1986 Topps baseball – “A Tale of Two Eras”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Ah, Charles Dickens. Whether you’ve heard the line in a game of Trivial Pursuit, or you were forced (as I was) to read the novel back in high school, we’re all at least somewhat familiar with the classic, “A Tale of Two Cities”. For me at the time, the year 1986 seemed to go hand-in-hand with that ever-popular opening line from the Dickens classic. And in retrospect, the happenings within the hobby world, as well as the MLB world, have only helped to reinforce these parallel likenesses.
It was March 1986, I was eleven years old and in sixth grade. Baseball practice was to begin soon, summer vacation was on the radar, and in a few months, I would be embarking upon my junior high school career. I was also currently skipping my bi-yearly tradition of wandering the hallways with a broken arm, as I had in 1982 and 1984. There was only one problem: the reason I hadn’t had a chance to break my arm yet was because I had been hospital-hopping due to some sort of digestive condition. I didn’t know it at the time, but eventually I would be diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory condition in the digestive system that, at the time, was rarely heard of. Apparently, I was the youngest person ever to have been successfully diagnosed; I’m in some medical journals somewhere, hooray for me. All that concerned me was when I would be able to get back home so I could put some weight back on and start throwing some pitches to Dad.
It was March, so baseball season had not yet started, which means there was no baseball to watch on television. That makes for some loooooong days of lazing around the hospital. Luckily, I had baseball cards to occupy the time, and keep me connected to the outside baseball world. Friends and family knew that I collected, so day in and day out I was showered with package after package containing a few packs of 1986 Topps baseball cards. As I ripped them open, I feverishly looked for the latest issues of the hottest young players – Don Mattingly, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Roger Clemens, Eric Davis; just to name a few.
As an informed monthly reader of Beckett Magazine, I did notice one thing was missing – a Jose Canseco rookie card. I was too young to know why Topps had not included him. I just assumed all of the same players appeared in all of the sets. I was familiar with his Fleer and Donruss cards, but where was the Topps? Later I would learn that it was a bad oversight on the part of Topps, much like later in 1989 when they did not include a rookie card of a promising prospect named Ken Griffey Jr. It was truly not “the best of times” for Topps in these years, as competitors like Donruss and Fleer, and upstarts like Score and Upper Deck wowed the collecting world with vivid photography, classic card designs, and top-level rookie inclusions.
In 1986, Topps missed out on top rookies like Canseco, Galarraga, and McGriff
“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Later that summer, I had a financial epiphany – I would use my allowance money to invest in baseball cards. So long as prices kept increasing like they had been for the past few years, I could invest a few bucks over the summer, make a few shrewd trades with my friends, and within a couple years my money would easily triple. It was a no-brainer, why wasn’t everyone doing this? Well, they were. So me and a few million of my hobby comrades all went into the same line of business – buying overproduced cards of overhyped (and in many cases over-“medicated”) baseball players that would eventually fund my college tuition, my wedding, a condo in the Hamptons, my dream car… When I was lucky enough to find Fleer or Donruss cards, the dollar signs danced around my head and I could almost hear the cash register. How was it possible that I could pull a $150 Canseco card out of a fifty-cent pack? The better question, as it turned out, was how could so many of us actually think that this was a sustainable real-world opportunity?
My 1986 retirement plan…as financially sound as Enron stock. Remember the haul this was back then?
“…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” So fitting that Dickens should use the word “season” in this line of the script. Of course, he could not have been referencing a baseball season, although in this text the meaning definitely brings forth so many memories, both light and dark. The MLB season started out like any other. The Cardinals were fresh off getting robbed of a World Series ring, courtesy of Don Denkinger. I have never been a Cardinals fan, even though they are technically my “hometown” team, but even I could see at age 10 that it was a brutal way to lose a World Series. One thing that I could always be legitimately accused of was that I loved to stir the pot. So, when I wasn’t able to take a 4 hour trip up I-55 to watch a White Sox game, I engaged in my second favorite pastime – annoying Cardinals fans.
The Major Leagues at the time was comprised of four divisions, and the Cardinals were most closely rivaled by the young and talented New York Mets. The Mets ended 1985 only 3 games behind the Cardinals in the National League East, but with no Wild Cards and no Divisional Series, all they got was an early offseason and the promise of “next year”. Well, it was next year and young talents like Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, and phenom Dwight Gooden wanted nothing more than to end their franchise’s 16-year title drought. My dad would take me to Cardinals games where we would watch fans walk around with “Pond Scum” banners and “Mets Suck” hats. With the myriad of young players and the implications upon their baseball card values, coupled with the contrarianism of rooting against the Cardinals and rubbing their fans’ noses in the manner in which they lost the previous World Series – how could I NOT root for the Mets?
We all know how the 1986 season ended and what has ensued since. The Mets did in fact win their first World Series title since 1969. The following spring training found certain future-HOFer Dwight Gooden testing positive for cocaine, sending his career and life into a tailspin. Shortly after that, Darryl Strawberry was accused of breaking his wife’s nose, and began several years of criticizing teammates and his manager, missing practices and workouts, eventually checking into an alcohol rehab center. Lenny Dykstra fell to a gambling addiction. Keith Hernandez was found guilty of using and distributing cocaine to other Major League players. For this team, it was truly darkest just beyond the light.
At the time I pulled every Gooden, Strawberry, and Dykstra, placed them in semi-rigid top loaders, and dreamed of the day that I would eventually sell them off to purchase my dreams. Obviously that did not, and will never, happen. But as the title suggests, this is a tale of two eras. Not only in the sense that my financial take on the 1986 card issues has drastically changed from childhood to now, but also now that I am able to look back to that set a generation later, I can appreciate it for what it truly is, rather than in terms of dollars and cents. The 1986 sets, when it was all said and done, did not produce any must-have rookie cards. We have come to realize that the fads of Cecil Fielder, Andres Galarraga, Mickey Tettleton, and yes even Jose Canseco, have come and gone and only the wisest of us unloaded our troves of their cards at the height of popularity. Now that the playing field has been leveled, and players’ careers have ended, we are left with the card designs and set checklists as the very fitting ways to rank the sets and give them their place in collecting history. Fleer is very “Fleer-like”; long time collectors know what I mean. I have to admit that Donruss was exciting at first, but I also have to believe that the inclusion of Canseco and the hype surrounding the card most likely fed that fire. Over time the border colors and diagonal lines have put me to sleep. To me, Topps stands out as the forgone winner of the year, something I never would have said back then.
No Canseco. No Rated Rookies. No multi-player rookies to invest in. Oddly enough, in 2018 none of this matters at all. What we are left with is what I feel to be a beautiful set. It is a purist’s dream and nightmare in one, with an established border for centering issues and two black corners that reveal every touch of age and mishandling that have ever come upon each card. There is a large picture, with clean and clear fonts used for the player name and position. The font used for the team name has grown on me over the years, to the point that I have recently spent hours searching the web to try and find a suitable font style to use on my son’s mock-up cards. So far I have been unable to find one to use. Luckily my son has played for teams with names like Indians and Pirates, so I have been able to doctor up some scans and change the colors. His high school team is the Miners, so I am either going to have to get ultra-creative, or ultra-lucky in my ongoing font search…
The checklist itself looks like a veritable Who’s Who of historic baseball figures. It starts out with the lifetime card collection of Pete Rose, featured on a special subset and celebrating his passing of Ty Cobb on the career hits list. You have early cards of Clemens, Mattingly, Puckett, Gwynn, Sandberg, and Boggs. There are cards depicting the ends of storied careers of Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Rollie Fingers. There is a nice list of future HOFers smack dab in the middle of their legendary careers, players such as Nolan Ryan, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Rickey Henderson, Ozzie Smith, George Brett – the list goes on and on. There is even a “Turn Back the Clock” subset featuring past Topps cards of Roger Maris, Frank Robinson, and Willie Mays. And last but not least are the cards of players whose stories must be told when preaching the history of baseball’s past, with promising cards of Dwight Gooden, Cecil Fielder, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, and Vince Coleman eventually finding their way out of our display cases, but not out of our memories.
The 1986 Topps set has much to offer in the way of superstars and HOFers
When looking back, the 1986 Topps baseball set truly embodies the best and worst of times, both in the hobby and in Major League Baseball alike. As a life-long avid collector, I am happy that I can now enjoy this set for its beauty and for the never-ending list of players included from 1 through 792. I can appreciate a well-centered specimen alike with those lucky enough to have stood the test of time with two perfectly square and black top corners. And in many cases, I can do it all for the same price now as I did back then, even if that wasn’t exactly my original plan.
And for those of you wondering, I did manage to break my arm in my first baseball game of the 1986 summer, fresh out of the hospital. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Lanny Ribes @DOCBZ17