What makes 1980s baseball cards so great? The same thing that propelled the show Stranger Things to the top of the charts and straight to the hearts of millions across the country. The same thing that had people rushing to see Ready Player One, or even, for some reason, wanting to relive the horror of It.
Sure, the same thing can be said about all eras, and each will feel different depending on your generation. But the 80s in the baseball card collecting world was the tipping point. Mass production and popularity through the roof.
Of course, there are pros and cons that go along with it, with many cards of the late 80s relatively worthless given the large quantities.
But for now, let’s stick with the pros, and focus on those that were the first cards of some of the best to have ever played the game (Henderson, Ripken, Gwynn, Griffey Jr., and more) while also highlighting those cards that are valuable more so thanks to their production (or flubs in production) versus the actual players themselves.
So, here we go—10 very good, and quite possibly the best cards of the decade (or, check out the best baseball card sets of the 80s, if you wish).
You might not consider these the most valuable cards of the 80s, but above all else, they are considered the cards that defined the era.
(Disclosure: The text and image links in this section are eBay affiliate links, and I will receive commission if you follow those links and make a purchase.)
1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr., #1 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: When you close your eyes and think of baseball cards, what do you see? For me, I see this card every single time. It was the holy grail of card collecting in the pre-eBay days, and seeing it even today still gives me the feels.
As for the card specifics, there are a few different things at play here.
One, this was Upper Deck’s first entry into the baseball card thunderdome, and boy did they come out swinging. In a world dominated for the most part by the true cardboard feel provided by Topps, to the weird shiny yet dull plastic feel of Donruss and then Score, Upper Deck provided something different; something substantial to when you were holding one card, you wanted to hold more of them.
And here’s a thought other card companies should have incorporated long before this—if you are making baseball cards, why not incorporate some baseball elements and icons into the design? Sure you had a little bit of that the beautiful pennant design of 1965 Topps (disclosure: eBay affiliate link), and then a little bit more with the hat on their 1981 cards (disclosure: eBay affiliate link) but not much more than that. So, when the 1989 Upper Deck infield grass and baseline was revealed, card designers were put on notice.
Last, look at the card number. It’s #1 in the set. Here you have the first edition of Upper Deck baseball cards, and the first card in their set is none other than the rookie card of one of the most talented, electric players to ever take the field. Whoever was on the numbering team apt UD during that time and prognosticated Junior Griffey’s Hall of Fame better have gotten a raise.
1980 Topps Rickey Henderson, #482 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: When you look at the designs of Topps’ 1980s entries, especially from 1983 and on, you’ll see a lot of “hard” shapes; rectangles, circles, squares, and then with 1987, which resembled the wood paneling you’d find in your grandparents car. But 1980 was beautiful, and served as a nice transition from the awesome designs of the mid to late 70s.
With the Rickey Henderson, it’s just perfection from top to bottom. And it’s not just because I’m an A’s homer, but the timely action shot, the combination of green and yellow that just pops of the card; not to mention the signature scrawled beautifully above the team name.
Most importantly, it being the rookie card of one of the greatest to ever play the game. The card has it all, and should be a part of the conversation for best card ever, let alone only those from the 1980s. (Come to think of it, all of Rickey’s early 80s cards were just awesome.) (Disclosure: eBay affiliate link.)
1989 Topps Randy Johnson, #647 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: Mullet. Glad we got that out of the way, because this summary would have inevitably ended up there. In addition to those luscious locks, here were are in the smack dab middle of the junk wax era with 1989 Topps. Whenever there is a conversation about baseball cards, you’ll eventually have the non-collector, non-sports lover pipe up about their “collection.” Without even looking, you know it’s chock full of 1988-1991 Topps and 1992 Fleer; just a given.
But, with all of that said, there are still some cards from those sets you need to have in your collection. The 2015 Hall of Fame inductee, the Big Unit, proudly representing America’s colors while on a team from another country; and a team that doesn’t even exist any more at that is just a site to be seen.
Now, you might have noticed I’m listing the non-Tiffany variation here. Of course, and as is the case for other cards on this list, the Topps Tiffany variation is going to be way more valuable; like not even close. The original release of this card is still one to be had, though. So, if you don’t have one, pick one up. You should be able to find a nice high grade for relatively cheap (disclosure: eBay affiliate link) given Randy Johnson’s resume and place in major league baseball history.
Not to be confused with: As you can see, the original print featured Randy with his first team, the Montreal Expos, while this Topps Traded Update captures Johnson with the team he blossomed with in the Seattle Mariners. No mullet, though.
1984 Fleer Update Roger Clemens, #U-27 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: Well for starters, when you think “Roger Clemens Rookie,” you might easily conjure up images of his 1985 snapshots. So, with this being his only 1984 card, you can imagine its value, which has withstood the test of time even as we trudge through the fallout from the alleged steroid era. Plus, given the card is from the rarer variety of “update” or “traded” sets, this Clemens is a coveted piece of any collection.
1985 Topps Mark McGwire, #401 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: It’s pretty self-evident, right? Team USA uniforms; fire. Earliest major manufacturer card of one of the greatest home run hitters in the history of the game; amazing. And, a gentle reminder that the guy could swing it long before the question of steroids came into play.
Unfortunately, that subtle reminder isn’t enough to maintain value, as the price of this card has decreased dramatically over the last few years (you can get a nice ungraded one for around $6; (disclosure: eBay affiliate link)) A graded Mint 9 will bump that price up a little, and the Tiffany version of course serves as a nice little multiplier. All that said, a key piece of card collecting history, and now’s the time to get one or a few if you don’t have any already.
1982 Topps Traded Cal Ripken Jr., #98T (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: The mean mug from the future Iron Man, and the fact that, you could easily be fooled into thinking you already have the 1982 Topps Cal Ripken RC. Likewise, and above all else, this card is one of the greatest the 80s has to offer because it would be a travesty for a Topps RC of one of the greatest to ever to be shared with two others (sorry, Mike Schmidt, and to a lesser extent, Nolan Ryan).
Not to be confused with: As mentioned above, Ripken’s main card of the set had him featured with other Orioles’ Future Stars, er, I mean other young guys on the team at that time. At least Ripken is featured in the center (no offense Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider).
1984 Fleer Update Kirby Puckett, #U93 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: Sadly, this is one of a couple on this list of former all-time greats taken from us way too soon. That aside, if you’ve ever played any sport, you’re accustomed to the phrase “take a knee.” But I guarantee none of us looked as good doing it as Kirby does here. Perfect form; bat angle and placement, impeccable. Plus, that old Twins logo doesn’t get enough credit as it should have. I’m tempted to put Roy Smalley on this list just because his card too features that awesome logo.
1989 Fleer Bill Ripken, #616 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: Oh, where do we even begin with this one, If you aren’t familiar with this card, well that’s hard to believe. But if you truly aren’t familiar with this card, take a second look. Look closer. Look at the knob of the bat. That’s the F-word. On a baseball card. Thus, you can imagine this card has some value.
Not to be confused with: You can also probably imagine that Fleer rushed to fix such a vulgar mistake by issuing an edited version with a black box covering the bottom of the bat, and another one with “white out.” (Disclosure: eBay affiliate link.) Here is the story, as reported by FanGraphs.
1983 Topps Tony Gwynn, #482 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: Again, sadly, gone too soon. Such an amazing player and from what you read, a good person. With this card, just look at it and try not to smile. Well, while you’d probably smile at most cards from this set, given it’s one of a few that has an action shot accompanied with a nice close up, I think it’s displays the epitome of 80s baseball. The colors, the hair, the stirrups, that logo—just a great card, and a rookie card of one of the greatest hitters of all time.
It’s a snapshot in time, obviously, but just imagine this is Mr. Padre running down the line after knocking one of his 3,141 hits. Just incredible. Side note. When I first heard Tony was also an excellent basketball player at San Diego State, I thought, “no way.” But after seeing shots like this, you can get a glimpse of him running up and down the hardwood.
1989 Donruss Opening Day Barry Bonds, #16 (eBay affiliate link)
What makes it great: Definitely one of the weirder entries on the list. Sure, errors happen, but not often this egregious, and definitely not for one of the best to swing the stick.
What happened? Well, see, that’s not Barry Bonds. It’s Johnny Ray, obviously another Pittsburgh Pirate who for some reason, created some confusion. And, he was a 2B at that, so not like they grouped the outfield together, etc.
Wax Pack Gods has a nice post explaining the gaffe. And they state “It was estimated at the time that only about 2% of the Bonds cards actually showed Ray, and that number is nearly born out by the PSA population report, which pegs Ray between 3% and 4%.” Good stuff
Not to be confused with: When you’re seeking out the Johnny Ray version, you’ll come across the original run Bonds, along with the corrected Opening Day version. Aside from the card numbers being different, you’ll notice the Opening Day issue has a maroon border versus the classic black.
So, that’s it for now. Thoughts? Comments? Happy collecting!