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Opening Old Baseball Cards Provides Thrill Many Collectors Have Forgotten

Updated on August 6, 2018
Andrew Harner profile image

I am a former sports editor and historical baseball aficionado, now making a career in the hospitality industry.

Thoroughly traversing every area of the annual National Sports Card Collectors Convention in one day is an impossible task. With hundreds of dealers sprawled across more than 20 aisles at Cleveland's International Exposition Center, collectors from near and far picked their favorite items from millions of dollars of sports cards and memorabilia over a five-day extravaganza that had a little something for every collector.

Even for the simplest of collectors like myself - who gawked at vintage baseball cards priced over $1,000, but stood patiently and sifted through countless boxes of cards priced at 10 or 25 cents a piece - I was able to find plenty of interesting items to purchase at the 2018 National. And while the sheer magnitude of the show surely left some lower-end treasures unfound, one table near the far back corner provided the boost of nostalgia this collector needed.

While I would have much preferred to throw out the cash necessary to buy the complete set of 1952 Topps baseball cards (only a mere $43,999 - maybe the dealer would have accepted an offer for $40,000?), or the upper grade 1915 Cracker Jack originals of Hall of Famers, or that Jim Thorpe booklet with a cut autograph and material from both his baseball and football jerseys, or even one of Tim Carroll's original pieces of artwork (for those unfamiliar, he cuts up common baseball cards and pieces them together to replicate famous cards, and his work can be found here: www.timcarrollart.com), my budget said otherwise.

As it was, late in the afternoon, I found myself on a stool at the "card bar" provided by Bel Air Sports Cards, rifling through four boxes of unopened packs of baseball cards priced at 3/$1. Naturally, these packs were from sets mostly forgotten by today's collectors - and dealers at the National, most of whom were set up with cards produced before 1970 or with numerous displays cases of modern-day autograph and relic cards. But the guys from Bel Air, Maryland, remembered. They wanted to get rid of the packs and cut each my dad and I a nice deal on 20 packs, but they still remembered the sets fondly.

From 1989 Bowman - featuring a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card - to 2002 Topps Total - a huge set that featured almost 1,000 players - there were hundreds of packs to choose from, and the idea of ripping open packs of baseball cards from the height of my collecting interest was too good of one for me to pass. Follow with me as I open these 20 packs of yesterday's heroes and look for hidden gems that could be inside.

Inserts pulled from 1997 Score Hobby Reserve packs included a well-designed Reserve Collection (left) parallel of Jamie Navarro and a Heart of the Order of Chipper Jones.
Inserts pulled from 1997 Score Hobby Reserve packs included a well-designed Reserve Collection (left) parallel of Jamie Navarro and a Heart of the Order of Chipper Jones.

1997 Score Hobby Reserve (3 packs)

My age at product release: 10

Opened packs in release year?: No

Reason for purchase: Premium cards, chance for inserts

A special edition set of Series 2 cards, the Score Hobby Reserve edition came with a gold foil stamp on every card and a thicker card stock, providing a far more sturdy card than the flimsy base set did. With 15 cards per pack, the odds of pulling a card of a star player or your favorite team are promising, and there are other additional parallels and inserts with respectable odds.

For three packs, I did fairly well for myself, pulling out inserts in the second and third packs - a frosted silver etched Reserve Collection parallel of Jaime Navarro (1:11 packs) and a Heart of the Order chase card of Chipper Jones (1:24). The base cards were littered with stars, as well. Included were five Hall of Famers: Eddie Murray, Ken Griffey Jr. (checklist), Frank Thomas (Goin' Yard subset), Roberto Alomar (True Grit subset) and John Smoltz (Rock 'N Fire subset). I also got a Manny Ramirez card from the Cleveland Indians, my favorite team, and I did get the base card of Tim Salmon, who is also featured in the Goin' Yard subset and is a player for whom I am a super collector.

The stacks of 15 were clumped together upon opening the pack, but were not so stuck that gloss pulled when separating the cards. One issue stood out with the packs, and that was the collation. Granted, these were from a random assortment of packs, I received duplicates of Quilvio Veras, Rusty Greer, Norm Charlton and Ryan Klesko, and the four cards came in the same order in two separate packs.

Overall satisfaction: 4.5 stars

1989 Bowman was a fun set to open, and despite not hitting a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, the John Smoltz rookie card and the Hall of Fame reprints were a nice addition.
1989 Bowman was a fun set to open, and despite not hitting a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, the John Smoltz rookie card and the Hall of Fame reprints were a nice addition.

1989 Bowman (5 packs)

My age at product release: 2

Opened packs in release year?: No

Reason for purchase: Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card

Next in my journey was 1989 Bowman, which features one of the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards. I have never possessed one of those, and this seemed like a great chance to acquire one on the cheap.

Stale gum and common cards work, too, right?

Well, a different Hall of Famer's rookie card did help soften the blow of misfiring on Griffey, but that is about all I found, though the Bowman reprints inserted at one per pack are a nice treat. John Smoltz's smiling face was the highlight of the packs, which also ceded Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg, Wade Boggs (though the card was marred by a sizable print spot) and Jack Morris, as well as stars like Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy and Paul O'Neill.

The slightly oversized cards (measuring in at 2.5" X 3.75" instead of the traditional 2.5" X 3.5") marked the return of the Bowman brand, which had been defunct since 1955, and to honor the company's heritage, reprints were produced as part of a contest. On the back of the reprints was an entry form for a chance to win the grand prize of a complete set of 1953 Bowman cards - at the time worth about $10,000 and now owrth significantly more. Found in my packs were Satchel Paige (1949 reprint), Gil Hodges (1949), Willie Mays (1951) and a pair of Whitey Fords (1951). The Paige was a nice add for a Cleveland collector, but it would have been nice to see either of the Mickey Mantle cards, a Jackie Robinson or a Ted Williams. The only Cleveland Indians card found among the packs was of Greg Swindell.

Overall satisfaction: 3 stars

Opening six packs of 1999 Fleer Tradition was frustrating, as the base cards stuck together, causing the gloss pull-off seen above on the top of the Mark McGwire. The only thing saving every card from being stuck together was the Vintage '61 inserts.
Opening six packs of 1999 Fleer Tradition was frustrating, as the base cards stuck together, causing the gloss pull-off seen above on the top of the Mark McGwire. The only thing saving every card from being stuck together was the Vintage '61 inserts.

1999 Fleer Tradition (6 packs)

My age at product release: 12

Opened packs in release year?: Yes

Reason for purchase: Chance for Starting Nine parallels

Perhaps the most anticipated set of packs awaiting me were the six packs of 1999 Fleer Tradition, but they turned into six packs of disappointment rather quickly. Featuring the rookie phenom bust of J.D. Drew on the pack, 1999 Fleer Tradition saw the company in its second year moved back to traditional cards after producing cards without gloss in 1996 and 1997. I wish now that Fleer would have spared the gloss for two more years.

Each pack had two distinct groupings of cards stuck together, the only thing keeping the entire pack from getting binded together was the low-gloss Vintage '61 card inserted in each pack. The cards sounded like scotch being pulled off a dispenser as I separated card after card, and many were damaged when the gloss from the back of one card stuck to the front of another card, so it's almost a good thing there wasn't a serial-numbered Starting Nine parallel to be found.

The final pack yielded a Mark McGwire base card, which was the first card in the set since he was one year removed from breaking the all-time single-season home run record, as well as his Vintage '61 insert. Otherwise, there wasn't much to speak of: a Chipper Jones checklist, base of Frank Thomas, Adrian Beltre and Tim Raines, and Vintage '61 cards of Greg Maddux, John Olerud, Albert Belle, Larry Walker and Tony Clark. Cleveland Indians found were Russell Branyan and Mike Jackson.

Overall satisfaction: 1 star

Two packs of 1996 Stadium Club yielded a Mickey Mantle insert card, a short-print TSC subset of Albert Belle, and an action shot of a young Chipper Jones, now a Hall of Famer.
Two packs of 1996 Stadium Club yielded a Mickey Mantle insert card, a short-print TSC subset of Albert Belle, and an action shot of a young Chipper Jones, now a Hall of Famer.

1996 Stadium Club Series 1 (2 packs)

My age at product release: 9

Opened packs in release year?: Yes

Reason for purchase: TSC short prints and chance for nice inserts

Topps Stadium Club always seemed like an underrated set growing up. With beautiful photography and a quality card stock, Stadium Club perfectly bridged the gap between basic and premium releases, and also packed in plenty of unique inserts along the way. In 1996, one card from the Team Stadium Club subset was inserted per pack, and while those cards don't carry tremendous value, they remain one of my personal favorite subsets.

I hit nicely on the TSC cards, with Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians and Tino Martinez, but the remaining base cards were mostly forgetful, save for a Chipper Jones. The highlight, however, was a Mickey Mantle find.

After Mantle's passing in 1995, Topps honored the New York Yankees legend in its 1996 releases, and that included a special insert set in Stadium Club, which featured 19 total cards. My pull featured Mantle imagery from 1953 and a card from the set was found once every 24 packs.

Perhaps the most interesting pull was a promotional card for Stadium Club membership, which came to collectors for free, but only if they opted in to purchasing a 50-card Members Only set from any major sport for $10 plus $3.50 shipping and handling. With no expiration date listed, I wonder if I should send in a completed order form?

Overall satisfaction: 4 stars

From 1994 Select, the Marquis Grissom Select Skills insert was the highlight among base cards like Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and superstar Kenny Lofton.
From 1994 Select, the Marquis Grissom Select Skills insert was the highlight among base cards like Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and superstar Kenny Lofton.

1994 Select (1 pack)

My age at product release: 7

Opened packs in release year?: No

Reason for purchase: Something new

The inserts continued as I ripped into a pack of 1994 Select, with a Marquis Grissom Select Skills card peeking out of the middle. Again, a card inserted every 24 packs made its way into my selection.

With a decent design that shows two images of veteran players on the front of each card, Select was made to be a "rare" series - only 4,950 cases were produced and packs were only available in hobby stores. The base cards, however, lack the feel of a premium product, even by 1994 standards, though the quality of the inserts do make up for that.

The highlight among the base cards was Rickey Henderson, and the Cleveland Indians trend continued with a Kenny Lofton.

Overall satisfaction: 3.5 stars

With only one pack of 1995 Zenith cards, it was nice to hit Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
With only one pack of 1995 Zenith cards, it was nice to hit Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

1995 Zenith (1 pack)

My age at product release: 8

Opened packs in release year?: Yes

Reason for purchase: Higher-end product with inserts

While it only survived for four years, the Zenith brand produced by Pinnacle was always a favorite, and the debut product might have been the best of the bunch. It marked Pinnacle's first foray into the premium card market - two years after sets like Topps' Finest, Upper Deck's SP and Fleer's Flair came out in 1993, and a year after Donruss launched Leaf Limited - and while not the top premium brand available, it certainly held its own.

With a very thick card stock, no borders and a reflective foil background featuring the view from atop an Egyptian pyramid, Zenith was unique in its own right, and because the checklist included just 150 players (110 veterans and 40 rookies), it was ripe with stars. My pack included Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, as well as well-known players like Matt Williams and Albert Belle (again keeping that Indians run alive and well).

Overall satisfaction: 4 stars (It's regrettable that I didn't buy more Zenith packs)

The printer lines in 1995 Leaf Limited base cards (seen on Andres Galarraga) would be frustrating for set builders, while the Bat Patrol inserts were found in every pack.
The printer lines in 1995 Leaf Limited base cards (seen on Andres Galarraga) would be frustrating for set builders, while the Bat Patrol inserts were found in every pack.

1995 Leaf Limited Series 2 (2 packs)

My age at product release: 8

Opened packs in release year?: No

Reason for purchase: Premium product

A premium offering by Donruss, Leaf Limited's second year of cards was a well-designed set that featured a rainbow reflective background behind a cut-out of each player. The only issue is the backgrounds often have printer lines, as was the case on one card in each of my two packs, and overall the cards feel like a step down from the debut line in 1994.

Series Two packs featured one Bat Patrol insert per pack, and I did well there, finding Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, who are both Hall of Famers. As for the base cards, I wasn't as lucky. Not only did my run of Cleveland Indians players run out, the best card I got was of Andres Galarraga, which was one of the two cards with a printer line.

Overall satisfaction: 3 stars

© 2018 Andrew Harner

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