Adventures in baseball cards: 1988 Topps

1988 was a great year, from Sparky to Fisk to Scioscia to Cecil.

I recently had something of a baseball card windfall fall into my lap. A family member had come into a box full of cards, and not knowing what else to do with them, passed them onto me. As it turns out, inside was the complete 1988 Topps set, with all the cards in damn-near perfect condition.

Naturally, that meant me spending a day or two flipping and sorting through them, checking out card backs, old player photos, figuring out doubles and reminiscing about days spent as a kid, sitting in my bedroom collecting cards, sorting them into sets and teams and trying to complete an entire year.

The last set I actively attempted to complete was the 1994 Topps collection. That was an entire summer and fall (and, probably, winter) buying packs in an attempt to find all 792 cards. In my closet, I have a box with 790 of the cards — I never found Lloyd McClendon (no. 518) or Juan Bell (651). I also have, somewhere in my parents’ house, about three or four boxes of doubles, triples, quadruples, and so on.

It was a fun distraction in the middle of the players’ strike, and it consumed most of my free time, but it did kill a big part of the card collecting bug. I bought a few packs each year until 1998, and then pretty much stopped picking up cards all together until 2007, save for a random Pedro Martinez I was given along the way. Opening and sorting through this box, then, was a blast from the past in more ways than one.

Nolan Ryan Topps 88

The Ryan Express in all his glory.

To start, the 1988 set has a classic look, the kind that made Topps the top of the heap until Upper Deck entered the picture the next year. Each card had a large photo, a white border replacing the wood-grain style of 1987, the team name on top (usually partially covered by the player) and the player’s name in the bottom right corner. The backs were typical of the time, printed in a weird orange tint with random facts about the player below their career statistics.

There’s no shortage of great players in this collection, either. I supposed each year has a cast of stars that could rival each other, but in 1988 I was six years old, and I began to care about baseball for the first time. Beyond my beloved Red Sox, seeing Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Rickey Henderson, Cecil Fielder, Frank Viola, Doc Gooden, Doug Drabek, and a host of others made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

I already had a good number of the Red Sox, but there were a few I’d missed, notably Wade Boggs, Mike Greenwell and Bob Stanley. By luck, 1988 wasn’t a great year for rookies — after Tom Glavine, the best ones in this set were Billy Ripken, Luis Polonia, John Smiley, Matt Nokes and Bill Pecota.

I was also interested in checking out who earned that year’s 00s. In the Topps numbering hierarchy, classically, more notable players were given cards ending in a 0 or 5, with the best players earning one of the 00 slots. In 1988, they were:

100: Jack Clark
200: Wade Boggs
300: Don Mattingly
400: Ozzie Smith
500: Andre Dawson
600: Mike Schmidt
700: George Brett

Not a bad group. Among them, Boggs, Smith, Dawson, Schmidt and Brett are in the Hall of Fame, Mattingly would be if not for back injuries, and Clark was coming off a season where he hit 35 home runs, pulled together a league-leading 1.055 OPS and led the Cardinals to the World Series.

So, certainly, having these cards fall into my collection was fun. I had my enjoyable little trip down memory lane, poured over stats and studied pictures of ballplayers from 23 years ago. But I’d stop short in calling the entire process a thrill.

In the end, after all the sorting, searching and organization, I remembered I don’t really enjoy going through an entire set anymore. It became more a task than entertainment, and even if it was internalized, I started to stress out whenever I felt like a certain number might be missing. When I was finished, I placed them neatly back in the box, and from there, into my closet, where most of my cards from childhood now reside.

Collecting entire sets is out for me, as it has been since I was 12. I’ll go back to collecting certain players, picking up random Red Sox, and buying the occasional pack out of nostalgia. But as I have since I was in middle school, I’ll leave the hardcore card collecting to the hardcore collectors.


2 responses to “Adventures in baseball cards: 1988 Topps

  1. great set! ’88 and ’89 were my first sets. i agree with the organizing, it got to be a chore. i still have every topps set from 1981 to 2009, but the last 7 years are completely unorganized.

  2. I also realized another reason why there was such a drop-off with baseball cards after I turned 13 — other things to do. Music, movies, hanging out, watching TV, actually going outside, writing papers, taking tests, working …

    It’s something I still indulge in from time to time, but I think to get the most out of it, it helps to be a little kid.

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