The 'Junk Wax Era' of baseball cards, spanning from 1986 to 1993, marked a period of massive overproduction by card companies, leading to a market saturation that significantly diminished the value of these cards.
Initially swept up in a wave of hysteria, collectors once believed their cards would be worth fortunes, only to find them nearly worthless today.
This era served as a stark lesson for card companies, catalyzing a shift in production strategies to balance supply and demand—a cornerstone in today’s thriving sports card hobby.
In this article, we'll delve into the Junk Wax Era, exploring its lasting impact and the subsequent evolution of the hobby.
Despite the overproduction during the Junk Wax Era, some rare and valuable cards emerged, like the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas No Name Error Card and the 1989 Topps Tiffany Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.
From personal experience, when I was 15 and a freshman in high school, my brother owned a baseball card store. The location was terrible, in the back of a fried chicken restaurant in Stoughton, Massachusetts.
In 1988, baseball cards took the world by storm. However, the craze had started to take hold a few years earlier.
Card collecting had existed for decades, but by the early 1980s, access to cards quickly improved.
Convenience stores, some toy stores (remember KB Toys?), and department stores (Sears et al.) were typically the only places to buy cards.
By the late 80's, baseball card stores were popping up in every local city and town.
And now, youngsters and even adults were opting for storing cards in hard plastic instead of flipping them in between bike spokes.
Baseball cards would soon become the new avenue to newfound wealth... so we all thought.
I heard the old man on pawn stars say that 'if it's made as a collectible or collector's item, then it has no long term value.
I wish someone would have schooled me on that principle 30+ years ago when I went all in on new product"
Collector, Brent Ingram
Net54 Forums (source)
Collectors took notice of premier vintage cards like the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle and T206 Honus Wagner, which were setting records at auction.
The thinking at the time was that baseball cards of the 1980s would be the next 1952 Mantles. Boy, were we wrong.
By All Accounts, 1986 Was The Start Of The Junk Wax Era
Throughout the early 1980s, Donruss, Fleer, and Topps were the sole licensed manufacturers of baseball cards.
By 1986, the card companies took notice of the massive demand from collectors and the corresponding bubble forming within the sports card market.
Companies started printing sets into the multiple millions. In 1986, it is estimated that Topps produced over one billion total cards.
The designs were basic and generic. Shiny cards, serial numbered cards or certified autograph cards were not yet developed during this era of collecting.
And while Fleer and Donruss's print run was nothing to sneeze at, it felt at the time that their printing presses weren't exactly running at the same extended rate as Topps, which had the largest market share of any company.
Collectors soon became enamored by the rookie cards of upcoming prospects such as Wally Joyner, Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco, and Pete Incaviglia.
In 1987, all three of the big three baseball card companies started to accelerate production runs. And it was an outstanding year to collect rookie cards.
Ruben Sierra, Barry Bonds, Matt Williams, and Barry Larkin were ripping up the big leagues.
Based on my estimates of production runs, by 1987, Topps was producing at least 2.5 Million copies of each card in its 792 card set.
Estimates of Donruss and Fleer print runs were at roughly 1/3 of that total in 1987, but they both caught up to Topps within a few years.
The First Premium Issue - 1989 Upper Deck
There was also a new premium manufacturer with a license to print - Upper Deck. Upper Deck changed the game in 1989, with new premium-priced foil packs holding the key rookie card of the late 1990s, one Ken Griffey Jr.
According to the documentary 'Jack of All Trades,' released in 2019, an estimated 2 million 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards were produced, with Upper Deck printing these cards over three years.
The Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck rookie was so popular that many card shops had fans lined up wanting to get or pull one out of a pack.
The Upper Deck Griffey Jr craze was the poster child for the problems in the hobby: collectors chasing a perceived 'rare' rookie card when, in fact, millions of copies existed.
Following the Griffey craze, a storm was brewing with collectors, now akin to Wall Street traders and no longer innocent collectors of cardboard.
The belief at the time was that amassing rookie cards of can't miss prospects was a surefire way to make the big bucks.
I remember buying 30 1990 Kevin Maas Upper Deck cards, thinking he was the next great Yankee and his cards would be an excellent investment.
But eventually, Maas never panned out, and like others, soon realized the cards were not rare and massively overproduced.
There was an immense bubble in play, with collectors ripping open $5+ packs of cards and soon realizing that the fortunes they hoped to build were impossible.
Hobby Demand Drives More Premium Baseball Card Offerings
Due to the insane demand in the hobby, manufacturers started to broaden their offerings, attempting to reach deeper-pocketed collectors with higher-priced wax packs.
The first premium-priced baseball card offerings included (among others):
- Flair and Ultra (from Fleer)
- Pinnacle (from Score)
- Leaf and Studio (from Donruss)
- Stadium Club and Finest (from Topps)
- SP (from Upper Deck)
In 1994, the baseball strike threw a curveball at the hobby, bringing collecting to a standstill and triggering a massive downturn. New card stores, including my brother's cherished Card Connection, were forced to close their doors.
The allure of baseball cards as a surefire investment faded, as collectors came to grips with the harsh reality—their treasured cards were worth merely a fraction of their anticipated value.
However, the Junk Wax Era had its redeeming facets. It compelled card companies to reassess their approaches, laying the groundwork for a more equitable supply-and-demand model that has since become a fundamental aspect of the sports card hobby.
The Junk Wax Era: Not All Doom and Gloom
This era of collecting did feature several rare error cards and limited edition sets that are still highly sought after today.
The rarest error card of the Junk Era is the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas No Name Error Card.
This card has garnered high demand, with significant appreciation over recent years. Its rarity is underscored by many collectors opening multiple cases of 1990 Topps packs without snagging a single one.
It's speculated that fewer than 500 copies are in circulation, a notion supported by the limited sales activity—only five transactions on eBay in the past three months and only three listings as of October 2023.
This elusive gem continues to elude many, making it a prized possession in the hobby.
The Emergence of Limited Edition Specialty Sets and Short-Printed Cards
During this period, some card companies began creating new and innovative sets,
Topps and Fleer introduced regular 'Tiffany' and 'Glossy' sets for its base sets and traded/ update issues. The cards were identical to the base issues, but featured a UV glossy coating which distinguished the cards versus their matte counterparts.
Two of the most collectible Topps Tiffany rookie cards are the 1989 Topps Tiffany Traded Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card and the 1990 Frank Thomas Tiffany rookie card.
Tiffany/Glossy cards were short-printed with only a fraction of the production versus the regular base issues.
Many other Topps Tiffany rookie cards are pretty popular in today’s hobby and were one of the more underrated types of cards created during the ‘Junk Wax Era’.
One set that sticks out is the 1992 Fleer Update set
The set was limited in comparison to a lot of other sets that were produced during this era.
The key card from this set is the Mike Piazza rookie card, signed and slabbed examples are limited and become tougher to find!
1991 Topps Desert Shield Is Another Standout Set Of The Junk Era
In 1991, Topps crafted a distinctive set of cards considerably rarer than their standard versions. These special edition cards were dispatched to the troops stationed in the Middle East, yet a large number of them were discarded.
The scarcity of these cards has escalated over time, making them increasingly elusive for collectors.
Among this rare set, the Chipper Jones rookie card stands out as the crown jewel, earning a reputation as his most valued card among aficionados.
1993 was a pivotal year in card collecting
In 1993, card manufacturers started to create many rarer print runs of specific cards, better known as "parallels" today.
A few examples would be 1993 Topps Finest baseball cards featuring the first ever Refractor shine on a card, which today is still very relevant.
Arguably, the best card created in 1993 was the Upper Deck SP Foil Rookie card. SP cards were short-printed in comparison to many other cards of the time.
Topps baseball that year also featured various parallels of Jeter’s rookie card which included Topps Gold, Topps Rockies/Marlins Inaugural, Topps Mini and more.
Is The Junk Era Happening Again Today?
Some collectors and buyers now refer to the current period as the 'Junk Slab Era', indicating a trend where a vast number of common or non-rare cards are being graded en masse.
For instance, several key basketball rookie base Prizm cards have already garnered 20,000 PSA 10 grades. A concerning aspect of this trend is that many base cards, once graded, fail to retain even the value of the grading fee.
For example, the market is flooded with graded cards priced between $5 to $20, while the lowest grading fee at PSA stands at $20 to $25.
This scenario reflects an alarming similarity to the overproduction issue of the Junk Wax Era, albeit in a modern context with graded cards.
The aftermath of the Junk Wax Era, characterized by excessive card production, led to waning interest among collectors.
However, as the mid-1990s approached, the advent of card grading rekindled enthusiasm in the hobby, reintroducing a supply and demand dynamic.
The emergence of eBay soon after significantly impacted the sports card market, providing a platform for buying and selling that propelled the hobby forward.
The repercussions of the era also saw many card-producing companies either being acquired or facing bankruptcy.
Lessons learned from this period guided card companies towards a more balanced approach in manufacturing, ensuring a sustained demand and value for sports cards in the subsequent years.