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The card darling, year-by-year


I read something interesting yesterday in Sooz's card collecting newsletter.

Sooz's better half, a Texas Rangers fan, was discussing the 2020 Topps Series 1 disaster in which a single Rangers card appeared in the base set. He was updating that misfortune now that Series 2 is out and noting the number of Rangers in Series 2 (and that they all weirdly feature a new stadium logo).

He doesn't buy that Topps was saving the Rangers for Series 2 to get the stadium logo on the cards and neither do I. He believes instead that Topps simply forgot to add the Rangers into Series 1.

Apparently -- and this is the interesting part that I never knew -- when Topps begins to fill its flagship set, it starts with a checklist of each team. It then fills the checklist, starting first with the rookies. Then, it adds veterans and newly signed players. The rookies come BEFORE the veterans. And this may be why only Rangers rookie Nick Solak showed up in Series 1. Topps began with the requisite rookie then dropped the ball with the rest of the team.

I've always known that Topps favors rookies and has for years, so this system makes sense, and confirms my belief that card sets are nothing more than a hype machine intended to prop up the latest and greatest while ignoring many other deserving players.

Topps and other card companies' emphasis on "rookies and stars" is probably how the player collector emerged. There weren't player collectors when I was a kid collecting cards in the '70s, at least not among all the kids I knew over those years.

I have a way to illustrate Topps' emphasis on individual players with a little research.


I was recording another 2002 Kaz Ishii card in my collection (I love this card, I will take all your copies). I've always known that Ishii has a lot of cards from 2002, that's the year he became a rookie sensation.

But did he have the most cards in my collection for that year? And how about the other years? Who has been the card darling in my collection each year? Who's had the most cards each year?

I started counting.

I began with 1981 because as far as I'm concerned that's when all of this business started. In 1981, it blew my mind to have three different products to collect that year and the idea of collecting multiple cards of an individual player took a long time for me to wrap my head around.

I have multiple card for players from the '70s, but it's not a lot, because there just wasn't a lot to collect. I have six different cards of Ron Cey in 1975 for the most that year. I have seven each of Cey and Steve Garvey for 1976. I have six of Garvey in '77. These are pitiful totals compared with what was to come. But it was a different era.

I like this review because other than the fact that every player that I'm about to show was a Dodger during that particular year, my collection doesn't influence the totals much. I'm not a player collector, so except for maybe some of the Clayton Kershaw years, my collecting doesn't skew the totals, providing a somewhat decent look on what's been going on each year.

All right, enough words, here are some numbers for the Card Darling of my collection for each year since 1981:


1981

Steve Garvey - 11 cards

Thanks to the influence of two new sets to collect -- Donruss and Fleer -- the Card Darling hits double digits for the first time.



1982

Fernando Valenzuela - 10 cards

This is the first example of what I noticed to be a running theme with this exercise. A player, if they are a star rookie like Valenzuela, will generate the most cards the year following his rookie year. Makes sense. Card companies don't have time to react to the player while he's putting together the rookie year (at least before Topps Now anyway), so they pile cards of the player on collectors the following year.



1983 and 1984

Pedro Guerrero - 7 cards
Pedro Guerrero - 9 cards

Just the kind of player that card companies (and collectors, I guess) like. If it can't be a rookie, hype the young stud with only a couple years under his belt.



1985

Fernando Valenzuela and Pedro Guerrero - 7 cards

The first of two ties on this list.



1986

Fernando Valenzuela - 24

The first significant jump in the timeline. Thank you, Fleer box sets and food issues.



1987

Steve Sax - 22 cards

A bit of a surprise, although Sax was definitely hyped as a young superstar at this time. He'd been in the majors about five years.



1988, 1989 and 1990

Orel Hershiser - 40 cards
Orel Hershiser - 50 cards
Orel Hershiser - 26 cards

The first extended Card Darling run in my collection. Hershiser was the beneficiary of the Star sets from this period (well, also he had a pretty damn good World Series). The Star sets are the first player-driven sets, a harbinger of the weirdness to come, and Star gets a player to 50 cards in one year in my collection.

We will go higher. A lot higher.



1991

Ramon Martinez - 25 cards

Ramon Martinez is the ideal specimen for this study. In 1991, Martinez was 22 years old. The year before he went 20-9, struck out 18 batters in a game and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting for the National League. Card companies didn't have to be told twice: make MOAR cards!



1992

Darryl Strawberry - 38 cards

The Dodgers' big signing the prior offseason. I recall as a young teenager desperate to pull the first Dodger card of Jerry Reuss in 1980. That's all I wanted, just one card of the guy. In 1992, you got 38 cards of the guy.



1993

Eric Karros - 51 cards

Eric Karros kicked off a string of five straight NL Rookies of the Year for the Dodgers in 1992 and card companies responded the next year with oodles of Karros cards. Funny, when Rick Sutcliffe started a string of four straight NL Rookies of the Year for the Dodgers in 1980, I was able to collect a whopping three Sutcliffe cards in 1981.



1994

Mike Piazza - 102

One hundred, ladies and gentlemen, we have reached 100!!

I don't think anything illustrates the difference between 1993 and 1994 in the card world as well as two Dodgers Rookies of the Year that are 50 cards apart.



1995

Raul Mondesi and Mike Piazza - 82 cards

Mondesi catches Piazza and I'm sure that's because Mondesi won the Rookie of the Year the previous year and Piazza did not.



1996

Hideo Nomo - 122 cards

The record total for a Card Darling, it will not be broken for the rest of this list. Nomo, of course, was a rookie sensation the previous year on the scale of Valenzuela. But Nomo had the fortune to show up in the '90s, a decade of cardboard excess. This is the only year that Nomo has the most cards in my collection, which shows you how much rookie clout means.



1997 and 1998

Mike Piazza - 93 cards
Mike Piazza - 94 cards

Piazza returns to the top. Player collecting was in full force by now and Piazza was one of the primary players collected. He has an absolute embarrassment of cards. There are still plenty of collectors who collect Piazza, but I think people like Trout, Griffey Jr., Ichiro, Pujols and maybe Gwynn and Maddux have surpassed him.



1999

Raul Mondesi - 57 cards

Mondesi edges out another rookie sensation, Adrian Beltre, by a single card. If I update this list, I expect Beltre to move to the front.



2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004

Shawn Green - 65 cards
Shawn Green - 54 cards
Shawn Green - 100 cards
Shawn Green - 86 cards
Shawn Green - 60 cards

Shawn Green didn't arrive with the Dodgers until 2000. In previous years, that would dampen his totals because card companies didn't react to a new acquisition as quickly. But with so many card sets available as the 2000s started, there were plenty of companies waiting to pounce on new Green Dodger cards. He still has the longest Card Darling streak in my collection.



2005

Eric Gagne - 61 cards

Gagne couldn't overtake Shawn Green in 2004, even after winning the Cy Young Award the previous year. But Gagne did continue his 84-game save streak into the 2004 season and that's why he's the only Card Darling relief pitcher in my collection.



2006

Jeff Kent - 45 cards

We're hitting some lean times in Dodgers history. The Card Darling totals dip for the next couple of years before increasing again.



2007

Rafael Furcal - 34 cards

I never would've guessed I owned more Furcal cards than anyone else this year -- or any other year.



2008

Russell Martin - 58 cards

Martin's rookie year was 2006 but his breakout year was 2007. Card companies responded with some of the finest cards of a player in a single year that I've ever seen.



2009

Manny Ramirez - 72 cards

Was there any bigger baseball hype than Manny Ramirez hype in 2008-09? His appearance on this list is a natural.



2010 and 2011

Clayton Kershaw - 52 cards
Clayton Kershaw - 72 cards

The beginning of the Kershaw era. I found in going through my cards that pitchers don't get their due as far as card totals. You really have to be something special as a pitcher to get a crap-ton of cards made of you.



2012

Matt Kemp - 59 cards

No surprise. Kemp's best season was 2011. He beat Kershaw by two cards.



2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

Clayton Kershaw - 57 cards
Clayton Kershaw - 56 cards
Clayton Kershaw - 58 cards
Clayton Kershaw - 56 cards

Kershaw has the most Card Darling Years total and he established that in 2016.



2017

Corey Seager - 60 cards

Topps has been sticking with the formula that was in force in Valenzuela's day. Seager won Rookie of the Year honors in 2016 so in 2017 GET READY FOR SOME COREY SEAGER CARDS!



2018

Cody Bellinger - 91 cards

The highest total since Shawn Green in 2002. Since I didn't collect during the height of the '90s glut or in the early 2000s, this was my first experience with "did they really need to make this card? And this one? And that one?" Even at 91 cards, I'm still way behind in the number of 2018 Bellingers available. I'm almost certain there are more Bellinger cards in 2018 than of any other Dodger in a given year.



2019

Clayton Kershaw - 59 cards

Kershaw restores some order. ... Oh, and I didn't collect a whole lot of modern stuff this year, too.


Here is a quick-and-easy (i.e. "free") graph to illustrate the path, although I started at 1989 because that's all I could fit:



I didn't include the 2020 totals because it's still in progress, but the totals so far already fall within the pattern:

1. Bellinger - 15
2. Dustin May - 10
3. Kershaw - 9
4. Gavin Lux - 9
5. Walker Buehler - 6

Bellinger is the defending MVP and May and Lux are rookies.

The industry really is ruled by rookies and stars and has been since the 1980s.

That doesn't really agree with the way I collect but as a team collector I have to take what I get. Nobody besides me would be happy if the player with the most cards in a given year was Austin Barnes.

Oh, and regarding my wondering about Kaz Ishii in 2002, you probably noticed already that he didn't have the most cards in my collection that year.

In fact he was FIFTH.

Shawn Green - 100
Paul LoDuca - 63
Kevin Brown - 54
Adrian Beltre - 45
Kaz Ishii - 39

So rookies don't rule exactly.

But they do get into the set first.

Comments

Chris said…
Nomo-mania was my generation's version of Fernando-mania, and with so many card companies/sets I'm not surprised he has the single-season record in your collection. But that is a crazy amount of cards of one player in one season especially in the days before each card had 20+ parallels.

The insight into Topps' emphasis on rookies certainly confirms what a lot of us suspected. I still can't believe they forgot a whole damn team in S1. Embarrassing.

Also, I love that Ishii Pristine refractor.
Alex Markle said…
Great research! I read Sooz's email and caught that fact as well, and it was certainly eye-opening. Not surprising Bellinger has the highest total in at least a decade. I vote for an updated list every year!
Jeremya1um said…
I just don’t see how Nomo could’ve had that many cards in ‘96. You had Bowman, Donruss, Fleer, Leaf, Pinnacle, Score, Studio, Topps, Upper Deck, and they each had maybe 3-5 spawns of sets for each of those companies, but did he really have that many inserts and parallels in ‘96?
Kin said…
This is a great post and one hell of a fun read!
night owl said…
This is the list of what I have for Nomo in 1996.

1996 Topps
1996 Topps (5-star finest)
1996 Topps (profiles-Gwynn)
1996 Topps Chrome
1996 Topps Gallery (new editions)
1996 Topps Finest
1996 Topps Laser
1996 Topps Pre-Production
1996 Topps Stadium Club
1996 Topps Stadium Club (members only)
1996 Topps Stadium Club (award winners)
1996 Topps Stadium Club (megaheroes)
1996 Topps Stadium Club (member's choice)
1996 Topps Stadium Club (midsummer matchups)
1996 Topps Stadium Club (power streak)
1996 Topps Team Stadium Club (purple letters)
1996 Topps Team Stadium Club (blue letters)
1996 Bowman
1996 Bowman's Best
1996 Fleer
1996 Fleer (rookie sensation)
1996 Fleer (smoke 'n heat)
1996 Fleer (tomorrow's legends)
1996 Fleer (encore)
1996 Fleer Team Wax
1996 Fleer Ultra
1996 Fleer Ultra (season crowns)
1996 Donruss
1996 Donruss (promo)
1996 Donruss (press proof)
1996 Leaf
1996 Leaf (checklist)
1996 Leaf Limited
1996 Leaf Preferred
1996 Leaf Preferred Steel
1996 Studio
1996 Studio (stained glass stars)
1996 Score
1996 Score (dugout collection)
1996 Score (radar rating)
1996 Score (checklist)
1996 Score (diamond aces)
1996 Select
1996 Select (en fuego)
1996 Select Certified
1996 Sports Illustrated For Kids
1996 Upper Deck
1996 Upper Deck (beat the odds)
1996 Upper Deck (blue chip prospects)
1996 Upper Deck (diamond destiny)
1996 Upper Deck (game face)
1996 Upper Deck (global impact)
1996 Upper Deck (hobby predictor)
1996 Upper Deck (v.j. lovero)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo highlights-1)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo highlights-2)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo highlights-3)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo highlights-4)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo highlights-5)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 1)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 2)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 3)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 4)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 5)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 6)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 7)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 8)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 9)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 10)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 11)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 12)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 13)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 14)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 15)
1996 Upper Deck (hideo nomo collection - 16)
1996 Collectors Choice (all-rookie)
1996 Collectors Choice (all-rookie - silver signature)
1996 Collectors Choice (checklist)
1996 Collectors Choice (checklist - silver signature)
1996 Collectors Choice (award winner)
1996 Collectors Choice (award winner - silver signature)
1996 Collectors Choice (fantasy team)
1996 Collectors Choice (fantasy team - silver signature)
1996 Collectors Choice (international flavor)
1996 Collectors Choice (rookie class)
1996 Collectors Choice (stat leaders-strikeouts)
1996 Collectors Choice (scrapbook-1)
1996 Collectors Choice (scrapbook-2)
1996 Collectors Choice (scrapbook-3)
1996 Collectors Choice (scrapbook-4)
1996 Collectors Choice (scrapbook-5)
1996 Collectors Choice (team set)
1996 Upper Deck SP
1996 Upper Deck SP (checklist)
1996 Upper Deck SP (hot commodities)
1996 Upper Deck SP (marquee matchups)
1996 Upper Deck SP (marquee matchups, die-cut)
1996 Upper Deck Spx
1996 Bazooka
1996 Circa
1996 Emotion XL
1996 Kenner Starting Lineup
1996 KingBee
1996 Metal (mining for gold)
1996 Metal (platinum portraits)
1996 Pacific
1996 Pacific (rookie of year)
1996 Pacific Prisms
1996 Pinnacle
1996 Pinnacle Starburst
1996 Pinnacle (hardball heroes)
1996 Pinnacle (Denny's)
1996 Pinnacle Aficionado
1996 Pinnacle Aficionado (global reach)
1996 Pinnacle Aficionado (slick picks)
1996 Pinnacle Summit
1996 Pinnacle Summit (foil)
1996 Pinnacle Zenith (honor roll)
1996 Sportflix

It actually comes to 119. But that's a different list. I consulted my database for the total in the blog post. If he didn't have so many cards that year I'd figure out where the difference is.
Elliptical Man said…
I don't buy Nomo mania being as big as Fernando mania.

I remember checking out a biography of Fernando from the library and I wasn't even a Dodgers fan. Dude was only in his twenties.

The ABBA song "Fernando" came on the radio and I thought it was about Valenzuela. Because why wouldn't it have been?

I enjoyed the read though. Your collection must be huge.
Billy Kingsley said…
You have more Nomo cards from one year than all but one NASCAR set issued since the year 2000.

I wish I had as many cards to chase in my sports.
Fuji said…
Wow. Not sure what's more impressive... the fact that you have 122 different 1996 Hideo Nomos... or that you are organized enough to write this post. I'll just call it a tie and go to bed envious.
Nick Vossbrink said…
Oh wow. This is a fun post and idea. I wonder if I have enough of those awful Bonds HR chase cards to blow things open in the mid 2000s. They *are* spread across like three seasons though so I may not have enough to come up with a ridiculous yearly number.

Also you could totally do this in the pre-81 years sets if you count World Series and league leaders cards.
Old Cards said…
I have zero interest in modern cards and very limited interest in cards after 1980, but you made this a very interesting read just because of your extensive research. The effort you put into your blog makes me check it everyday.
Anonymous said…
Has anyone seen a Kershaw card with him wearing # 54 ,which he wore for his MLB debut and a few more games before he was sent to double a Jacksonville. On his recall l believe he switched to # 22.
As usual this is impressive. When I re-entered the hobby in 2016(ish) I was immediately dissuaded from trying to feel like I could get everything. So much so I've given up more stuff I guess. I do envy and admire, both, team and players collectors.
Jafronius said…
Wonderful research and thanks for the insights!

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