Skip to main content

Not every 1980s countdown is the same

The new issue of Beckett Baseball Magazine is out. The folks at Beckett made the January issue all about the 1980s and the card craziness from that decade.

The nostalgia for the '80s seems to be lasting longer than nostalgia for other decades. Nostalgia for a particular decade usually arrives 20 years after the decade in question and then fades after about a decade. But here we are, just about 30 years after the close of the '80s and '80s tributes are everywhere.

Included in those continuing tributes are a couple of '80s baseball card countdowns. One is in the January edition of Beckett magazine -- the top 80 cards of the '80s. The other one will be on my blog -- hopefully starting in January -- and is called The 100 Greatest Cards of the '80s.

There will be some similarities between these two lists, but there will be lots and lots of differences.

I don't have a subscription to Beckett magazine (I probably should think about it if I just wrote an article for it). But Peter of Baseball Every Night was kind enough to show the inside spread on the '80s ranking in the January Beckett.

I'm making a lot of assumptions without reading the article, but I'm thinking that the images shown -- there are 80 -- are the 80 cards selected as the top ones of the decade.

Many of these cards are familiar to everyone who collected back then. I had to look up a couple, but otherwise they're burned in my brain.

It also doesn't take a genius to notice that the majority of the cards shown here are rookie cards or connected to the very early stages of the featured player's career.

How much of a majority of the list is rookies, pre-rookies or future stars?

Let's demonstrate with pretty colors.

Red will represent a rookie card.

Orange will represent what are termed "pre-rookie cards."

Pink will represent "future stars" cards.

Green will represent error cards. This includes the 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson card, which is both a rookie card and an error card, even though it's not really an error but better classified under whatever weirdness Fleer was doing in 1989.

Black is the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken F-Face card. I refuse to classify this one as an error.

The other colors represent kind of "one-off' cards that would be more at home in my countdown. The purple will represent the 1987 Classic Bo Jackson card (in which he's wearing a football uniform).

Yellow will represent the 1982 Donruss Chicken card, which I referenced in last night's post. This is a card that will definitely show up in my countdown.

Light blue will represent the 1980 Topps George Brett card. This card looks out-of-place in the Beckett countdown but it's more of what I think great cards should be: cards that evoke a particular season or event when you see it.

 Blue will represent the 1984 Pete Rose Fleer Update card that shows him as a Montreal Expo.

Dark blue will represent the 1982 Kmart Maury Wills card. It's interesting to me that this card made the Beckett list. I'd love to read the reason behind this appearing. I agree it deserves to make the list, but it isn't the first time that the particular image showed up on a card (nor the last).

OK, so when you have that color code and you apply it to the grid of baseball cards shown in the Beckett magazine layout, this is what the color grid shows:


Damn, that's a lot of red.

According to the Beckett rankings, the top cards of the 1980s were overwhelmingly rookie cards. Rookie cards and error cards. There is little room for anything else.

I'm not saying that this list is wrong (what countdown is ever right or wrong?). Without a doubt, 1980s collecting was about rookies. That's what created the frenzy, that's what created the kind of cards that were issued that decade (and in the decades to come). That's what made the money. That's what drove the hobby. Collecting in the 1980s was rookies more than anything else.

But was it the only thing in collecting during that decade?

Not for me.

Sure, I got excited about the 1980 Rickey Henderson rookie and others, too. But "rookieness" isn't the beginning and end of every card. That is so one-dimensional and makes the Beckett list one-dimensional, too.

The greatness of a baseball card is about many aspects. It can be a player's first card. But greatness can be defined by the photograph, too. Or the design. Or the facts on the back. Or what was going on during the season the card was issued. Emphasizing "rookieness," or the cards that cost the most money, throughout your countdown does cards a disservice. Some of those rookie cards don't even look good. They're dopey head shots of young players. Almost no creativity. Yet they slide into "Best" because they're a rookie.

That's not cool.

My countdown will include rookie cards for sure. Rickey is already in the list. Others will be, too. But here are 10 cards that have a real shot of making my 1980s list:

What do these 10 cards have in common?

Not much, other than they were created in the 1980s. But all of them are definitely not rookie cards. (If you're hopelessly addicted to rookieness, take heart that rookie Ryne Sandberg is featured in the first card and you can make the case for the last card being Pete Rose Jr.'s pre-rookie card).

The best cards -- whether they're from the 1980s or not -- tell a story and there's more to a story than "this is a great player's first card."

I'm hoping that the 100 Greatest Cards of the 1980s will tell lots of stories, because really, truly, absolutely, the 1980s were about so, so, so, so much more than rookies.


Nick Vossbrink said…
Oh damn that Ferris wheel is awesome and I totally didn't remember it.
arpsmith said…
Can’t wait for your countdown. I started collecting in 1979 so I am looking forward to comparing tastes. The Rickey rookie is at least top 10 in my book. My autographed in person copy is in competition for my favorite card in my collection.
TSHenson said…
I broke down and bought the new Beckett to read about the 1980s cards. I started collecting in the 80s and have contimplated putting together a new collection of unforgetable cards of the 80s. I am looking forward to your countdown.
Jeff S said…
Very excited for an 80s countdown... your 70s series was fantastic.
I'm really glad the Eddie Murray may be featured in your Top 100. It's a great card. Looking forward to the final countdown.
Dave said…
You had me at Sangy’s sunset card.
I started collecting baseball cards in 78, rookies never crossed my mind. I'm not even sure I knew what rookie meant. My 11/12 year old self had absolutely no focus one way or the other. I just knew I had to open those packs. If I had to say anything, was pretty much the same as today......Braves and set building and that pretty much made it through the 80's too. Looking forward to the countdown (s) you always have more than 1.
BaseSetCalling said…
Beckett could have just simplified the exercise and ranked 80 cards by current market value. I haven't seen the article but I would imagine most readers of it want to know the current $ figure for each card.
I agree that the photo and design are the two of the biggest things that make a great card, and those are 10 great cards. I also like cards that show a player in a uniform we're not not used to see him in, like that Score Reggie.

I'm looking forward to your countdown.
Nick said…
That rare sighting of Reggie as an Oriole is easily one of the best cards of the '80s, no matter what Beckett says.
Fuji said…
This might be the first time in nearly a decade that I go out of my way to purchase a current issue of Beckett. Anyways... I started putting together a list of my favorite cards from the 80's and it didn't take long for me to realize they fell into two categories: rookie cards and non rookie cards. I guess I tend to fall into that "one dimensional" collector category, since 80's rookie cards are one of my favorite things to collect. That being said... I can definitely appreciate your list. That Pete & Re-Pete card was one of my favorites growing up.
Laurens said…
The 1980s issue was the first time I've bought a Beckett anywhere in the past 10-15 years.
Billy Kingsley said…
I would guess that Beckett's list is simply based on what they say it sells for. Beckett stopped being about collecting a long time ago. (With the exception of the vintage publication)
Turrdog said…
Thank you for showing that picture - now I don't have to get the magazine! Two things I'm curious about - why two 1983 Gwynn's? Is one OPC? Also, where is the 1984 Donruss Strawberry? That card was and still is a sought-after card of an iconic '80s player.
Brett Alan said…
I agree. It doesn't say the "best" 80 cards, it says the "top" 80 cards. Which probably means "most valuable" and/or "most sought-after", rather than "most pleasing or enjoyable".
GCA said…
I must be the anti-collector. Rookies are almost the least of my pursuits. I put multiplayer rookies at the end when I sort by teams. It's tiresome to me that it's always all about the rookie hype. Rookies have been rammed down our throats since the 80's and it hasn't waned since.
Old Cards said…
As a collector and as a reader of this blog, I am collecting cards to build my collection, not to resell. I like Brett Alan's characterization of cards as "pleasing and enjoyable". Agree with GCA about rookie cards. I do not like the multiplayer rookie cards. Any of these cards I have are in boxes, not in my binders.
night owl said…
Yes, OPC. I asked myself the same question.
Don said…
My son gave me a Beckett subscription for my birthday and I was not really surprised when I looked at their list of "top" 80 cards. IIRC, the K-Mart Wills was included because it was a card that never was.

I agree that there is too much emphasis on rookies, glossy, etc. I would have liked to have seen some variety like a Kellogg's card, or the 85 Donruss Highlights Pete Rose. Even a mention of the 86 Sportflics Jose Canseco Tri-Rookie w/ Greenwell and Tartabull would have been nice.
Matt said…
Beckett already fails for not including the Glen Hubbard snake card. I also noticed a distinct lack of oddballs. Looking forward to your countdown!
AdamE said…
87 Topps Kevin Mitchel has to be on the Night Owl list right?
Laurens said…
It is included in the last 20 that was listed on their Web site.
gregory said…
It's on my list, for sure!
Baltmoss68 said…
My favorite card of the 80s is the 81 Donruss Best Hitters , arid Carew and George Brett. I also like the 84 Donruss Living Legends cards.
Bulldog said…
I'm up for anything eighties. Some cool cards there. That Carter card is great and I always love a good Rick Mahler card. Good stuff.