Baseball card collecting circles tend to look down at the "junk wax" era of cards as a sort of black hole where nothing good emerged.
For the most part, I agree. I've got thousands of cards from 1987 to 1994 under my bed and in my closet and in my binders and...well, everywhere.
However, there were a few high points in those years. Or as I call them, "the gems of junk wax".
Conlon Collection, a set not issued by any of the major card companies of the era, is my personal favorite "junk wax" set. Issued from 1991 to 1995, it chronicles the beautiful photography of Charles Conlon (as seen by the famous Ty Cobb card at the top of the post) and includes pictures from the turn-of-the-century to the late 1930's. And because they came out in the "black hole" era of baseball cards, they're cheap too. The 1995 editions are tough to find, but the 1991-94 issues are fairly common. I purchased a box of the 1991 edition (36 packs) for around $20, a price which includes shipping costs. If you're at all interested in the history of baseball, this set is perfect.
It's got the big stars. The photograph used for the Gehrig card shown above is one of the finest shots I've seen.
However, it's also got a lot of the forgotten names of early baseball. There were others besides Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Cobb, and Wagner, you know. Hal Chase, a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player who fell in with the wrong crowd (he was kicked out of baseball for betting on the 1919 World Series). Johnny Evers, part of the famous Tinker-to Evers-to Chance double play combo. Some of these photos show just how much the game has changed. Take the bat the Evers has on his shoulder. There's barely any hint of a barrel on it.
The 1994 Conlon issue has a subset that includes some tremendous early action shots, as evidenced by the two cards shown above. These cards were a steal at my local flea market, found a whole handful of these action cards in a 12/$1 box.
My favorites of the Conlon series document the 1919 World Series, famous for the series-throwing "Black Sox". Since all of the "Eight Men Out" were formally blacklisted from major league baseball (much like Pete Rose today), they cannot have cards issued by a licensed manufacturer, making their cards all the more difficult to find.
This set just goes to show you that junk wax does have its bright spots, you just have to dig a little deeper than usual. Where else can you find a card of Hal Chase or Eddie Cicotte?