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Baseball card-loving children of the mid-80s and early 90s may not have realized their misfortune at the time. They were, history would show, children of the Junk Wax Era.
This was a time—between 1986 and 1993 or ’87 to ’94, depending on who you ask—when baseball card production went into hyperdrive. Card values, meanwhile, went into a nosedive.
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It’s the law of supply and demand. When supply outpaces demand, prices fall. The inverse principle explains why cards with only a few copies command high prices.
Because cards during this time were printed en masse, the Junk Wax Era is considered the Dark Age of baseball card manufacturing. Mass production is good for driving down the price of a toaster or Ford Escape. Regrettably, it has the same effect on your card collection.
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Think mass production; what terms come to mind? Words like “uniformity” and “blandness” do. Words like “excellence” and “timeless”? Not so much. Yet valuable Junk Wax Era cards exist even amidst a sea of forgettable, hastily-designed throwaways. They’re more difficult to find and require an elite player, but they’re there. The Junk Wax Era wasn’t all bad (just mostly bad). We’ll prove it to you…
Some collectors have taken a hipster-like approach to the Junk Wax Era. Most of these cards are so lame and out-there that they’ve become oddly collectible. Now, there are limits to the appeal of oddness. The following cards do have generational players on them. That helps the cards’ appeal in a major way.
High grades are generally required for a Junk Wax Era card to have real value. But, if you find the right card (including those listed here), you might come to love the Junk Wax Era for delivering you a valuable, under-the-radar investment piece.
1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck RC #1
Junior. The Kid. The Natural. Or just Griffey.
His generation’s most excellent baseball player had the sweetest swing, the brightest smile, the backward cap, and a spotless reputation. And he has one of the strongest cards of the Junk Wax Era in the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr. RC #1.
At its release, Upper Deck charged $1 for a pack from the 1989 Upper Deck set. A notable feature of the set was high-quality player images, including the photo of Griffey. Griffey’s photograph shows him in a retro royal blue Seattle Mariners hat. When the team updated its logo, his hat’s golden “S” would change to compass in 1993.
Another rare feature of this card: The Kid’s turtle neck. The rarified look, along with his dual gold chains, are indicators of Griffey’s immense cultural impact on baseball.
Photograph aside; the card has the minimalist look of most Junk Wax Era cards. Aside from a green-brown accent, the card is plain white. The font is plain. An Upper Deck logo, circular “Rookie” emblem, and grey “OF” square are the only other features on the card’s front. The back features Griffey’s 1988 minor league stats.
It’s a Griffey rookie card and not an altogether bad-looking one. But it was a Junk Wax Era RC. There are at least 3,911 of them in circulation, according to PSA. As such, a Gem Mint version of this card goes for low four-figures.
1993 Derek Jeter SP RC #279
1993 sits at the tail-end of the Junk Wax Era. Perhaps card manufacturers had begun to limit production at this time because this Jeter RC is rarer than the typical Junk Wax RC. According to PSA, only 21 Gem Mint copies of the 1993 SP Derek Jeter RC #279 in circulation. The value of this card has appreciated significantly of late. In February 2021, one sold for just shy of $200,000.
“This shows what a bit of rarity can do for a card’s value, especially when the card comes from a baseball card era where rarity is itself rare.”
The card itself is bland. It features a rookie Jeter in black Nike hightops and pinstripes. He tosses the ball underhand with a look of focus on his face. A black background enhances the pop of Jeter’s white uni. The faint “Upper Deck” font makes a crescent over Jeter’s likeness. A “Premier Prospects” logo is in the bottom-right corner.
The card’s back is busier than the front. It features two more images of Jeter, one of him throwing and another shot focused on his face (which was always the Jeter moneymaker). The value of this card varies significantly based on its condition. There are more than 600 Mint copies and nearly 9,000 Near-Mint copies. The 21 Gem-Mint copies are valued highly due to their comparative rarity.
1992 Mariano Rivera Bowman RC #302
Wait…this is a baseball card, right?
Looking at the image on this 1992 Bowman Mariano Rivera RC #302, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
You know, because Mariano is sans baseball uniform, baseball hat, or any indication that he actually plays baseball. He is, however, leaning against a teal column in khakis and a polo. The seeming absurdity of this card’s picture adds to its appeal. Where else will you find a card featuring a Hall of Fame closer looking like he just got back from a business lunch or round of 18?
Gem Mint versions of this card have consistently topped the $ 2,500 mark. That’s strong pricing for a card of the Junk Wax Era—even a rookie card.
Like any card with more than 1,400 Gem Mint copies in circulation, there is something of a price ceiling in effect. However, there’s much to like here. The card features the best closer of all time. As a rookie. In smart casual. What’s not to like? Of the 700 (700?!!) cards in the 1992 Bowman baseball card set, this is the one to own.
1990 Topps Frank Thomas “No Name on Front” RC #414
The 1990 Topps Frank Thomas “No Name on Front” RC is a valuable card partly because it lacks a name on the front.
As you can see from other cards in the set, the standard 1990 Topps baseball card features the player’s name in a rhomboid-shaped nameplate on the bottom edge.
This copy of Frank Thomas’s rookie card has no name. Call it the Voldemort of rookie cards, if you will. Or don’t, that’s probably dumb. The nameless feature alone makes it a rare card. The fact that Thomas entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014 adds substantial value. As far as Junk Wax Era cards go, the design could be less attractive. The border is a color gradient of red, orange, white, and yellow.
A massive Thomas bends on one knee, applying a tag in what appears to be a blue-hued minor league uniform. By Thomas’ standards, he was svelte and would club three triples in that rookie year to prove it.
“White Sox” is the card’s banner, printed in blue, slanted block letters. Next to it is a #1 Draft Pick emblem. Conspicuously at the bottom of the card is that nameless nameplate.
There is only one Gem Mint version of this card, per PSA. Even poorly-graded copies of this card generally cost a couple of grand. The highest quality copies can cost a quarter mil or more.
1991 Chipper Jones Topps Desert Shield RC #333
Towards the end of the Junk Wax Era, it felt like the baseball card industry was coming out of a malaise. Slowly but surely, cards began to feel more like art than assembly-line products. The 1991 Topps Desert Shield Chipper Jones RC #333 is proof of this awakening. Will it be the gaudiest card in your collection? Certainly not.
However, the finer points of this card are worth appreciating. The crisp white border gives it a true portrait feel. The blue and red lines forming a sub-border are a classy touch. The image of a young Larry “Chipper” Jones in his blue and orange high school uniform perfectly centers the card’s layout.
There is just enough else—a “Topps 40 Years of Baseball” emblem, a Braves logo, a Chipper Jones nameplate, and “#1 Draft Pick” logo—to keep your eyes busy. Frankly put, it’s a good-looking card. Like most valuable Junk Wax Era cards, it features a Hall of Famer in their rookie season. This is always a precursor for value.
Gem Mint copies of the 1991 Topps Desert Shield Chipper Jones RC #333 have sold for more than $20,000. Well-preserved copies of cards from this set are tough to find. Don’t be shocked if the price point rises significantly with time.
1987 Greg Maddux Leaf RC #36
Greg Maddux’s career ERA of 3.16 is, in a word, insane. To hold runners to just over 3 runs per game throughout 20+ seasons is Hall of Fame-in stuff.
…Which is why Maddux is in the Hall of Fame. His 1987 rookie card #36 from Leaf is also so valuable.
We might consider investing in this card because of Maddux’s glorious ‘stache alone. Look at that thing! The fresh-faced rookie rears back in his blue Cubs uniform—is any uniform more iconic?—with his hat tilted slightly to the right. His face oozes nonchalance, as Maddux never wanted to give any tip to the batter.
The card’s design has a subtle cool that could be from an era even before the late 80s (the 60s or 70s, maybe?). The black and yellow border frames the rounded rectangular image of Maddux.
A red nameplate with yellow font, a blue “Rated Rookies” emblem, and a black-and-yellow “Leaf ’87” logo complete the card’s frontside design features. It’s a card with a solid look that you can secure for a few thousand bucks. There are 478 Gem Mint copies in circulation, and you can get one at a reasonable price.
1989 Fleer Bill Ripken “F**k Face” #616
No offense to Billy Ripken. But if you were to own a Ripken card, you would generally wish that the player’s first name was something other than Billy. Something like Cal, for example. However, if you’re going to own a Billy Ripken card, the 1989 Fleer Bill Ripken “F**k Face” #616 is one to have.
As far as the look of this card, it’s consummate Junk Wax. The grey slate color scheme is about as attractive as a prison. It screams “you’re going to hate this card”. Until you examine the card more closely, you realize that the knob of Ripken’s bat reads “F**k Face” in black sharpie.
“Sure, it’s an ugly card. And it’s not the Ripken brother you’d hoped would be on the card. But you’ll forever take solace in the fact that Fleer management missed “F**k Face” when they approved this card for print.”
The frenzy generated by this card sparked a whole new trend: intentional error cards. Its legacy persists today, as Gem Mint versions can collect around a hundred bucks and sometimes a couple hundred.
It is a Billy Ripken card, after all. Temper those expectations.
1986 Barry Bonds Topps Traded RC #11T
The Barry Bonds RC #11T is one of the most important cards in the 1986 Topps Traded Baseball set.
It features Bonds in his grey, V-necked Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. The bumblebee color scheme continues with Bonds’ cap, a yellow-lined, old-school lid that harkens back to better times for the Pirates organization. Bonds wears a serious look, as he is wont to do. The lefty wears non-matching batting gloves as a blue sky serves as his backdrop.
The card design is unspectacular. “Pirates” spans the card’s top edge in yellow block lettering. A black and white split border contains a black-lettered “Barry Bonds” nameplate down below. This card has value as a rookie card of arguably the best hitter of all. With nearly 4,700 Gem Mint versions in circulation, however, it’s not particularly rare.
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The cost of Gem Mint versions can vary greatly. They can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
1985 Mark McGwire Topps RC #401
The value of Mark McGwire’s rookie cards has mirrored his career. Though there are exceptions, a player’s fall from grace can coincide with their card’s fall in value.
The revelation that Mark McGwire used steroids throughout most of his Major League career should not have been a shock, in retrospect. However, it was unwanted news to those holding Mark McGwire rookie cards in their collection. The 1985 Topps Mark McGwire RC is not as valuable as it once was, but it’s still a worthwhile investment.
It’s a cool card. It shows McGwire in a red Team USA jersey and matching hat. This feature makes the card distinct from most other rookie cards. The rest of the card adopts the red, white, and blue color scheme. It features a white border, red nameplate, and blue interior background.
A white baseball logo contains the “USA” acronym, while the red upper banner reads “1984 United States Baseball Team” in white letters. Gem Mint versions of this card generally cost a couple of thousand dollars, give or take. Fewer mint versions cost around the thousand-dollar mark, if a bit less. These prices will vary over time.
1986 Jose Canseco Donruss RC #39
Jose Canseco is as much a novelty as his 1986 Donruss rookie card is. Some might say that Canseco is the living embodiment of the Junk Wax Era. As Canseco’s cultural relevance ebbs and flows, so does the market value of this card (and other Canseco cards).
There is no denying this: Canseco’s 1986 Donruss RC #39 is among the most valuable in that set. It features Canseco’s youthful face peering Canseco-ly into the camera, eyes casually squinted. His green and Gold Oakland A’s hat sits high atop his jet black hair.
A wisp of a mustache makes an appearance as well. A lined blue border surrounds Canseco’s image, which has a slate grey backdrop. A red and blue nameplate and a blue “Rated Rookie” logo round off the design.
The problem with this card: it’s not an especially valuable set. You can secure a Gem Mint version of this card for a few hundred dollars (or less). It may be a worthwhile investment, as Canseco’s whistleblower status could seem increasingly important as history unfolds. Jose, can you see a bright future for this card’s value? That depends on your perspective.
1989 Fleer Randy Johnson RC – Marlboro Background #381
As we discussed with the Bill Ripken 1989 Fleer, this set of cards is downright bland. Yet, as with the Ripken card, this Randy Johnson RC has a notable error that drives its value.
You’d think a Randy Johnson rookie card would be worth a haul. However, the mass production (and general unappealing design) of this card keep its value modest. The card features the lanky Johnson standing in his light blue (iconic, if you ask me) Montreal Expos uniform.
Over his right shoulder is a sign for Coca-Cola and a “Welcome to the Vet” billboard. Over his right shoulder is, in some cards, an ad for Marlboro cigarettes. Other versions of this card have the Marlboro ad blacked out. The value of your card may not necessarily depend on the presence or absence of this ad.
“How fondly you feel about this card, however, may hinge on that Marlboro ad being present. After all, the rest of this card’s design (overcast chic) leaves something to be desired.”
Gem Mint versions of the card have commanded multiple hundreds of dollars.
1990 Sammy Sosa Leaf RC #220
The 1990 Leaf set of baseball cards showed a determination that cardmakers had abandoned throughout much of the Junk Wax Era. The set signaled hope for collectors with thicker card stock, a cursive Leaf logo, and a classy-yet-simple design.
Sammy Sosa, like Mark McGwire, has a complicated legacy. The value of his rookie cards is complicated as a consequence. The 1990 Leaf Sammy Sosa RC #220 shows Sosa bunting, of all things. Though he shows signs of a leaner figure, it’s also likely that the steroid cycles have begun to kick in. Though Sosa became most famous as a Cub, this card features him in his grey, red, and dark blue White Sox uniform. A white border contains a black “Sammy Sosa, OF” nameplate down low.
An early-90s White Sox logo is in the bottom left corner, giving rise to a grey and white flourish. A cursive Leaf logo sits in the upper-right corner. It’s a portrait card of a player who would undoubtedly be in the Hall of Fame if not for his tainted legacy.
There are more than 1,700 Gem Mint versions of this RC in existence. It’s not particularly rare. Combine this with Sosa’s fall from grace and you get an affordable price point. Even Gem Mint versions of this card tend to go for less than $200. Do with this information what you will.
1993 Johnny Damon SP RC #273
Johnny Damon is one of those fringe Hall of Fame guys. Failing to achieve 5% of the vote, he was removed from HOF ballots in 2018. Great player, to be sure. A great teammate by all accounts. But, unfortunately for Damon, he remains a member of the Hall of Almost. Still, as one of the more iconic players of his generation (thanks to his hustle, flowing locks, and caveman beard), Damon’s 1993 SP RC #273 has value.
It is part of an SP set that would become known as a premium product. Along with Jeter, Ripken, Griffey, and Ryan, Damon’s is among the prize members of the 1993 SP collection. The card’s glossy finish features Damon in full sprint. His white Royals uniform is unbuttoned from the numbers-up and shows signs of wind exposure.
Different parallels feature unique background designs. A two-tone blue nameplate runs vertically on the card’s left border. A golden logo occupies the bottom-right corner.
Highly-rated versions of this card generally go from $100+ to shy of $200.
We’ve said our kind words. Cards of the Junk Wax Era have a price ceiling. The era they were printed in literally has “Junk” as its title. You have to gauge each card on an individual basis. Generally, those with fewer copies in circulation have the best shot at netting a significant return.
All of the cards listed here have good players (though “good” might be a stretch for Billy Ripken). In some cases, they feature Hall of Famers. Yet even a Hall of Famer cannot overcome thousands of Mint or Near-Mint copies of the same card flooding the market.
Prime investment opportunities are few and far between when it comes to Junk Wax Era cards. Pick your spots, or perhaps save money for an investment with a higher ceiling.