Once upon a time, Roger Clemens rookie cards looked like they were destined to rewrite the hobby record books when it came to prices for cardboard featuring a starting pitcher … just like the man himself threatened to rewrite baseball’s record book.

When Clemens burst onto the national scene in 1986 with a 24-4 record for the American League champion Boston Red Sox, collectors scrambled to pull his 1985 rookie cards from the scrapheap. And it didn’t take long before we realized that the Rocket had also been featured in the limited 1984 Fleer Update set, sending prices on that baby spiraling upwards.

As Clemens flourished in Boston over the next decade, racking up three Cy Young Awards and zeroing in on 200 wins, it became a foregone conclusion that he’d end up in the Hall of Fame.

Ah, but baseball is fickle, and a few health issues, combined with the 1994-95 players’ strike started to make Roger look human, resulting in a couple of losing records.

Nothing that a February 1999 trade to the Toronto Blue Jays couldn’t fix, though, and Clemens reeled off four Cy Young seasons over the next eight summers split between Toronto, the New York Yankees, and the Houston Astros.

After softening during his “down” years, Clemens’ cards were on fire again and, by the time steroid whispers began to swirl in the 2000s, Roger’s cardboard was once again among the hobby elite.

Those rumors did swirl, though, and they’ve never really stopped, resulting in a tarnished reputation that has worked against Clemens in his bid for Cooperstown enshrinement.

Over the last two decades, as Clemens wrapped up his career and then watched his Hall of Fame candidacy stall, his cards have stagnated to a large degree, as well.

But the final record shows this was one of the game’s greatest pitchers ever, with a solid HOF case even before that late-career run. Whether he’ll ever make the leap into baseball’s hall of immortals is debatable, but one thing’s for sure …

Even with all the controversy swirling around him, these Roger Clemens rookie cards helped build the hobby in the 1980s, and they remain cardboard classics today.

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1984 Fleer Update Roger Clemens (#U-27)

1984 Fleer Update Roger Clemens Rookie Card

When word broke in 1984 that Fleer would issue an update set that fall, no one was really sure what to expect.

Though collectors had welcomed the newcomer when they broke Topps’ monopoly in 1981 (on the heels of a 1980 antitrust lawsuit), Fleer hadn’t exactly supplanted the old gum company as The Real One. And, with Topps having issued Traded sets since 1981, some old-timers were already decrying the overabundance of choices.

Could the market really bear another year-end set?

Like I said, no one was sure … including Fleer. But they had already missed out on the year-end hype surrounding Cal Ripken, Jr. (1982) and Darryl Strawberry (1983), and they weren’t about to miss out on the phenom of phenoms — Dwight Gooden.

So the Philadelphia gum maker made their set, but in limited quantities. How limited?

Estimates vary — and you can find opinions in forums and on sites all over the place — but the consensus seems to point to tens of thousands of sets rather than the millions of each base running around in the world.

As it turned out, the hobby was ready for Fleer Updates, and collectors (and dealers and investors/speculators) scooped up the sets pretty quickly as Christmas approached. Gooden and perceived scarcity drove the initial push, and prices escalated quickly.

That Pete Rose card showing Charlie Hustle with the Montreal Expos didn’t hurt things, either. And, when Bret Saberhagen broke out for the Kansas City Royals in 1985, there was no turning back for this set and Fleer Update in general.

A big season by Kirby Puckett in 1986 made the 1984 Fleer Update even more desirable, but it was Clemens’ explosive, all-time great campaign that really lit the money machine when it came to this set … especially considering that Topps skipped Roger in its 1984 Traded issue.

By the end of the decade, the 1984 Fleer Update set was deep into three-figure territory and threatened to add another zero before hard times befell Sabes, Dr. K, Rose, and Clemens.

Today, all the major players in this issue have their places in history more or less established, with Puckett in the Hall of Fame and the others falling short (so far, at least).

As it turns out, though, plenty of other eventual HOFers made appearances in this set, from Tom Seaver to Dennis Eckersley to Tony Perez to Phil Niekro … not to mention other big names like Dave Parker, Dusty Baker, and Darrell Evans.

But even with all that star power, and even with all his warts, it’s Clemens who still sits at the top of the 1984 Fleer Update heap here in the 2020s.

In early 2021, the PSA Sports Market Report (SMR) Price Guide has the Clemens rookie card (or extended rookie card — XRC) at $350 in PSA 9 and north of $1500 in perfect 10 condition. (Pricing information for cards that follow also culled from the PSA SMR).

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1985 Donruss Roger Clemens (#273)

1985 Donruss Roger Clemens rookie card

Donruss made a big leap forward in card and photo quality in 1984, and an even bigger leap in hobby perception thanks to reduced print runs (from 1983 levels).

Those factors helped to add fuel to the fire that Don Mattingly lit during that Olympic summer when he came out of nowhere to lead the American League in hitting, shooting his 1984 Donruss rookie card right over the moon.

Big D capitalized on that momentum in 1985 by unleashing a stylish black-border design that was an immediate love-hate affair for collectors. Enough of us chose “love” to set rookie cards of Eric Davis, Gooden, Saberhagen, and others on an immediate upward price trend.

That combined tableau established Donruss as the elite brand of the year and set the stage for Rocket to explode a year later.

Indeed, as Clemens climbed to prominence in 1986, so did his Donruss rookie card, and it quickly became THE base card to own if you wanted a piece of the Rocket.

Today, the 1985 Donruss Roger Clemens rookie card sells for about $50 in graded MT condition, and more than $300 when slabbed as GEM.

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1985 Fleer Roger Clemens (#155)

1985 Fleer Roger Clemens rookie card

Now, obviously, this was not Fleer’s first card of Clemens, but it is his Fleer rookie card — generally considered to be the first card of a player from a given manufacturer that was widely available through retail outlets.

Semantics, yes, but it gets us another look at a young Rocket, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Like their Donruss counterparts, Fleer tried something sort of different in 1985, opting for gray borders that were similar to their 1983 issue, but with a touch less brown.

Overall, the set was solid but not spectacular, and the same pretty much applies to this Clemens RC — it features an intense headshot of the fireballer in a set that wasn’t terribly overproduced and, in fact, has shown itself over the years to be somewhat scarcer than the Topps and Donruss sets from the same year.

The result, more than 35 years on, is a rookie card that sells for $60 or so in PSA 9 condition and around $600 in PSA 10.

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1985 Leaf Roger Clemens (#99)

1985 Fleer Roger Clemens rookie card

The 1985 Leaf issue was a 264-card set produced by Donruss for sale in the Canadian market. Photos are the same as in the base Donruss set, and the design is the same except for the addition of a leaf (get it?) next to the Donruss logo on card fronts and some French text on card backs.

Though the checklist was much smaller than that of the base Donruss set (at 660 cards), Donruss and Leaf managed to include a Clemens rookie card in their joint effort.

Not surprisingly, these cards are fairly scarce relative to other 1985 Clemens cards, bumping prices up to around $60 (PSA 9) and $900 (PSA 10) for top graded specimens.

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1985 Topps Roger Clemens (#181)

1985 Topps Roger Clemens rookie cards

The old standby, Topps produced a very solid, very Topps-y set in 1985 — big (792 cards), mushy brown cardstock, subsets and special cards, and plenty of room for rookies.

One of those rookies was, of course, Roger Clemens.

And, while this card may have never had the pizzazz of the Donruss or the scarcity of the 1984 Fleer Update (or even 1985 Fleer or Leaf), it’s been consistently popular for decades.

Today, the 1985 Topps Roger Clemens rookie card sells for around $45 in graded mint condition, while GEM copies can bring $700 or more.

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1985 Topps Tiffany Roger Clemens (#181)

If you’re looking for a Topps Clemens RC that does deliver some snazziness and a little more financial firepower, you might want to take a gander at the ’85 Topps Tiffany version.

The Topps Tiffany cards were identical to the base issue, except they were printed on blazing white cardstock and shellacked with a shiny lacquer that would make Rudolph’s Shiny New Year dull with envy.

With just 5000 of each piece produced, the 1985 Topps Tiffany cards were about as close to “rare” as any issue from the 1980s ever got, and Clemens is priced accordingly — expect to pay $425 or more for a PSA 9 copy, or $5000+ for a card in PSA 10.

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