Collectors and dealers typically forget about the 1980s in baseball card collecting history. The steroid controversies combined with the low quality of cards produced led this to be somewhat of a forgotten decade. But peruse this list of some of the most valuable rookie cards from the 80s to make sure you have them all.
1980 Rickey Henderson
Henderson was known as a ‘hot dog’ in his time and wasn’t the most popular player as a result. Still, Henderson was the best lead-off hitter of all time and also the best base stealer. I highly doubt his stolen base records will ever be broken. Henderson played late into his career, defying skeptics who said he would be ineffective once his blazing speed eroded. My favorite sample of Henderson rookies is the Topps. I recommend buying all of Rickey’s early cards since they do represent some of the most valuable rookie cards from the 80s.
1982 Cal Ripken
The Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card is easily the most valuable rookie card from the 1980s. Ripken holds the record for the most consecutive games played, a record that is very unlikely to ever be broken. If you own only one card from the 80s, it should be a Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card. His actual rookie card features him and two other players (Jeff Schneider & Bob Bonner). You can find it for around $15-$20 in average to poor condition. A pristine graded sample will demand over $100 but is well worth it.
1982 Terry Francona
Francona had a middling playing career but a stellar managing career. He led the Red Sox to multiple titles and is loved in Boston. He will undoubtedly return to coaching (possibly with the Sox) and will go on to win another thousand games.
1983 Ryne Sandberg
Sandberg is still considered one of the best second basemen of all time. He currently coaches in the Phillies system and will helm a Major League team one day as well. He holds many records for second basemen and many more Cubs records. His 1983 rookie cards will all hold their value and they are considered to be lower on the list of the most valuable rookie cards from the 1980s.
1983 Wade Boggs
You can find large Boggs rookie lots on eBay for pretty cheap. He has 3,000 hits, was the batting champion five times and hold six silver slugger awards. Boggs was a lock for the Hall of Fame when elected in 2005. His rookie cards will retain their value, especially on the East Coast, where most of his fan base resides.
1983 Tony Gwynn
Gwynn is a Hall of Famer who spent his entire career with the San Diego Padres. From his first to his last season, he put up amazing numbers at the plate. Gwynn is beloved by fans and his cards (including memorabilia and autographs) will only increase in value. You can find his Topps and Donruss rookies, in decent condition, for around $10-$15. I think the Topps version looks better since that year Topps featured two photos on the front of the card; one action shot and one bust. This is certainly not the most valuable rookie card from the 1980s but it is one that needs to be in every great collection.
1984 Don Mattingly
Don Mattingly only played from 1982 to 1995 but because he played for the Yankees his fan base is large. The demand for his rookies is also substantial for a player of his caliber. Based on some quick eBay searches I think his rookie card is overvalued and selling at well above the value it can maintain. But then again, I’m not a Yankees fan. Mattingly’s rookie routinely outsells players who were much better for much longer, in part due to the fact that he is the current (and successful) manager of the LA Dodgers. If he can win 2000 games as a manager he will see the Hall of Fame but he can’t reach it on the merits of his playing career. This is definitely a valuable rookie card from the 1980s to keep an eye on.
1984 Darryl Strawberry
Unfortunately, Strawberry is as known for his off-field problems as he is for his on-field success. He was a great slugger for his time and he has very solid post-season numbers with the Mets and Yankees. Even though he will never make the Hall, his rookies still fetch around $10. There is also a 1983 Topps Traded that is considered a legitimate rookie card. Most collectors just lump that ’83 card and his ’84 regular issue cards together. These rookies won’t jump in value but are a good addition to any good baseball card collection.
1985 Dwight Gooden
Doc Gooden finished his 16 year career with 194 wins and 2293 strikeouts. He spent the majority of his career with the Mets. Dwight has experience substance abuse and legal troubles from the beginning of his career to the present. He is considered to be one of many amazing baseball players to have thrown away a Hall of Fame career by abusing drugs and alcohol. His rookies, at about $2-$3 each, are certainly not among the most valuable rookie cards from the 1980s. Still, many collectors covet them and search for mint versions.
1985 Roger Clemens
If it weren’t for Roger Clemens involvement in a steroid scandal, he would be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Regardless of the steroid stain on his career, his numbers are some of the best of any pitcher of all time. In his 24 year career, he pitched nearly 5,000 innings and ended with a 3.12 career ERA. The value of these rookies hinges largely on if he can sneak into the Hall. Rumore has it that he is returning for the big leagues with Houston in 2013, which will push back his potential induction and, some think, give him a better chance. If you’re not averse to risky investments, buy lots of Clemens rookie cards. It could turn out to be one of the most valuable rookie cards from the 80s.
1985 Kirby Puckett
The most purchased Puckett rookie is the Fleer version. You can buy it in mint (ungraded) for less than $5. A very impressive specimen will demand something like $10-$15 (ungraded). Most of Puckett’s rookies can be bought for less than $40 even graded as near 10. Puckett played all 12 years of his career with Minnesota and is considered to be one of the best 100 players of all time. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Puckett would have played longer if not for glaucoma in his eye which caused him to lose significant vision. Because of their affordability, collectors typically search for very highly graded rookie cards. If you are looking to invest in 80s rookie cards, consider finding good deals on some Puckett rookies graded 8.5 or higher by reputable sources.
1986 Jose Canseco
Canseco is a turd. He has put his foot in his mouth more times than I can count. He has admitted to excessive steroid use and written a book accusing other baseball players of doing the same. I don’t think a Canseco rookie is an essential part of any collection but it has its place in some. Many collectors like to add rookies of players who were public figures as much as they were players and Canseco is just that.
1986/87 Barry Bonds
Despite his involvement in a steroids scandal Barry Bonds was one of the best hitters of all time. Many fans discredit his achievements as a product of drugs but collectors and dealers still covet pristine versions of his rookie card. It is hard to say if he will ever be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame but his cards will likely retain value. Regardless of your opinion of Bonds’ character, he was a stellar athlete and holds a number of records.
1987 Greg Maddux
Maddux is a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best pitchers of all time. He is a player with a great character, never once suspected of taking steroids. Even later in his career he was successful with a fastball that topped out at only 87 mph. The Greg Maddux rookies aren’t the most valuable rookie cards from the 80s but they are a necessary addition to any collection or inventory.
1987 Bo Jackson
Bo Jackson is certainly no Hall of Famer and doesn’t have any impressive baseball numbers. His major accomplishment is playing football and baseball successfully. Granted, a hip injury ultimately derailed his career in both sports but being successful at both for even a short period merits accolades. Bo was also a famous and positive figure (in his time) and his rookie will run you only a couple dollars.
1988 Mark Grace
Many fans are surprised to find out that Mark Grace had more hits than any other player in baseball through the 1990s. His consistency and calm demeanor cause him to go under the radar with many fans and collectors. Unless it is a graded sample, do not pay more than a dollar for most of Grace’s rookie cards. Like some cards on this list, it doesn’t challenge at all to be the most valuable rookie card from the 1980s. It certainly is a good one to have in any collection though.
1988 Edgar Martinez
From 1995 to 2001, ‘Gar’ was one of the best hitters in baseball. He was a slugger with patience. He played his entire career with Seattle and was primarily a DH. If he was a position player he would likely be a heavier favorite for the HOF. His non-fielding status as a DH may keep him from being enshrined. (To be fair he has logged almost 500 innings in the field, but that is spread out over 18 seasons.)
1988 Tom Glavine
Glavine was part of the Braves stellar rotation of the early 90s. His numbers are not as eye-popping as some others from his era but that is simply due to lower strikeout totals. Glavine was also able to pitch later into his career which helps to endear him to collectors. The Fleer version is probably the nicest to look at, with Topps coming in second and Donruss last. The Donruss release from 1988 isn’t too pretty.
1989 Ken Griffey Jr.
The Upper Deck rookie for The Kid is arguably the most valuable rookie card from the 1980s. Many collectors pay hundreds for pristine, graded samples. A result of its popularity, the unsealed boxes demand a premium as well. To save some money you can focus on the Griffey rookie from any other set produced that year. The 1989 Topps Traded Tiffany is also a premium card and may cost over $50.
1989 Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson is a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest pitchers of all time. (Top 30 anyway). He hasn’t (yet) been linked to steroids which helps his character votes and baseball card values among collectors. I think his best rookie card is the Topps version. That set isn’t worth a lot but featured a nice kitschy design. If you’re going for value though, find the 1989 Upper Deck version. It will run you a few bucks and is part of UDs inaugural set.
1989 Craig Biggio
Aside from being known as the modern day player who got hit with the most pitches, Biggio was a stellar defender up the middle and had a lot of character. Biggio will go down in history as one of the most popular position players in Houston Astros history. You can buy hundreds of his rookies in lots for pennies on the dollar. For a little challenge, I recommend buying these low cost rookies in pristine graded condition. That would really represent one of the most valuable rookie cards from the 1980s.
1989 John Smoltz
All of Smoltz rookie cards can be found for quite cheap. Don’t buy any of them for more than a few dollars. Smoltz is going to end up keeping a number of different records because of his long tenure as both a closer and a starter. There aren’t many other pitchers who come close to matching his wins and saves numbers. These certainly won’t be the most valuable rookie cards from the 80s but Smoltz is an essential piece of any rookie collection.
Honorable Mention: ’81 Kirk Gibson, ’84 Joe Carter, ’84 Andy Van Slyke, ’85 Orel Hershiser, ’85 Bret Saberhagen
The 1980s were not the best decade for baseball card collecting. Still, there are some great cards of some amazing players that should be in any comprehensive collection. To start (or round out) your collection, consider these most valuable rookie cards from the 80s.