How Junky was the Junk Wax Era?

While junk wax era baseball cards have made an undeniable comeback in the past year, the fact remains that many of the cards were heavily overproduced. I was reminded of this fact in a recent discussion on cards, which prompted me to pull up a bit of old research I’d done on the population of cards from that era.

Is it possible to determine the printing population of those cards even when the companies didn’t tell us?

The junk wax era, if you’re unfamiliar with it, roughly started around the middle to late 1980s and lasted through the early 1990s. Collector opinions may differ on the opinion of the exact years of the era, but I typically consider these years to run from about 1986 through 1992.

That time, if you were a collector, is one that is hard to forget. Card shops were numerous with even small towns often fielding at least one or two. Despite the increase in cost, many packs were still very affordable for most people. And card shows were plentiful.

Collecting was very popular and if you were a kid during those years, you almost certainly knew other collectors your age. One might even say that friends that didn’t collect were the exception and not the rule.

Because there were so many collectors, product was literally everywhere. You could easily find unopened packs of cards not only in card shops but at shows, in drug stores, convenience stores, gas stations, and a host of other places. Some stores, like K-Mart, Kay-bee, and Toys R Us even had their own boxed sets.

It was more than just baseball cards, too. 1992, for example, saw the debut of Shaq and his rookie cards, making basketball card collecting wildly popular. A strong rookie card crop in 1989 that included Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, and more, boosted the popularity of football cards. Even hockey was adding collectors with new stars like young sensation Eric Lindros. Everywhere you looked, you could find sports cards and buyers for them.

Not everything was ‘junk’, of course. There are some junk era cards that are quite valuable. The era merely gets its name from the large amount of cards produced in it holding little value.

Cards were mass produced more than most people knew. Collectors were a bit in the dark because the Internet wasn’t really a ‘thing’ yet and these were the days before you could just go to eBay and find practically everything you needed at your fingertips. While it might have seemed odd that there was a never-ending supply of cards, few gave that much thought. Cards were hot and it didn’t matter that there were millions of them being printed. Collectors were more than willing to pay handsomely for them without any thought to rarity.

But what was a common production number of cards for sets in the junk wax era? How many cards were they printing?

Some companies did divulge this information, though it was rare. Occasionally, they would even flaunt it. For example, the 1992 Collector’s Edge football set printed cards with serial numbers, creating 100,000 of each card. With 250 cards in the set, that gives us a total of 25 million cards for that set alone. Collector’s Edge even took that approach as a way to tout that their cards were rarer than others.

Now, that might seem like a lot. But compared to the popular baseball cards, it was a drop in the bucket. One indicator of that is found in the 1992 Donruss baseball card set.

No, Donruss didn’t tell us how many cards they printed in 1992. In fact, like other card companies, they probably sought to keep that information private. After all, if collectors really knew how many cards were out there, it would be easy to see that they were not that rare. But the company gave us a clue with their 1992 Donruss Elite insert cards.

The 1992 Donruss set was not really an attractive one by my account. I remember busting packs of it and growing tired of the design early in the year. Simply put, there were too many other attractive options. It also doesn’t help that the set doesn’t really have any important cards. Rated Rookies in the set included the likes of Kenny Lofton, Ryan Klesko, and Eric Karros. Even at their peak, those cards held minimal value. Jim Thome’s Rated Rookies card highlights that subset but isn’t even his rookie. The main cards in the set were the Diamond Kings insert cards and, more importantly, the Elite insert cards.

The Elite insert cards were not all that rare, really. There were ten ‘regular’ Elite insert cards of players, each with 10,000 printed. An Elite card of Rickey Henderson was an 11th and came with a print run of 7,500. A 12th was an autographed Cal Ripken Elite card, which was limited to ‘only’ 5,000. All told, there were 112,500 Elite cards.

That gives the impression that they would not be terribly hard to find. Only problem is, they were.

I’ve opened a lot of junk wax in my day. All told, I’ve probably opened about a case of the 1992 Donruss cards. Know how many I found? Not a single one. Sure, my luck may have been crummy but fact is, that probably happened to others, too. Many collectors estimate there was about one Elite card per case. That was the case of this collector who pulled two in exactly two cases.

Now, you do the math. 112,500 Elite cards = Roughly 112,500 cases. Each case had 20 boxes with 36 packs per box, giving us a grand total of 720 packs. Each pack had 14 cards, giving us 10,080 cards in a case.

112,500 cases multiplied by 10,080 cards for a grand total of 1.13 billion 1992 Donruss cards (and that doesn’t include jumbo packs, rack packs or factory sets).

That figure, of course, is a rough estimate. There is much we don’t know about the production process. But based on what we know about the Elite cards, it’s probably in the ballpark. And if you are like some that believe the cards were even rarer than one per case, the number would be even higher. 

Now, keep in mind, that is one set, in one sport, in one year. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the actual number of cards across all sports and brands would have been massive — even if they weren’t all as populous as Donruss’ set that year.  

Back then, it seemed like every man, woman and child had a card collection and despite what we may have thought at the time, there was plenty of Donruss to go around.

About Anson Whaley

Anson Whaley is a contributor to Sports Collectors Daily and has been an avid pre-war and vintage card collector for more than 20 years. He manages a pre-war sports card blog and database at www.prewarcards.com . You can email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @PreWarCards.

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