30 Standout Baseball Cards from the Junk Wax Era
There came a time in the history of the trading card hobby that mainstream manufacturers like Topps, Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck were shipping cards as fast as they could print them. With the explosion of the hobby in the mid-80s, other manufacturers entered the market. The overwhelming supply and eventually fleeting demand created a perfect storm for the crash that followed.
Unaffectionately referred to as the “Junk Wax Era," the period of 1984 to 1993 was a time of burgeoning gluttony, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. Need proof? Many of these products can still be found by the unopened case or, even, pallet.
However, despite the overwhelming amount of material from this period, there are several cards that should be included in any baseball card collection. While some of the cards listed below have long seen their glory days wither away and their values evaporate along with it, they still hold their place in hobby history.
Even today, if graded in top condition, the cards below make scouring through thrift stores, garage sales and long-forgotten boxes in the basement worth it.
30 Great Baseball Cards from the Junk Wax Era
As the idea of the rookie card really started to catch on in a mainstream way, the 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly was at the forefront. His career may not have finished as strongly as it started, but Mattingly is still a Yankees icon. Likewise, this will forever be one of the most iconic baseball cards of the 1980s.
Although it may never be made official, Roger Clemens put up Hall of Fame numbers. Predating his other MLB cards by a year, the 1984 Fleer Update Roger Clemens is legitimately rare in top condition.
Just like the Clemens from the box set, the 1984 Fleer Update Kirby Puckett is a giant in part to being the late Hall of Famer's only MLB card from 1984 and its general rarity.
The 1985 Topps Mark McGwire rookie card has seen its share of ups and downs. It's never going to rebound to its highs of 1998 when the slugger made a run at the single-season home run record. It's not going to come close. But that doesn't stop it from being a card virtually every collector immediately recognizes.
At one time, the 1986 Donruss Jose Canseco traded around the $100 mark. How the mighty have fallen. While many respect the slugger's accomplishments, he's more often than not a punchline today. If you invested in this card back in the 1980s, you've lost big but the strong nostalgia factor means that it's still worth a few dollars.
Steroids and controversy are a common theme among many of the top Junk Wax Era cards. By overtaking Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list and the subsequent fallout, Barry Bonds is among the most controversial . Even still, 1986 Topps Traded has one of his greatest cards.
The 1987 Donruss Greg Maddux is the only main set the Hall of Famer appears in that year. While he has other cards, they're all in traded and other box sets. Supply is plentiful but the notoriety keeps this card in demand.
Craig Biggio isn't your typical hobby superstar. He played at a time when the biggest names were smashing home runs and making flashy plays. Biggio was more a model of prolonged consistency. He's still not a top-tier hobby talent but his appeal has grown post-retirement as collectors look to a Cooperstown induction.
The 1988 Score Rookie/Traded Roberto Alomar has a lot of the same appeal as the Biggio except Alomar made a fast entry into the Hall of Fame.
The 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson isn't nearly as infamous as another variation in the set, but the Marlboro version of the card is one of the best cards of one of the most dominant pitchers of the 1990s. The card in question shows an ad for Marlboro cigarettes on the scoreboard. Seeing as how in 1989 baseball cards were all about the kids (at least more so than today), Fleer went back and tried to obscure the ad. The end result is several versions.
Even if you don't collect baseball cards, you've probably heard of the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken with its profanity-laden bat knob. For years, the real story behind the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken was a mystery. It turns out it wasn't a conspiracy but rather a mistake that led to infamy.
If there's a Holy Grail of all 1980s baseball cards, the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. is it. It has seen better times as far as values go but it's still universally beloved for those that collected in the 1990s. Besides being the best Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, it helped usher in a new era in the hobby that included glossy card stock and premium production values.
Although Mark McGwire's appeal in baseball and the hobby has dropped, it's not nearly as severe as Sammy Sosa. When he helped make 1998 one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, the 1990 Leaf Sammy Sosa was a massive card fetching three figures. It's a fraction of that today, but of all Sosa's early cards, this is still the go-to choice.
The 1990 Leaf Frank Thomas rookie card was the hottest in the hobby for a long time. That's not the case anymore, but it's greater affordability makes it worth a second look now that the Big Hurt is enshrined in Cooperstown.
Usually, printing errors don't generate a lot of long-term excited. The 1990 Topps Frank Thomas No Name on Front is a major exception. Extremely difficult to find and still shrouded in mystery, it still sells for four figures.
Jeff Bagwell was one of the most dangerous hitters of his era. 1991 Topps Stadium Club set a new benchmark for premium quality. Put the two together and you've got one gem that looks good and is extremely affordable.
Numbers don't lie. Carlos Delgado is one of the most overlooked players of the 1990s and early part of the new millennium. His only card from 1992, the 1992 Bowman Carlos Delgado should get a lot more love than it does.
Closers don't usually get much respect in the hobby. Mariano Rivera is the exception. Playing his entire career with the Yankees, he was the most dominant ever in his role. The 1992 Bowman Mariano Rivera, his lone MLB card from the year, is part of the reason the set continues to be very popular at a time when many similar sets have dropped significantly.
It might be more plentiful than his 1992 Fleer Update card, but the 1992 Bowman Mike Piazza is more attractive and iconic.
Yet another great card from the classic set, Ramirez's popularity peaked early in his run with Boston. Although his career sputtered out in controversy at the end, this is still a card worthy of any collection.
Proving that sometimes a second-year card can be more desirable than a rookie, the 1992 Bowman Chipper Jones is also a throwback to early 1990s fashion.
What it loses in design, the 1992 Fleer Update Mike Piazza makes up for in rarity. Compared to virtually every other mainstream set from the year, this one is relatively tough to find.
When he was with Boston, Nomar Garciaparra was one of the most beloved players in baseball. For a time, this was one of the hottest cards in the hobby. It still carries decent values compared to most other early '90s cards. It's not rare, but it brings back a lot of good memories.
Jason Varitek put together a solid career. It won't lead to Cooperstown, but he was a key member of one of baseball's best franchises.
You can't go wrong with any Derek Jeter rookie cards. Although not the most valuable, his 1993 Bowman rookie is still popular. It has a nice balance of design and affordability. Its connection to a long-standing brand also helps.
Over the years, many Derek Jeter rookie cards have become expensive. And those that are affordable don't usually look that great. The 1993 Pinnacle Derek Jeter rookie card isn't only affordable, but the look is one of his strongest.
You might want to break into R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" when you first see the 1993 Select Derek Jeter rookie card. Boasting a somewhat premium (for the day) design, it's another affordable first-year Jeter that won't break the bank.
Johnny Damon had a colorful career. And making yourself memorable is a key part of gaining hobby notoriety. Damon isn't in his era's top tier, but it's tough to argue against his 1993 SP rookie card. At the very least, it's a much more affordable second choice to the Derek Jeter.
If the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. is the most iconic baseball rookie card of the 1980s, the 1993 SP Derek Jeter holds a similar spot in for the 1990s. The top card in a major debut release, it has a memorable look for a generational talent. Its condition sensitivity has made high-grade versions very scarce and very valuable.
Because he played in the thin Colorado air, Todd Helton's accomplishments are somewhat overlooked. He shouldn't be. His only rookie card is part of the last Topps Traded box sets to come with USA Baseball players.
Of all the brands and products released during that time period, only one regular card has carried a consistent “book value" of $100 or more and that's the 1993 SP Derek Jeter rookie. While there are other cards from the Junk Wax Era that still have some tangible worth, the above list is populated with rookie cards of current and future Hall of Famers, as well as those who, unfortunately, will be forever linked to baseball's ugly Steroid Era.
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