(This is the 20th in our series of posts about the best baseball cards from the 1980s. Check out the rest of those posts here.)

What does a Hall of Famer look like?

Is he muscular or wispy, maybe even fat or skinny?

Is he short or tall? Does he have any discernible physical abnormalities?

Does he have all his hair and, if he does, how does he care for it?

These are all questions with unknowable answers, of course, because there are as many different types of Hall of Famers as there are Coooperstown enshrinees themselves.

And the task becomes all the more difficult if we’re talking about future Hall of Famers, especially if we’re trying to predict that ultimate status before guys even really get underway in their careers.

But that’s sort of what we all do when we buy into rookie cards of young players, whether we consider that speculation, investing, or just collecting.

Back in 1987, as the hobby was booming in earnest, we didn’t care too much about those labels — we just wanted to get our hands on the RCs of guys who would become superstars and, eventually, Hall of Famers.

1987 Donruss Greg Maddux Rookie Card

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Some players were easy to pick out …

Will Clark and Mark McGwire had both played with the USA Olympic Baseball Team and went on to craft stellar college careers. They projected as solid (or much better) Major League hitters.

Bo Jackson was a physical specimen unlike any we’d ever seen, and he had the raw talent — with at least some polishing already in place — to succeed on the gridiron and the diamond. He was in our buying fold, too.

All of these guys were big, strong, and/or charismatic even on their cardboard, like their 1987 Donruss Rated Rookie cards.

On the mound, pitchers like Randy Myers had the eye of the tiger on their cards and were physically imposing, by the numbers at least — 6’1″ and 190 pounds in Myers’ case, with tons of strikeouts in his bio on the card back.

Rated Rookies made it easy to zero in on players Donruss thought were can’t-miss, but would any of them become BIG TIME stars?

All we had to go on was the RR designation, whatever scouting reports we could get our hands on (if we bothered with such things), and our eyes. Did the guy look like a Hall of Famer in the making?

Consider one case as an example exercise, another Rated Rookie who

  • Had long, scraggly hair flapping out from beneath his Chicago Cubs cap.
  • Sported pipe-cleaner arms and legs that were just a touch girthier.
  • Wore a stringy mustache with a big gap in the middle that made him look like a high school sophomore trying to flex his newfound puberty.
  • Gazed toward the plate as he pitched with half-open eyes that didn’t seem to give a damn.
  • Stood 6’0″ and weighed *what?* 150 pounds according to the back of his card.
  • Had pitched 31 innings for the Cubs in 1986 and crafted a 5.52 ERA while allowing 55 base runners.

How would you rank this guy as a Hall of Fame candidate?

That Rated Rookie status notwithstanding, I’m guessing your socks are still firmly on your feet, having not been knocked off by Greg Maddux‘s early presentation through his 1987 Donruss card.

And most of the hobby felt the same way.

None of us took much notice of the young man whom the Cubs selected out of high school in the 2nd round of the 1984 draft until at least 1988, when he went 18-8. Even then, his cards were still pretty much buried by McGwire, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Clark, and others.

But when we did our yearly scan of our personal commons bins looking for guys who had broken out since the last time we scanned — you did this, too, right? — we probably went ahead and promoted Maddux to the box that held Dan Driessen and Mark Davis and Joe Magrane and Lonnie Smith.

The semi-stars.

1987 Donruss Greg Maddux Rookie Card (back)

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If not in 1988, then in 1989 or 1990 or, certainly, in 1992 when Maddux won his first Cy Young award.

And years later, when Maddux was a household name for the Atlanta Braves and looking like a HOF lock, we marveled at how such a greasy looking kid had turned into something more. So much more than we ever imagined he could be.

It’s that long-term journey that we take with our cardboard heroes, from commons to veterans to superstars to Hall of Famers, that make baseball cards such an unbreakable habit. Like the game itself, this hobby is an epic novel that spans generations and allows us to watch boys grow into men, even as we ourselves grow into men.

For all its symbolism and its lessons about judging a book by its cover and its significance in the history of the hobby and the game, the Greg Maddux Rated Rookie card is the best card from the 1987 Donruss set.

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(This is the 20th in our series of posts about the best baseball cards from the 1980s. Check out the rest of those posts here.)

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