Five Most Iconic Baseball Cards of the 1980s


In this time of having to stay home more, and go out less (and even if you did go out more- where exactly are you going to go? What’s open?) nostalgia is huge. With little to nothing to put in our calendars and look forward to, it’s a time for looking back.

Thus, I reflected back to when I was a hard core baseball cards collector: 1985-1992. Memories of opening up my first Topps baseball wax pack are still vivid. I even set up shop as a dealer at card shows during my youth.

Then I lost interest when I entered high school, but here are the five most iconic baseball cards that will strongly resonate with Gen Xers, Xiennals like myself and perhaps maybe even a few Boomers and Millenials.

1989 Fleer #616 the Billy Ripken “FUCK FACE” on the bat handle

Once you become synonymous with something in life, and it’s something that’s not awful, or terrible, well you just got to lean into it. Obviously, Billy is not the Ripken that’s first and foremost in baseball, but he does have this one thing up on Cal.

Apparently, this all came about because he got pranked by teammates. Several versions of this error card (but really, how can you call this an “error” given its unique hilarity) exist, including one with a black box over the naughty word, another with a white out, a scribble and so on.

The only version we care about is the “fuck face,” and Ripken has said in interviews that he gave a card to every single groomsman in his wedding party. So yeah, he gets the joke even more so than we do.

1986 Donruss #39 Jose Canseco Rated Rookie

Long before he was a steroid cheat, who exposed all the other steroid cheats (seriously, he batted 1.000 as a whistle-blower), Canseco defined 1986, and later 1988 when he became the first 40-40 player ever, from a card collecting perspective.

It’s a very simple card, just a close-up of his face, but everyone opening up wax packs of Donruss baseball cards in ’86 was eagerly anticipating the potential payoff of seeing it in their hand.

griffey jr.

1989 Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey Jr. Star Rookie

If you watched the Griffey doc on MLB Network Sunday night, you might have recalled Macklemore mentioning this specific card and how it helped him discover all the hype about Junior. His description was spot on too.

Love how the gold chain matches the Star logo. This was the first More on this and the other Griffey rookie baseball cards here.

1983 Topps Ryne Sandberg Rookie Card 

Between Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg, the Chicago Cubs pretty much toiled in obscurity with very little to offer anyone paying attention. But then came the WGN Superstation, and a resurgence on the field that began shortly after Lee Elia’s infamous 1983 profanity-laced tirade.

The Cubs got good in the 1980s and no one was better on those rosters than Sandberg. From there the marketing opps turned Wrigley Field into Margaritaville and then the club became a brand with popularity that transcended wins and losses. That’s a whole lot to read into a baseball card that was issued in ’83, but that’s what I see- the best pure second baseman of all-time who was critical to the historical trajectory of the franchise. You should add this one to your Chicago Cubs baseball card collection if you get the chance.

1983 Topps Tony Gwynn

It means a lot to me, simply given the personal anecdote tweeted above, but this card means everything to die hard San Diego Padres fans.

The late, great Gwynn is Mr. Padre, and over time his physique changed almost as much as the club’s color scheme and uniforms. It all begans here, with a card that’s just as immortal as he is.

Any and All Topps All-Star Rookie Cards

Quoting Trading Card Database:

“Since 1959, Topps has selected players for their annual All-Star Rookie Team. It usually consists of C, 1B , 2B, 3B, SS, 3 OF, LHP, RHP. In 2010 they added a RP, and in 2018 they added a DH. Topps would than put the trophy symbol on that players card the following year. (ex- the 1959 players had it on their 1960 card). In 1974 and again in 1979 thru 1986, All-Star Rookies were selected, but the trophy cup was left off.”

In the ’70s Topps shifted from a large trophy featuring a figurine to a bowl on the cardboard, but there’s gold in these here baseball cards.

We intentionally selected three examples here- one player who had an elite (okay it was also tainted, but you get the idea) career statistically, one who had a solid career and then a third that you probably don’t even remember.

The point? Well, the Topps All-Star rookie team baseball cards were just like every draft class or every crop of Topps future stars- there’s a wide range of outcomes over time, and it’s all a crapshoot as to who will make it and who will not.

Which baseball cards did I leave out? Have at it in the comments section.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly contributes to WGN TV, Sports Illustrated, Chicago Now and SB Nation.

You can follow Banks, a former writer for Chicago, on Twitter and his cat on Instagram.

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