Earlier this week, I asked my Twitter family to help me choose the worst sets of the Junk Wax Era, which I’m loosely defining as 1987-1993. It was a fun project, with lots of great input from my fellow baseball-card fans. I hope you enjoyed it.
I almost felt a little bit guilty, though. I loved collecting cards from that era. I still love them. I’ve bought at least 10 boxes of the sets on that “worst” list in the past year or so (they’re all cheap, which is huge), and I enjoyed ripping open all the packs. But still, I couldn’t help but think that little kid Ryan would be disappointed with all the mean things that adult Ryan wrote about those baseball cards (even if they were objectively true).
So I started another project, one that would make little kid Ryan proud of adult Ryan. It’s a peace offering to my former self, a look at the best sets of the Junk Wax Era. I asked for your help again, and the response was a bit overwhelming. I’m very sorry I couldn’t use every response, but I tried to get at least one response in from everyone.
Without further delay, here are the 13 BEST sets of the Junk Wax Era. I had thoughts on each set, and then included my favorite contributions from the Twitter family.
13. 1993 Upper Deck
Why this set was the best: We’ll start with one of my personal favorites, for two reasons. First, I love the design of the base set (yes, even the cursive names). The photography is stunning — every picture, on the front or back, has emotion, action, intensity or personality — and the subsets, especially the Teammates cards, are glorious (the Star Rookie design is a little blah, but that’s OK). And the second reason this set is here is to show that I’m not ranking by what these sets are worth now. Just this week, I “won” an eBay auction (I was the only bidder) for three Series I boxes for $5, not including shipping. I couldn’t be happier. The Series II boxes are crazy overpriced right now because everyone’s Jeter-rookie-drunk, but if you want to open fun packs of cards for a reasonable price, you cannot beat a Series I box.
@JoshuaEvers5: Loved ’93 Upper Deck! It felt like such a huge deal that the typical logo wasn’t on the front anymore. Awesome pictures front and back (only wish they didn’t have a border). The Then and Now series was the coolest thing I’d seen as a kid. Still have my George Brett from that T&N series in a case on the shelf. Just showed it to my 6 year old last week. Coolness factor holds up! Also, my dad got me the Royals team set from ’93 Upper Deck, so that probably helps my affection for it.
@LUISPERRO21: Without a doubt, my favorite set from this era is the 1993 Upper Deck. The photography is spectacular with some of the best action photos I’ve ever seen on a baseball card. The colors are amazing and I can still stare at them for hours.
@JoeySMU: Growing up in rural Iowa, we mainly had access to the basic card lines, so my picks are different than most. 1993 Upper Deck was my first glossy card set, great photography, and I own a Ioose collection Cal Ripken Jr. subset card.
12. 1991 Studio
Why this set was the best: Yes, this set is basically Glamour Shots for MLB players, but it was refreshing and unique and a great showcase for players’ personalities. Loved it then and love it now. The mauve borders with the black-and-white photography just worked so well. I mean, how can you not feel fondness for a set that includes one of the players bringing in his own parrot for the photo shoot? And in an era of massive checklists and packs full of nothing but commons, Studio’s one-series, 264-card checklist meant you had several players you knew and loved in every pack. That’s a quality product.
@ExtraInningsUK: My beloved Donruss 1991, the first complete set I ever received and my prize possession, came with a sealed pack of 1991 Studio, which when opened revealed the most expensive-looking cards I’d ever held in my hand. It contained a de facto RC of Jeff Bagwell in which the future star modeled what I thought looked like an awkward school photo. The pack also contained a fearsome-looking Rocket, then one of my favourites.
@ToddHertz: This felt like a higher class of cards to 14-year-old me. Most other sets featured game action — these showed me the players and their personalities. Ozzie Smith was playful, Tim Raines’ eyes bore into my soul, Steve Lake … had a bird?
@jeffmelaragno: My local card shop had a deal where they would give you a 20 percent off (I think that’s what it was) if you spent $10. That was a pretty big amount at the time, but I did it one week and got a Studio pack with the $2. I wanted the Phil Plantier card and was lucky enough to get it in that pack. Happy Red Sox fan!
@Folsom_Dave: The black and white professional photos were classic. My favorite card in the set was Nolan Ryan holding a flaming baseball. I tried to recreate that same photo 15 years later, it was harder than it looked!
11. 1992 Fleer Ultra
Why this set was the best: I wrote about this a little bit in the worst Junk Wax Era sets story (in the capsule about the 1991 Fleer Ultra debacle), but the 1992 Fleer Ultra set, which was just stunning in every way, shined a light on how bad the 1991 offering really was. There had to be an entirely new group of people making the decisions in ’92, right? These cards popped in a way that few sets did. They even, in my book, put the 1991 Stadium Club cards to shame, though that set (spoiler) gets points for being first with the full-card photo concept.
@crcyclone6: I love this set because the picture of the player took the entire front of the card. There were no crazy borders and I love the embossed Fleer Ultra logo on the front.
@cardboardicons: This brand really underwhelmed in its debut in 1991, but (Fleer) Ultra got a major overhaul in 1992 with premium glossy stock coupled with a progressive design that at times mimicked stone. The big draw for this set were the inserts which were top-notch for the time. Also, they were usually placed on the back of the pack so there was a moment whereupon you’d hold your breath as you began peeling the wrapper. Singles were hot as well, not unlike 1991 TSC.
10. 1993 Upper Deck SP
Why this set was the best: Have you seen how much the Derek Jeter SP rookie card is going for? Holy schnikes. And, yeah, mostly the PSA 9/10 cards are worth so much because it was impossible keep those foil cards in mint condition, but they’re also beautiful cards. The base set is outstanding in design and content — again, a small checklist helps — and the die-cut insert cards were ahead of their time. This was a better “super-premium” set than Topps Finest or Fleer Flair (how many pieces of flair?) that year.
@jeffmelaragno: The die cut cards blew my mind when I saw them. I’m not sure exactly why, but I thought they were the coolest thing.
@JasonHodge80: Two words can sum up why I chose this set, aside from the awesome design: DEREK JETER
9. 1987 Donruss
Why this set was the best: All three primary sets were stellar in 1987 (and Sportflics was fun, too). Unique designs, incredibly exciting rookies — Future Stars and Rated Rookies sent a chill through the spine every time they popped out of a pack — and tons of future Hall of Famers. The Donruss offering might have been the most striking, with the black borders, yellow strikes and different colors on the nameline, but these were also the most frustrating. Trying to keep anything in mint condition was nearly impossible.
But, really, the Rated Rookies were incredible. This was the best class of Rated Rookies in Donruss history. Well, at least the first decade of Rated Rookies. The 20 RRs combined for 457.6 career bWAR, headed by Greg Maddux and supported by guys like Bo Jackson, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. And Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, David Cone and Mike Greenwell had Donruss rookie cards that year, too.
@Jimmy_Sanderson: The black border is solid. Some great rated rookies with Bo Jackson, Greg Maddux, and Mark McGwire. Donruss always stands out with the Diamond Kings, which were just a great find when opening up the wax packs!
@thesportsrabbi: Loved the 1987 Donruss and they hit a HR with this set. Greg Maddux, Bo Jackson, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Bonilla, Larkin the list goes on and on. Simple design good pics and great cards. What else could a collector have dreamed for?
@erocmace: On Twitter I use #number1number9fan because I have never met someone with a larger Von Hayes collection. His standout year in 1986 earned him a painting by Dick Perez for 1987 Donruss’ Diamond Kings – a highlight for any collector during this era. The Rated Rookies were stacked and stylish: Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and his best mustache cardboard showing, Bo Jackson warming up on the field in a classic powder blue uniform, and Mark McGwire, while posed, is an arguably better photo than its Topps counterpart.
8. 1992 Bowman
Why this set was the best: If you were a fan of rookies, this is your dream set. At the time — remember, this was before our modern internet or Baseball-Reference, kids — you opened packs of Bowman and you had no idea who the young kids were, but you knew they had to be good enough for a baseball card so you put them in plastic sleeves and binders and then looked them up in your Beckett price guide. And the 1992 Bowman set was different from the 1989-91 offerings. These were glossy, harder to find (I couldn’t find my old ones, and zero chance I can afford a box on eBay, so here’s a Google Images page to see what they look like) and had tall, skinny prospects wearing polo shirts while leaning against walls for some reason. It was all very strange, but very intriguing.
@cardboardicons: Modern RC market took off with the 1992 Bowman product — it’s glossy finish gave the brand a refreshing premium feel, also had a stellar rookie card class that included 3 HOFers: Mike Piazza, Mariano Rivera, and Trevor Hoffman. Checklist is littered with rookies of MLB stars and serviceable veterans. Sleeper RC is Cliff Floyd since he’s dunking a basketball ala Michael Jordan. Iconic.
@ToddBrommelkamp: I still cherish my Salomon Torres cards from the 1992 Bowman set. He dominated in Clinton, Iowa, in 1991. Clean, no frills design and relative scarcity. Piazza and Rivera stick out in my mind from that set, especially Mo because of the “senior picture” quality of the photography Topps utilized with some prospects.
@Mattksquared: As fan of collecting I will keep it short and sweet. 92 Bowman had key rookies of Rivera, Piazza, Hoffman, Carlos Delgado, Derek Lowe and, best of all, Raul Mondesi.
@_Brojan_: 1992 Bowman was the gift that kept on giving for me as a young collector. The street clothes, the glossy and the beautiful design. Not to mention my first exposure to true future stars. I remember unearthing Manny Ramirez and Chipper Jones years after I open the packs and they were becoming rising Stars.
7. 1990 Score
Why this set was the best: If you read my piece on the worst sets of the Junk Wax Era, you know I was hard on Score — the 1988, 1989 and 1992 sets all made the list. But I also gave you a sneak peek at what I thought of the 1990 set. This one was outstanding. The Bo Jackson card where he’s wearing football shoulder pads and holding a baseball bat just might be the most iconic card of the 1990s. I’ve found a couple in boxes in the past year and, let me tell you, the thrill has not dissipated. The rookie crop was great, the first-round draft picks — smilin’ Frank Thomas! — were amazing and everything about this set is outstanding.
@ChrisWGamble: I know I might be one of the few who absolutely love 1990 Score but I am unashamed to admit it. It’s got good rookies like Larry Walker, Bernie Williams, Deion Sanders, Sammy Sosa, and of course Frank Thomas. It has good photography, fun but not overly insane borders, team logos on the front along with name and position, stats and a good write up on the back that also features the typical color photo on the back as well. This will always be one of my favorite sets and I’m happy these cards can be found for cheap these days. Give me all the 1990 Score!
@Fillmore79: I was 10 years old at the height of my card collecting career. I had spent my summer lawn mowing money on baseball cards, much of it on Score. The cards were great and I’d heard there was a Bo Jackson black and white card that mixed football with baseball. That summer, my mother forced me to go back-to-school clothes shopping, I dreaded it. When we reached JC Penny, my eyes bulged out of my head. They were offering a pack of 1990 Score cards with every $50 purchase. I was never so excited to shop for clothes in my life, and $150 later I was in the car clutching 3 packs of cards. On the drive home I greedily opened the packs. In the middle of the second pack there it was. Bo freaking Jackson black and white! I screamed. My mom just about killed me. Coolest pack pull I can remember. Still one of the coolest cards ever made!
@15CK15CK: I recently picked up a near-complete set, but only because it came in a binder and pages, and was cheaper than buying the binder and pages on their own! The red bordered cards are a bit obnoxious, but the rookies and draft picks at the end of the set are pretty killer, and I happened to get the Frank Thomas signed by him outside of the Kingdome during his rookie year. Plus, the tribute card for Dave Dravecky was an awesome addition that definitely shot this one up the list.
@ExamineBaseball: I couldn’t wait to open this set’s huge yellow box under the X-mas tree. Primetime’s rookie, Bo Jackson’s Nike pose, Frank Thomas’ draft pick card, what? This set was loaded. Add in Larry Walker, Bernie Williams, and yes Kevin Maas, this set was entertaining and a prospector’s dream going into 1991.
6. 1991 Stadium Club
Why this set was the best: Like most kids my age, I didn’t know baseball cards could be made without borders. The full-card photo was a revolution, and the folks at Topps did a great job making sure that star players had stunning photos. The Griffey Jr. card is awesome. The Nolan Ryan card is iconic (Dave Stewart’s in the same getup, too). Frank Thomas looks like a Hall of Famer in his photo. And it’s not just that card shops were charging $4 and $5 a pack, it’s that we were gladly paying it (even if some packs were star-less duds).
@timcarrollart: This set was fascinating. The photography was over the top (Nolan pitching in a tux!) and the high gloss on the simple design made them feel so fancy. What put this set above all others was the card back. A baseball field, a baseball, and a photo of the player’s first Topps card. It was the best card back of the junk era.
@nathanphifer: When you’re 10 years old, opening a pack of cards is almost a spiritual experience. The intrigue of what is going to greet you when you peel back that wax packaging is second to none. When Stadium Club was released, I had a completely different feeling than I’d had before. They were so fancy; from the super glossy, high quality photos to the gold trim at the bottom. The first time I opened a pack, it made me feel like I was immediately elevated to the “can afford to wear authentic Reebok Pumps” club that I definitely was not in.
@lampert_jake: By 1991 I was totally into the minors and prospect scene and the Stadium Club set covered it so well. Plus, they looked so cool and the information on the back, along with a shot of the player’s first Topps card, was unlike anything I had seen before.
@aaronesharp: They were glossy, which back then mean they were super cool. They looked and felt high-end, but they were Topps, so they were still something the average person could relate to. They were the Dodge Stealth of cards.
5. 1990 Leaf
Why this set was the best: The best day of my card-collecting life included finding a Frank Thomas rookie card in a pack of 1990 Leaf at a giant card convention in downtown St. Louis when I was a kid. I splurged and spent $3 for the pack and got the card I wanted. How often does that happen? Also that day, I won a Lou Brock autographed baseball as a door prize (hearing my name called over the loudspeaker was amazing) and, oh, Muhammad Ali gave me and my friend Tommy an autographed card. No biggie. (Just for fun, watch me and SN baseball editor Jason Foster open a box of 1990 Leaf.)
@Folsom_Dave: Beautiful design and love the silver backs. Great photos — hell their checklists had player photos and were classy. Favorite card: Frank Thomas rookie in the pre-black Sox uniforms.
@amedlock1: Following the release of Upper Deck in 1989, it was clear that companies were going to need to up their game. This Donruss special edition followed Upper Deck with the very clear gameplay shots. The Leaf sets were hard to find aside form card shows.
@jtuffli: This is strictly because I got that Kevin Maas card that was so sought after in my first pack. That had never happened to me (never got the 89 UD Griffey, probably the only one in the world) and I remember paying more for that pack than any other pack I had bought before. I couldn’t believe I was paying that but then got the Maas card. I was stoked. Of course three weeks later that cards was worthless. I should have sold.
4. 1987 Fleer
Why this set was the best: Look, maybe it’s just me, but these cards were kind of sacred. Packs of my favorite set (spoiler alert) were everywhere, but Fleer was harder to find in 1987, and when I did see them at card shops, they were either 75 cents or a buck per pack. You had to splurge for Fleer, and I respected that. The blue cards were crisp. The stickers were great for the front of my binder. An objective look at the set would reveal flaws (generic photography, etc), I’m sure, but we’ll have none of that here in my ranking. I have to mention this: One Twitter contributor, @Folsom_Dave, certainly disagrees with this ranking. He said the 1987 Fleer design, and I quote, “looks like a Smurf threw up.” That amused me.
@BabbSports: Before ’87, there wasn’t a lot of color to cards’ designs, but this Fleer brought it with the blue border, and for me, helped the player ‘pop’ a little more than in the past. After this year, the cards seemed to get more eye appeal. And it has the rookie card for my all-time favorite player, Will ‘The Thrill’ Clark. In his first AB, vs. Nolan Ryan, he goes deep. The smirk, the swag, The Thrill. 5:49 PM
@Jimmy_Sanderson: Loved the blue border and some really great rookie cards in here as well with Barry Larkin and Bo Jackson. Some good shots of early prime players like Barry Bonds and Will Clark.
@Anthony_Humbert: The ’87 fleer set was awesome because it had where the guys liked to hit balls in the zone.
3. 1993 Studio
Why this set was the best: Yeah, maybe this is way too high for this set. I don’t care. I love these cards, almost irrationally. And I love that you can still buy boxes on eBay for $15ish. I’m down to my last eight or nine packs of the box I have and I’m already scouting my next one. The cards are stunning, with candid photos of the players on top of giant team logos — either jerseys or hats, so you can see the stitching. The backs are great, too, with their high school yearbook-esque bios and posed shots. Just a beautiful set. No real value other than nostalgia, but that’s my damn wheelhouse. Oh, and the small checklist (220) makes an impact here, too — I opened a pack this week that had Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Cal Ripken Jr. Yeah. I love a set that’s driven by players, not chase cards.
@The1Tab: The full photo with the logo/cap/jersey as a backdrop was just a good look. They were sharp; the bright imagery popped in a binder or top loader (still do!). The foil auto on the card was a nice tough, too. They were sexy cards.
@timcarrollart: The portrait quality is gorgeous, and having the team jerseys/hats serving as the backdrop is superb. The addition of the holographic facsimile is the cherry on top, giving each card a multi-layer feel. Only 220 cards, so the chances of pulling a star or HOF in each pack was high. Lots of fun information on the back!
@11TimeChamps: 1993 Studio was so great – new, inventive way to display player and team logo (with the jerseys) on the front (including signatures was a nice touch, too). The “Up Close” on the back was cool — as an 11 year old kid, I wasn’t stat driven, so seeing cool life tidbits about a player was neat. Finally, the Heritage insert was awesome – the Ozzie heritage card is one of my favorite cards of all time.
@BenAdams38: The 1993 Studio set was great because of the photography and the foil signature on the front. Really liked the facts on the back, that gave more information about the players than just the normal stats. The deeper drives into who a player did and did not perform well against were cool. Oh, and someone (Darren Daulton maybe?) claimed that his pet peeve was Mickey Morandini.
2. 1989 Upper Deck
Why this set was the best: I mean, you know. There are different levels of “game-changers” in the baseball card hobby: first autographs, first super-premium cards, first numbered cards, first 1/1, first whatever. But this set was the original game-changer, in so many ways. Helped that Upper Deck made smart rookie choices, eh?
@kgnevMKE: I know you’ll be over-saturated with 1989 Upper Deck comments, but I can’t talk about any of these sets without first mentioning the 1989 UD classic. The design is so sharp with the baseline on the side and the crisp white borders. Everything pops and the photo/image quality seemed light years better than what 9-year-old me had seen before. I was blown away by this set (and still the next couple seasons of UD).
@amedlock1: While not my absolute favorite it is a close second. This set contains the holy grail of modern era cards, the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. The picture quality of the Upper Deck cards was off the charts. Another interesting card in the set is Nolan Ryan throwing a football while with the Rangers. Rangers pitching coach Tom House made all his pitchers use a football to get loose which was considered out-of-the-box thinking.
@mattkemm: This was a tremendous set. TONS of young stars. I mean come on, EVERYONE still wants the Griffey RC.
@crcyclone6: I love this set because it changed the card game and forced others the raise the bar on their cards. No more cardboard feel, even though it took others a couple years to fall in line. The make up of the cards is great. The first baseline on the right side and the glossy feel are fantastic, not to mention Griffey Jr’s rookie being the #1 card in the set.
1. 1987 Topps
Why this set was the best: If you thought there was any chance something other than 1987 Topps would be atop this list, you’re crazy (or just don’t know me very well). I love everything about this set, even now. The wood-grain borders. The Future Stars. The fun facts and trivia on the backs of the cards. The rookies. Oh, the rookies. I was a master at riding my bike home from the Ben Franklin dollar shop with a box of unopened 1987 Topps balancing on the handlebars. So much of my allowance or money earned by shoveling driveways or mowing lawns went to packs of this set. And I don’t even care that they’re basically worthless now. To me, for the memories, they were worth every damn dollar.
@timcarrollart: The wood grain border, team colored nameplates, team logos in the corner work in harmony. All cards have the same orientation, making it pleasant to look at in an album. This set has its share of HOFers and star RCs, and has a cult following for collectors trying to put together a complete autographed set (good luck getting a Ricky Wright!). The info nuggets on the back were fun to read also!
@kuchemJ: BEST. SET. EVER. The wood grain is classic. Looks so damn good with the pictures and the centering was pristine. I also liked the “Future Stars” and the trophy for the Rated Rookie. The rookies that season were pretty great so that made the set great as well. It’s so classy and timeless and while I was collecting in ’85 and ’86, ’87 was the year that I was all in. The Cardinals were in the playoffs and it was such a great time to be a card collector and fan.
@lampert_jake: I was a Topps kid and turned 10 during the 86-87 offseason so the 87 Topps set was right in my wheelhouse. Loved the design, all the rookies, future stars and the Rookie All-Star Team. It is the one set that, even at 43, I still like to “play” with. I can recall an absurd, and disturbing, amount of card fronts if you give me a player from this set.
@bruno4prez: Every penny I earned in 1987 went to Topps wax packs. I mowed yards. I recycled cans. I even helped with inventory at my dad’s hardware store. I literally counted nails. I’m not sure why we just didn’t weight them, but whatever. A grocery store by my grandpa’s house sold packs for 30 cents, and I bought hundreds. Everyone remembers the wood trim, and yeah, I loved it. But it’s more than that. It’s Bo Jackson’s Future Stars card. It’s Kevin Mitchell sliding into home and kicking up a dust storm. It’s an iconic set that to this day begs two questions: 1. Did Jack Clark make it back to third safely? 2. Why is Mike Laga’s jersey pink?
@BenAdams38: The 1987 Topps set was the first big set that I collected by hand. Looking back now, it doesn’t have the monetary value of other sets on the list, but the Bonds rookie and the McGwire are two cards I still enjoy. Also, the Wade Boggs All-Star card was the first card I purchased as a child. The set also has Barry Larkin’s rookie in it, and he was my brother’s favorite player.
I also asked Twitter folks to include thoughts on any sets that didn’t make my list, and there were plenty of contributions. Here are a few of the best.
@15CK15CK: Honorable mention goes to the mostly hated 1991 Fleer. Design aside, it holds sentimental value, as it was the first box of cards – and really first gift of any kind that I recall – that my step-dad bought for me, on his own. Came home from work one day with it. I’d had a pretty contentious relationship with him, so as an 11 year old at the time that was a pretty big deal, and something I hold close still today.
@ShiftyMcShivers: My biggest or best memory was from the ’92 pinnacle set I believe, packs were $2 which was a lot more than had been the norm, a lot of money for a 13 year old in 1992, but I pulled a Todd VanPoppel/Nolan Ryan “Idols” card. After riding my back home to check my Beckett, it was like $50 at the time, and I was so excited I remember bragging to all my friends. Of course Van Poppel flamed out.
@11TimeChamps: Loved the ’93 Stadium Club, because of the First Day Production cards. I pulled one out of a pack from a Hy-Vee grocery store. At the time, Beckett, I’m not sure knew how to price the FDP cards, so it was something like 20-25 times the value of the normal card. That Piazza rookie card was listed at like $5-6 bucks, without the FDP. So, I thought I had pulled like $100-150 card out of the pack that day. It’s apparently selling for $60 on eBay, but that thing has been in my parents safety deposit box since the day we opened it, LOL.
@kuchemJ: The ’89 Topps looks like the back of the letterman jackets in the ’70s and while it was basic, it looked good and was centered. AND, I hated Upper Deck and the flashiness so I had to gravitate towards this.
@JoshuaEvers5: Also loved the simplicity of the 1992 Stadium Club design (especially with the gold lettering on the Members Only set – made it feel so important). And the lack of a border on all those Stadium Club cards made them so clean.
@aaronesharp: To be honest, the 1988 Donruss set wasn’t really anything special, except for that puzzle of Stan the Man. Does this apply to every card collected from that era? Certainly not. But finally finishing the puzzle of the greatest Cardinal ever was worth every penny. Like the late ’80s Mustang it wasn’t really special, but there was enough nostalgia to remember it fondly.
@ToddHertz: The ’92 Fleer set was bold and up-close with huge last names and glossy fronts. The photo area was narrow but Fleer capitalized on that with really strong photography that showed players nice and big. But what seals the deal for me is this second (but smaller) Pro-Visions subset featuring amazing Terry Smith art of The Kid and Big Hurt.
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