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It’s a set that may serve as the perfect poster child for the junk wax era. Massive in size (the checklist numbers 792), bold in design, and overproduced, 1986 Topps Baseball is coming back into vogue these days, with Generation Xers keen on reliving their childhood.
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It’s a very polarizing issue, both in its appearance and the personalities that dominate it. Some could describe the design in the same manner you would like a bulldog- so ugly it’s beautiful.
Other collectors have become attached to the 1986 Topps baseball set (including the Traded and Tiffany sets) because they like the design and layout. Others find it positively hideous.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and no answers are wrong. It’s kind of similar to another Topps design, also with a black border up at the top, the 1971 edition.
The New York Mets won the 1986 World Series, and the ethos of both that team and Major League Baseball that season is probably best summated by the title of Jeff Pearlman’s book on the topic: “The Bad Guys Won!”
Naturally, a large chunk of the key cards in ’86 Topps were Mets players. If you want to embrace all that the junk wax era was about, ’86 Topps is the set for you. It’s one of the more popular sets Topps ever made, as it embodies and personifies ’80s excess.
1986 Topps Baseball Special Inserts and Subsets
While the hobby will always look at the year 1986 as being synonymous with the iconic Michael Jordan Fleer Rookie Card issue in basketball, there were some special baseball things going on in the world of cardboard, too. Why is it almost 800 cards long? Well, look at all the inserts present here:
- Pete Rose Becoming the MLB All-Time Hits Leader Special (Cards #2 – 7)
- Turn Back The Clock
- Record Breakers
- Glossy All-Stars (1 per “rack pack” or the cellophane triptychs)
- Team Leaders (in key statistical categories)
- Managers (Rose was the last of the player-managers)
- Checklists (yes, this set is so large that it even has multiple checklists, making it thus even larger)
Key 1986 Topps Baseball Cards
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest, best, and most memorable cards in the set.
Pete Rose #1
1985 was the season that Rose singled off San Diego Padres pitcher Eric Show to surpass Ty Cobb and become baseball’s all-time hits leader.
However, LaMarr Hoyt, who we tragically lost this past year, revealed a few years before he died that he tried to become the hurler who gave up a base hit of 4,192 to Rose. Interesting, as Rose himself is a figure who personifies controversy as well as anybody. If you’re reading this, then you most likely long realized that Rose will never get into the Hall of Fame due to his having bet on baseball.
It all seems hypocritical now, given how MLB is partnering with the sports betting industry every which way they can these days! The only hope for Rose is if somehow Shoeless Joe Jackson, forever entangled in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, somehow posthumously gets in. That might set a new precedent.
Good luck with that.
However, if we stay stuck in 1986 before the Rose revelations about betting on baseball came out, he’s the #1 of all #1s, with a legacy that wasn’t tainted yet. This is the third most valuable card in this set, as a PSA 10 could cost you over $500.
Tony Gwynn #10 (HOF)
The legacy of Mr. Padre isn’t complicated; he was pretty much universally beloved.
Drafted out of San Diego State by both San Diego’s professional baseball and basketball teams, in the same day no less, he chose the diamond, where he would become one of the all-time best. The Hall of Famer is considered one of the best and most consistent hitters in baseball history, with a .338 career batting average and his having never hit below .309 in any entire season.
He had NL eight batting titles, 15 All-Star appearances, and seven silver slugger awards. Before joining the ballclub, he was known to have said that the Padres had the “ugliest uniforms I’ve ever seen in my life,” and that is clearly on display in this issue.
Gwynn was legendary, but he was taken from us far too soon like many legends. Salivary gland cancer took his life at the age of 54, but his image and likeness live on via a statue behind the left-center field at the Padres’ home ballpark. A PSA 10 of this card should cost about $150.
Len Dykstra Rookie Card #53
The first rookie card to appear on our list, Dykstra, is an example of a trend we’re going to see repeated quite often in this article- Mets behaving badly! Since retiring from baseball in 1996, the former center fielder has been plagued by lots of financial and legal problems. He filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and in 2011 he was charged with bankruptcy fraud, grand theft auto (not the video game), and drug possession.
His criminal portfolio is diverse, as he’s committed felonious acts, been charged for indecent exposure, and committed white-collar crime. Not to make a federal case out of his life after baseball, but he did literally serve 6 and a 1/2 months in a federal prison. He is fully clothed while appearing on this baseball card.
Darryl Strawberry #80
Speaking of ’86 Mets and legal troubles, Strawberry is one of the two main poster children that come to mind for that phrase (We’ll cover the other one later). Unlike Dykstra, his legal problems began while he was still playing, as he got suspended three times by MLB for substance abuse. This is why the narratives surrounding his life story will always be about massive potential going unfulfilled.
As it stands, he’s a Mets Hall of Famer and MLB Hall of Very Good, but if he could have stayed clean….first-ballot Hall of Famer? Once addicted to sex, drugs, alcohol and the limelight, this three-time World Series champion (he also won rings with the Yankees in 1998 and 1999) is now about his faith. After baseball, The Straw became a born again Evangelical, and he’s now been involved with Christian media like the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the 700 Club. Not exactly the path we thought his life would eventually go, way back when he was in his prime.
Don Mattingly #180
The fourth most valuable issue in this set, with PSA 10 values often north of $400, is one of the more eye-catching ’86 Topps Cards out there.
No one can call this card ugly, as the black border up top, with YANKEES written in white, perfectly match the beautiful in action photo of Mattingly in his black & white Yankee home pinstripes.
Mattingly, who played his entire career with the Yankees, never appeared in a single World Series, as his time coincided with the club’s longest Fall Classic drought.
The Yanks made the series both the year prior to his rookie year (1981) and the year after his last with the club (1996).
Hence he’s the only Yankee who never played in the World Series to have his number retired.
Had he not suffered from back injuries in the 1990s, Donnie Baseball would have almost certainly finished out a Hall of Fame career. Instead, he never received more than 28% of the vote to get into Cooperstown.
Nolan Ryan #200 (HOF)
The most valuable card in this set, as a PSA 10, can get you over $900. The Ryan Express rolled on for 27 years, as he accumulated an eye-popping lifetime record of 324–292 (.526). His 5,714 career strikeouts are a Major League record by an insane 839 over the next closest hurler, Randy Johnson.
However, his 2,795 career bases on balls lead second-place Steve Carlton by 962, and that means he’s walked over 50% more hitters than anybody else. His lifetime batting average allowed (.204) and seven no-hitters are also major league records.
Simply put, you’ll never see a pitcher that ever comes even remotely close to this kind of workload, stamina, durability, and longevity ever again. He once threw 235 pitches in a single start, back in 1974, long before “pitch count” was a thing.
After baseball, he worked in the front offices of both MLB teams in Texas.
Dwight Gooden #250
If you haven’t seen the ESPN 30 for 30 “Doc & Darryl,” then you really should check it out. You can’t talk about The Straw without discussing the Doc, and vice versa.
Strawberry and Gooden were poised to give baseball the best combination of slugger and starting rotation ace for years to come.
However, neither ever came close to realizing their full potential, because of substance abuse and addiction.
Both members of the Mets Hall of Fame went across town to the Yankees once their time with the Metropolitans was up too. In a 430 game career, Dr. K pitched 2,800+ innings for a win-loss record of 194–112, with a 3.51 earned run average and 2,293 strikeouts. However, addiction to alcohol and cocaine led to suspension from MLB, and eventually, a total derailing of his career. He really could have easily been one of the best, had he somehow gotten/stayed clean. Gooden was arrested several times after retirement, and he was incarcerated for seven months in 2006 after violating the terms of his probation.
Gooden has continued to break the law, with numerous alcohol and drug-related offenses, continuing all the way until 2019.
Ozzie Guillen RC #254
His true rookie card came in 1985 Topps Traded but the previous season’s AL Rookie of the Year has a “fun-loving” issue in this set. You can really see him laughing and smiling in the photo for this card. And that perfectly embodies who he is and what he is all about.
Guillen would go on to have a solid playing career with the White Sox, before transitioning into coaching, where he became the manager who led the Sox to finally end their notorious World Series title drought. Having covered a few Sox games from the press box, I can tell you that Guillen off-the-record is even more candid and colorful than he is when on the record. Yes, he may have a Borat-like candor already when the microphones are recording him, but there’s yet another level when he was killing time between media opportunities and the game starting up.
That’s why he’s such an entertaining broadcaster these days.
Carlton Fisk #290 (HOF)
The catcher who famously changed Sox, “Pudge” was the man when I attended my very first sporting event in June 1985, a White Sox home contest against the Cleveland Indians. As this was towards the end of his career (his rookie card was 1972), a PSA 10 of this card is valued at only about $60. One of the greatest, if not the greatest catchers of all time, you might want to acquire the Tiffany edition of this card instead, which you could probably find on eBay for about $150.
The ’86 Topps Tiffany is beloved by collectors, just as much as the regular set and the traded edition. That’s a whole another article in itself. The first player to be unanimously voted American League Rookie of the Year (1972), he’s still best known for “waving fair” his game-winning home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. He’s not squeaky clean by any means though, as he was charged with a DUI in New Lenox, Illinois after he was found in the middle of a cornfield, unconscious behind the wheel.
Kirby Puckett #329 (HOF)
Here is the man who may have the most complicated legacy of anyone in this entire set. Yes, we include the steroid cheats and players whose potential was never realized due to drug and alcohol problems. There is a statue of the Chicago native outside the Minnesota Twins home of Target Field, but should there be? Should he be in Cooperstown? If we’re looking at his career on the field, sure. But what about his private life and legal issues?
Don’t have space for that here, but I strongly suggest reading the March 17, 2003 edition of Sports Illustrated, where you can find an article titled “The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett,” for more on that. Making things more complicated, Puckett’s life was very short, as he died from cerebral hemorrhage due to hypertension, at age 45. One of the more valuable issues in the set, a PSA 10 here would command close to $200 on the open market.
Cal Ripken Jr. #340 (HOF)
The second most valuable card in this set, a PSA 10 of the Iron Man will likely cost over $750. Ripken holds the record for consecutive games played, 2,632, surpassing Lou Gehrig (“The Iron Horse”) whose 2,130 consecutive games played benchmark had stood for 56 years and was regarded by most baseball experts to be unbreakable.
Ripken broke the consecutive games played record on September 6, 1995, at Camden Yards, which fans voted as the league’s “most memorable moment” in the history of the game in an MLB.com poll. Like Ryan, we’ll never see consistency, longevity and durability like we saw from this 19-time All-Star shortstop and two-time AL MVP.
Cecil Fielder RC #386
One of the most prominent Rookie Cards in this set, and there aren’t many, a PSA 10 version of this card only goes for about $30. In this card, he looks rather svelte; or at least slim by his standards. On the last day of the 1990 season at Yankee Stadium, Fielder hit his 50th and 51st home runs of the campaign to become the 11th player in MLB history – and only the second in the previous 25 years – to hit 50 homers in a season.
The last Tiger to do so was Hank Greenberg in 1938, and the most recent player in baseball to do it before Fielder was George Foster in 1977 with the Cincinnati Reds. This caused just a massive stir in sports at the time, because we were still about a half-decade away from the dawn of the steroid era, where 50 HRs would then start coming in bunches every year. Fielder is regarded to have been clean and thus his legacy secure, but his peak didn’t last long.
He was only a star for about 4-5 years, but he still clubbed well over 300 home runs, which is not too shabby. It still feels like his rookie issue should be worth more, doesn’t it?
Rickey Henderson #500 (HOF)
A top ten most valuable card in this set, Henderson is widely considered the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. What’s not up for debate is his status among base-stealers, as he’s the unquestioned G.O.A.T. in that regard. His victory speech when he achieved the most career stolen bases milestone, definitely reflected just how aware Henderson is of how good he was at the time. The Chicago native holds the single-season record for stolen bases (130 in 1982) and is the only player in American League history to steal 100 bases in a season, having done so three times.
His 1,406 career steals is 50% higher than the previous record of 938, set by Lou Brock. None of these records will ever come close to being broken. Henderson also played for nine different teams in his career, some of which more than once, including the Oakland Athletics, the team with which he is almost synonymous. He had four different tenures with the A’s. He’s depicted as a Yankee here though, in a card that’s worth about $250 if it’s a PSA 10.
Roger Clemens #661
Of all the steroid cheats in the game, Clemens was about as unlikable as any of them. Maybe it’s because it’s he never showed any remorse for having cheated the game? The lengths he would go to lie about it? Or maybe it’s because he also, allegedly, cheated on his wife? (with numerous partners, supposedly, one of which was well under legal age!)
In essence, Clemens comes off as a cheater, overall, in life and that’s really a shame because he’s one of the best pitchers of all time. So basically, he cheated the entire history of baseball too. He was well on his way to becoming one of the best pitchers of all time even before he juiced up. In other words, he didn’t need it, and every time you look at one of his baseball cards, this is all you can really think. That and he often looks really sweaty in many of his early cards, as he does here.
Still, his records and benchmarks speak for themselves. In 1986, he won the AL Cy Young Award, Most Valuable Player Award, and All-Star Game MVP Award. He also struck out an MLB-record 20 batters in one game, en route to an American League pennant with the Boston Red Sox. He’s also the only pitcher in Major League history to record over 350 wins, strike out over 4,500 batters and win seven Cy Young awards. Maybe that’s why this is one of the more expensive cards in this set, as a PSA 10 will cost about $300.
Ryne Sandberg #690 (HOF)
Maybe my all-time favorite player as a kid, although Frank Thomas and Carlton Fisk aren’t far behind, Ryno is a legend among legends. I was truly honored to have a chance to interview him a couple of times, including this past May at a marijuana dispensary. I really can’t think of a more unlikely post-playing career “pivot” (quite the buzzword these days) than the one Ryno made. From extremely wholesome and clean-cut infielder to weed pitchman.
No one saw that coming. This is the second most valuable issue in the set, as a PSA 10 will cost you about $775. It’s easy to understand why as #23 achieved nine Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers and 10 All-Star appearances. His career .989 fielding percentage was a major-league record at second base when he retired in 1997.
Ozzie Smith #730 (HOF)
One of five players on our list to appear in one of the greatest Simpsons episodes of all time, The Wizard of Oz is widely regarded to be one of the greatest all-around fielders in baseball history. In “Homer At The Bat” (season 3, episode 16) Smith joined Canseco, Clemens, Strawberry, and Mattingly in portraying animated, spoof versions of themselves on screen. Although not on our 1986 Topps list, also appearing in the episode were Ken Griffey Jr., Steve Sax, and Mike Scioscia.
The plot revolves around Mr. Burns fielding a team of ringers for the company softball team, in order to win a rec league title and with it, very large stakes bet. Smith, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, won 13 straight Golden Glove awards and made 15 All-Star appearances at shortstop. A PSA 10 of this card is valued at about $130.
Harold Reynolds #769 RC
Like we said before, this set doesn’t have a lot of RCs, but Reynolds is one of the major ones. He made three All-Star appearances as a player, but as a broadcaster he became even more famous and beloved. His TV Analyst career overcame a major set-back early on too. ESPN fired Reynolds in July of 2006 following accusations of sexual harassment, in what was described as an “inappropriate hug” by the woman, at a Boston Market.
Reynolds labeled the incident “a total misunderstanding” and that this hug had been misinterpreted. Reynolds then filed suit against ESPN for payment of the remainder of his contract ($5 million). ESPN settled the case with Reynolds out of court in 2008, paying him a seven-figure sum. The whole incident seemed really out of character for him, as he won the Roberto Clemente Award in 1991. The plaudit is given annually to a Major League Baseball player who conveys character and charitable contributions to his community. In this card, which goes for about $55 when it’s a PSA 10, you can see the glory and splendor of the best era of Seattle Mariners uniforms.
Key 1986 Topps Traded Baseball Cards
Barry Bonds RC #11T
Take a lot of what we just said about Clemens and apply it here, except for a hitter instead of a pitcher. Bonds didn’t just cheat himself, or the game, but he also created the entire history of baseball.
He doesn’t seem to even acknowledge having done so either, let alone shown any remorse for it. Baseball’s all-time home run king isn’t in the Hall of Fame and never will be, and his record can’t stand without an *. That’s troublesome for the game but doesn’t seem to be for this second-generation baseball star.
Bonds was on his way to becoming one of the best batters of all time even before he took the ‘roids. In other words, he didn’t need to do it, and every time you look at one of his baseball cards, especially one of his RCs, this is all comes to mind first. It’s very sad as his numbers would most likely be very similar to where they are now even without the roids.
But again, no one’s head naturally grows in size like that, so late in life, but on this piece of cardboard, he can still fit it underneath the Pirates’ unique, distinct painter’s cap.
Now having said all that we do believe this card has immense investment value as time goes by and generations ease up or simply forget in some part about the steroid era.
Jose Canseco RC #20T
A notorious self-searcher on the internet, and always eager to get attention on himself, there is a greater than zero chance Canseco might see this entry. Another sure-fire first-ballot Hall-of-Famer had it not been for taking ‘roids, he has a different, but still important legacy.
I’m not saying he wrote the book on the steroid era, because that’s “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. But he wrote (actually his ghostwriter did) the tell-all that ripped the band-aid open on the steroid scandal. With “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big,” Canseco became baseball’s all-time greatest whistle-blower.
Fitting his RC is just nine cards away from Bonds. Between those two and Clemens, 1986 Topps and 1986 Topps Traded have three of the five most important ballplayer figures of the steroid era. (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa being the other two)
Bo Jackson RC #50
Bo is the only professional athlete in history to be named an All-Star in baseball and football, Bo has to be considered among the best that the world of sports has ever seen and experienced. This despite the fact that his career in both sports was so short-lived. A 1991 hip injury ended his NFL career (which began in 1987 with the Los Angeles Raiders), and his baseball career (which began in 1986 with the Kansas City Royals) ended in 1994. Still, he was more than a sports celebrity, he was also a pop culture icon. This card is not THE ONE to collect though when it comes to Bo Jackson. It’s not even a rookie card that’s sought after the most.
To know Bo, cardboard style, is to get his 1989 Score Supplemental- the one where he’s holding a bat while wearing shoulder pads. It perfectly conveys what a major personality Bo truly was, and that’s what makes him such a good fit in this set.
1986 Topps Baseball Cards Checklist
This set is a monster.
The best place to find and print a checklist of this behemoth is over at our friends at the Trading Card Database, as they provide a PDF version of the 1986 Topps Baseball Card Checklist.
1986 Topps and Topps Traded featured many Hall of Famers, many of which had pristine reputations. It also featured a few rookie cards of some very complicated and polarizing figures. It provides a preview of the steroid era while also reminding us how colorful, and crazy the uniforms (and behavior) of early to mid-1980s baseball truly were.
No wonder this set stands out as so memorable. Great LONG-TERM INVESTMENT as we feel the 1986 Topps set will eventually go down in history as one of the best Topps set and one of the best baseball sets of all time.
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