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G.O.A.T, the '80s: 10-1

Here we are.

The greatest 10 cards of the 1980s.

I'm sure I'm going to ruffle some feathers here. As someone who had been collecting for five full years when the 1980s began, I see cards in a different way than those who started collecting in the '80s.

My countdown reflects the '80s as I knew them, as a teenager and college student. Beer, road trips and alternative radio, not the Transformers and the Fresh Prince.

But famous cards are famous cards and I can't discount some of the hyped pieces of cardboard that came out in the '80s. So expect to see some of those in the final 10. You should know every card I show here.

Before I get to that, I'd like to rank the greatest years to collect cards in the 1980s. I did this before, way back in the early days of the blog. But that was practically prehistoric times. Let's do it again:

1. 1984: Card designs were never better across the board than in 1984.
2. 1988: The year that kids started telling their teacher "card store owner" when they were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Cards were as cool and as exciting as they had ever been. Plus Score debuted.
3. 1983: The best Topps design of the '80s by far. The first Fleer SuperStar Specials.
4. 1989: Personally, the best time I had collecting in the '80s. And I never saw one Upper Deck pack.
5. 1981: The beast unleashed. For the first time, there were three card sets for sale at the store. Mind blown.
6. 1987: Two of the sets that came out are two of the most overrated sets of the decade, maybe all-time. But the year seemed to spawn more collectors than any other year ever. Except maybe 2020.
7. 1985: The beginning of the overproduction era. Also the year when Donruss and Fleer killed Topps in the design category.
8. 1980: Hey there, don't look at 1980 with sad puppy dog eyes. Trust me, there is something very zen about being able to collect only one set per year.
9. 1982: The last year I really tried to complete everything. The sets weren't very inspiring, which I think caused me to see the light.
10. 1986: Nothing against '86 at all, I rather liked the year. It's just someone needs to fill me in on what happened in cards because I paid zero attention.

As usual, your mileage may vary.

Anyway, let's get going on the final 10 cards. For this segment, since all of these cards are so fancy-pants, I am presenting them in a different way. Except for one card, which I don't own. (Guess which one that is?)

Here we go:

10. Eddie Murray, 1985 Topps, #700

The finest card of a man who knew how to make excellent baseball cards.

If I was a serious player collector, back when player-collecting became a thing in the mid-to-late 1980s, I think Murray would be my guy. That's weird for me to admit because of Murray's longtime policy of not talking to the media and me being a media member and all.

But I could dismiss that because of the rich catalog of Murray cards, starting from his supreme rookie card (a top 10 member of the Greatest 100 Cards of the '70s), through his Dodger days, and even some of those 1990s Indians things.

But nothing tops this 1985 Topps Murray. It's a simple head shot but the focus is on Murray's trademark glare and the closer you are to that look, the more you either want to admire it or step away out of concern. Murray's facial hair is on point, nothing is out of place. It's simply a perfect card.

9. Mark McGwire, 1985 Topps, #401

The '85 Topps set makes back-to-back appearances with one of the pivotal cards of the 1980s. Never would a rookie card be as clearly defined as it was before this card arrived.

I still hear arguments today about what card is McGwire's true rookie card and his appearance in the 1985 Team USA subset is to blame. Perhaps some people would eliminate this card from contention because of the confusion it created, but something that had such an impact on the hobby deserves to be honored.

It's fun to look at this card and think of everything that was to come for McGwire and for baseball. He has no idea. Neither did we.

8. Kevin Mitchell, 1987 Topps, #653

One of the premier action cards of the 1980s, Kevin Mitchell's claim to fame in this card is creating the largest dust storm to appear on cardboard to this point.

Mitchell is exultant after apparently just scoring and Expos catcher Mike Fitzgerald is keeping an eye on the other base runners. I like that each are facing in opposite directions and both are being swallowed by a dust cloud that is traveling toward their waists. In the background, everyone is up and out of their seats.

7. Carlton Fisk, 1982 Topps, In Action, #111

For years -- decades, really -- this card eluded me. I never saw it. Even though I collected plenty in 1982, I never pulled the card. It wasn't until I was blogging years later that it appeared.

"My goodness," I thought. "I never knew those '82 in-action cards could be so cool!"

The Fisk card is a novelty because Topps just wasn't turning cards on its side for players back then and hadn't done it for years. It is unique for its time.

Never did you see a catcher in a full-out dive for a pop fly. For my money, it is the greatest action card of the 1980s.

6. Bill Ripken, 1989 Fleer, #616

I almost ranked this card a lot higher.
Out of all of the hyped cards that came out during the late 1980s, this one I understand. This makes sense to me: What? There is a profanity on the bat? How??? How did that end up on a baseball card???
I was collecting in 1989 but I didn't buy any Fleer and it's possible I knew about the Ripken F-Face card only distantly (there was no internet then and I wasn't visiting card shops or shows in the late '80s). I know if I was aware of it that I'd be seeking out some 1989 Fleer.
It is one of the most unusual cards of the 1980s, and probably sums up the card collecting hype of the late '80s better than any other card. The lengths that Fleer would go to create publicity for itself was officially legendary. 
To this day it is probably the most famous card on this list among those who don't collect cards.

5. Dwight Gooden, 1985 Donruss, Wax Box Bottom, #PC1

Out of all of the early Doc Gooden cards, if I had to choose one, it would be this card.
It boggles my mind that a photo like this was relegated to the bottom of a box. It is a beautiful shot, much more interesting than the regular '85 Donruss Gooden card or the more famous Gooden cards of the time, the '85 Topps card, the '84 Topps Traded, etc., etc.
Gooden was on top of the baseball world at the time so what better way to convey that than getting a photo of Gooden high up in the stands of Shea Stadium, casually flipping a baseball. Gooden, meanwhile, stares even higher. Who knows how high his career could go?
What a shot.

4. Cal Ripken Jr., 1982 Topps/Topps Traded, #21/#98T

I had planned to simply show the Traded Cal Ripken card because I remember that time in 1982 and, for me, the Traded card was the one to have. When I found out that he was going to appear in a special Traded set issued by Topps, my three-prospect card of Ripken that I owned suddenly seemed insignificant.

But I decided to include both cards at this slot. The card at #21 does carry a lot of weight with collectors. Many collectors at that time never saw the Ripken Traded card and couldn't get their hands on it.

I felt very lucky that I ordered that Traded set in 1982 and then watched the Ripken card rocket in price over the years. For decades, it was the most expensive card in my collection. And I kept it in a screw-down case for years.

Today, I took that Ripken Traded card out of its screw-down and slipped it into a top loader. It's still a special card. But I'm over my screw-down phase.

3. Ken Griffey Jr., 1989 Upper Deck, #1

This is the card from the top 10 that I don't own.

For years I couldn't be bothered with owning this card. I just didn't understand the fascination. I still don't. But on the occasion of the countdown, I figured it would be a good time to pick up a copy.

Too late.

I had missed my chance. The card, like almost every notable card, has skyrocketed in price. It's nothing I can't afford, but at the same time, I don't want to spend that kind of money on a card from 1989.

The Upper Deck Griffey card is described as iconic. Upper Deck got lucky by airbrushing a prospect out of his San Bernadino Spirits uniform and placing him at card #1. There was no guarantee that Griffey would become the player that he did. But the first-year company caught lightening in a bottle and that card made Upper Deck the "it" card company for more than a decade.

In some ways, this card is more of a '90s card than an '80s card. 1989 Upper Deck didn't even come out until there were less than 9 months left in the '80s. And most of the impact that the Griffey card had on collecting would come to pass in the '90s.

But there's no denying that legions of collectors look up to this card and that's why I can't leave it out of the top 10. I don't know if I'll ever own it and I don't really care if I do. But the fact that it still sells for so much money means something.

2. Glenn Hubbard, 1984 Fleer, #182

This guy comes up to you and says:
"So I had this dream last night. I was on a baseball field. I think it was in Philadelphia.

There were all these people on the field with me. Not all of them were baseball players. There were a lot of other people, too. And there were balloons and stuff, it was like we were having a big party on the baseball field.
There was a parade on the field, too. People with flags. And Barney Rubble was on the field, too. A big Barney Rubble was walking around."
"Wait a minute," you say to the guy, "Barney Rubble?"
"Yeah," he says. "From the Flintstones. And the Phillie Phanatic. He was there. He looked really big, too. Like he was one of those balloons in the Thanksgiving Day parade."
"OK," you say. "Anything else?"
"Yup. This was the clearest and craziest thing. Glenn Hubbard, you know that Braves infielder from the '80s? I don't know why he was in my dream but he was. He was all smiling and happy, like he was proud of himself. And he was carrying a boa constrictor."
"Yeah, actually he was wearing the boa constrictor around his neck. The thing was huge!"
"That's some weird dream," you say.
That's what this card is: the weirdest dream.

1. Rickey Henderson, 1980 Topps, #482

The greatest card of the greatest decade of my life.

I pulled this card out of a pack in 1980 knowing exactly who Rickey Henderson was. He was tearing up the major leagues in 1980 on his way to an almost unheard of 100 stolen bases that season. He would soon own the single-season stolen base record and then become the career stolen base leader, an accomplishment he still owns.

Henderson didn't just steal bases. He could hit like hell, from that unmistakable crouched stance that is so well depicted on this card. "How could he hit that way?" we thought. But he did. He would hit home runs from the lead-off spot, from that crouch, ALL THE TIME.

Henderson is the best player I saw. I say that with absolutely no doubt. His talent was indisputable. The best.

This card, too, is indisputable. While collectors bow at the feet of the '84 Mattingly or '82 Ripken or '86 Canseco or '89 Griffey, this card -- the 1980 Rickey Henderson -- is the card that really started the rookie card craze in the direction that it would go for the rest of the decade and really where it is today. This is the card that provided the spark.

I was proud that I owned this card. I used to have three versions of it, but traded two of them away quite awhile ago. I probably should've kept them knowing what they go for today.

Plus, I just like how this card is composed. Look at Henderson's fingers pulling off the bat as he prepares to swing. Look at his teammates huddled in the dugout. Look at all that green and gold.

Simple greatness. And we didn't have to wait all decade to get to it.


There you are. The Greatest 100 cards of the '80s. It took me three years to get myself to compile the countdown and then it's done in a flash.

I'll do a recap of the countdown next week and I'll link the whole thing on the sidebar just like I did the Greatest 100 cards of the '70s list.

Like I've said, there were way too many cards to choose from for the '80s countdown. And I know I discounted several popular cards for one reason or another. But as someone who lived through all of the '80s, I think I did the decade and its cards justice.

This is probably the last decade countdown I will do. Don't expect anything from the '90s or the '60s. Maybe I'll do something from the '00s just to be contrarian.

But anyway, let's move on to some other stuff about cards.


I hadn't seen that Fisk or Gooden before. Both are fantastic. Some great cards in 1-10.
Phil Abramowitz said…
Thanks for the series -the cards bring back so many memories! Any chance of football cards of 70's/80's (or combine all the other sports together, I don't care)
Awesome countdown. Thank you for doing it. I have to say I was surprised by the Henderson card but your rationale explains it all; and following the countdown from 100, I can understand how you came to this conclusion. The Ripkens were well-represented in the Top 10! Were there any other players that you considered showing off two cards of?
This is like a book you can't put down and which better and better the closer you get to the end. Then it's over.

Great countdown, NO. It took me back to my high school and college years as well, and I didn't want to see it end.
Nick said…
I was wondering when we'd see the '87 Mitchell. There's no doubting I've seen enough '87 Topps for a lifetime, but I'll never tire of that card. Just a wonderful piece of cardboard all around.

I don't know that I'd rank the Rickey rookie #1 but I can definitely understand the reasons you did. This countdown was an absolute blast. Thanks for putting it together, Sir Owl!
Yes, you did the 80's justice. A great top ten as well. The Hubbard is one of my all time faves.
CrazieJoe said…
Great countdown and as always, great writing and thought behind all of the choices. Really enjoyed it.
friend11 said…
The Mitchell card started my mini collection of "Dust ups". There are a lot of Dust cards in my collection. Sounds like a new post coming up. I enjoyed the countdown.
GCA said…
Wow, OK, I've been ignoring blogs for a bit. Now I've gotta go back and review the other 90. I can say if I did the list, there wouldn't be a whole lot of '85 thru '89 in mine. Mostly because I only obtained those sets in years beginning with "2" except for '89 when I bought two new boxes at the time after a five year pause.
John Bateman said…
ok You blew me away with the Fisk card - I sold the 1982 set in 2007. I owned the set for 25 years and I dont remember this card. It was a Horizontal card in a world of verticals from 1975-1990.

Also, surprised with the Gooden, I think I had that box bottom once but it got smashed. It was such a unique looking card for its time.

I don't own the Griffey and never bought one pack of 1989 Upper Deck.

The McGwire card I remember more from the late 1990s when he hit 70 HR. That card was in the news, though it was big for a year or two after his 87 season.

OK, I would not have had Henderson number 1 but I really don't know who I would have had.

When I think of 1980s baseball card the first card that comes to mind is the 1981 Fleer Fernando card. It weird but the 1980 set seemed to be an extension of the 1970s. I also think of 1981 Donruss Raines.

In 1982, you have Ripken across the board. In 83, while Topps set was great the other 2 were not. The Boggs card was so hot then came the Strawberry update. In 1984, I discovered baseball card magazine and Mattingly became Micky Mantle - Then cards took off Gooden, Puckett, Clemens, Rose in an Expo uniform. 1984/85 was probably the peak in the decade. US Baseball, Mattingly 2nd year, Donruss Black Border, Great Looking Fleer set.

After 1985 - only a few cards stand out to me,

In the spring 1986, I was in a comic book shop and I think they had tuff stuff magazine and on the cover was a picture of 1986 Fleer George Brett and my first thought was this is a NIGHT GAME shot of Brett. I did not own the set yet, but this is one of my favorite collecting memories of all time. Just how good that card looked on the cover.

1987 Canseco of course
1988 Nothing stands out (even though I came to appreciate the 88 Topps set after reading blogs) except Dale Murphy face splatter on 1988 Donruss which was being sold everywhere on the Planet.
1989 - Hershiser Donruss special card or Schmidt retirement Fleer

The rankings of the years

1985 - 85 Topps Homage to 65 Topps, Fleer nice gray borders
1987 - decent sets for all three
1983 - Only Topps carries this year
1981 - Not a bad year for cards
1986 - topps was number 3 this year
1989 - time made me like that donruss set
1988- donruss just destroys they year
1982 - a bad year for cards except maybe Donruss
Adam Kaningher said…
The Griffey RC has eluded my collection, too. I'm sure I'll have to wait for the next inevitable bust at this point.

This has been a fun countdown. Thanks for doing it.
Wonderful top 10. I can get behind every single pick! I knew this series would make me happy, but it exceeded even those expectations.
madding said…
I pulled one of the Griffeys back in high school and sold it to a girl I worked with at the card shop for $50. No regrets.

I do regret other things that I traded or sold back in the late '80s, though.
madding said…
I should also mention that tracking down the Ozzie Smith from the 1982 Traded set early on in my blog's days is a major highlight for me. It always seemed out of my price range for a 4th year card, but it was his first proper Cardinals card.
Billy Kingsley said…
Being one of the few non-baseball guys on the blogosphere, I don't have any of these cards, but 6 of them are very familiar to me. I know for sure the snake card and the three player card with Ripken I know of solely via reading the blogs.

I remember, probably about 2002, I was on the local comic/card shop and one of the regulars explaining to be me the significance of the bat knob. The card was for sale in the display case.
Mark Hoyle said…
Fun countdown Greg. Really enjoyed reading this series
CinciCuse Bill said…
Well done. Quite a labor of love. I also enjoyed reading this series of posts.
Fuji said…
As much as I love, love, love that 80T Rickey... I never would have guessed he would be #1 on your list. What a great choice and writeup on that card and the other 99+ on your list. If I ever created my own list... the Griffey, Mitchell, and Gooden would be in my Top 10 as well.

Loved this series Night Owl! Sad to see it come to a close... but looking forward to the recap.
Matt said…
Excellent as always, and sad to see this particular series end. When I was 7 or 8, before I knew what rookie cards were, I traded a Henderson rookie to a friend because between giving him that or a 1981 Henderson, I thought newer was better. Fortunately, I was able to acquire another before the card cost skyrocketed...
Brett Alan said…
Very much enjoyed the countdown--the description of the Glenn Hubbard "dream" was a masterstroke. I'm impressed that you didn't put any Dodgers cards in the top ten--I don't think I could be so restrained with my Mets for any such countdown.

But, I must say: 1981 Fleer Rod Carew. How did that not make it?
bryan was here said…
Wow, what a fun ride. Rickey Be Rickey at the pole position, that classic crouch, even back then big things were in Rickey's future.

Thanks for the memories! looking forward to what comes next!
Jon said…
The Junior UD rookie was THE card to own when I was a kid, and even though I did pull one from a pack (probably in 1990), I was never overly fond of it. The extreme close-up just didn't do anything for me back then, and still doesn't to this day. Personally, I always thought that his Donruss rookie was the best of the bunch.
Jafronius said…
Thanks for a wonderful countdown. It did not disappoint.