10 Unforgettable 1990 Baseball Cards That Made History and Helped Shape Collecting for a Generation
Ah, 1990. MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice played on the radio alongside Wilson Phillips and Sinead O’Connor. The Cold War ended and the Persian Gulf War began. The Wet Bandits tried to rob a fancy house, but a kid named Kevin was home to save the day. Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson were kings. Neon was all the rage on the fashion front. But one of the biggest trends of the time? 1990 baseball cards.
In 1990, the baseball card was peaking. Collectors (and speculators) were gobbling up whatever Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, Donruss and Score put out. It was the era of card shops on every corner. Cards were part of the mainstream.
Like any year, 1990 baseball cards have seen ebbs and flows. Some cards and sets got hot while others imploded. Today, only in a couple of instances is it about rarity. In fact, it’s the opposite except for a couple of exceptions.
But when you’re collecting, rarity doesn’t always matter. Rather, it’s about the chase. And 1990 gave us plenty to hunt for. From hot rookies to new trends and innovations to peculiar errors, the year had it all.
Here are ten cards that have fuelled many hunts and filled plenty of wantlists over the years. Some have left a more lasting impression than others, but each is still iconic today in their own way (even if their values don’t reflect it).
10 Most Iconic Baseball Cards of 1990
10. 1990 Upper Deck Kevin Maas RC #70
Rookies have a history of booming and busting. For many in the hobby, we have a shorthand when a young player starts hitting home runs at a rapid rate. And it goes back to 1990.
Is he going to be the next Kevin Maas?
Despite not making his major league debut until June 29, Kevin Maas still managed to hit 21 home runs for the Yankees in his rookie season. It took him just 133 at bats to reach #15. For a time, it was Maas-mania in all facets of baseball, including cards.
And it died almost as fast.
But there’s still a certain cynicism among many when we hear about a rookie being the next big thing. And part of that goes towards chasing Kevin Maas Rookie Cards back in the day. Many thought there were no limits to where his first cards might go. It turns out there was.
Of the six Kevin Maas Rookies, it’s the 1990 Upper Deck that resonates most. The clean design, upscale look, bright photo — not to mention the fact we pretty much all had at least one — make it one of the most memorable 1990 cards still today, even if it comes with a cautionary tale.
9. 1990 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #156
The 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie Card gets all the attention. But you know what? The follow-up is a straight up beautiful card. It might not have the historical significance but this is The Kid that became an icon. The image is a little brighter and a lot more natural. The design is simple. It’s also got 100 percent less turtleneck.
Even posing for a picture, it has that contagious fun that contributed to the Ken Griffey Jr. legend.
The 1990 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. is a card we don’t often think about. But when we come across it sifting through a stack or flipping through a binder, it’s a card that’s tough not to admire.
8. 1990 Score Frank Thomas RC #663
The 1990 rookie who left the biggest impression on the baseball card world was Frank Thomas. And it’s not even close. For much of the ’90s, he was one of the hobby’s marquee names. And that’s something that he hasn’t surrendered, even in retirement.
The 1990 Score Frank Thomas Rookie Card might not be his most valuable or even coveted. But it might be the most attractive. The portrait offers an alternative to his more famous Leaf and Topps cards. Score surrendering the color borders for white with the 1st Round Pick subset was a good move as well. It might be a little less ’90s from a trend perspective, but a white border is timeless.
Although less a factor today, this also represented something of an alternative for those who could not afford to go the Leaf route when Frank Thomas Rookies were at their peak. Easier to find and at a cheaper price, this has always been a card his young fans could gravitate towards.
7. 1990 Donruss Juan Gonzalez Reverse Negative #33
The “errors” didn’t end in 1989 with Billy Ripken’s bat, Marlboro billboards looking over Randy Johnson’s should or Dale Murphy’s look in the mirror. In fact, the reverse negative mistake that made the 1989 Upper Deck Dale Murphy card famous made a grand return in 1990. This time it came with red borders and with a hulking rookie on the front.
Perhaps recalling the recent fervor of Murphy, the 1990 Donruss Juan Gonzalez Reverse Negative Error was extremely popular for a time. It made us look a little closer at our cards. It was also tinged a bit with a sense of “What if?” that came with the slugger’s can’t-miss prospect status.
It turns out the card isn’t all that rare and the price tag has dropped significantly. Valuable or not, this remains one of the most important baseball cards of 1990.
6. 1990 Leaf Sammy Sosa RC #220
The summer of ’98 is just a memory now. The home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought a lot of people back to baseball following the strike a few years earlier. At the time it truly was magical, two men matching feats of strength day in, day out.
With all that attention McGwire and Sosa got destroying one of baseball’s most notable records, their cards went to another place. For Sammy Sosa, it was all about the 1990 Leaf Rookie Card.
When the set first came out, there were several names ahead of Sosa on the 1990 Leaf Index. Frank Thomas, David Justice, John Olerud, Larry Walker, Carlos Baerga all had a bigger audience than Sosa. But by the time Maris’ record fell the 1990 Leaf Sammy Sosa Rookie Card passed them all, even Thomas. It was the biggest card from the year’s biggest set.
Within a few years, not only was the record broken by Barry Bonds, but it was tainted. To some extent, the summer of 1998 was a PED-fuelled facade. Normally, an event like this is swirling in nostalgia 20 years later. Sosa and McGwire’s chase has very little of that.
It might no longer be the biggest card in the biggest set of 1990 baseball cards, but the 1990 Leaf Sammy Sosa RC still carries some clout and importance.
5. 1990 Topps George Bush #USA1
Topps got a lot of mainstream attention in 1990 for producing a special card of President George H.W. Bush. Topps CEO Arthur Shorin presented the president with 100 copies of the card, which show Bush from his days on the Yale baseball team, at the White House. Made as a gift, the card was never intended for actual release.
In recent years, PSA confirmed there are actually two versions of the card. It appears as though the ones given to the president have a laminated coating on them that goes slightly off the edge of the card. The discovery was made after John Sununu, the White House Chief of Staff at the time, submitted copies of the card for grading.
Other copies of the 1990 Topps George Bush card were in circulation years before that on the secondary market, although their exact origins are unknown. Some are believed to have originated from a former Topps employee. In 1990, People Magazine reported on shop owners claiming to have found one in a pack.
No matter the version, the 1990 Topps George Bush baseball card has plenty of history behind it from both a hobby perspective and as a greater piece of Americana.
4. 1990 Leaf Frank Thomas RC #300
This has always been the Frank Thomas Rookie Card to get. It’s not particularly glamorous but it’s a key card from a classic set. Pushing off of Upper Deck’s push for higher-quality cards, Leaf went from being Donruss’ de facto O-Pee-Chee-esque Canadian cousin to something all of its own. Bringing a brighter look, a slicker finish and lower print run (relatively speaking), it didn’t take long for it to catch on.
The 1990 Leaf Frank Thomas RC paced the product for years. Even today with its value shrunk significantly from its peak, this is still a card that cause people to perk up for whenever its mentioned or shows up in some collection surfing.
3. 1990 Score Bo Jackson #697
The late ’80s and early ’90s had its share of sports icons like Griffey, Gretzky and Montana. Michael Jordan is the biggest, but back then Bo Jackson has a close second. With his career cut short, sometimes it’s hard to remember that he is one of the greatest athletes to ever play professional sports.
And while there are lots of great Bo Jackson cards out there, 1990 Score Baseball gave us the most iconic. Titled “The Player,” the black and white photo has a shirtless Jackson wearing shoulder pads and holding a bat behind his head. In addition to the 1990 Score card, it was most notably used in a Nike campaign. It even graced the cover of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly in June, 1990.
If you’re hoping to have Jackson sign one of the cards one day, don’t hold your breath. It’s an image Jackson won’t autograph today. It’s possible that it’s because of legal disputes brought on in recent years by Richard Noble, the photographer, over unauthorized use of the iconic shot.
2. 1990 Topps Frank Thomas No Name on Front #414
Usually, basic printing errors are treated primarily as a novelty. Player and team collectors might chase them but not much beyond that. The 1990 Frank Thomas No Name on Front is a very notable exception. Exactly as the name describes, the Big Hurt’s name is very noticeably absent from his Topps Rookie Card.
To this day, this card inspires people to rip into old packs of 1990 Topps Baseball just to find the near-mythical card. And even with the small number that are out there, most are not in top condition. BGS has looked at just over 100 copies over the years with nine cards getting Mint 9 grades and none higher. Of the approximately 200 PSA has inspected, there’s just one Gem Mint 10 and 19 Mint 9s.
Even in lesser condition, 1990 Topps Frank Thomas No Name on Front cards fetch thousands, making it the most valuable 1990 baseball card originally available to the general public.
1. 1990 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson Autograph
Few cards come with a tagline. This one did.
If you asked baseball card collector in the ’90s, “Did you Find the Reggie?” they’d know exactly what you were talking about.
Upper Deck is responsible for several innovations in the hobby. Taking premium mainstream is probably the biggest, but the 1990 Upper Deck Baseball Heroes Reggie Jackson autograph might be a close second. For the first time, collectors had a chance at finding a real autograph in a big league pack of cards.
Today, most products promise at least one in every box. Sometimes, you get 50.
The influence this card had cannot be understated. It opened up a new avenue for sports cards could become. Within a few years, autographs were the expectation and not one of 2,500 Golden Tickets hiding in packs. It introduced a chase that was more than finding the top players in the regular set.
Today there are more than 2,000 different Reggie Jackson autographs (when parallels are taken into account). His signature is more popular than it is valuable. Even this card’s current value doesn’t entirely reflect the influence it has had as the first major certified autograph card.
Back then, getting a signature into packs was a big deal unto itself. Thoughts of copies and manipulated fakes weren’t taken into account. This was the regular Reggie Jackson Baseball Heroes #9 checklist with the signature added along with hand-numbering to 2,500. The card itself has no special marks like the typical disclaimer we have today. The card number wasn’t different, either. That makes it tougher to tell a real copy that was included in packs from one that wasn’t.
The proliferation of autographs in general, along with authenticity issues surrounding forgeries that have made their way to the secondary market, have brought prices for this card down significantly. It still carries a premium versus a lot of other Reggie Jackson autographs, but considering it’s place in baseball card history, one could even argue that the card is cheap today.
But putting all that aside, the 1990 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson Baseball Heroes Autograph is one of the most influential cards of all-time. It was a next step in a new era of sports cards and collecting. Whether that’s autographs themselves or the long chase that took inserts from incentives to key parts of a release, this card helped create the market for both.