Without traded sets, there would be no valuable rookie card of Cal Ripken or Roger Clemens. However, these sets also led collectors down the treacherous slope of speculation for the likes of Jerome Walton. Such is the yin and yang of the traded concept, introduced more than 25 years ago largely to update collectors on free agent signings and trades. The sets also established a precedent for pre-rookie card inclusion that changed the hobby forever.
During MLB’s 1971 Winter Meetings, several star players learned they’d be wearing a different uniform for the 1972 season. Too late to make any changes to its first series, Topps included new cards of seven traded players – including Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, and Frank Robinson – in their high-numbered print run. The card fronts of these players have a large, superimposed “TRADED” stamp across the bottom.
In 1974, Topps issued just one series of baseball wax, but late in the printing, added a 44-card Traded series. These updated cards were numbered using the same code as the originals (Ron Santo’s regular issue is No. 270, his Traded No. 270T). The cards include some of the worst airbrushing examples in the history of air and brushes.
By 1981, the airbrushing hadn’t improved much. Undaunted, Topps forged ahead with a first of its kind – a Traded set released exclusively to hobby dealers.
George Kruk of Kruk Cards recalls that the Traded sets had an immediate impact. “The reaction was tremendous,” he said. “Collectors appetites were not satiated with one baseball product per year. The hobby was really starting to boom, and there was tremendous demand for a variety of product.”
A year later, Topps released one of the most influential sets in hobby history.
Make Way for the Pre-Rookies
By mid-summer in 1982, Cal Ripken Jr. was a rising star. Pictured with two other prospects in the regular Topps issue that spring, the chewing gum company decided Cal needed his own card – and issued one in its Traded set released later that year. This was not an unprecedented move – Topps had trumped the three rookies on a card for individual images of Tim Raines and Fernando Valenzuela in the 1981 Topps Traded set, as well.
The Topps Traded Ripken is more scarce and more valuable than the card that also features Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider. However, the Ripken TT is not flawless.
“That card is hard to find with good focus, color and centering,” said collector Jim Newsom.
In 1984, Topps fell asleep at the wheel, as Fleer issued the first cards of two future superstars. Kruk hailed the ’84 Fleer Update set as the greatest traded set of all time because it included the first cards of Clemens and Kirby Puckett, which often sell for 10 times the amount of each player’s ’85 Topps issue.
The irony of ’84 Fleer is not lost on Newsom.
“The regular Fleer set that year was so over-produced that I remember them falling into the aisles at K-Mart,” he said. “But the Fleer Update was limited to just the ones that were ordered.”
In ’86, Donruss joined in with its Rookies set. This issue, along with Fleer Update and Topps Traded, offered collectors a glimpse of 170-pound prospect Barry Bonds. Not surprisingly, these cards remain tepid, unmoved for a long time at just $25 each, but they weren’t always so cold.
“Before the Balco scandal broke, I had lots of requests for the ’86 Bonds cards,” said card seller Tony Sabino. “But now, there’s no interest in them at all.”
Owners of an ’84 FU Clemens are feeling the same hot whips of panic.
In 1988, Topps Traded bled red, white and blue. The inclusion of collegians that had competed in the ’88 Summer Olympics was not just a dose of patriotism, but also a sly way of getting pre-rookies into the market. The ’88 TT set included the first cards of Jim Abbott, Robin Ventura and Tino Martinez. The popularity of Team USA cards led to more Olympians in subsequent Topps Traded sets.
However, those Olympic cards were woefully overproduced.
“I have ’92 Topps Gold Traded sets featuring Nomar Garciaparra’s Team USA rookie card,” Sabino said. “I’ve listed them on eBay, and no one is interested in getting one at anywhere near book value.”
Despite the ease of availability, both Kruk and Newsom pointed out several undervalued sets to keep an eye on, including the 1991 Final Edition set with potential Hall of Famers Ivan Rodriguez, Jim Thome and Pedro Martinez.
“The 1989 Donruss Rookies with Griffey, Sheffield, Randy Johnson and Omar Vizquel is also a sleeper,” Kruk said. “Arguably, four HOFers first-year cards.”
While Kruk believes the positives of the traded sets far outweigh the negatives, he noted that traded sets created “confusion over what constituted a true rookie card.”
Newsom pointed out another negative.
“All the cards were issued in the same quantity,” he said. “There is no scarcity of any key players.”
Traded sets have typically been a baseball thing. Topps tinkered with football traded sets from 1989-92, but, once again, it was a competitor who stole the show. Score’s 1990 Supplemental set became an instant hit because it featured the most sought after Emmitt Smith rookie. However, unlike the Ripken TT, which sells well at PSA 7 or higher, the Smith card, which books at $110, sells poorly if graded less than PSA 9.
As card companies began inserting hot prospects and draft picks into their regular issues, most traded sets were euthanized.
Perhaps resurrection lies with collectors, as the rookie cards of many potential Hall of Famers grace traded sets, including Craig Biggio, Greg Maddux, Roberto Alomar, Jeff Bagwell and John Smoltz.
“In a few years when Ichiro and Albert Pujols solidify their Hall of Fame status, I foresee a number of the 2001 Update sets skyrocketing in value,” Sabino added.
Which leaves just one burning question: What are collectors supposed to do with all those 50-count bricks of Jerome Walton?