This exercise is getting more difficult the closer we get to the 1990s. In 1989, the hobby added yet another card manufacturer, Upper Deck, meaning there were now five companies issuing a major baseball set.
This was just too much for me to collect. I couldn't focus on five different sets, plus Sportflics and all those Fleer box sets. In fact, my view was so narrow at the time that I don't recall ever seeing Upper Deck during my trips to various drug stores in the Buffalo area in 1989. I bought stacks and stacks of '89 Topps, and just enough Fleer and Donruss to show that I was trying, plus several rack packs of Score. But UD? Blissfully unaware.
Because of that, I've never understood the appeal of Upper Deck's debut set. But I'm going to try to be as objective as possible here as I determine the best set of 1989.
So let's start:
1989 Topps -- the front
Plusses: An unobtrusive design after a couple of years of the design being the star. ... Banners always work. ... The first set of No. 1 draft pick cards, if you like that sort of thing. ... Garry Sheffield and Randy Johnson rookie cards. ... Some decent photos, but you've got to look for them.
Minuses: Nothing impressive about it at all. If a card set can be boring, here is an example. ... While newer card companies, like Score and Upper Deck, were focusing on action, Topps used abundant head shots in its 1989 set, as if it was 1969. ... No position designation on the front, if you care. ... I hate draft pick cards.
1989 Topps -- the back
Plusses: Ummmm ... the first pink back since 1969? ... The new Monthly Scoreboard feature is sort of interesting. ... Very readable card number.
Minuses: Another dull '80s Topps back, one of the worst. ... black type on a dark pink background is not easy to read.
1989 Topps -- overall
Plusses: Thank goodness Topps is still printed on sturdy cardboard, said 1989 me as I stuffed dupes upon dupes of this stuff into the big dupes box. ... I appreciate Record Breakers leading off the set. I think that's the best place for a subset like that. ... A very comprehensive set of 792 cards, which was the norm at this time.
Minuses: When someone says "junk wax," this is one of the first sets that comes to mind. ... It's possible there are more cards of 1989 Topps on the planet than cards from any other set. ... Goofy errors, like pink triangles showing up on the front of cards. ... I am so numb to these cards, anything remarkable was washed away a long time ago.
1989 Fleer -- the front
Plusses: The design is ... interesting. I like the way that Fleer cropped the photo into the design. It probably looks amateurish to some computer designer but it was different for the time. ... The team color-coded photo borders are cool.
Minuses: Fleer is entering a dark period with this set. I don't have a lot of good things to say about Fleer from 1989-93. ... This is possibly my least favorite Fleer design (it's a toss-up between this and 1990). I don't like gray borders and this set features gray possibly more than any other set. Also, the pinstripes don't do much for me. ... There's not a lot of space devoted to the photo, so the photos don't really stand out.
1989 Fleer -- the back
Plusses: Fleer continues to number its cards by team. ... These backs are more readable than some of the previous backs. ... Fleer tried a little more to tighten up the gap between the stats and the bottom graphic in this set. For players with few years in the league, it added a "did you know" graphic, which was a staple of previous Fleer sets. ... The star of the back is the All-Star Break splits. Interesting and fun.
Minuses: Looks a lot like all the other Fleer backs.
1989 Fleer -- overall
Plusses: Fleer sticks with what works: team logo on the front, informative graphic on the back. ... This is one of the most famous sets of this time period thanks to the Billy Ripken f-face error. ... A few notable rookies, like Randy Johnson and John Smoltz.
Minuses: There is so much attention on this set because of the Ripken error and a host of other errors that nobody associates it with anything else. I don't know about you but I wouldn't feel great if all anyone knew about my creation was how many errors were in it. ... This is one of those sets that I find so ugly that I can't wait to get rid of the cards. It's not the homely level of '92 Donruss or '92 Score, but it's not winning awards.
1989 Donruss -- the front
Plusses: A fun, rainbow-accented design. My favorite design of the whole year. ... The team logo can get a little large, but I like it. ... It's a more interesting look to me than some of the previous Donruss designs, it looks slightly more sophisticated.
Minuses: Far too many dark photos in this set. A plague of dark photos visited Donruss, Score and Upper Deck in 1989. For some reason, Topps and Fleer were mostly unaffected. ... Some of the photos are pretty boring, too. Lots of head shots.
1989 Donruss -- the front
Plusses: Got to love the full-name treatment, especially for players who are known by a nickname. ... Contract status, contract status, contract status. ... Some interesting tidbits in the career highlights.
Minuses: Without looking at the stats, it's pretty difficult to tell a 1989 Donruss card from a 1987 Donruss card from a 1985 Donruss card based on the back. Lots of yellow and way too much sameness. ... I still don't appreciate "you get 5 years of stats and you'll LIKE it."
1989 Donruss -- overall
Plusses: This set could have killed its competition if it just improved its photo presentation. The combination of the rainbow borders top-and-bottom with the back borders left-and-right creates a "rainbow in the night" look that I enjoy a lot. ... This set looks better in a box than almost any other set. ... A banner year for Rated Rookies, as Ken Griffey, Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield are all included. ... This set is a step up from '88 Donruss and much better than 1990 Donruss. Donruss was basically at its peak of the overproduction period in 1989.
Minuses: Lost opportunity with all of the dark pictures.
1989 Score -- the front
Plusses: Score hits you with the action again this year. If it wasn't for Upper Deck, this would be the most modern-looking set of the five. ... Some nice photos here. ... There is less to get in the way of the photos compared with Score's debut in 1988.
Minuses: This set isn't nearly as exciting as 1988. ... So many dark photos that when you see one like the Jeff Reed card here you're maybe more impressed than you should be (although it is a good photo). ... The diamond drawing didn't impress me then and it doesn't impress me now.
1989 Score -- the back
Plusses: More in-depth bio writing! Yay!. ... The inset photo is even larger this year than in '88. I like it. ... Logo on the back is a nice touch. ... The card number is much bigger than the previous year. ... I just like this layout better than the 1988 Score back.
Minuses: Might be a little difficult to read.
1989 Score -- overall
Plusses: A nice sophomore effort. ... The tweaks on the back are really an improvement. ... Some of the action shots are pretty nice. ... Informative card backs had become a Score tradition with this set. ... Rookie cards for Johnson, Biggio, Smoltz, etc.
Minuses: Score didn't change a lot about its photos from 1988 to 1989, but for whatever reason the '89 set isn't nearly as interesting. I have a soft spot for '89 Score because I remember searching out rack packs of the stuff, but I barely look at the cards anymore.
1989 Upper Deck -- the front
Plusses: A crisp, clear look at the photo. The design steps aside for the picture ... The baseline illustration on the side is fun. ... Upper Deck understands that team logos on the front of your baseball card is a good thing to steal from other companies. ... Some interesting photos that hadn't been seen before on cards.
Minuses: A lot of the photos are way too dark, so dark you can't see the player's face. ... The designs of Upper Deck 1989-91 bore me and I confuse them all the time.
1989 Upper Deck -- the back
Plusses: This is where I think 1989 Upper Deck deserves the attention it gets. If there is anything eye-popping about the first Upper Deck set, it is the photo on the back. The backs are practically a second front, which I'm sure appealed to many collectors. ... At the time, the hologram on the bottom was cool.
Minuses: Upper Deck took the Donruss route and went with limited stats, but I can see why it did.
1989 Upper Deck -- overall
Plusses: An interesting take on baseball cards that no one had ever seen before. ... Interesting photos, front and back. ... A sense that a card set meant something again. ... THE most famous Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.
Minuses: Inflicting the hobby with a flimsy card stock that we're dealing with still today. I can easily see why someone would rank this set 5th out of 5 just on this element alone. ... The cards cost too much for what they were, and people would point to this set for the inflation in pack prices. ... I still think this set gets too much credit.
OK, are you ready?
It's time to announce the winner.
I think you'll be surprised ...
Yeah, I'm surprised, too.
What can I say? It was a pretty crappy year for cards.
Ranking: 1. Upper Deck; 2. Donruss; 3. Score; 4. Topps; 5. Fleer
Total Ranking: Topps - 6; Donruss - 1; Fleer - 1; Upper Deck - 1