I wonder if I’d be so passionate about the 80s had I not grown up in the decade, but I think even from an outsider’s perspective, the 80s were rad.
In the baseball card world, it was a time where we saw baseball card brands evolve—Topps was no longer the only player in town, with the likes of Donruss and Fleer breaking through in the early part of the decade, and Score and Upper Deck debuting in the latter part.
With this brand evolution, the 80s saw a flurry of new designs, and like other decades, didn’t disappoint with its rookie class.
Of course, we have to acknowledge there were some straight duds. 1988 Topps doesn’t offer much of anything in terms of aesthetics, value, or rookies.
But which baseball card sets were the best of the 80s?
Top 80s Baseball Card Sets
You can check out our rundown of the best specific cards of the 80s to grab a hint or two, but today we want to look at the sets as a whole; ranking the winners in terms of look and design, value offered, and of course, the players featured.
I don’t think you’ll see 1980 atop many lists of the best sets of the 80s, but I love it, and yes, I may be a bit bias. I mean, the only RC of the GOAT, Rickey Henderson is part of the 1980 set.
Yes, Ripken was great; Puckett outstanding, Griffey Jr. a GOAT in his own right. But think about their representation across the other sets…Ripken had a 1982 Topps entry AND a 1982 Topps Traded; not to mention 1982 Fleer and 1982 Donruss RCs! Puckett had just as many, as did Griffey Jr.
But Rickey Henderson? One. A single true RC. That in itself makes the 1980 Topps set special.
Other reasons to love it? The 1970s sets had some amazingly fun designs…dissecting each is for another place and time, but the 1980 set was somewhat of a last design hurrah, and the end of an era. The dual ribbons offering both team colors, clean white border and facsimile signature. It all just works so well together.
And take another look at the photography…besides a very dull side profile of George Brett, there are some really nice action shots in the 1980 Topps set. Rickey’s swing, Nolan Ryan in full pitcher’s stretch as he lunges toward the plate. Ozzie in a sweet follow through, up close and personal with both the Hawk and Stretch in what looks like dueling batting cage photos. Man. This. is. The. set.
1989 Upper Deck
I didn’t for this post to set up this way, but really, when you look at the best baseball card sets of the 1980s, the top two serve as bookends to the decade.
And funnily enough, they represent a passing of the torch, of sorts. Not so much from Topps to Upper Deck, but more of the “old school” traditional baseball card to one that isn’t afraid to take risks.
It’s also no coincidence that 1989 Upper Deck is home to the premier RC of Ken Griffey Jr. Sure, he had one in a number of 1989 sets, but 1989 Upper Deck was a holy grail of sorts for a number of collectors.
The 1989 Upper Deck set represented a turning point in baseball card history because you now had a different type of card, not only in the look and design, but also in the packaging – foil instead of wax – and the contents. Specifically, this was the first time collectors could buy a pack and have the chance of pulling an autographed card. It’s hard to think of that being a big deal back then.
I mean, with top being the main player in the 1980s, it’s kind of hard to not have at least have of these entries be Topps card sets. Thus, next up is 1983, and really, it’s here because it was a breakthrough in baseball card design.
There are plenty of “prettier” sites in the history of the baseball card brand, sure, but 1983 was the first set to combine the intimacy of a player’s portrait with the entertainment and excitement of the action shot you’re accustomed to seeing on cardboard.
The set features the Tony Gwynn RC, and while his photo isn’t much at first glance, his running down the basepath shot is pretty cool when you think about it in the context that his head is turned and admiring what is probably one of his over 3,000 knocks.
Mix in the fact that a couple of the game’s best – Sandberg and Boggs – also have rookie cards in the set, and 1983 Topps is a clear favorite of the decade.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying Donruss didn’t have to do much to grab a spot in the top half of the 80’s best baseball card sets, but the fact that the 1984 set took the brand in an entirely different direction than its previous 80s entries – and was beautiful at that – made it a shoe in for this position.
Point being, 1981 was cool, but anytime you substitute a general color for the team name – and yellow at that – you’re leaving something to be desired. And then, to follow that up in 1982 with more yellow (albeit in the shape of a baseball bat) and then AGAIN in 1983 with pretty much the exact same design as the year before, you’re left with many collector’s scratch their head…who is this Donruss guy anyway?
But then comes 1984. Yes, more yellow, but in the form of a cool 80s wave sweeping across the card. And now, while not team shades, the nameplates offered a pop of color that added just enough to work well with the rest of the design.
And with the introduction of “Rated Rookies” along with the already popular Diamond Kings set, and wow, now we are cooking with gas. The set doesn’t feature much in terms of single cards to chase outside of a Don Mattingly RC, but still an 80’s great.
Two words. Wood. Grain. Actually, one word, but I wanted to emphasize the syllables. Perhaps the biggest casualty of the junk wax AND steroid eras? McGwire and Bonds, both with debatable rookie cards thanks to McGwire’s 1985 Topps USA card, and Bonds’ black and yellow beauty in 1986 Topps Traded, but really a set with little value due to the sheer volume available.
But back to design—1987 Topps definitely stands apart from other 80s Topps sets, with I guess most closely comparable to something like 1962 Topps wood bordering, or even 1955 Bowman’s TV set.
Beyond that, while Donruss is lauded for its Rated Rookies, the 1987 Topps “Future Stars” anchored by an amazingly sweet Bo Jackson is enough to want to grab a pack, or entire box which is oh so affordable.
I thought about stretching the list to the top 10, but really at that point, you’re only leaving out a few of the other sets as “non-top 10 worthy.”
With that said, I love 1984 Topps. It’s always held a special place given it’s my birth year, but the design is top notch as well. You might be saying, isn’t 1984 just 1983, but a little bit better? Yep, and that’s my point.
For all the reasons 1983 design was one of the best of the decades, the 1984 set did more than just change from circles to squares. The beauty of a baseball card, in my eyes is made up of the photography, the design, but also the colors. Much of 80s donruss lacks pop of color, and while 1986 isn’t awesome, team color on black could look good in some instances.
So, 1984 offered action shots and portraits, but also nice team coloring along the left blocked border (and again, the Mattingly RC).
Last but not least, I need to mention Fleer, but I don’t really have a particular set in mind. The look and feel of 1981 and 1982 were pretty meh. 1983, while better, the color chosen for the bordering was puzzling. 1984 Fleer is a great look, but most of the notable cards in the Update series, and not the main set.
1985, for me, my be the best of 80s Fleer. It takes the improved 1984 design and adds some nice color and team logo. I also love the up close and personal Kirby Puckett RC, and card #425, Rickey Henderson, might be my favorite card of all time.
From there, 1986 took a step back, 1987 was, well, blue but not terrible (and the 3D effect of the action shot busting out of its frame was a nice touch), 1988 was kind of random, but different at least, and 1989 was not visually appealing, but was at least saved by a Ken Griffey RC and fun (albeit profane) error cards.