Thursday, June 8, 2023

Junk is junk

I have a fraught relationship with the term junk wax.

There was a time when I used it at will - heck, I named an entire theme on this blog after it - and generally thought it was an apt name for a generally dark period of baseball cards. It's still in wide use - say "Junk Wax Era" to a collector, and chances are they'll know exactly what you're talking about.

But I don't say junk wax much anymore. For one thing, it unfairly banishes a span of time that actually had a lot of good stuff in it to cardboard purgatory. Perhaps more importantly, I don't think it's fair to the people who grew up collecting in those years. I certainly wouldn't like it if someone essentially called my cherished childhood memories of late '90s/early 2000s cards a steaming pile of trash (though I'm sure some already do). 

Still, like any era before or after it, "junk wax" had a fair amount of bad to go with the good - and for some reason the misanthrope in me wanted to take a brand-by-brand look at some of the worst designs of the era, the ones that perhaps rightfully belong in the junk heap.

Bowman - 1989

Might as well address the elephant in the room right away - as I've mentioned many times before, 1989 Bowman might well be my least-favorite set in the history of baseball cards.

I'll just say this: when I hear the term "junk wax," I think of '89 Bowman.

Donruss - 1988

Going on the aggregate, Donruss might've had the roughest go of any brand of the "junk wax era" (which I personally define as 1987-1994). 

It wasn't a great time for Donruss - 1987, 1990 & 1991 were all in the running for this dubious honor, but in the end I have to go with '88 Donruss because man does this set suck. There's no interesting photography to speak of, and I always think of the LUDICROUS SPEED! scene in "Spaceballs" whenever I see those borders.

Some overproduction-era sets have have grown on me with age - but '88 Donruss sure hasn't.

Fleer - 1992

If 1989 Bowman didn't exist, there's a good chance '92 Fleer would be my personal Worst Set Ever.

There's just nothing good to say about it. I'm not a fan of vertical font, and every card feels like it's being slowly crushed by one of the hilariously slow-moving doors you see in a bad James Bond ripoff. I think it's telling that you rarely hear anyone mention this set, and when you do, it's apathetic, at best.

I don't doubt that some of the cards in '92 Fleer could've been great, but then you see this odd design lop off half of Dennis Eckersley's arm, and there goes any chance of that.

Score - 1992

Even though the design is a bit more interesting, '92 Score suffers from the same '92 Fleer "closing doors" phenomenon that makes every card in the set feel claustrophobic (see: half of Garry Templeton's right arm floating in some kind of blueish void). 

It's a weird misstep in what was an otherwise solid era for Score - this is really the only one of their designs I'd classify as flat-out bad.

Topps - 1990

Topps probably had the best stretch of any set during the "junk wax" years - I'm a fan of the entire 1987-94 Topps run, and 1990 Topps has the unfortunate honor of being the one I like the least.

The comic-book inspired borders are neat, but '90 Topps suffers from a common overproduction-era flaw, in that the photos are dull with a capital D. Ask me to name a specific guy's '90 Topps card, and there's a good chance I can't do it. I've always gotten the feeling that 98 percent of this set's manpower was used on the design, and the photos chosen as an afterthought.

Sure, the sheer look 1990 Topps is forever stuck in my memory, but somehow the cards themselves aren't.

Upper Deck - 1994

You could make a case that 1994 Upper Deck is the most disappointing set in the history of baseball cards.

I've never heard a bad word about '93 UD - it's gotta be the best set of the "junk wax era," and one of the all-time greats - and Upper Deck followed that up with...this. A weird double-image miasma that makes the horrendous choice of using gold foil on a black background (and not one, but two different vertical fonts!).

Continuing the legacy of Fleer and Score, these cards also feel squished - was there some kind of weird closing-door kink in the early '90s? Unlike other sets, however, there's actually some interesting photography in this one if you can look past the claustrophobia. It's kind of the anti-1990 Topps, in that the photos are good, but the design is awful. And definitely a dud when compared to the greatness of '93 UD.

I think twice when the term junk wax pops into my head nowadays, which is probably a good thing - but every time I see a card from most of these sets, I can't help but wonder if there's something to that unfortunate label.


The Angels In Order said...

1992 Fleer is definitely junk wax to me, but that's one of the few designs of the era that I actually love. That green just does something to me!

Mike said...

Hands down those lame AND too big 89 Bowman are the worst I've ever seen..

night owl said...

I did a post similar to this a long time ago.

I will use the term "junk wax" for as long as possible. It's payback for the bazillion collectors who grew up at this time and continue to shove horrible sets like '90 Donruss and '91 Fleer in my face. This time period has so much lousy, the list writes itself.

I'd pick many Donruss sets before '88 Donruss, but you're spot on with '92 Score. Terrible.

Laurens said...

I like the 1992 Fleer set - anything would be an improvement over 1991 Fleer, but the 1992 set felt a little bit classier and sophisticated, while the 1991 set was so damn basic, yet so garish.

The 1994 Upper Deck kind of ends up really boring - where the design puts me to sleep.

Jeremya1um said...

I never cared for ‘93 Upper Deck and thought ‘94 was enormously better with the dual photos being something different and the orange foil and another photo on the back.
Also though ‘92 Fleer and Score were better, but as time passes they have lost some luster. I think ‘91 or ‘90 Fleer could’ve replaced ‘92 Fleer, ‘90 Upper Deck could’ve replaced ‘94 UD, ‘87 Topps could’ve replaced ‘90 Topps, and ‘91 or ‘90 Score could’ve replaced ‘92 Score on your list. Bowman and Donruss were spot on.

Rebel Coyote said...

Designs for Donruss been brutally awful during that era. I feel 1990 is the worst of the bunch filled with nothing but red borders. Then the card stock was way below average and its prone to chipping. They somehow got it right with 1992 design.

Jeff B - Wax Pack Wonders said...

Can't disagree with any of those choices, except I'd probably go with 91 Fleer over 92. But we can all agree 89 Bowman is the worst.

Johnnys Trading Spot said...

While I'll agree that the 1993 Upper Deck set is one of the most under-rated sets from the "Junk wax" era, dually named as it relates to "Junk Bonds". I'll explain better in a minute. I believe that the 1994 Finest set is the best set of that era even though 93' Finest was great too. Now back to "junk" I still see "collector's" rather former collectors bringing their cards into shops and show every weekend thinking they have a gold mine. Back then The card companies were promoting card buying as an investment.. Seriously, people would have seminars promoting buying baseball cards to secure your retirement. We know that was shot to crap with the over production, de-valued at one point to worthless just like the junk bonds were. Still yet I feel bad for those people especially if they were in a financial jam and thought selling their collection would help them out. I have two posts coming up next week regarding 2 situations where I bought 2 entire junk wax collections 1 on Saturday and one yesterday. I will be pointing out my thoughts of course but also putting a very positive spin on them both (one more than the other). I will always refer to them as junk wax without hesitation, I knew it then when it was happening that it would never be a gold mine. I am a "bean counter" of sorts so I knew it was garbage, but I still bought the cards because I wanted too. Then and now.

Johnnys Trading Spot said...

1990 Leaf and 1992 Bowman are also great sets from the era. (I didn't like either when they came out), but they are maybe a silver mine, lol. I starting liking them and regretted passing on them just a few years later.

Sean said...

My peak collecting days as a kid/teenager exactly overlapped with the junk era. I agree with most of that, but I'll be a contrarian and say that I've always felt that 1990 and 1991 Bowman were way worse than 1989.

The photography and general quality on all three are terrible. But the 1989 set has the advantage of being very different from other 1989 sets, while the 1990 and 1991 sets just look like similar but inferior versions of other 1990 and 1991 sets.

I like the relatively clean design of the 89 set a lot better than the generic, ugly borders on the 90 and 91 sets. And going back to mid-50s card sizes was a bold move that I respect (even though it created huge storage problems). With better photography (and better backs), the 89 set could have been a classic.

Nick Vossbrink said...

I don't disagree with any of these. 1990 Topps has grown on me a bit bit there's too much not good going on still. You're 100% correct about the failings in 92F and 92S and it's kind of amazing that 1992 Pinnacle did a similar sort of frame cropping of the photo but made it look fantastic.

Mark Zentkovich said...

I like seeing all the varied opinions on faves and least favorite of this era

Brett Alan said...

It's weird for me having you so down on 1990 Topps because I remember how much Shoebox Legends loves that set.

To me, "junk wax" just means it's not worth much financially. I still enjoy collecting the stuff. I'm ripping a box of 1991 Fleer currently. It's fun.

Doc Samson said...

It seems like the worst junk card sets have a similar trait: an overwrought border that suffocates the photo. Overproduction doesn’t help, either. I swear you could build a bridge to the moon with all the 1988 Donruss factory sets that were produced.

One more thing: 1994 Upper Deck Collector’s Choice with the mini player icons was supposed to be their mainline design that year, and the dual fun house mirror UD set was supposed to be their SP design. Whoever decided to switch those designs is probably in the witness protection program right now. said...

Never liked the term and i see it as disrespectful. Sure they printed bajillions likely just to cover for the rights to do so.
Only difference with todays cards than those from that sweet spot(87-94) is they produce many more different sets and charge some ridiculous rates while doing that. Surprisingly those loud 1991 Yellows didn't make your top 5 which is likely due to it at least not being a neck-twister. Definitely agree with those Bowman taking top spot as they are 1 set that need an 8-pocket page like wtw?

Derek said...

A sign of things to come for UD with those ridiculously and lazily duplicated photos on the front or back of the card!

Matt said...

Donruss gets a lot of hate for their designs from that era, but I've always appreciated them. Donruss wasn't afraid to do something different. You might not like them, but they're instantly recognizable.

beefman said...

1989 Bowman.

Just... ugh!

Fuji said...

i think i've used the term junk wax era in at least two comments this morning. i know some collectors really dislike the term, but i don't use it to be derogatory. i use it to define an era where many products were overproduced. in fact, i buy cards from that era all the time, so obviously i have an appreciation for them.

gcrl said...

1989 bowman is the worst card set of the era, in my opinion. who wanted cards that size?

i actually really really liked 1994 upper deck when it came out - i like the phantom zone inset photo - but it is a weird set. i think it was just so different from the other sets of the time that it struck a chord with me. and then bowman tried the same thing in 1995...

GCA said...

Bowman gets points off for the odd size and that consequently most of the Bowman I see are damaged because of it.
I skipped the whole junk era, so I've had to go back and fill in after the fact. '94UD was one of the first sets I did like that. The "echo picture" is stupid, but otherwise, I'm OK with them. I actually did the Electric Diamond version first.
'90 Donruss gets a pass because of all the variations and different subsets - Grand Slammers, Aqueous tests, Best of NL/AL etc. Being cheap makes variation hunting fun - see Pro Set.
'91 & '92 Score and a few of the late 80's Donruss designs are what comes to mind when I think of undesirable "junk".