Blast From the Packs: Donruss through the years

I recently learned that the Donruss Trading Card Company was named for its three founders: guys named Doug, Don, and Russell. My first thought was “man, how did Doug agree to that? Total Doug erasure with a name like Don-Russ.” So then I was thinking of other names they could have went with, like:

  • RussDoDon
  • DonDoRuss
  • DougRuss (Don gets the Do)
  • and my personal favorite, RuDonDo, pronounced like Redondo Beach in California

Growing up, I have to admit that RuDonDo — I mean Donruss — was not one of my favorite card makers. Thinking back on it, my rankings were something like 1. Upper Deck 2. Topps 3. Fleer 4. Skybox 5. Donruss. And that’s without considering the other sets often offered by some of those first four makers, like Topps Stadium Club or Fleer Ultra, which pushed the often somewhat plain Donruss sets even farther down the pecking order when it came to my allowance money.

I never much cared for the card designs, which were always weirdly dark to me, and the photography was usually in the subpar to average category. And they only seemed to do baseball, which was the most heavily-crowded segment of the sports card market (though I do own one single, unremarkable Donruss hockey card from 1996 somehow, so they clearly started doing sports other than baseball at some point). Donruss, which was a Leaf company when I was younger, and is now part of the Panini Death Star, is a company that seemed even back in my youth to lean on its past, which wasn’t nearly as storied as Topps’s or even Fleer’s. Every year’s baseball set had the Diamond Kings art portraits, every year’s set had the Rated Rookie (whatever that meant) designation for its first-year players. They always had the puzzle pieces inserts, which were completely useless as far as I was concerned, because I was never going to buy enough of the packs to complete the 63-piece puzzle (how was it always 63?).

TRASH.

Now, though, 30 years on, there actually is a kind of history there with those Diamond Kings and Rated Rookies (though the puzzles are mercifully left in history’s dustbin). Have they improved upon their designs? Let’s find out as I open some assorted Donruss products from the last 30-some years!

1988 and 1990 Donruss baseball

I recognize these wax packs from the very beginning of my collecting days. At this point, Topps and Donruss were still doing the literal wax wrappers for their packs, while a few of their competitors, such as Upper Deck and Score, were transitioning to foil and plastic. I know some people have warm-fuzzies when it comes to wax-wrapped cards, but I always HATED it. I thought it looked so cheap and poorly done, even as a kid. That could have been because, as I say, other companies were beginning to use superior materials for wrappers right as I started collecting, so I didn’t have the nostalgia factor for the wax.

At first when I opened these packs, I was taken right back to my initial kid reaction of “these cards are kind of ugly.” But as I’ve spent some time with them, I’ve started to warm up to them just a little. I’m wondering how much of that is because I’ve now learned what modern Donruss cards look like, and many of the sets of the last few years have included retro subsets that pay homage to this era of cards. I call it the “throwback” factor: Sometimes a sports uniform seems kinda ugly in its era (early 1990s Milwaukee Bucks, late 1980s Houston Astros, and the first purple dinosaur Toronto Raptors uniforms come to mind for me), but then when it’s remade as a throwback 20 or 30 years later, it looks somehow classic and cool.

In ’88, they went with this strange blue, black, and red striated border with a red bar under the player name and the maker’s logo and team logo on opposite corners of the player photo. I’ve said it before, but I just don’t think dark-colored borders on card fronts do the image any favors: This feels claustrophobic to me, and diminishes the amount of space we have to appreciate the player photo. Plus, I know this was before the technology for border-to-border photos was fully realized, but borders like this just create more opportunity for clearly offcenter cards (though none of these seemed to be that badly off, thankfully).

I have to say I don’t HATE the whole Diamond Kings thing. I’m always a fan of sports-related and sports-inspired art, so bring on the drawn and painted player portraits. And while I don’t “get” the Rated Rookie thing, they stuck with it over the years (that little logo is exactly the same on current cards) and now it’s a real tradition. Collectors seem to really respect and seek out the Rated Rookie as a strong base card for their collection of any given player.

And of course the backs of these cards are very simplistic: Three colors, a lot of text. That would continue in the 1990 set, which has a decidedly different aesthetic for the card fronts.

The red! The stylized cursive player name! The black and gray paint-speckle-flecked effect on the border (different on each card, even)! About the only way this set could have been more on-the-nose ’90s is if it was teal or pink instead of red. But it kind of … works? I know, I don’t get it, either. It’s dark, but not as dark as the ’88 border. And even though the image actually gets less space than it did on the ’88 cards, there aren’t logos impinging on it from two sides, so it doesn’t FEEL as crowded. It reminds me of the very yellow Fleer baseball set from 1991 (or rather that set reminds me of this one, since the Donruss set came first), which I also have a weird affinity for, despite it not really ticking the design boxes I enjoy.

And the back is an exact copy of the 1988 back, only in orange instead of blue (and the 1989 back is the same, just yellowish). Nothing much to see here.

1996 Donruss baseball and hockey

I looked through my collection to see what other Donruss cards I had from years between 1990 and, well, now, and came up largely empty. I just didn’t really seek out or value these sets, clearly. I could only find examples of two sets from those in-between years: A 1995-96 hockey card and a couple 1996 baseball cards.

I don’t mind the 1996 baseball design at all. It’s got a big edge-to-edge photo with a small, relatively unobtrusive name strip at the top and a box in the bottom center to convey the player team, number, and that it is indeed a Donruss card. I even like the use of foil. The box could be a bit smaller, but overall, not bad.

The hockey design is fine, but super forgettable. The gold foil Donruss logo in the corner somehow vanishes despite being, you know, gold and shiny. I’m not a fan of whatever strange ribbon and seal look they were going for with the team logo treatment in the other corner, though I do appreciate the inclusion of the team’s conference and division. It’s pretty meh all around, though.

2019 Donruss baseball

From the eBay grab bags I purchased the last few weeks, I ended up with three packs of 2019 Donruss baseball, including one that was wrapped in a plain silver wrapper with no information beyond the year and set name. The other two packs contained a fairly normal mix of cards, but the silver foil pack was almost entirely special inserts and card variants. I looked online to see if I could figure out what it was or where it came from, and the closest I came was a listing of what are called incentive or promo packs. Other companies make them as well, and they are indeed usually stocked with special cards, but I still can’t get to the bottom of where they come from (are they slipped in with certain boxes? Only available to dealers? I can’t figure it out, so if you know, please feel free to share in the comments).

At any rate, Donruss/Panini does not have a license to use the MLB team names and logos (remember, in this age of exclusivity, only Topps/Bowman does), so the cards in this set have logos and uniforms airbrushed (well, digitally manipulated; no more actual airbrushes being used these days) from the photos. This kind of thing normally drives me nuts, and given the choice between properly licensed cards and cards like this, I’ll still opt for the properly licensed ones almost all of the time.

That said, though, these cards are much prettier than I expected, and I found myself not minding much at all that the logos weren’t there. Most of the photos are chosen so that the absence of logos isn’t as noticeable (a lot of shots of people at bat with their head turned perpendicular to the camera, so the logo on the front of the batting helmet is not visible anyway), but even among those that are more noticeable, it just isn’t as much of a dealbreaker for me as it used to be.

I’ll talk about the photos in the slideshow above in order:

  1. The base cards: We know I like a clean white border if there has to be one at all, so plus points for that. Good, bright, well-toned photography, too. Notice the strategic positioning of arms across the fronts of jerseys so that the copyrighted MLB logos are obscured (particularly that Juan Soto shot, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect arm placement). I like that the design elements incorporate some team colors, and even though the diagonal striping takes up a fair amount of real estate, the photos are still big, well-focused, and well-cropped enough to grab the eye before anything else. It all works together rather pleasingly to my eye.
  2. The card back: The backs are surprisingly simple and uncluttered. I wonder if that choice of orangey color was intentionally throwing back to the 1989 set mentioned above (30 years prior). I usually like a nice second photo on the back, but I’m not mad at these at all.
  3. The “retro” parallels: I would have figured that this 2019 set would have a set 20, 25, or 30 years prior as its inspiration for a retro designed parallel, but, uh, Donruss chose the 1985 set instead, 34 years its senior. Huh. My position on black/dark borders has already been stated, but I will admit this treatment isn’t terrible. I think the white stripes help break it up a bit for me. Still not my jam, though.
  4. The purple parallels: This set has a fairly ridiculous amount of alternate color parallels with varying degrees of scarcity, including alternate color parallels for the retro parallel. It’s all kinda gauche, if you ask me. The color variants all have a bit of holo foil glitz to them, but as you can see in the photo above, the edges don’t hold well. These cards are pack fresh and already have visible white dings along the edges — dings that wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable, by the way, on a white border. Just saying.
  5. Foil mania! These are some of the inserts I got in the incentive/promo pack, and they all feature some kind of very shiny holographic foil. The most common foil pattern seems to be this kind of diagonal streak pattern you can sort of make out on these cards, but then the sixth photo …
  6. More foil! You can see there’s sort of a grid pattern happening in the foil of this Francisco Lindor card. My understanding is the TYPE of holographic foil also has some significance to the rarity of cards in most modern sets. That’s a lot to keep track of.
  7. Long live Diamond Kings … and one more variant for fun: The Diamond Kings inserts appear to also be modeled on the 1985 set with the black border, but you can see how nice this artwork is (and note the well-positioned sunglasses blocking where the team logo on the hat would have been). I also pulled this “Fourth of July” star-spangled Jose Altuve variant. Whee.

And while we’re here, I did also get a jumbo pack of the current season’s football set for $3.50 at a local drugstore (that’s a 1991 price for that many cards!), so let’s take a quick look at those, too.

2020 Donruss football

Donruss/Panini DOES hold the NFL license, so these cards are all fully licensed, and all the photos are presented in unretouched glory.

Comments on photos in the slideshow in the order they appear:

  1. The base cards: More white borders, more flashy team-colored design elements, and what’s this? Legend player cards? I’ve noticed this in some other Panini sets, particularly the basketball sets, and I kinda love it. Look at those sharp photos! Diggin’ it.
  2. The card back: Again, they went simple and clean. Just green and white. I’m interested to know the thought process that went into using two different Donruss logos on front and back (the stylized lower-case d on the back, versus the full wordmark on the front). I didn’t even notice it on the baseball cards, but yep, they did it there, too. I don’t mind it, just curious.
  3. A closer look at that Marcus Allen card just because: It’s like they cranked up the contrast to 11 on this photo, and it works. A lot of times these old photos LOOK old, but they processed the hell out of this thing, and it looks like Marcus is carving up defenses in the present day. Lovely stuff.
  4. Highlights card: I mentioned this in my review of the 1991-92 Upper Deck basketball set, but I really like when card sets reflect their place in history with cards commemorating important things that happened the season before. In this case, Drew Brees broke the career record for passing yards (a record I imagine will fall again at some point in the next 10 years or so), and so there’s a card that mentions that. A lot of sets do stuff like this, and even back in ye olden days, a lot of the classic Topps baseball sets would have cards for when Maris hit 61 home runs in a season or whatever, so it’s not like this is particularly rare, but I always appreciate it.
  5. “Press proof” variants (and a rookie!): This is another one I don’t fully “get,” but I’ve seen it in several recent Donruss sets. Why would a press proof be the same as a normal card, but with a blue border and blue foil? I would expect a press proof to have, like, press registration marks on it, or some scrawled notes from the pressman on how the colors are mixing. And I notice here the inclusion of a rookie (in his college uniform) with the universal Panini “RC” logo, but not the Donruss “Rated Rookie” designation. So I guess not all rookies are “rated,” after all? I have so much to learn about the ways of Doug, Don, and Russell.

So this post got real long, but I hope you enjoyed reading my reaction to Donruss sets of yore and of more recent vintage. I plan to do one of these on Score (another part of the Panini Death Star), Topps, and potentially Fleer as well, though Fleer no longer exists as of … well, around 10 years ago, as far as I can tell, so it would be an appreciation of Fleer sets throughout my collecting years and perhaps a peek at the dying days of the brand.

Bye for now, and keep your corners sharp!

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