Friday, June 11, 2021

1988 Donruss and the search for the word ubiquitous


Ubiquitous: existing or being everywhere at the same time: constantly encountered: widespread (Merriam-Webster)

I wouldn’t have known the word ubiquitous back in 1988.

In 1988, I was a fourteen-year-old fat kid trying to class-clown my way out of eighth grade and into another summer of wiffle ball and baseball card collecting. I was subliminally trying to suppress the idea that I’d be going to high school, an all-boys CATHOLIC high school, come the fall. I was averse to change. I was a B-student at best. My eighth-grade teacher was a miserable, humorless nun who was seemingly always on my ass. She once made me carry my possessions around in a garbage bag for a week because I’d failed to clean my desk to her specifications.

She made me sit next to her in church because I was apt to mock the priest.

That eighth-grade year in 1988, I did an art project on Roberto Clemente. Drew him from memory because there was no way on God’s green earth that I had a Clemente card at fourteen-years-old. I drew Clemente’s 1966 Topps card. The goddamned nun argued with me that no one ever called the great Roberto Clemente “Bob.” I had no card to show her. There was no internet to prove the old bag wrong. She gave me a B- on the art project and told me that I had no sense of history.

Maybe...but I knew my baseball cards

If anyone or anything was ubiquitous in the first-half of 1988, it was Sister Roberta.

This guy.

            And baseball cards.

            Also, there’s no discounting the ignorance of the Catholic church.

In 1988 the word ubiquitous seemed to define baseball cards. Formally relegated to drug stores, flea markets, the small crop of card shows that were taking over convention centers around the Pittsburgh area and, of course, the local card shop; 1988 was the year that I could find baseball cards seemingly everywhere. I found them in the grocery store nestled next to those Milky Way bars that kept me in husky pants. They were near the checkout in the toy stores that I was still wandering into at the mall, despite having officially declared myself too old for toy stores. You could find baseball cards in sporting good shops or at the newsstand where I went for my Batman comics. 1988s version of big box stores (anyone remember Hills Department Stores?) carried rack packs of baseball cards in a pre-courser to the current madness at Target and Wal-Mart stores.

Go for the baseball cards.

Stay for the blue-raspberry Slushee and hot pretzel.

I even found baseball cards in a rural gas station in Central Pennsylvania.

But we’ll get to that.

            The most ubiquitous of baseball cards in 1988 was Donruss. 

        1988 Donruss has been called the poster boy of the Junk Wax Era. It’s the collecting world’s red-headed step-child (am I still allowed to write/say things like that) that even the most desperate for something to open might shy away from on the open market. Everyone who collected cards during the Junk Wax Era had Donruss cards. Loads and loads of Donruss cards. They had enough Donruss cards to wallpaper their homes, or make a trail of cards from Peoria to the Taj Mahal. They made the Stan Musial puzzle ad nauseum. In short…Donruss cards were around.

            I’m not telling collectors something that they don’t already know.

            It seems obvious now all of these years later. But, you see, to a fourteen-year-old kid like me in 1988, the fact that I could all of the sudden even find Donruss cards anywhere I wanted was revelatory. Before 1988, Donruss cards were nearly impossible for me to find. They were at card show or hobby shops. To get to either of those I had to suffer the indignity of begging a ride from my folks. Or, if wanted to risk my life crossing highways noted for their dead, maybe I’d find a pack of Donruss at Statlander’s Pharmacy.

Pre-1988 Donruss cards were mythical in my neighborhood. They were the unicorn of baseball cards. The brand we all sought. When Sister Roberta told us stories about biblical miracles, I imagined Donruss cards showing up at the local Thrift Drug. On Sundays, when Father Bud droned on in his homily about Christ turning water into wine or rising from the dead, a few of us unimpressed kids were moved to think to ourselves… Yeah? Let’s see if the son of man can find any Donruss cards on the shelf?

                                   (Jesus...after NOT finding any Donruss cards)

            Ubiquitous: existing or being everywhere at the same time: constantly encountered: widespread.

            I didn’t know what ubiquitous meant in 1988. I just knew that I could find Donruss cards in the Giant Eagle. I could find them at Hills. I could find them in any of the Drug Stores I loitered outside of. I found them in Dunham Sporting Goods at the mall. G.C. Murphy’s had Donruss sitting right there next to the inaugural release of Topps Big Baseball cards (another indulgence of mine that year). I might not have known what ubiquitous meant, but I knew fate when I saw it. And fate was me finally coming face to face with Donruss baseball cards whenever I damned well pleased. Or it wasn’t fate but luck. My luck.

            I should’ve known they were mass-producing them.

            If Donruss cards were everywhere it wasn’t suddenly my good fortune.

Luck was another word I was unfamiliar with at my age.

            Fat fourteen-year-old kids didn’t have luck.

            Sister Roberta might’ve been right about me all along.

            So, I did what any card-brand starved kid my age would’ve done. I bought Donruss cards like they were going out of style. I bought a ton of them. I bought 1988 Donruss as if they were going to disappear off of the shelves tomorrow. Poof! Gone! Another dirty trick played on me. And then I’d be back to riding nothing but the Fleer and Topps train again (not that I wasn’t buying a ton of them and Score as well that year). I bought 1988 Donruss cards like they were investments. Wax packs of gold. They had to be because they’d been so rare before. Donruss cards were going to put me in a mansion, a limo; they were going to make me rich.


            I bought so many Donruss cards in 1988, I was a Donruss kingpin. Because I’d been starved of them for so many years, I never even considered what it was that I was buying. That is to say, I wasn’t sure if I even liked 1988 Donruss cards. It was just buy, buy, buy, before they would suddenly go away forever. Back to that impossible place Donruss cards existed in before 1988. And I couldn’t let that happen. Looks and personal opinion be damned while in the moment. I had to have them. Personal reckoning would come later. It always did with purchases. There’d be plenty of time to ask myself if I liked 1988 Donruss.

            Did I like 1988 Donruss?

            Do I like 1988 Donruss now?

Well…kind of.

Along with being some of the most ubiquitous cards of the Junk Wax Era, 1988 Donruss tend to get slagged off for their aesthetic value as well...or lack thereof. I don’t think they’re as bad as some have made them out to be. Sure, the photos can get a bit fuzzier than some previous Donruss issues, but overall, I like them. I’m a fan of the crisp blue that Donruss used for both the front and back of the cards. I don’t particularly mind the touches of black and red surrounding the cards either.

And its ubiquitous presence some thirty-three years ago, allows 1988 Donruss to be a fun 660-cardset that you can still try and build on the cheap today; an increasingly hard thing to do with the current frenzy over baseball cards, one that has pushed into the Junk Wax Era. And the 1988 Donruss set actually has a few top rookies that stalwart Topps left out of that year’s issue or that Fleer decided to couple in their annoying dual rookie cards. Roberto Alomar, Mark Grace or Greg Jefferies anyone?


1988 is also chock-full of star cards and the cards of up and coming stars of that era.

For me it was all about getting the Pirates cards in 1988. The Pirates were finally playing good baseball in 1988. There were shades of great teams and great seasons to come. That year had second year cards for Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Doug Drabek all made their regular series debut for the Pirates in 1988. Jose Lind’s Rated Rookie card was in 1988 Donruss. And just like those big rookies that Topps missed out on, 1988 Donruss had issued a card for a Pirates player, a rookie card, that I really wanted back then.

Ask me why I wanted it now and all I can say is we were crazy about the rookie cards back then.

Or it was cool to compare each brands team sets.

If I have a complaint about 1988 Donruss cards, it’s that the card stock seems thinner and of worse quality than in previous Donruss sets.

I.e., mass produced.

But I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to say that 1988 Donruss, with the exception of the premier issue of Score, might be the best-looking set of a rather dull and rudimentary 1988 baseball card class.





As for that rural gas station in Western Pennsylvania?

Parents sometimes get the idea that family trips are a good idea. I made the conscious and happy choice to not have children, so I don’t know if the folks think this is a good idea for the kids or if they need a concrete reason other than debt to prove the value or worth of a family foundation with things like vacations. Regardless, in the late summer of 1988 my family packed up the car and took my brother and I to Cook’s Forest, along with a couple of family friends and their kids. Cook’s forest is the kind of place where there are cabins and lakes and rivers, and lots and lots of trees full of animals that you didn’t see in the suburbs or city, or might not ever want to come face to face with in real life.

Think Deliverance with go-carts and horseback riding.

I was a fourteen-year-old kid who’d just graduated eighth grade and was getting ready to go into high school. I didn’t want to go on vacation with my family. I might’ve been a fat and lonely fourteen-year-old, but I was a fourteen-year-old nonetheless. My bedroom was becoming my fortress. The music that I was listening to, more a soundtrack to my life. I had my TV shows. There was the movies and the mall. There were baseball cards to sift through in the cool shade of my front porch. There were girls to pine for. The ubiquitous presence of girls was another thing to contend with in 1988. Like me or not…they were still there. In short shorts. In bikinis at pools.

What in the hell did I want to spend a weekend out in the woods for?

With my family no less.

The only thing that I really remember about that weekend, other than getting thrown off the go carts for driving recklessly, was my family stopping at that gas station in rural PA. My old man was a planner but he could also pinch a penny. Cook’s Forrest was only a couple of hours drive from Pittsburgh, not necessarily somewhere you’d have to gas up to get to. But my old man figured the gas would be cheaper the further away from the city.

Cheap gas was a unicorn to my old man.

Cheap gas was his Donruss.

So, we stopped at this run-down old gas station that looked like something out of a Stephen King novel. Same for the guy working it. It was the kind of place that time and modern convenience forgot. Flat Cokes sitting in a cooler waiting to die. Nudie magazines from two years before. Air fresheners that had lost their scent. Snacks whose expiration dates were of no consequence to anyone needing to eat from there. Stale cigarettes in yellowing packs. The nearly bare shelves housing dead batteries.

And 1988 Donruss.

Right there.

At the counter.

 Thanks for reading! Happy collecting!

If you’d like to learn more about 1988 Donruss you can do so HERE

If you’d like to learn more about the career of Tom Prince you can do so HERE and HERE

NEXT FRIDAY: We’re going to hang around 1988…and 1989…and 1990…and maybe even 1991. Yes, I’m doing a whole non-sports card post related to those ProSet Super Star MusiCards and the Yo! MTV Raps! Cards. It’s going to be a shameless self-promotion for my new novel, P-Town : Forever.

But maybe it’ll be fun as well.

And Remember....



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