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Best set of the year: 1989

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


I agree with the UD being #1, I'd of picked ud, fleer, score topps, and donruss. SIDE NOTE: mailing your contest winnings tomorrow.
Mike Matson said…
I always confused UD sets. 89-92 were very similar... Loved 93 though
John Bateman said…
1989 was my peak year in collecting prior to 1989, I bought every Baseball, Football, Hockey and Basketball set put out. That was until 1989 Upper Deck, I could not afford a dollar pack, and I did not buy it, then it went to something like a million dollars a set, now it is just who cares. Upper Deck with their anti-counterfeit logo, were unbeknownst to every one counterfeiting their own cards at the time.

I always blame 1989 Upper Deck as the down fall of the Hobby as I had known it, instead of buying cards that would be worth more later, the cards lost all their value as soon as they came out of the Back.

The 1989 fleer set was the first set I put into plastic sheets, it seems like wow at the time now it seems like eh, who cares.

I think 1989 Donruss was the best set of the year, look at that large logo next to Jacobys head

JediJeff said…
Holy crap, I think I am ill. I can't believe I am going to type this:

Night Owl is completely r-----rrrrrr------riii----- I feel like Fonzie here.

Night Owl's ranking are exactly rrrrr----rrrii-----rrrr-----rr-rrrrrriiiiii.....

Commishbob said…
I agree with UD as the best of the bunch. I do remember the cost being a problem for some but I was out in the working world and future children's tuition was the furthest thing from my mind. I loved this set as it was just so different from anything previous. Yes I loved it even with the thin cardboard. That's ironic because their follow-up effort, the '90 UD with the phony Ben McDonald 'error' was the card that drove me away from collecting. Took over 20 years before I even looked at cards again.
steelehere said…
Junior was in Fleer and Donruss' flagship set as well.
AdamE said…
I'm first to vote 89 UD as the worst set of the year. (Though Donruss is a close 2nd worse) And I think it is also the most over produced. (Or maybe just more got opened because of the Griffey)

My list would be:

Upper Deck
Stack22 said…
1. Topps
2. Upper Deck
3. Fleer
4. Score

A very distant 5th: Donruss
night owl said…
This is why I do these rankings.
Anonymous said…
I love the Upper Deck set, I just always really liked the design. Home to first in year 1, 1st to 2nd in year 2, 2nd to home in year 3. I was around 13 when I discovered them and thought it was cool.

Never thought about the flimsy card stock. That's a good point. I think some people viewed it as an upgrade but it was thinner. Score had white stock but was thicker.
Anthony Nunez said…
I also believe Upper Deck is the nicest set of '89. All the others tie for last.
Rob said…
I bought SO MANY of these Donruss cards...not because I liked them, but because my mom found them at a Costco or something like that by the box, and would sell them to my brother and I at cost in place of allowance or as rewards for good grades, etc.
Stubby said…
I think your rankings mirror my own. Just as Score was a "WOW!" the year before, Upper Deck had that Wow factor in '89. Hadn't seen anything like them before. Donruss, FWIW, was also awfully thin (and had been through their entire existence). What intrigued me most about Donruss (and I still have never seen this mentioned anywhere ever) is that the earliest purchase of '89 Donruss I had made featured a difference in those side "film strip" borders. I'm not crazy, I swear. The earliest ones alternated those little black squares between the usual matte finish and what I can only describe as a fuzzy finish (I mean in the tactile sense, not visually). This, to me, was something amazing. Sadly, I bought so many of the darn things, I could never hope to locate the "fuzzy" ones again if I tried. After my initial Donruss purchases, the rest were all the flat ones. But they are there; they happened. You'll never convince me otherwise. And those ought to carry a premium. Upper Deck, sadly, didn't change their borders enough to stay interesting. Over time, that's diminished their appeal. Also over time, the Topps design has worn well. So, while my rankings would mirror yours, I'm a bit fonder today of '89 Topps and a bit less so of '89 UD.
I agree with your assessment, Mr. Owl. Happy to see some '89 Donruss love, too.
DandyDoodle said…
Hi, enjoy reading your post. What about '89 Bowman? Those over-sized cards were actually nice to look at.

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