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1987 was the first year I collected baseball cards. I was ten, and Mark McGwire was having his brilliant 49 homer rookie season. I didn’t know much about the monetary value of the cards, and I was pretty naive when it came to a lot of the players. I knew McGwire and Roger Clemens were good. I knew Don Mattingly and Dwight Gooden were good. Yet I didn’t know at the time that simply throwing a no-hitter did not make someone a great pitcher. Take Juan Nieves, for example. Nieves threw a no-hitter that year for the Brewers. What an achievement! A rare feat! So much so, according to an old childhood friend, that his baseball card was worth as much as Mark McGwire’s! And so, having owned two or three of the McGwires, I traded one for a Nieves.

As it turned out, that trade never came back to bite me after all. McGwire lost his credibility because of the steroid scandal, and none of the cards from the ’87 set are worth much in cash. The card industry was booming then, and the cards were overproduced and then kept by collectors in hard plastic casing. No scarcity, no value.

This morning, 25 years later, I was shuffling through that old set. What a fascinating piece of baseball history! Forget monetary value; there is plenty of entertainment value in these old cards, bringing laughs, nostalgia, memories, and surprises. Maybe what I found in this set can also be found in other sets, yet I think it would be rare. The ’87 set was an impressive mixture of the old school and the new school. It featured the final baseball card appearance of several well known future Hall of Famers, as well as the first cards of players who would eventually build Hall-worthy careers themselves. Unique or not, this set is special for me, and I would bet it would be interesting for a lot of younger fans too.

Here is what I found as I shuffled through.

The Old Guard

It can be painful to watch a talented athlete stick around too long in the league. A future Hall of Famer as pinch hitter or spot-starter might be a thrill for younger fans who have never before seen the player, but it can be a sad thing for everyone who saw them in their prime. In 1987, I fell into the former category. I was just ten years old, and it was exciting to find famous names like Reggie Jackson in the same pack as Mattingly and Wade Boggs. Way back before the internet, I only knew of three ways to find out about some of these players: there was Total Baseball, an enormous book packed with statistics; there were TV announcers and the older generation of fans who would drop names like Clemente and Yastrzemski; and then there was the back of baseball cards. The advantage of a card was that it not only gave you a player’s stats, but a picture to go with it. At that point, I had only heard of Reggie Jackson, but I had never seen his face, or read about how many home runs he had actually hit. This was a big deal for me. It put Mark McGwire’s numbers in perspective, and lead me to seek out info about the other old timers of which I had only heard the names.

But on to the cards themselves! In this set, we find the final baseball cards of these Hall of Famers:

Reggie Jackson

Steve Carlton

Phil Niekro

Tom Seaver

Earl Weaver (mgr)

Plus cards of other former greats, past their prime but with a few years left in them:

Pete Rose’s final card as a player

Future Hall of Fame pitchers Bert Blyleven, Don Sutton, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter

Future Hall of Fame hitters Mike Schmidt, Carlton Fisk, Robin Yount, George Brett and Jim Rice

Dave Concepcion and Bobby Grich (both won multiple Gold Gloves, at shortstop and second base, respectively, in the 70’s)

Tommy John

The Stars of the Day

The players who were in their prime – the ones that I looked up to – ended up, like every generation, as a mixed bag. Some ended up in the Hall of Fame, others fell to injury, and others fell to the black cloud of steroids. Here is how it laid out:

Players who were just starting out or were in their prime in ’87, and went on to be in the Hall of Fame:

Rickey Henderson

Nolan Ryan (he had a long prime)

Cal Ripken

Tony Gwynn

Wade Boggs

Kirby Puckett

Barry Larkin

Andre Dawson

Ryne Sandberg

Paul Molitor

Ozzie Smith

Gary Carter

Would-be Hall of Famers who have the ugly stamp of steroids marring their career:

Barry Bonds

Roger Clemens

Rafael Palmeiro

Mark McGwire

There were quite a few big names back then that had a handful of HOF caliber seasons, only to fall to injury or health issues. These are the guys we all would have sworn would be in the Hall someday:

Don Mattingly

Dwight Gooden

Darryl Strawberry

Eric Davis

Fernando Valenzuela

The Future

It was pretty amusing to find the player cards of today’s managers and coaches. Being a great player certainly did not lead to being a manager. In fact, most of the successful managers of the last ten years were below average hitters. Obviously, people skills trumps physical skill when it comes to managing! There are quite a few players from that set who became minor coaches here and there, but here are the players from that ’87 set who later became managers or highly visible coaches:

Billy Beane (The Moneyball guy!)

Bruce Bochy (Manager of the champion Giants)

Terry Francona (Managed the Red Sox to 2 World Series championships)

Dusty Baker (Long time Giants and Reds Manager)

Ron Washington (Took the Rangers to 2 World Series)

Bob Brenly

Bob Melvin

Clint Hurdle

Ron Roenicke

Phil Garner

Dale Sveum

Bud Black

Kirk Gibson

Mike Maddux

Dave Righetti

Jose Oquendo

Tony Pena

OTHER:

There were a couple of other interesting finds in the set. There is a young Jamie Moyer (24) entering his second year (Moyer was still playing as of this year, at age 49). Ted Simmons and Jerry Reuss, both aging and close to retiring, had played together on the same team with Bob Gibson some sixteen years earlier. Harold Reynolds, Mitch Williams and Dan Plesac, three of the MLB Network’s regular team of analysts, can be found looking young and slim.

This process has been a blast, remembering when these cards meant so much to me. I recall being more mesmerized by the Orioles’ orange logo than most of the players on the team. For all I know, that may have been the first time I had ever seen it. I only ever watched the Cubs and  the Braves, so American League teams were largely a mystery to me.

I am sure that I have missed a player or a coach or two, so if you have any suggestions, please feel free to comment and I will add them!

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