Junk Wax Journeys: 1987 Topps Baseball


As a sports card collector reading this, I likely already know the answer to the following question: What is the first thing you think of when I mention “wood grain?” If your answer was anything other 1987 Topps Baseball, welcome to the world of baseball cards! I’m happy that you chose this article to be your first foray into hobby reading.

Of course, to really appreciate the wood grain design of 1987 Topps Baseball, you have to consider the era itself. Sure, the border looks like a baseball bat, and that’s what they were going for. But, faux and real wood grain were all the rage in the mid ’80s. So what (surely) started as an homage to the baseball bat has become a cultural icon that fits perfectly in its time period.

Just take a glimpse at this photo of me and my family in the ’80s. The walls were wood paneling. The couch, which is probably one of only two designs made during that time period, was trimmed in wood. (The other couch design, by the way, was the amazing wagon wheel and covered bridge, which we also owned.)

The clock above our heads was a glazed, wooden, stump of a timepiece. I’m not even convinced that my dad’s shirt wasn’t made of wood grain in some way. My neighbor had the station wagon with the wood grain siding, made famous in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Believe me when I tell you, wood grain was the “chevron motif” of the mid-’80s.

Topps had not been afraid to stray from the standard white border over the previous 30-plus years as they went with the burlap of 1968, gray of 1970, black of 1971 and the rainbow colors of 1975. There was even a wood grain predecessor in 1962. But when they stepped out in 1987, they broke the mold for how baseball card designs would be viewed over the next three decades.

Anyone with a pulse in the late 1990s was aware of the 1987 Topps Baseball card. It was a cultural phenomenon that has stood the test of time. Today, you either love it or you hate it but you are almost certainly not indifferent about the set. I fall into the love category with this one mainly because of the cultural significance it has.

I was 10-years old in 1987 and my memory always goes back to that set when I smell cardboard or dusty gum. That set is burned into my psyche and when I talk with people who may have collected as kids, but drifted away from the hobby, the conversation almost always leads back to that set in some form or fashion.

Aside from the unforgettable wood grain design, the backs are also immediately recognizable, though that can be said for several Topps releases. The blue and yellow really matched up well with the fronts and was very easy to read. And the backs of these cards held some of the most inane factoids ever to be found on the back of a baseball card. Enter Moose Haas, Amateur Magician and Certified Locksmith.

The set itself was large for today but fit right in with the sets from the ’80s with 792 cards and featured almost all of the biggest stars of my generation. There aren’t a lot of different inserts in the set, but Record Breakers, All-Stars, and Turn Back the Clock were typical Topps fare.

The packs are also quite memorable with the green, yellow, and red color combination on traditional wax wrappers. Topps used that flashy baseball design for several consecutive years and it always takes me back. I’ve often wondered if anyone ever won that trip to 1988 Spring Training.

The box was graced by Dave Righetti of the New York Yankees. There was also Topps’ swipe at their competition with the slogan, “The Real One” – a brand slogan for years. I tell you, that 40 cents per-pack price tag looks good, too!

1987 Topps Baseball Box

Then there were cards on the box! I loved when boxes had their very own cards on the bottom. But Topps had theirs on the side panels in 1987. I had the great Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice on my most recent box. I have never been very good at cutting these out though. I tend to wind up with some BGS 3’s every time I try.

While Topps didn’t clearly identify rookies in the set, they did provide one of the sweetest subsets of the Junk Wax Era, “Future Stars.” These were easily recognizable with the rainbow colored swoosh at the bottom of the card. The Bo Jackson has always been the most sought after “Future Star” of the era in my opinion, other than, maybe, the 1989 Gregg Jefferies.

Although they are not all identified on card by a RC logo or included in the “Future Star” checklist, there are several huge rookies in the set. Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Will Clark and the aforementioned Bo Jackson had their first Topps cards appear in the 1986 Topps Traded set but from a base-set standpoint, 1987 was their first. Canseco even got the “All-Star Rookie Cup” treatment.

Other rookies included Barry Larkin, Mike Greenwell, Doug Drabek, and Rafael Palmiero. When it came to the Reds, I was a big Eric Davis fan back in the late ’80s, but Barry Larkin was a close second to Ozzie Smith as my favorite middle infielder.

Then there is the Mark McGwire. Is it a rookie? No. But it’s still an iconic card. His first appearance in flagship, of course, was in 1985 Topps.

How about some veteran stars? Pete Rose was included as a manager and a player!

While I always loved Tony Gwynn, this card wasn’t my favorite of him. He shows him from behind and you can’t see his face or the name of the back of his jersey. My opinion: I think one of those two things is necessary for a good baseball card.

Andre Dawson was another big part of those late 80’s Cubs teams that I rooted for. But in 1987, he was still a member of the Montreal Expos. It is really hard to beat those old Expos uniforms.

I was a middle infielder when I played Little League ball, so I paid pretty close attention to those guys. I grew up on TBS and WGN so the Cubs were basically my adopted second team behind the Atlanta Braves. If Ozzie is 1 and Barry Larkin is 2, then Ryne Sandberg has to be 3 for me.

My favorite player for the hometown Braves at the time was Dale Murphy. Ron Gant wouldn’t be a rookie until 1988, so Murphy was my guy until then.

Which, finally, brings me to the gum. Gum and baseball cards belong together. The inclusion of gum tapered off in the early 1990s and all we were left with was Big League Chew to get our rapidly flavor-losing gum fix. Though gum was a staple throughout the vintage and Junk Wax Era, it puts the cherry on top of the 1987 set. Obviously, I don’t eat the gum now and suggest you avoid that temptation as well. But that smell of gum and cardboard mix perfectly with the design.

A piece of cardboard with wood grain borders sums up childhood in the ’80s. There was shag carpet, Atari, Transformers, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and 1987 Topps. You can’t have any of those without thinking about the others.

Many collectors have chosen 1987 Topps as their “set build” and I can’t blame any of them. It’s such an iconic set to own and it’s loaded with stars. The design was so hot and popular, Topps goes back to it quite often with their reprints and throwback inserts.

1987 Topps is what a baseball card should be. It’s cultural, it’s representative of the time period, it has a great mix of rookies and veterans, and it can still be found at a reasonable price. When I really think about baseball cards, I go back to my youth.

This is the icon! This is Michael Jordan! This is Super Mario Brothers! This is Seinfeld! This is the Metallica Black Album! It just does not get any better.


Joey Shiver

Joey began collecting in 1988, at the age of 11. He’s an avid collector of Football, Baseball and Basketball and has a particular interest in Atlanta and UGA Sports. He’s also never met a Ron Gant card he didn’t like! If you have a great local card shop or want to reach out to Joey, you can find him on Twitter and Instagram or by email.

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  1. Robert 7 August, 2020 at 21:46

    I still have my 85 Topps I got when I was a kid. Bo Jackson was the MAN! I sat near Mark McGwire’s family during one of his games at the 84’ Olympics ….helped them hold up there banner! Now my kids play against his kids in High School baseball. Small world. My mom made him sign a ball during there game last year.

  2. Dan 8 August, 2020 at 06:32

    Great article and I’m glad it popped into my feed! 1987 was the summer I turned 13, and I had only three main activities that summer: Bar Mitzvah tutoring, riding to the bowling alley, and then continuing to Altman’s Drug store to buy some Topps wax packs. I was sure Pete Incavilia was the next big thing along with Reuben Sierra. Needless to say my current profession is not in the field of baseball scouting (I went more in the “Bar Mitzvah” direction!).

  3. Susan 8 August, 2020 at 10:23

    What does one do with thousands and thousands of trading cards. They were given to me and I don’t have a clue what to do with them

  4. Daniel Rosenberg 8 August, 2020 at 21:14

    Good article, Joey.

    I was 16 in 1987 and collected this set (and have the full boxed set that I bought more recently).

    One correction: Dawson was on the Cubs in 1987, even though he appeared as an Expo in the set. I believe he’s in a Cubs uniform in 1987 Topps Traded. He won the MVP with 49 HR for the Cubs that year.

    One thing I didn’t like about late-80’s sets vs. earlier ones was the lack of the inserts. No playoff/WS cards. No league leaders, no two- or four-player rookie stars of the future. Team cards with just a player photo on them instead of “Team Leaders” or team pictures like in the past. I love the Team Leader cards from the early 80’s that put together the best pitcher and best hitter of each team.

  5. ben 8 August, 2020 at 22:21

    Hawk was on the Cubs for the entire ’87 season. He signed in March after cards went to press.

    Most notably, he won the NL MVP, and at the time was the only person to ever win the MVP for a last-place team.

  6. K. Leonard 8 August, 2020 at 22:45

    Wow! What a well written article.
    I began my baseball card collecting adventure with the 1987 Topps set. I was 14 years old when I got started into baseball cards.. I have 1 complete set and who knows how many extras of the ’87 Topps. It is ashamed that set never really gained much in value. But, that really does not matter cause I would never sell any of those cards anyways. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  7. Brian Holzmann 9 August, 2020 at 08:12

    You should have said this is the “Master of Puppets” instead of the black album. It was made in 1986 and far superior to the black album

  8. Gary Hurd 9 August, 2020 at 15:33

    This was my favorite set as a kid as well. From the moment they were released my friends and I were obsessed with them. From trying to recreate the pose on the Hrbek card in the mall and embarrassing my friend, to getting that first Rookie Cup card (It was either Canseco or Cory Snyder) We had also just gotten into TTM autographs and 87 looked awesome signed. I got responses from Cory Snyder, Kirby Puckett, Mike Schmidt, Jim Presley, B.J. Surhoff all TTM, and have since gotten Paul Molitor, Dan Gladden, Allen Anderson, Jim Deshaies on the set.
    Also growing up in Minnesota that year was amazing year in regards to sports for us. The big one was obviously the Twins winning the World Series, but the year started off with meeting my favorite player of ALL TIME, when Kirby Puckett came to Winona during the Twins Winter Caravan, and because of the demand, had an extra autograph session before the Caravan at a local furniture company. The second big thing was our High School football team, kinda like the Twins, coming out of no where to advance all the way to the State Championship game, only to lose.

    I recently told a friend that because those 87’s were so prevalent that year, and more so after the Twins won the World Series, I could probably be shown and portion of a card and tell you who it was, what the card number was , and how many I have…

    Awesome memories.

  9. Carmine DiPaolo 10 August, 2020 at 12:54

    I really started collecting in 1980. I can remember walking to grade school with 5 packs of Topps a day. We would play soccer before school started and right before homeroom I would open my packs… 1987 was a great year. I was a senior in HS, and I got my cousin into collecting. He and his dad would buy boxes at a time of the Topps. We didn’t like Donruss too much. I now have the complete set that we built back then and still 2 3600 count boxes of the iconic cards, all in number order! I love to collect!

  10. Jeff 10 August, 2020 at 18:28

    It seems like prices for 1987 Topps Wax boxes/cases have more than doubled in the last couple of years. Anyone have any idea why???

    • Ryan Cracknell 11 August, 2020 at 11:44

      @Jeff – Greater demand as a lot of people who return to the hobby are looking for a nostalgia fix. Even at the price that may be higher than the past, it’s still an inexpensive way to spend an evening.

  11. Jeff 12 August, 2020 at 21:25

    Thank you, Ryan. So it’s not just the 1987 Topps Wax… It’s increased interest in ’80s cards and packs in general. Interesting!

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