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10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect

Trends change. Looks come and go. The grad photos that line high school hallways are a testament to that. Just like clothes and hair, fads come and go in the world of trading cards as well. Every so often, something comes along that changes the hobby and the way we collect. These are more than an attempt to be modern or stuffing cards in a soup can. The term, "game-changer" is tossed around a lot when it shouldn't be. It takes away from the things that actually do lead to lasting changes in the collecting landscape. For the modern hobby, many game-changers in the last couple of decades have come from insert sets.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of trading card sets have been released since the hobby's big boom of the 1980s and early 1990s. A lot has changed since then. Here are ten trend-setting insert sets that have left a lasting impression on the hobby and still influence how many of us collect today. Some of these sets are still wildly popular. Others have faded into obscurity, giving way to further evolution. Whichever the course, the hobby owes something to these sets that have earned their status as game-changers.

10 Influential Trading Card Insert Sets

1990 Upper Deck Baseball Heroes Reggie Jackson Autographs

The 1990 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson autograph is credited as being the first pack-inserted card to feature a player's signature. Inserted in 1990 Upper Deck Baseball Hi Series packs, it's limited to 2,500 copies. With the massive print runs of product, collectors could rip case upon case and still not "find the Reggie." The card also helped make Jackson one of the faces of the hobby during its boom period of the early 1990s.

Today, virtually every set uses autographs in some form or another.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 1

1991 Donruss Elite

The 1990 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson autograph is numbered by hand. So too are the 1990 ProSet Football Super Bowl Hologram and 1990-91 ProSet Hockey Stanley Cup Hologram. But 1991 Donruss Elite is the first mainstream insert set to use serial numbering. The cards set off a craze. It's hard to believe that cards numbered to 10,000 were considered elusive. Allegedly, some took to using metal detectors to search boxes and cases in search of them. Not only are serial numbers common today, virtually all releases use them extensively to reassure collectors of rarity.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 2

1991 Wild Card Football Stripe Parallels

Whether parallels and "rainbows" are a thrill or an annoyance, their popularity can be traced back to a short-lived company called Wild Card. Their Stripe cards offered a chase component to base cards. While other sets like 1992 Topps Baseball Gold and Gold Winner cards may be more prominent today, it's hard to imagine what the hobby would be like today if it weren't for Wild Card.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 3

1993 SkyBox Simpsons Series 1 Art DeBart

While sketch cards and art cards are still growing in sports cards, they have long been a staple on the entertainment side of the hobby. In fact, they've been a driving force in most releases for more than a decade. There's some debate over which set had the first sketch cards as a few came out around the same time. But the 1993 SkyBox Simpsons Series 1 Art DeBart sketch cards are easily the best of them. Adding to their mystique is the fact that Simpsons creator Matt Groening did all of the artwork. The cards were inserted as redemption cards so there isn't a lot of use in scouring for unopened boxes with the hopes of getting one (although the rest of the release is a fun piece of early Simpsons memorabilia). The cards were extremely tough, limited to 400 copies.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 4

1993 Topps Finest Baseball Refractors

Refractors are some of the most recognizable cards in the hobby. Their rainbow finish is unmistakable. For many, its a form of collecting comfort, appeasing the primal affinity for shiny things. They're a mix of technology and simplicity working hand-in-hand. Without 1993 Topps Finest Baseball, it's unlikely there'd be Topps Chrome, Bowman Chrome, Panini Prizm and all the other chromium cards that are popular today.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 5

1994 Signature Rookies Autographs

Autographed baseball cards were still relatively scarce in 1994. That changed in a big way with the ambitious 1994 Signature Rookies, which delivered an autograph in every pack. Not only that, but they were hand numbered as well. That initial checklist of minor leaguers is largely forgettable (although that Jeter kid turned out to be okay), but the impact the set left on the hobby is unforgettable.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 6

1996 Press Pass Burning Rubber

The 1997 Upper Deck Game-Used Jersey Ken Griffey Jr. might be more iconic, 1996 Press Pass Burning Rubber is the set that got the memorabilia card craze started. The cards feature an embedded piece of race-used tire. This gave way to everything from jerseys, bats, patches, sheet metal and even pieces of stadium seats and infield dirt. Game-used cards are still one of the hobby's driving forces, at least when they aren't a plain white swatch.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 7

1997 Flair Showcase Baseball Legacy Masterpieces

When serial numbers first started appearing on cards, they were measured by thousands. Within a couple of years, 1,000 was the measure of rarity. Then it was cards in the hundreds. 1997 Flair Showcase Baseball was the first set to take the ultimate step, offering the hobby's first one-of-ones. When 1997 Flair Showcase Legacy Masterpieces opened the door, everyone soon followed.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 8

2001 Topps American Pie Relics

Remember when baseball card sets only had baseball players? 2001 Topps American Pie Relics added singers, actors and history to the mix -- a trend that has had a lasting impression. These inserts took the game-used memorabilia concept and applied it to celebrities, offering clothing worn by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Janis Joplin. A John F. Kennedy card has Berlin Wall debris. 2001 Topps American Pie, marketed as a baseball set, also had some pop culture content in the base set and autographed buybacks from the likes of Adam West, Danny Bonaduce and Lou Ferrigno. Since the set came out, more and more sets incorporated celebrities and history into their sports sets. It also laid the groundwork for entire lines like Allen & Ginter, Goodwin Champions and Panini Golden Age that blur the lines between sports and entertainment sets.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 9

2002 Topps 206 Mini Cards

Mini cards are hardly a 21st Century innovation. But the way 2002 Topps 206 presented them was. Tapping into the nostalgia craze that was sweeping the hobby at the time, the release looked to modernize the original 1909-1911 T206 set. Part of that was to create mini parallels that played of the brand's tobacco roots. Taking the cliche "good things come in small packages" to heart, mini cards have been one of the hobby's most dependable inserts. While they make the most sense in vintage-feeling sets, they have spread into other high-end parts of the hobby as well.

10 Insert Sets that Changed the Way We Collect 10

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Ryan is a former member of The Cardboard Connection Writing Staff.   His collecting origins began with winter bike rides to the corner store, tossing a couple of quarters onto the counter and peddling home with a couple packs of O-Pee-Chee hockey in his pocket. Today, he continues to build sets, go after inserts with cool technologies, chase Montreal Expos and finish off his John Jaha master collection.

User Comments

Gary R Jordan
Gary R Jordan

There were earlier sets with redemption cards, some going back to the 70’s for autographs.

Drew Newman
Drew Newman

Looking for a high/low cost on a michael jordan signed chase card. Looks like Nitro LTD.INC

Eric Van Tassel
Eric Van Tassel

#1 has to be the 90 Upper Deck High Numbers Reggie Jackson auto. That was the card that started it all, the father of every single insert card. I will never forget how the hobby changed as a kid after that card came out, People just ripping threw cases looking for that card, and the same with the Elite Serie also highlighted above from around that same time. But the Reggie started it all, it opened up a pandora’s box that is still huge in and felt in the hobby today !


I agree with Jeremy, Terrell and Steve. This is a great article.


Great article–thanks!

By the way, there were 8.650 of those Jeter signature rookies issued. I can’t think of any signed cards that have been issued in such massive numbers (well, maybe others in that set). It remains a relatively cheap way to get a Jeter autograph, as they seem to sell for around $100 or $125 each.


Always wondered where memorabilia cards started. Thanks for always bringing great info to your write ups! Keep ’em comin!


Great article, but I think the 1993-94 Upper Deck SE All-Star Die Cuts (basketball) should have been included as well for irregular shaped cards.

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