Sunday, January 17, 2016

1991 Donruss: Childhood’s End

It’s important that we look at certain sets in the context of their respective timelines. In that sense 1991 Donruss came at the end of an era. By 1992 a switch had been flipped and Donruss cards got really nice. High-quality white paper stock, neatly-assembled card backs, great photography, and an overall “adultier” aesthetic. We also started seeing inserts for the first time including ramped-up Diamond Kings and the legendary serial numbered Elite Series insert. 1992 was the year Donruss’ voice changed and its armpits started crying stinky tears.

Back in 1991, however, Donruss was still playing with Micro Machines, throwing mud at girls, and sneaking Transformers into church. It’s that time in everyone’s life just before they stop liking Animaniacs and start pretending to not like Animaniacs. We are at the tail end of Donruss’ innocence.

Bright colors, full-bleed printing, and garish design defined the closing years of adolescent Donruss. The late 80’s saw a lot of monochromatic designs from the brand (with the exception of the ’89 set with its superfly rainbow effect), culminating in the blue borders of 1991. This devotion to one color stuck around somewhat in the form of light blue top and bottom borders in the ’92 set, but let’s face it: there’s the “oh, that’s a nice tasteful touch of blue, isn’t it?” type of blue as in the ’92 set, and then there’s a color of sufficient wavelength that your eyes boil in their sockets that can only be classified as BBBLLLLUUUEEEEEEE. That would be ’91.

I’ve tip-toed around this long enough, so here goes: 1991 Donruss is ugly. I don’t want it to be ugly - I love Donruss – but it is.  Even the 1990 set has found a soft spot in my heart that my eyes have been fighting against for years, but the ’91 set is hopeless. It’s that thing of putting bright primary colors on something normally boring or tedious for kids so they will like it. In that sense 1991 Donruss has a lot in common with a Buzz Lightyear toothbrush or a Phineas and Ferb alarm clock.

On top of that there’s just not a lot of redeeming qualities here. It’s the same old card back (which is actually my favorite part) and photography that is mediocre at best. I honestly believe this set is the reason so many people hate ’92 Donruss. They’re back-to-back in the timeline so everyone lumps them together when in fact a huge culture change occurred somewhere in between, and ’92 is the far superior set of cards.

We’ve been over the ’92 set, of course. For now, let us wallow and slum and bum around the house in our PJ’s. It’s 1991 Donruss time:

1991 Donruss #77

As you can see, it looks like it should have a Hot Wheels car attached to it. The nameplate is a slightly-angled stripe of fire engine red. They broke up the stark blueness of the borders with multi-colored stripes and stippling that follow the angle of the nameplate. It’s the cardboard equivalent of a carnival ride. Not a fun one – more like that kiddie coaster that just goes in a circle.

I’d like to say the photos make up for everything, but overall they really don’t. They are just vanilla pictures of baseball happening. There are a few exceptions, but not enough to make this a tantalizing set build.

The back is the same one we’ve gotten from Donruss for a decade: stat box, career highlights, and the full legal name of the player. I can’t really complain about this design because they obviously heard whoever did and gave us a streamlined, modern card back the very next year. Plus I don’t really mind the old Donruss card backs because I am aging; and things from my childhood, regardless of how terrible and inferior they actually are by today’s standards, still seem better in my stubborn, embittered old man mind.

All three base cards have a pattern variant just like '90 Donruss had. The variants are more than likely from factory sets as opposed to packs, but I have yet to confirm this. Here are the regular and variant:

1991 Donruss #7 regular and variant

Not much of a difference, but I would be remiss not mentioning it here.

1991 Donruss #49 All-Star

Griffey was an all-star in 1990 which Donruss celebrated with just the shadiest card there ever was. Not shady as in sketchy – shady as in, like, shade. As in an area of low light relative to one’s surroundings. You can’t even tell who’s actually at the plate here which would be OK if the photo was cool in any way, but it isn’t. You are probably looking at the worst Griffey of 1991, and there were more terrible oddballs in ’91 than just about any other year.

Here's that card with its variant:

1991 Donruss #49 All-Star regular and variant

1991 Donruss #392 MVP

The MVP’s are green in this set which actually helps this design out a bit. The photos in this subset are portraits with a standard green background, so they were impossible to screw up. They’re not bad-looking cards, relatively speaking.

And the variant:

1991 Donruss #392 MVP regular and variant

Despite the complete and utter lack of inserts, parallels, or anything remarkable in general, there is one Griffey from this set that is actually somewhat desirable:

1991 Donrus Preview #4

The 1991 Donruss Preview shows Junior a few feet off the bag, watching the pitcher like a hawk. It’s actually a damn good photo, and it would have changed completely my feelings towards the set. Unfortunately they ended up going with a run-of-the-mill batting photo in the end, and we’re left with this reminder of what could have been.

There is only one Griffey I need from 1991 Donruss, and it's not a card:

1991 Donruss Preview (Ad) Sheet

It looks like this:

1991 Donruss Preview Sheet

These are glossy with a blank back. If anyone has a lead on one, let me know!

So that's it. The best part of 1991 Donruss is that if you bought the factory set, you got preview cards for 1991 Studio, one of my favorite sets of baseball cards ever made. I imagine finding those puppies in your factory set was like finding an onion ring in your French fries. Wait, no, that’s not a good analogy. French fries are also good. It was probably more like finding an onion ring in your crap fries. Yeah, perfect.


  1. Good Lord! Donruss '91 have variants?!? Mind...BLOWN!

    By the way, this post depressed the hell out of me, at least from the standpoint of the "childhood's end" angle. I'm glad I haven't outgrown toys and Hot Wheels and so forth.

  2. To me, Donruss didn't really grow up until 1993. The 1992 set was a big step in the right direction, but the card backs were more or less the same as they'd always been. Yes, they added photos and shifted the elements around a bit, but 1992 still seems like a middle ground between their '90s sets and the repetitive sameness of the 1980s.

  3. I never knew there were varients as well. Great piece.
    From '92 on DonRuss was my brand. I collected Topps because I was chasing the Mantle inserts.

  4. I've known about the variants but they've always seemed like "pseudo-variants" to me. I probably have some in my giant Dodgers dupes box but can't get interested enough to dig them out.

    I call '91 Donruss the "Fisher-Price set," for just the reasons you said. It seems like it should come as part of your favorite kid's toy.

  5. This made my head spin. 1991 Donruss...more complex than it needs to be.

  6. Donruss, one of the early believers of variants of variants before Topps and Panini unleashed their scores of short prints and parallels on the world.

  7. I remember 91 Donruss clearly because It was the firsts that I had ever bought back when I collected as a kid. My box looked different than the one you have pictured ,though.Mine came with the Grand Slammers subset.As ugly as a lot of card designs were In the late 80's and early 90's ,It's still nice to have a stack to thumb through every once In a while.

  8. 1991 Donruss were the first cards I ever got as a kid so even today I have a soft spot for them. It's a close second though in my mind to 1993 Donruss.

  9. Series 1 is blue and Series 2 is green, so the color differential has less to do with the MVP subset and more to do with what series it was part of.

    This is also not the only year where the factory set (produced late in the year, with different checklist cards) has a different border pattern. I believe the factory set had a different border (and sometimes different text on the back?) in the 1988, 1989 and 1990 sets, but for whatever reason I've only really compared the 1991 cards side by side. This may be because more factory sets were broken up in 1991 due to the preview cards.

    At some point I'm probably going to have to buy some cheap ass factory sets for my team collection, but I really don't want to think about what I will do with all the non-Cardinals cards.