monopoly in the card world, a battle that Fleer eventually won. Their bounty?

A cool $1 settlement. Whoopie.

Yes, whoopie, but there was an add-on — Fleer was finally allowed to start making baseball cards, too, and baseball cards featuring current teams and players. They had a place to invest that buck.

But Fleer’s big win didn’t just benefit them, because it also opened the door for other card manufacturers to jump into the baseball card market. And, as it turned out, Donruss had been watching from the wings all along, sharpening their cardboard chops on Elvis cards and Football Super Freaks and Odd Rods.

Humble Beginnings

When the settlement came down, Donruss pounced into action — scooping up all the dark, terrible baseball photos they could find … cornering the market on Bible-page paper to use as “cardstock” … hiring young wordsmiths to puke their degrees out into War-and-Peace level epic card-back narratives.

Oh, and sprinkling in enough errors and variations to keep collectors hopping and guessing and hunting for years.

And, also “oh” — oiling up their printing presses to make sure they could run ’round the clock all through 1981.

The result was a 605-card issue that was among the worst sets ever made, but also one that was welcomed with open — and surprised! — arms when it debuted in 1981.

Steady Improvement and … BAM!

From those humble beginnings, Donruss improved their design in 1982, while also introducing their landmark Diamond Kings, emerging from the Perez-Steele galleries and featuring the inimitable artwork of Dick Perez.

The 1983 set was a near-carbon copy of the 1982s, though with improving photography, and then in 1984, Donruss arrived.

Sporting a sleek design that was reminiscent of the fabled 1957 Topps set, along with improved photography and at least the perception of a marked step up in scarcity, 1984 Donruss wax packs soared past their 30-cent MSRP early in the collecting season.

Donruss also played into the burgeoning rookie card craze by introducing a subset of Rated Rookies (though a few cards had carried the RR designation on their backs in 1983), showcasing prospects like Joe Carter, Ron Darling, Mike Stenhouse, Kevin McReynolds, Sid Fernandez, and others.

And, by the time fans realized that Don Mattingly was really going to stick around the batting race that summer, collectors had also recognized that Donnie Baseball’s most hard-to-come-by rookie card was lurking in those Donruss packs.

Fire, meet Gasoline.

Indeed, the 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie card catapulted Big D to the front of the card manufacturer line and spurred on a whole new era of the hobby, one in which brand new cards could command big bucks — $3, $5, $10 — right out of the pack. The perception of that Donruss set as a premium issue grew along with each Mattingly hit, and we all started to think about what a future full of REALLY high-quality baseball cards might look like.

In many ways, 1989 Upper Deck and the coming hobby explosion of the 1990s owe their very existence to the strides Donruss and Mattingly made in 1984.

Good Times and Crash

Donruss rode that wave of goodwill for several seasons, with their 1985-87 sets “feeling” really special. They even had their own distinctive smell (think high school chemistry lab crossed with Great Uncle Ted’s darkroom).

Alas, like all the other card companies, Donruss interpreted their success and positive reviews as, “crank out cards until the earth is paved in cardboard” and did just that.

Heck, 1988 Donruss may just be THE exemplar for the entire Junk Wax Era (JWE).

Things got tough for Big D, and for most other card manufacturers, from that point through the mid-1990s, with the end of the true JWE roughly coinciding with the beginning of that dratted 1994 baseball strike. By the end of that run, Donruss had splintered into a dizzying array of brands and sets — Donruss, Leaf, Studio, and on and on and on.

Diversification and Changing Hands

With the new-card market growing tougher by the day, Donruss added new lines in the 1990s in an attempt to stave of disaster — hockey, a football card game, and a return to entertainment cards were all in the offing.

It worked, sort of, and at least to the extent of attracting the attention of other companies — Pinnacle Brands acquired Donruss in 1996, which brought Donruss and Leaf under the same corporate umbrella as Score and Sportflics.

Pinnacle themselves went bankrupt in 1998, but Playoff Corp. swooped in to buy the brand…but the NHL and MLB pulled Donruss’ licenses, and Donruss baseball cards were gone …

… until 2001, that is, when Playoff again secured an MLB license.

On-Again, (logos) Off-Again

The 21st century has featured a lot of up-and-down for Donruss baseball cards.

After a five-year run, Donruss again lost their MLB and MLBPA licenses.

Then, in 2007, they began issuing cards of prospects and retired players, making those sets through 2013.

During that run, in 2009, Panini Group purchased Donruss-Playoff and renamed them Panini America.

In 2014, Panini secured a license from the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) … but not MLB itself. Donruss baseball cards returned, just without any team logos.

Then, in the summer of 2021, apparel and memorabilia company Fanatics acquired exclusive rights from both the MLB and MLBPA to make cards starting in 2026, putting the future of Donruss baseball in peril yet again.

Hobby Reflections

All in all, the history of Donruss is an apt reflection of the modern hobby itself — from the end of the first Topps monopoly, to the 1980s hobby boom, to the coming of the premium card, to the mess of the 1990s, to the uncertainty of the 21st century (even in the face of the 2020s explosion).

What will the future hold for Donruss baseball? Hard to know for sure, but for now, we can revel in its storied past, and you can come down memory lane along with us in the suite of articles below, all dedicated to Donruss baseball cards.

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