The Darryl Strawberry Baseball Card that Turned Traded Sets into a Hobby Phenomenon

What do you get when you combine a sweet-swinging left-handed rookie home-run hitter patrolling right field for the New York Mets with a collecting public just itching to get its hands on his first-ever — though non-existent — pasteboard? Why, you get the Darryl Strawberry baseball card that almost single-handedly turned the concept of a “traded set” into a hobby phenomenon, of course!

Young Mashers

1983 Topss Traded Darry Strawberry (#108T)

The summer of 1983 was notable for many baseball developments, but maybe none of them more important from a collecting standpoint than the sudden re-emergence of young power bats as a focal point in the game. In particular, the Mets and the Chicago White Sox  both broke out of obscurity on the backs of a pair of rookie sluggers.

In Chicago, 25-year-old Ron Kittle finally stuck in the Big Leagues after six seasons in the minors and after an astounding power display that saw him swat 40 home runs in 1981 in Double-A action and 50 in 1982 at the Triple-A level. He wasted little time in feasting on Major League pitching in ’83, and his 35 home runs helped lead the Sox to the best record in the game.

Collectors, of course, went bonkers for Kittle, and we flocked to his 1983 Fleer rookie card. It was the only mainstream issue for Kittle issued that summer, and it gave Fleer a considerable leg up on its competition.

As great as Ron Kittle was, Darryl Strawberry was a different sort of phenomenon altogether.

Selected as the number-one overall draft pick in 1980, Strawberry made short work of the Mets’ minor-league system. On May 6, 1983, he made his Big League debut at the age of just 21, and fans were instantly transfixed.

The frame was powerful, the poise was palpable, the swing was gorgeous. He was going to be the next Ted Williams, according to the early hype.

And then, he delivered.

In just 122 games, Strawberry smacked 26 home runs, drove in 74, and collected 19 stolen bases. Strawberry won the National League Rookie of the Year award, and the Flushing faithful hardly noticed that the Mets languished in last place.

Finally, they had hope.

The Strawberry Mystique

But as the temperatures rose and Strawberry continued to smash baseballs, collectors became more and more desperate for a first glimpse of him on cardboard. Those were the days before pre-rookie cards and full-out speculation, remember, so there was little incentive for card companies to include players who had no MLB experience in their sets.

Eventually, Strawberry would help to change that, but hobbyists were left to wait all through that fateful summer.1983-Topss-Traded-Darry-Strawberry-108T-back-300x215.jpg

Thankfully, observant collectors knew we wouldn’t have to wait through the winter, too, because Topps had changed their game in face of direct competition from Fleer and Donruss in 1981.

In particular, the Old Gum Company had taken to releasing standalone “Traded” sets at the end of each season to catch up on players who had switched teams during the season. In 1982, they had also used the extra real estate to grace us with dedicated cards for young players who had previously shared a card with other rookies — “FUTURE STARS,” in the Topps vernacular of that year.

The major beneficiary and target of collector adoration to that point had been Cal Ripken, Jr.

But, while Ripken was already a superstar by 1983 — he won the AL MVP award — all of the mystique was already gone for card collectors.

The same could be said for Kittle and, the next year, for Don Mattingly. Collectors could grab rookie cards of those two guys in the midst of their breakout seasons, and the 1984 Donruss Mattingly card, of course, helped change the hobby.

With Strawberry, though, we were foaming at the mouth by the time November rolled around. We gladly shelled out $10, $20, $30 for the 1983 Topps Traded set when it was finally released. It didn’t hurt anything that Topps chose to print the cards on a premium, hard white stock rather than it’s typical soft brown mush, or that they also included their first Ron Kittle card in the set.

Changing the Hobby

For maybe the first time, a confluence of events had ensured the success of  a set of baseball cards long before they were ever released. From that point forward, throughout the hobby boom, Topps Traded sets were eagerly awaited and flew off dealer shelves every fall.

They also helped set the formula that card manufacturers would follow and refine to make the boom a reality: produce a high-quality set full of hot rookie cards and create an air of anticipation and scarcity wherever and whenever you can.

It was a model that would be invoked again and again as the hobby exploded throughout the rest of the 1980s.

In the ensuing years, Strawberry reached even greater heights on the diamond before hubris and personal problems diminished his awesome potential. In the end, his career stats look good but not great, and anyone who was around in his heyday can’t help but wonder what might have been had he stayed on his initial trajectory.

Kittle’s star descended much more rapidly, and he was a journeyman bouncing from team to team by late 1980s.

With its two major drivers diminished significantly, and with the proliferation of sets that would flood the hobby in the coming years, the 1983 Topps Traded set slowly slid down collector’s must-have list. It never disappeared completely, though.

Still a Staple

Today, you can find complete sets for $30 or less, while the Kittle rookie will set you back a buck or two.

And the once-vaunted Darryl Strawberry rookie card? It’s not completely dead.

You can find nice “raw” copies for $10-15, and specimens graded at PSA 10 (GEM-MT) run about $100.

Those prices are a testament to the revolutionary combination of the Strawberry mystique and the masterful positioning of the 1983 Topps Traded set.

Without them, the hobby “boom” might not have been so resounding.

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14 thoughts on “The Darryl Strawberry Baseball Card that Turned Traded Sets into a Hobby Phenomenon

  1. I’m still a semi-hoarder of this card with 6 in my collection. All acquired in the last 10 years. I can’t help myself, as it was a card I desperately wanted as a kid but could never afford.

    1. I totally get it. I’m toast if I stumble across certain Mike Schmidt or Pete Rose cards at a flea market (or anywhere else, for that matter).

      1. In the 80s when I first got in to cards I loved will Clark Cards. He wasn’t even my favorite player. I just thought his cards were really cool.

        1. Same here. Not my favorite but always liked his swagger … reminded me of a western or something.

  2. It’s so interesting how topps, topps traded, and O-Pee-Chee used different card stock and I was glad to see you mentioned that in this post.

    When I was a kid, I noticed price guides had listings for all the variants like topps traded, box bottoms, and 1984 topps “nestle” but I had no access to those cards. Thank heavens for ebay.

    By the way, “Soft brown mush” is such a great way to describe the back of topps, lol.

    1. It’s funny … we all lambasted Topps’ card stock back then, but it’s taken on a nostalgic glow in recent years. And, yes, thank goodness for the modern markets, where we can find almost all of our boyhood dream cards for reasonable prices.

  3. It does not hurt that the 1983 set was the most attractive set for Topps during the 1980s. 1984 and 1987 deserve similar nods. 1985 and 1986 were above average. 1980, 1981, 1982 and especially 1988 and 1989 were forgettable. Topps didn’t even try most of those years.

    1. The 81s were rough across the board, but at least Fleer and Donruss had the excuse of being first-year issues.

      1. I remember in 1987ish, as an 11 year old, I had a somewhat well off friend. Parents bought him everything. I got a Kmart bike. He got a Mongoose. I got an original Nintendo. He got a full size pin ball machine. I got the 1987 base Topps set (don’t get me wrong, I was greatful for it). He got the 1983 & ’84 Topps Traded sets. Plus, the ’84 Fleer Update. I remember him showing me that XRC Strawberry specifically. I was in awe of the early Topps Traded & ’84 Fleer Update ever since. Back in those days (pre-internet), you couldn’t find these R.C.s & sets if your life depended on it. Almost legendary. As a kid, I couldn’t of afforded em even if I did find em. In fact, he was the only person I knew that had em for many, many years. Fast forward to this last year (I got back into collecting, but vintage 50’s/60’s maybe 5 years ago), I was finally able to nab the ’81 thru ’84 Traded sets. And the two flagship ’84 Updates, Clemens & Puckett, via online of course. It’s just taken me 30+ years to finally do it. Ahhh, the power of nastolgia!

        1. Yep, nostalgia is pretty much an irresistible force for me. Congratulations on filling in some of those childhood biggies the last few years. Collect on, and have fun!

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