The only thing better than being a baseball fan on Opening Day is being a baseball fan and a baseball card collector on Opening Day.
Not only do you get to see what your favorite team looks like after a long winter away, you also get to compare your hometown heroes to how they look on your beloved, maybe dogeared cards.
And every season, there is at least one new card that you just can’t wait to get your hands on, right?
It’s been the same story all through the hobby ages, leaving us with a string of spectacular early-season cardboard across all the Major League franchises.
Ah, but which is the greatest Opening Day baseball card for each team?
Well, that’s what we’re about to find out, subject to a couple of rules. In particular, the chosen card must …
- Depict the team in question, in some way
- Have been widely available (in wax packs, for example) on Opening Day of the season it was issued.
And, of course, it must be awesome.
Let’s dig in and take a sampling of the greatest Opening Day baseball cards ever …
Atlanta Braves – 1974 Topps Hank Aaron (#1)
Hank Aaron was the most important baseball player in the spring of 1974 no matter which team you rooted for. Entering the season one home run behind Babe Ruth for the all-time home run lead will do that for a guy. Topps sought to capitalize onAaron’s popularity, and his chase, by devoting card #1 — not to mention the following five cards in retrospective style — to The Hammer.
Baltimore Orioles – 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken (#616)
Not every card on this list is regal. Some are simply important from a hobby standpoint.
By the time the 1989 season opened, we had all learned a fancy new term courtesy of the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken error card. It was the height of error card mania, and Fleer’s subsequent attempts to rectify the situation made them look like complete boobs.
Boston Red Sox – 1954 Topps Ted Williams (#1)
After three full sets plus their funky 1951 issues, Topps finally scored the rights to feature Ted Williams in their baseball cardsets. They celebrated that achievement by inserting Williams at both the front and the back of their 1954 issue in what can rightly be viewed as one of T.C.G.’s major victories on the path to tossing Bowman onto the cardboard scrapheap.
California Angels – 1980 Topps Rod Carew (#700)
Rod Carew won the American League Most Valuable Player award for the Minnesota Twins in 1977 after batting .388 that season, then “fell off” to .333 (and another batting crown) in 1978. As a reward, the Twins shipped him to the California An
gels, whom Carew helped win their first-ever division title in 1979, courtesy of a .318 average. The next spring, Angels fans got their first cardboard glimpse of the future Hall of Fame in California garb courtesy of his 1980 Topps card.
Chicago Cubs – 1988 Fleer Andre Dawson (#415)
Andre Dawson couldn’t find any takers when he became a free agent after the 1986 season, so he headed to Spring Training in 198y and handed the Chicago Cubs a blank contract. The $1 million they paid the former Montreal Expos superstar looked even more ridiculous after Dawson hit 49 home runs and won the National League MVP award that summer. The next year, Dawson made his base-set Cubs debut in Donruss, Topps, and Score issues, but Fleer was viewed as the “scarce” issue early that spring. It wins here despite the fact that it now seems as common as all the rest.
Chicago White Sox – 1986 Topps Ozzie Guillen (#254)
The 1985 baseball card sets were loaded with top-notch rookies, but the season itself produced only mild excitement in terms of newcomers. Vince Coleman won the NL Rookie of the Year award with his blazing wheels and little else. In the AL, ChiSox shortstop Ozzie Guillen copped the ROY with middling offensive numbers but an exciting on-field persona. While Fleer and Donruss both caused plenty of stir with their speculative rookies — Jose Canseco, Fred McGriff, Cecil Fielder — the next season, Coleman and Guillen were the most anticipated of the widely distributed 1986 Topps cards.
Cincinnati Reds – 1985 Topps PeteRose (#600)
Pete Rose came back to the Cincinnati Reds as a player-manager in 1984, and the city immediately fell in love with her native son once again. Collectors would have to wait until 1985 to see the “new” Rose in his Reds togs, though, because a stop with the Montreal Expos made for some strange-looking cards in the 1984 Topps Traded and 1984 Fleer Update issues. Rose’s 1985 Topps player card, though, became an instant classic as Rose raced toward Ty Cobb‘s record of 4191 hits.
Cleveland Indians – 1981 Topps Joe Charboneau (#13)
Mark Fidrych was a phenomenon with the Detroit Tigers in 1976, and his 1977 Topps rookie card made waves with collectors. But the hobby was still small enough that even The Bird couldn’t completely explode into a cardboard frenzy. Four years later, though, Joe Charboneau used his booming bats to stir imaginations around the lowly Cleveland Indians, and the next spring, the burgeoning hobby fully embraced Charboneau and his 1981 Topps card in what might have been the first diagnosed case of Rookie Card Mania.
Colorado Rockies – 1994 Topps Greg Harris (#18)
Yes, the Rockies debuted as a Major League team in 1993, but the big-four card companies held off until their late-season series before issuing their first Rox cards. So we turn here to Greg Harris, who holds the distinction of appearing on the first Topps Rockies card available on Opening Day, even though he had gone 1-8 with a 6.50 ERA in Colorado during 1993 and would “improve” to 3-12, 6.65. Hey, every team has to start somewhere
Detroit Tigers – 1961 Topps Rocky Colavito (#330)
Just days before the 1960 Major League Baseball season opened, the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers orchestrated a trade that would rock the two franchises, and the American League, for years to come. Heading to Detroit was Tribe favorite, rightfielder Rocky Colavito, who had paced the Junior Circuit with 42 home runs in 1959. In 1960, Rocky dropped to 35 dingers in 145 games, but he still made Tigers fans feel a lot better about losing ’59 AL batting champion Harvey Kuenn. The next spring, Topps gave the world their first cardboard look at Colavito in a Detroit uniform.
Houston Astros – 1981 Topps Nolan Ryan (#240)
In November of 1979, fireballer Nolan Ryan became the first million-dollar-per-year baseball player when he signed a four-year, $4.5-million free agent contract with the Houston Astros. Ryan was good, not great in 1980 for Houston, going 11-10 with a 3.35 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 233+ innings. Still, it must have been good for Astros faithful to finally get their big gun on a Houston baseball card in the spring of 1981.
Kansas City Royals – 1981 Fleer George Brett MVP (#28)
This card had a lot going for it …
- It showed George Brett the year after he hit .390.
- It said “.390” on the back … good gaud!
- It showed the Kansas City Royals‘ first-ever MVP.
- It showed what George Brett looked like during the first season KC ever reached the World Series.
- It showed George Brett looking pretty doofus-y — good for ridicule later on.
Who didn’t want this thing on Opening Day 1981?
Los Angeles Dodgers – 1981 Fleer Fernando Valenzuela (#140)
By 1981, Dodgers fans already suspected that Fernando Valenzuela was going to be special thanks to his advance billing and a strong four-game call-up in 1980 during which he logge
d 17-2/3 innings, struck out 16, and gave up zero earned runs. The 1981 Topps card Fernando shared with Jack Perconte and Mike Scioscia was popular, but this Fleer goody was exotic — new card company for the new year — and it was Fernando’s only solo rookie card. Awesome!
Miami Marlins – 1994 Topps Bryan Harvey (#20)
Same reasoning here as with the Greg Harris (Rockies) card above — first Florida Marlins cards available in packs on Opening Day. And, hey, at least Bryan Harvey was good for the expansion Marlins in 1993, picking up 45 saves to go with a nifty 1.70 ERA and 0.841 WHIP. Florid
a’s first All-Star!
Milwaukee Brewers – 1976 Topps Kurt Bevacqua Bubble Gum Champ (#564)
By 1976, Topps was issuing all its cards all in one fell swoop, so this Kurt Bevacqua card got an early start on legendary status despite falling so late in the set. Word travels fast among collectors (even in that long-ago Bicentennial year), and if you didn’t have your Bevacqua by Opening Day, you were scrambling to make amends.
Minnesota Twins – 1961 Topps Lenny Green (#4)
For the first 60 years of their existence, the Minnesota Twins were known by another name … specifically, the Washington Senators. In a twist that could only happen in baseball, the Senators left for Minneapolis after the 1960 season, and then MLB awarded our capital an expansion team for 1961, aptly named … well, the Washington Senators.
Not to worry, though, because those Senators would eventually become the Texas Rangers.
And yes, technically Lenny Green is just wearing a hatless Senators uniform (old version) on card #4 of the 1961 Topps set, but c’mon! You t
hink Minnesota fans weren’t ecstatic to see their state and team listed on a real Major League baseball card?
Montreal Expos – 1978 Topps Andre Dawson (#72)
It’s hard to pick an Expos card for this list because they just never won anything despite coming close many times and because their great young players all had timely rookie cards. Still, you have to imagine Montreal fans were aching for some solo cardboard of Andre Dawson in 1978 after The Hawk won the NL ROY in 1977 while appearing on one of those four-player ROOKIES monstrosities.
New York Mets – 1984 Topps Darryl Strawberry (#182)
If it hadn’t been for Don Mattingly, the New York Mets may have stirred the rookie card phenomenon into a frenzy all on their own in the middle 1980s, and it all started with slugger Darryl Strawberry. After cruising to the NL ROY on the strength of 26 homers and 74 RBI in 1983, Strawberry splashed into the hobby in that year’s Topps Traded set. Not too many collectors were able to snag that beauty, though, so we were all rabid for his 1984 issues, and his Topps card captivated — still captivates — with Straw’s majestic swing.
New York Yankees – 1978 Topps Reggie Jackson (#200)
Reggie was the straw that stirred the Yankees all the way to a World Series title in 1977, and New York fans hoped he’d do the same in 1978. While they were waiting for the results of that return engagement, they were happy to get their hands on the first mainstream Jackson baseball cards that showed him in Yankee pinstripes. What a bonus that this Topps beaut also showcased Reggie’s powerful swing, the New York crowd, and the All-Star shield.
By 1986, collectors had pretty much bought into the hype of rookie cards. Thanks to the 1983 Topps Trio (Ryne Sandberg, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn), the 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly, and the 1985 Topps Dwight Gooden and Eric Davis (and others), we were sure all that debuted was gold. And everyone knew Jose Canseco was going to be Babe Ruth based on his minor league record and the five dingers he hit in 29 games with the A’s in 1985.
Translation — Jose’s 1986 Donruss Rated Rookies card was the hottest thing in the hobby since you accidentally left your 800-count box on the radiator during recess in sixth grade.
Philadelphia Phillies – 1981 Topps World Series Tug McGraw World Series Card (#404)
The Philadelphia Phillies franchise began life as the Philadelphia Quakers in 1883 and, over their first 97 seasons, they made it to the World Series twice, losing in both 1915 and 1950. They finally made it back to the Fall Classic in 1980 and there, against the Kansas City Royals, exorcised their baseball demons. So, yeah, a baseball card commemorating that long-awaited victory was kind of a big deal in 1981, especially if it showed a triumphant Tug McGraw.
Pittsburgh Pirates – 1973 Topps Roberto Clemente (#50)
When Roberto Clemente collected his 3000th hit for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the end of the 1972 season, fans knew for sure we were looking at a future Hall of Famer. When his plane went down while carrying relief supplies that winter, we all knew we’d lost a bona fide legend. Topps gave us one last, eerie shot of Clemente at-bat, shrouded in shadows, on his 1973 Topps card. It was both a celebration of the man and a somber reminder of what had been lost, but it was a must-get for Pirates fans.
San Diego Padres – 1984 Topps Steve Garvey (#380)
For most of their early existence, the San Diego Padres were anything but exciting, and were much more likely to lose a big-name free agent than to sign one — see “Winfield, Dave.”
But when Los Angeles Dodgers great Steve Garvey hit the market after the 1982 season, the Pads swooped in and signed Mr. Clean, instantly boosting both their star power and playoff hopes. Garvey played in only 100 games for San Diego in 1983, but his 14 home runs and .294 average made fans eager for the future and collectors anxious to get their hands on his first mainstream Brown and Gold baseball cards. Garvey’s 1984 Topps card heated up as the Pads ran toward their first division title that season.
San Francisco Giants – 1994 Topps Barry Bonds (#100)
You were expecting the 1990 Fleer Jose Uribe here, weren’t you? Nobody has that kind of money to spend, buddy.
Besides, Giants fans waited a generation for Barry Bonds to come home to the Bay, and when he did, he lived up to expectations. After a 46, 123, .336 campaign in 1993 for which won Bonds his third NL MVP award, all of us were hungry for the first base-issue cards showing Bonds as a Giant.
Little did we know what we were in for over the next 15 years or so!
Seattle Mariners – 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr. (#1)
This is the card that will convince you of the existence of Wax Pack Gods (or, Mylar Pack Gods, as it were). How else can you explain the confluence of events that led to a revolutionary card company snagging a once-in-two-lifetimes-talent, as a teenager, to grace card #1 in their inaugural set? In the spring of 1989, we were all believers.
St. Louis Cardinals – 1948 Bowman Stan Musial (#36)
By the time Stan Musial finally scored his first mainstream baseball card, he had already won two NL MVP awards and was preparing for another. He also had served in World War II and seen his cardboard profile severely blunted by wartime rations. The 1948 Bowman card changed all that, and it stands as one of the first true post-war classics of the hobby and a card that any kid would have drooled over on Opening Day. Black-and-white photo and all.
Texas Rangers – 1990 Topps Nolan Ryan (#1)
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but …
After Nolan Ryan signed a free agent deal with the Texas Rangers before the 1989 season, all the old man did was keep rolling, right past 5000 strikeouts and into completely uncharted territory. Rangers fans, baseball fans, and card collectors ate it up, and Topps pulled out their old Hank Aaron trick to dedicate the first several cards of their 1990 set to Ryan and his ancient but incredible right arm. Not a bad “first day” card with a new team, eh?
Toronto Blue Jays – 1977 Topps Steve Hargan (#37)
Just another airbrushed card of a 70s-hairy journeyman pitcher? Sure, that’s an apt description of the 1977 Topps Steve Hargan card. But it’s also the first-ever Topps card of a Toronto Blue Jays player, airbrush or no. And that, my friends, makes this a piece of hobby history.
Washington Nationals – 1974 Topps John Grubb Washington Nat’l. Lea. (#32)
Honestly, I have no clue what Washington Nationals card is most important from an Opening Day perspective — they’re all so new and glutted, I assume none of them matter. Snarkiness aside, I’m hedging and going with the first ever Washington National (League) card, courtesy of 1974 Topps. These errors have been hobby staples for nearly 45 years, and John(ny) Grubb was a pretty gosh darn good player, too. Heck, he was drafted like a bajillion times before he finally chose the … uh … 1971 San Diego Padres.
His inner circle apparently could have used a bit of fine-tuning.
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