As we’ve established by now, one of the greatest joys of collecting sports cards, in my book, is opening a fresh pack of cards. Ahhh yes, the moment when potential meets reality, and a sealed stack of could-be becomes part of a collection of what-is.
Until recently, I had never purchased a box of packs, commonly referred to as a hobby box or a wax box, depending on the set and the specifications of the cards within. I have a vivid memory of one of my cousins having a box of baseball card packs, mostly still sealed, sitting on a shelf in his bedroom when we were both younger, and I couldn’t believe it: I wouldn’t have had the impulse control necessary to not rip them all open immediately. New boxes of packs back then usually had between 24 and 36ish packs, each pack containing between 10 and maybe 15 or so cards. They also cost at least $50 a piece, and that would have been for the lowbie sets that I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted a full box of. Back when I was collecting, as a kid, I didn’t usually have that kind of money laying around.
But now, as an adult with a bit more disposable income, and in the age of eBay, where you can find old packs and boxes and cards of all sorts, I’ve got some options. When I discovered this fact not too long ago, I was giddy, and in my glee, I purchased one of the first boxes of cards from my childhood that I found on eBay for less than $20: 1992 Leaf baseball.
It was, more or less by definition, an impulse buy. For $15 shipped, to have a full box of sealed packs to open? It was like a dream of sorts. I didn’t particularly care about the set itself, or whether the cards would have much value on the resale market (they don’t, which is why the box was so cheap): I just wanted to rip packs. And I even exercised the kind of restraint I didn’t think I would have had as a child, mostly only opening a pack or two each day.
I had forgotten, when I bought this box, that Leaf is a Donruss company. For some reason, I thought it was owned by Fleer. Of the two, I always preferred Fleer. Donruss card designs and photography always felt kind of second-tier to me, particularly into the ’90s, and I didn’t collect much of it. But I do remember at least a couple of interesting Leaf sets in the ’90s.
Unfortunately for me, the 1992 Leaf set was not one of the interesting ones. In fact, I would go so far as to call it boring. I ripped all 36 packs, I probably would have come within about a dozen cards of finishing Series 1 (the first half) of the year’s base set, and other than a few fun walks down memory lane, the packs didn’t really trigger the full pack-opening glory that I was remembering from my youth.
The good news is, I figured out what was missing. I’m going to sound like a total mark here, but: I was missing the chase cards. The subsets. The interesting, different cards with different designs that came into vogue in the early ’90s and came to quickly dominate the market. If your company’s collectible sports cards set didn’t have at least a half-dozen subsets with flashy, rare chase cards, it was probably not getting purchased in high volume back then (or now).
The 1992 Leaf set might have been one of the last to be this … straightforward. It’s a base set of 500-some cards, and its key “special feature” is a “Black Gold” parallel set, meaning each card in the base set — like, all of them, including the players nobody but their mother would bother to collect — had a “Black Gold” version: Same picture as the regular card, just bordered in black instead of gray/silver, with a touch of gold foil as an accent. And you get one “Black Gold” card in each pack, meaning it would take a truly ridiculous amount of buying these packs to finish out that set.
And it’s also got this series of “Gold Rookie” cards that actually has a slightly different (and somewhat attractive, really) design. But you only get one every six or so packs.
And that’s it. Just pack after pack of Luis Polonias and Mike Scioscias with their solid-but-boring gray borders, their mostly-competent but also-kinda-boring photography.
Even though if I could do it all over, I wouldn’t have chosen THIS as the first box to purchase off eBay, it was ultimately an enlightening experience. Because as fun as ripping packs is — and make no mistake, even with this kinda dud set, I still got a nice dopamine rush every time I reached into the box to grab another pack — it’s easy to forget that most packs you open as a collector are pretty ordinary. You probably won’t get the big chase card, your favorite players, an interesting subset card in every pack. In fact, that will probably be the exception and not the rule. This set helped me remember that mundanity inside the ecstasy of new cards.
But as an adult, I was able to reach back to my childhood wonder and still find some fun even in the ordinary bits. To wit:
As I mentioned previously, I was a Chicago White Sox fan around this time, and the team was pretty darned good. It was a deep team with contributing players up and down the roster. Frank Thomas was in Series 2 of this set, so I couldn’t have pulled him from these packs, but I did see a lot of familiar faces in standout third baseman Robin Ventura, perhaps best known these days for being on the losing end of a famous brawl with legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan; rotation pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Alex Fernandez, and the ancient knuckleballer Charlie Hough; middle reliever and sometimes-closer Bobby Thigpen, and utility men Tim Raines (at the end of a long and productive career) and Steve Sax. You can even see platoon catcher Ron Karkovice in the Wilson Alvarez picture. He’s notable for having hit a homerun during my first-ever game at Comiskey Park, a win over the Tigers.
I must have pulled 10 Brian Harpers, and each time, I’d marvel at that cop/porn/1970s mustache. Plenty of questionable hair and facial hair choices in this set.
Then there are the miscuts and mistakes that drive a perfectionist designer type like me nuts and make me wonder how stuff like this happens. It seems like if one card was cut badly like this, there’d probably have been a few hundred of them cut the same way before the press operators/printer type people figured it out and made an adjustment. And you’d think most of them that look like this would get thrown out. But I guess when you produce millions of the things, this is bound to happen.
The very first pack I opened after unsealing the box had two Brett Butlers in it. One pack of 15 cards, two of the same card. By the time I had finished the box, the same-pack double had occurred four more times (not with Brett, with other players). I expected to have a lot of doubles in general with 36 packs, but to get doubles in one pack is just … honestly, it’s funny, but it’s also lame. And it seems preventable.
So I guess I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying this particular set, though I think if you have a young child who is getting into collecting, it could be fun to rip a set like this with them and talk about the players you remember, marvel at the mustaches, etc. The good news is, shortly after I bought this box, I found several other sets from my childhood that I not only remember, but also REALLY enjoyed collecting, REALLY liked, and still covet for their designs, their fun subsets, their player lineups and just general coolness.
See, when I was first starting to collect in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the new face on the scene was a company called Upper Deck. And Upper Deck brought a whole new approach to collectible sports cards; one that would change an industry and captivate collectors like me instantly.