Insert Card Craze: Donruss Elite Baseball Cards of the 1990s
In the days before serial numbers, relic cards, certified autographs and countless parallels, simple base insert cards ruled the hobby.
The first modern insert cards arrived on the market in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the insert card craze truly swept the hobby, aided in part by rising young superstars Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas.
In the coming weeks, we will be taking a look back at some of the more memorable insert sets from that era and their progression over the years.
We turn our attention this week to the Donruss Elite inserts, which have held their value over the years as well as any insert set from the 1990s.
1991 Donruss Elite
Hall of Famers: 3
A machine-stamped serial-number is what made the Donruss Elite inserts so ground-breaking when they were first included in the 1991 Donruss Baseball set. It was the first time an insert set had a verifiable print run.
The 10,000 copies of each card might not seem particularly rare by today’s standards, but compared to the base set which has an estimated print run in the millions, they were an extremely tough pull. Some have estimated them to surface at roughly 1:75 boxes.
The fact that a good percentage of 1991 Donruss remains unopened due to its limited appeal means the secondary market also has far fewer available than the print run suggests.
Barry Bonds, George Brett, Jose Canseco, Andre Dawson, Doug Drabek, Cecil Fielder, Rickey Henderson and Matt Williams make up the inaugural eight-card checklist.
Beyond the base inserts, the first three years also include an Autograph Series card numbered to 5,000 and a Legends Series card numbered to 7,500. The Autograph Series is the same design as the regular Elite inserts, while the Legends Series is a drawing from Dick Perez who famously did the Diamond Kings subsets.
In 1991, the autograph was Ryne Sandberg and the legend was Nolan Ryan.
1992 Donruss Elite
Hall of Famers: 5
In a twist that tied the Donruss Elite insert sets together over the years, the next year’s set picked up where the previous one left off in terms of numbering. So the 10-card checklist in 1992 was card Nos. 9-18 in the larger set.
This 1992 set features Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas for the first time, and there are no repeat players from the 1991 group. Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn and Kirby Puckett are the other three Hall of Famers added to the mix in 1992.
The Autograph Series was Cal Ripken Jr. and the Legends Series Rickey Henderson for the 1992 release.
1993 Donruss Elite
Hall of Famers: 9
The Donruss Elite checklist expanded to 18 cards in 1993, once again picking up where the previous numbering left off with No. 19-27 included in Series 1 packs and No. 28-36 available in Series 2 packs.
Barry Bonds and Cecil Fielder became the first players to be included in the Donruss Elite set for a second time, while a myriad of new Hall of Famers joined them, including Chicago Cubs star Ryne Sandberg and 3,000-hit members Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield.
For the third and final year of the Autograph Series and Legends Series, the autograph was Will Clark and the legend was Robin Yount.
1994 Donruss Elite
Hall of Famers: 4
For their 1994 release, Donruss limited their print run to 17,500 cases of Series 1 and Series 2, which represented a massive cutback from the previous year.
While the Donruss Elite inserts were still numbered to 10,000, they were an easier pull on a per-pack basis. The stated odds were 1:216 packs, with the first six cards on the checklist in Series 1 packs and the next six in Series 2 packs.
Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Mike Piazza and Frank Thomas are the four Hall of Famers in the set.
1995 Donruss Elite
Hall of Fame: 6
The 1995 Donruss Elite inserts were once again split with six cards available in Series 1 packs and six cards available in Series 2 packs. For the first time, the cards featured a die-cut border, making them more condition sensitive.
While 9,900 of the Series 1 cards were inserted into Series 1 packs, the other 100 were saved for “Hot Packs” in Series 2 that featured the entire 12-card insert set. It was an original gimmick to bundle the entire insert set into a limited number of packs.
Jeff Bagwell was included in the set for the first time in 1995, and he’s joined by Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux, Mike Piazza, Kirby Puckett and Frank Thomas from the Hall of Fame contingent.
1996 Donruss Elite
Hall of Famers: 6
The 1996 Donruss Elite set is essentially a repeat of the previous year’s approach in terms of how it was split up and packaged, with the “Hot Packs” idea brought back for another year. The die-cut approach was scrapped in favor of a cleaner design on a marble background.
Half of the ‘96 set were Hall of Famers once again, with Chipper Jones appearing for the first time along with Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken Jr. and Frank Thomas.
1997 Donruss Elite
Hall of Famers: 7
Donruss was purchased by Pinnacle prior to the 1997 season and with it came a shakeup to the long-running Donruss Elite insert set.
The print run was cut to 2,500 and the set was no longer numbered to lineup with previous years, with the cards simply numbered 1-12 this time around. They were also found exclusively in Series 1 packs rather than being split between Series 1 and Series 2.
In a move that created needless confusion, a new product line was released by Pinnacle in 1997 called “Donruss Elite” that was a 150-card set with a foil design and a premium price tag. They couldn’t come up with a unique name for it?
1998 Donruss Elite
Hall of Famers: 11
Two years after purchasing Donruss, the Pinnacle brand filed for bankruptcy in July 1998, bringing the Donruss Elite inserts to an unceremonious end.
The final set was the largest to date with a 20-card checklist littered with Hall of Famers, and it leaned into the “Elite” name as part of the design more than any previous edition with the word featured in giant font across the front of the card.
The disconnect between the 1997 and 1998 sets is difficult to overlook, but all eight years of the Donruss Elite inserts make up one of the most impactful insert card runs in hobby history.