(This is Day 23 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Baseball imitates …
Life is a series of events that chain together and spiral out and twist back on each other until we have a rich fabric of memories that make us who we are and lay the mental and emotional tracks for where we want to go.
The funny thing, though, is that, beneath what sometimes seems like a random string of occurrences flowing from one to the other, we often find an underlying regularity punctuated by persistent repetition
What we see in front of us now didn’t happen by pure chance and is usually the successful breakthrough — finally — of an idea that “tried” to manifest itself many times before in our past.
Baseball is rife with examples.
In 2015, for example, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series a year after falling a game short of the title and nearly a decade into a rebuilding effort that started at the bottom of the organization and worked its way up.
Before that, we saw Roger Maris’s single-season home run record fall after several years in which players toyed with us for a half a season or more before sliding back to mortality.
It’s everywhere, all the time …
Something nearly happens, falls short because the prerequisites are not quite in place, and then cycles back around when further developments have unfolded.
It happens again and again.
For baseball cards collectors, there are few better examples than the rookie card craze that rocked the hobby in the 1980s and never really let go.
In 1976, Mark Fidrych shook up the sport when he grabbed a spot in the Detroit Tigers‘ starting rotation and knocked off win after win with an exuberance that made everyone feel like a 12-year-old boy on the Little League diamond.
But baseball cards — and baseball card collectors — weren’t ready to fully embrace the wave of hype. Sure, boys everywhere and Tigers fans in particular spent a good part of the summer of 1977 trying to pull The Bird’s rookie card from Topps packs, but that’s about as far as it went.
The hobby was still viewed by most Americans as kid’s stuff, and any adult who was pumping money and time into cardboard had something wrong with him.
It didn’t much matter, anyway, because Fidrych began to fall apart in 1977 and was pretty much done by the time Detroit’s Fabulous Four took over Motown in 1978.
But Fidrych served an important purpose — he primed the American public and hobbyists to be on high alert for rookie phenoms. When would the next “next” emerge?
While every season sees its share of debut contributors, the world had to wait until 1980 for another rookie to really ignite our imaginations. That was the summer Joe Charboneau crashed his way into the starting lineup of the moribund Cleveland Indians and bashed 23 home runs despite a) being a rookie and b) playing his home games at cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
The baseball world took notice, and so did the hobby.
When Fleer won their antitrust lawsuit against Topps in 1980, they opened the door for the most fertile baseball card landscape in decades, if not ever, and collectors were greeted with three full sets in 1981: Donruss, Fleer, and Topps.
And wouldn’t you know it? All three companies featured Joe Charboneau rookie cards.
For a couple months after the cards hit store shelves, Charboneau was the hottest rookie in the hobby since, well, maybe ever.
His cards shot up to over a dollar each, and no one could get enough.
The frenzy obscured the fact that Charboneau got a (really) slow start to his sophomore season, but when the player’s strike halted everything in June, Joe’s paltry four home runs and pitiful .208 average were frozen for all to see.
It didn’t get better after play resumed, either, and he finished the season with those same four homers and a .210 batting average.
And that might have been the end of the rookie card craze were it not for two developments.
First, the boys of the 50s and 60s had grown up and started to make real money. Once they had their cars and houses and boats in tow, these menchildren turned toward the baubles that had eluded them 25 years earlier.
For many of them, that meant the cards of diamond heroes like Willie Mays, Duke Snider, and, especially, Mickey Mantle. Already popular, the 1952 Topps Mantle took on a new mystique as old(ish) guys made a run on any copy that turned up at card shows.
But beyond Mantle and his dusty, retired colleagues, there was something else happening on the diamond — when anything was happening on the diamond — that captured national attention.
The Los Angeles Dodgers had wheeled out young arms Rick Sutcliffe and Steve Howe in 1979 and 1980, respectively, and both of the hurlers nabbed National League Rookie of the Year honors. The up-and-comers were backed by the usual array of Dodgers infield/outfield superstars, and LA looked like a title contender coming into 1981.
Could they knock off the defending NL West champion Houston Astros and, maybe more intriguing, could they continue their run on NL ROY hardware?
Fans would have to wait all season and sweat out the midyear strike to get an answer to the first question, but the second looked like a strong “probably” before the season even started.
See, in September of 1980, the Dodgers called up a fireballing lefthander and plopped him into their end-of-season bullpen mix.
In ten appearances, 19-year-old Fernando Valenzuela struck out 16 batters in 17.2 innings without giving up a single run. His nasty 0.736 WHIP might have given us all a preview of things to come if anyone knew what a “WHIP” was back then.
Even so, excitement swirled around the young lefty from Navojoa, Mexico, when the Dodgers broke camp in 1981. Fernando didn’t disappoint.
He made his first Major League start and beat the mighty Astros, 2-0, striking out five and walking two. He allowed just five hits and went the distance to record a complete-game shutout.
Valenzuela won his next start five days later by a score of 7-1, and his next, 2-0. In fact, Fernando didn’t lose for the first time until May 18 against the Philadelphia Phillies. By that time, he had recorded seven complete games, and five of those were shutouts.
He had struck out 10 or more batters in a game four times.
Even after that loss, his record stood at 8-1 with a 0.91 ERA and 74 strikeout in 79.0 innings.
And, unlike Fidrych and Charboneau before him, Valenzuela was breaking out under the hot lights of the LA media. The whole world was watching, and we loved him.
We loved his stocky physique that belied his rising status as a baseball superstar.
We loved his wicked cut fastball.
We loved the way his eyes rolled to the sky every time he went into his windup.
We loved his name … Fernando!
And, thus, Fernandomania was born.
As it happened, that 10-game stint with the Dodgers in 1980 had given card-makers plenty of time to consider whether or not Fernando belonged in their 1981 sets.
Topps and Fleer both agreed that he did, and so we had two chances to pull a Fernando card from our wax packs at the same time he was making magic on the mound. It was a phenomenon that the young hobby had not yet witnessed on any grand scale — it was, for many, their first dose of the baseball card “chase.”
Poor ol’ Donruss missed out on this Fernando-led surge, though.
In truth, missing out on Valenzuela in their maiden issue was probably the least of Donruss’s worries considering all the missteps they made with the cards they did print.
Everything about that first Donruss set said, “rush job,” and they needed to take big strides if they were going to hang with Topps and Fleer in the coming years.
So they went back to the card lab (how fun would that be?) and reformulated their offering for 1982, cooking up changes that included dropping gum from their packs in favor of puzzle pieces.
When collectors popped open their first packs of 1982 Donruss, those very same puzzle pieces caused more than a few confused grimaces. What the heck were those thick, perforated pieces of cardboard?
We’d unfold the crumpled wrapper to look for clues, and there we’d see the veiled answer: “Babe Ruth Hall of Fame Diamond King.”
And next to that label was a picture of a puzzleized Bambino.
So, what was a “Diamond King,” exactly?
We’d shrug and pick up our new cards again, shuffling off the puzzle pieces to get at the good stuff. Maybe it came in that first pack, or maybe in the next, or the next. But soon enough, we’d run into a card of one of our favorite players that looked like it had been painted.
And if we looked closely, we could indeed find the artist’s signature — PEREZ.
They were paintings.
They had a name, too, as green and gold banners on top of the cards told us: Donruss Diamond Kings.
Ah, so that’s what a Diamond King was!
Depending on your own aesthetic sensibilities and which DK you encountered first, your reaction was likely pretty strong one way or the other, love or hate.
But if your favorite player made the Perez-Steele roll call, I can almost guarantee you it sent chills down your spine the first time you laid eyes on it.
And in those early days of hobby variety, we were more than happy to have any new, extra card of our superstars. Collecting every single one was still a possibility, and we intended to do just that.
For Fernando fans or Dodger fans or baseball fans, and especially for Donruss, the presence of Valenzuela in that initial Diamond Kings set was a coup.
The Valenzuela Diamond King card features a smiling Fernando in front of a savage action shot of the young pitcher about to unleash all kinds of fury on an unseen, unsuspecting batter. The painting drips Dodger blue with stripes of green, baseball-field accents.
It’s a masterpiece that helped Donruss start turning in the right direction and make up for some lost time with one of baseball’s brightest young stars.
It’s also the best baseball card of 1982.
So, that’s what I was going to write.
If you’ve been involved with baseball cards for a long time, though, and if you’re paying any sort of attention, you’ve realized by now that it’s all wrong.
Well, not all wrong, but the punchline is definitely off.
Fernando Valenzuela was not the Dodgers’ representative in that first Diamond Kings subset — that honor belonged to the Teflon Iron Man, Steve Garvey.
The Fernando card appeared in 1983.
So how did I make this mistake?
Part of it is Google’s fault, because when you search for “1982 Diamond Kings,” the 1983 Fernando card is among the first few image results. I knew I wanted to include the DKs in my consideration of the best cards from 1982, and I needed a quick visual refresher on all the options.
And how did Google make this mistake?
Simple … Google relies on the bits of text we provide about the pictures we post online to figure out what it’s looking at, and the Fernando card comes up more than once labeled as “1982.”
And the reason for that goes all the way back to the earliest days of the modern hobby — namely, the copyright date (1982) on the back of the card doesn’t match the actual issue date of the card (1983).
In a way, then, I fell for the same sort of date confusion that I laughed at as a kid. “Dude, that’s a 1976 Topps Biff Pocoroba. The cards come out after the last year listed in the stats.”
That means Donruss didn’t fix their Fernando rookie faux pas by giving him a Diamond King the next year. They didn’t do that until 1983.
It’s still a good card, but not the best of 1982 … duh.
It’s not the best of 1983, either, especially since it doesn’t have the significance it would have had in 1982.
But the rest of the post above?
Yeah, that’s what I meant.
Unless there’s another glaring error in there somewhere. Then I take it all back.