Monday, January 27, 2020

1997 Donruss Elite – They’re Mostly Just Foilboard. Mostly.

Donruss had already been making the Elite insert for six years when in 1997, amid a flood of other premium offerings from all the other big players in the card market, they decided to flip it into its own premium brand. The Elite name had the advantage of existing desirability and pedigree, so it made a lot of sense. Plus being a Donruss/Leaf nut myself, even I picked up a pack or two of these when they came out.

1997 Donruss Elite #5

Elite cards were usually characterized by holofoil and fancy script, but they cooled things off a bit by using simple foilboard which I’ve always found a bit underwhelming, especially when you try and scan it. The picture is pretty sweet, but I am just not crazy about foilboard in general. Especially scans of foilboard. Yeesh.

Looks a lot better far, far away from a scanner

And while we were already used to thick, stately borders from the Elite insert cards, these feel like overkill. Half the card is foil border and massive nameplate, and the other half photo. Again, great photo, but geez, guys. Let’s pump the border brakes, you know?

I will always sing the praises of post-1992 Donruss card backs. For this set they didn’t give us blurbs or stat analysis or anything fancy – just a nice layout, big player photo, and plenty of stars. It’s certainly more focused on aesthetics than content, but that seems to have been the theme for most premium sets of the ‘90’s. Donruss did it well.

There is also a 1:9 gold parallel of this card that I don’t have because it’s just gold-tinted foilboard. Meh.

1997 Donruss Elite Leather & Lumber #1 #/500

Leather & Lumber is a legacy insert in that Donruss gave us several iterations of it (and even its own set, eventually); but of all the L&L Griffeys they produced, this is the best of the lot. The most notable characteristic here is that the front is printed on real wood and the back on genuine leather. Subsequent L&L inserts would also feature fun design gimmicks like bat relics or a simulated leather surface, but none were more on-the-nose design-wise than this first one.

Either side would make a perfectly reasonable card front with complete nameplates, insert AND brand logos, and some tasteful gold foil. Being serial numbered to only 500 is pretty significant, too, given this was only 1997; but it also means the cards are pricey and getting moreso as the years roll on. Don’t dawdle.

There are only three Griffeys in all of 1997 Donruss Elite, and I have two of them. Here is the one-and-only 1997 Donruss Elite Griffey I don’t have:

1997 Donruss Elite #5 Gold Stars

I’m in no hurry. Maybe if I find one for five bucks somewhere I’ll bite, but as far as I’m concerned the biggest box (Leather & Lumber) is checked, and that’s plenty.

I feel like this post would be incomplete without mentioning the totally awesome (but Griffeyless) Passing the Torch insert, so here it is:

Just like Leather & Lumber, these would also make appearances in later Leaf/Donruss products across multiple sports; and also like Leather and Lumber, the original is still the best. If you count all the sports Donruss cards have been made for, this is arguably their most prolific insert of all time.

And the design is always good:

And speaking of legacy inserts, Leather and Lumber is still around today as its own standalone brand, and darn it if it isn’t pretty neat. Here’s some of the cards of neatness:

Panini reminds me more of Pacific every damn year. Go ‘head, Panini. You do you.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Be Well: 1996 Topps and 1996 Topps Chrome

Mellow greetings!

1995-1998 was my favorite era of baseball cards. We got some of the scarcest and most legendary inserts and parallels, the first relics, the explosion of autographed inserts and hits, short prints, and the normalization of printing technologies once reserved for only the most expensive packs. It ended up being too much for some brands in the long run, but what a time for us collectors. That rings even truer for the Griffey crowd as, despite injury, this was the Kid’s heyday; and as a result the guy was slapped onto a lot of cool cardboard.

So while there were few technological leaps in 1996 Topps, there were still plenty of memorable cards as well as some of the greatest commemorative cards ever made.

On that note there are two cards in particular that we have to talk about, and if you bought Topps back in 1996, you probably already know which ones I mean:

1996 Topps Mickey Mantle #7

Mickey Mantle passed away on August 13th, 1995 at the relatively young age of 63. Topps, being a Brooklyn-based outfit that arguably owes at least some of its success to the Mick, paid tribute to the man by giving him a commemorative card at his uniform number and retiring that card number in their base set. Note the '52 Topps image in the foil stamp.

The retirement of his number in the base set wouldn’t last forever, though. Here’s the history of card #7 in Topps flagship:

1996 – Mickey Mantle Commemorative
1997-2005 – no card #7
2006-2012 – Mickey Mantle Commemoratives
2013-2015 – no card #7
2016 – Michael Brantley

Card #7 is back for good, it seems, but the idea was pretty cool while it lasted.

They also released a slough of Mantle reprints this year in both flagship and Chrome, and the cards are fantastic, but that is a whole other post because there are A LOT of them with refractors and everything. I even actively chased them, so I think I may have them all. But we have other matters to attend to...

For example, this also happened:

1996 Topps Cal Ripken, Jr. #96 2131 Commemorative
Team Topps Stamp

Every brand went Ripken-crazy in ’96 because of the thing (you know about the thing, right?). And I kept every single damn one of them because Cal Ripken is a TREASURE. Every single company stepped up and gave Cal some of the best cards of the year. If you don’t believe me, go to COMC and search “Ripken 1996” and just enjoy the show. Even the stupid phone cards are incredible. And try not to weep as you gaze into those baby-blues. I once saw his 1996 Pinnacle Summit Hitters Inc insert set a grown man on fire from across a room.

1996 Pinnacle Summit Hitters Inc #9 #/4000


You know who else is a treasure?

1996 Topps #205

A rare and totally amazing sliding shot - great pic this year. Topps finally made the leap to a glossy base set in 1994, then on to foil on every card in 1995; so by ’96 they were gloss/foil experts. Every base card got a blue nameplate and inset photo regardless of their team colors (Topps would do this monochromatic thing several times over the next few years), and that was perfectly okay in the case of Mariners like Junior. The design is clean, modern, and more streamlined this year compared with the deckled photo edges of ’95. Make these puppies full-bleed and you practically have a Stadium Club design. Not too shabby.

While there’s really nothing to complain about here, I still prefer the ’95 backs. Plus, while you can't really tell by this scan, the card number is tough to read in any light. Sorry, set-builders. Cool name font, tho.

1996 Topps Chrome #70

This was also the first year of Topps Chrome, but to keep things from getting stale Topps added some mild effects to the card front including a line of stippling around the border and a grid-like indented effect in the background that is more visible in the light parts.

The backs were identical apart from the card numbering. They trimmed down the base set from 440 down to 165 which was a blessing since the packs only had 4 cards each. Set builders had to bust a minimum of two boxes to pull a complete base set assuming some very lucky collation. That's premium for ya.

1996 Topps Chrome #70 Refractor

The refractors fell at 1:12 or two per box, but with the large 165-card checklist that put specific card-pulls at 1:1980 and any Griffey pulls at 1:990 since he had two cards in the set. On top of that the refractors of ’96 Chrome had a TON of print/refractor lines (like most early refractors), so those without lines sell for even more. Expect at least gray whale prices for most stars.

I only show card backs if there is a difference, and there actually IS a difference here. Can you find it?

Hint: the area around the card number is ice cold.

Back to regular flagship:

1996 Topps #230 Star Power

I always liked this subset for the bold colors and fun “The More You Know”-esque background. And that font on the right? I believe I’ve said this multiple times before on this very blog, but dammit if it isn’t still totally true: there is only one other place in the Universe you can find that font, and that is in the Hall of Violence in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone flick “Demolition Man.”

He's going for a gun.

If you haven't seen this gem of the 90's, I have only one question for you: what seems to be your boggle?

The back gives us what may well be a record for quantity of stars on a card back as well as a pretty entertaining shot of Junior impressing his own damn self with a high-arcing home run shot in right-center. The monthly breakdown is probably more impressive for most of the other players in this subset, but let’s not forget that Griffey missed a lot of baseball in 1995 due to injury. And yet he was poised to have his greatest year ever in 1997 when he would pick up AL MVP honors. That’s the Star Power, baby.

1996 Topps Chrome #90 Star Power

It’s rare that the chrome version of any card is so significantly better than the original, but few enjoy this disparity more than the Star Power subset. The colors pop, the stars shine, and the background grid effect isn’t just bumps, my friend, but star stippling. STAR STIPPLING, you guys. Someone sent me this card in a trade package when I first got back into the hobby, and I remember just staring at it from different angles for a totally unreasonable length of time. I don’t care who you collect – if they have a 1996 Topps Chrome Star Power card, ya needs it.

The backs are at least a little glossier than those of the regular base set, but again the only real difference here is the card number.

1996 Topps Chrome #90 Star Power Refractor

If I could take only one 1996 Topps Chrome card with me to a desert island, there is simply no contest. This thing is just, like, TOO awesome. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like meeting a cute brunette who smells nice and loves Frank Herbert’s Dune. Right away you know you lucked out, and you’re gonna have tons to talk about. But then after dating for a few weeks she tells you that she’s secretly a trust fund millionaire and also is deeply in love with you? WHAT? 1996 Topps Chrome Star Power Refractors are basically just like that. Way too much of a good thing and NONE OF US DESERVE THEM.

Again, tiiiiiiiny little difference here very far away from the card number.

I suppose I should mention that while it seems like Star Power was about as baddass as it could possibly get, it actually wasn’t:

1996 Topps Star Power Boosters (Series 1 only)

Say hello to Star Power Boosters. Is that not one of the coolest cards you’ve ever seen? Why oh why they only made this for Series 1 I will never know/understand/appreciate/swallow/come to terms with. 23 years later I’m still raw about it.

Wait – there’s more!

2017 Topps Throwback Thursdays Derby Legends

Topps used the Star Power subset design for one of those Throwback Thursday sets in honor of great Home Run Derby champs, and Griffey, who won THREE derbies, isn’t in there at all. Is there a bigger legend in the annals of the Derby?

There’s a guy in that checklist who had participated in fewer major league SEASONS than Junior has WON DERBIES. Granted that guy is Aaron Judge and his is the most valuable card in the set and everyone was batshit excited about him at the time, BUT STILL. And a few of the other guys in the checklist, namely Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, and Giancarlo Stanton only won ONE derby each. Trying to understand Griffey's glaring omission is like trying to understand the three seashells. I don't get it and probably never will.


Maybe it’s not so becoming of me to bitch about all the sets Junior SHOULD have made an appearance in but didn’t, but I’m taking liberties with this one in particular because it’s the freakin’ Star Power design, man. Sure, they screwed up the font, but, I mean, come on. IT’S MY FAVORITE. GAH. WHY?

2006 Topps Wrecking Crew #WC9

I feel like the design gets a little lost in the abundance of silver and white here. I wasn’t even aware of the insert name because it’s buried in busy backgrounds and hard to read even when you notice it’s there. Overall they’re not terrible-looking - the baseball-as-a-wrecking-ball thing is adorable - but they are surprisingly hard to pin down.

Also why didn't they just call this insert "Demolition Man?" It makes sense with the wrecking ball thing, and we all know where you got the Star Power font. Just own it.

The back is great despite the glaring grammatical error. I am so 100% all about that blurb and Junior’s “This is a rat burger?” expression.

1996 Topps Chrome Wrecking Crew #WC9

The Chrome version is EVEN MORE monochromatic and illegible, but the totally-out-of-place white has been replaced by silvery chromium that STILL doesn’t look quite right. Weird design, guys.

1996 Topps Chrome Wrecking Crew #WC9 Refractor

At 1:72 this is the toughest pull by the numbers, but in terms of scarcity they don’t even come close to the base refractors because of the big checklist. The refraction helps the design and legibility a lot (as it usually does), but this is far from my favorite “early” refractor. Also, print line (sad trombone).

This is the toughest round of “Find the Tiny R” we are going to get. Good luck.

Here seems like a good spot to show you my actual favorite Wrecking Crew card:

2009 Press Pass Kiss 360 #63 Road Stories “Wrecking Crew” Blue Edition

There’s just no topping this thing. And what is that he’s chugging, Courvoisier? LOL gross.

1996 Topps Classic Confrontations #CC1

I freakin’ LOVE the idea here. The front is a damn mess and we’re going to spend only the first half of this sentence discussing how bad it is, but check out that excellent back. This is the kind of card you might keep next to the toilet for a little light reading/stat analysis. I like how Griffey consistently made Roger Clemens look like a damn fool almost as much as Roger Clemens did. I also like how he had never faced Randy Johnson going into ’96 (obviously), but now I want to see if he ever did.

*searches baseball-reference*

Holy crap he did! 6 plate appearances, 3 strikeouts, ZERO average. Aw shit (*buzz) he hit him with a pitch one time. That alone brought his OPS to a measly .167, and that’s all she wrote. No surprise there. I’m sure Randy knew exactly how to get our boy’s goat after over a decade together.

Ah geez, I was fined one credit for violating the Verbal Morality Statute with that S-bomb up there. By bad, Dr. Cocteau.

Anyway, this is my favorite card back in 1996 Topps.

1996 Topps PROfiles #AL-05

Pulling a colorful foilboard card out of a pack in 1996 made a certain 15-year-old Junior Junkie feel like he hit a scratchoff. These weren’t all that uncommon, but they look good and the concept is great. Since this is Kirby freakin’ Puckett and all we’re gonna let that lil’ typo slide, but the write-up in general is fantastic. I didn’t even know home run #8 was on his last at-bat – I’d like to have seen that one. I like Kenny Lofton, too, Kirby. Great card.

1996 Topps Mystery Finest #M16 (peeled)

Pulling a jet-black card out of a pack is usually a good sign you got something special. In the case of Mystery Finest, the card you pulled had one of three players on the front hidden under a peel-away layer of plastic which has been removed from this one.

1996 Topps Mystery Finest #M16 (unpeeled)

This is a scan of the unpeeled card (seriously). See how it accentuates exactly how filthy my scanner bed is.

The back of the card showed you who you might find if you decided to peel. As you can see this first Griffey could also have been Albert Belle or Dante Bichette.

1996 Topps Mystery Finest #M25 (peeled)

And this second one could also have been Hideo Nomo, Cal Ripken, Mike Piazza, or Frank Thomas (WOW, btw). And if you could tell whose card you had, you might not peel the card at all. Well guess what? You CAN tell. The player’s silhouette is visible in the right light, so as long as you know what each player’s silhouette looked like on the cards (which you do because THEY'RE ON THE BACK OF THE CARD) it was easy to tell them apart without peeling.

1996 Topps Mystery Finest #M25 Refractor (peeled)

You could also tell whether the card you had was a refractor by – you guessed it – the tiny R buried on the back of the card.

So conceivably you could build a collection of every Mystery Finest card in both regular and refractor AND in both peeled and unpeeled versions with 100% certainty you had the right cards.

There are two inserts (besides Star Power Boosters, I mean) that I really like from 1996 Topps and Topps Chrome that I like to think Junior might have made an appearance in were it not for the injury.

1996 Topps Road Warriors

Just a neat design and a cool stat-based concept. Plus you know the idea was good because Fleer did it too the very same year:

1996 Fleer Road Warriors

Corporate espionage? Probably not. The Fleer backs were just big, long blurbs about general road performance in lieu of Topps who gave us ballpark-specific stats. Still weird, though.

1996 Topps Chrome Master of the Game Refractor

Look at this BEAUTIFUL CARD FRONT. I am obsessed with that giant shadow, but also concerned for the people in the stands along the first base line. These came in both regular and refractors, but I had to have that shiny-shiny. I suppose a point could be made that Junior hadn’t yet been in the league long enough to merit an appearance in this particular insert, but also that point is trash and so is anyone trying to make it.

I would like to take this opportunity to formally invite Topps to bring back this insert in this very same design and finally give Griffey his due as a Master of the Game. Maybe put Junior on another Star Power design just for fun. C’mon, boys - we can do it. We have the technology.

I have all the Chrome Griffeys, but there are a handful I am still in the hunt for from the regular set:

1996 Topps Mystery Finest #M16 Refractor
1996 Topps Mystery Finest #M16 Refractor (unpeeled)
1996 Topps Mystery Finest #M25 (unpeeled)
1996 Topps Mystery Finest #M25 Refractor (unpeeled)
1996 Topps Team Topps Wal-Mart Seattle Mariners AL West Champions #205
1996 Topps Team Topps Wal-Mart Seattle Mariners AL West Champions #230 Star Power
1996 Topps Team Topps Wal-Mart Seattle Mariners AL West Champions Big #3

I’m not exactly passionate about the unpeeled versions of the Mystery Finest cards, but it would be neat to have them all in both versions.

The Team Topps cards have a little stamp on them like so:

1996 Topps Team Topps Wal-Mart Seattle Mariners AL West Champions Stamps -
Image on loan from the Beau Carter collection

I’m not usually sold on base cards with such a superficial difference, but they’re on the list so I’ve got an eye out. And to be fair it IS another Star Power card so I guess I super want it.

Star Power frickin' rules.

By the way, Demolition Man-era Sandra Bullock?

Put me back in the fridge, amiright?