“I was there when it was fun; I was there when it all collapsed.” – Me
Ozzie Smith will turn 65 at the end of this month which means he has not played professional baseball for a very long time. It’s not easy, I suppose, watching your first sports hero grow old because there stands a chance that means you are also old. True as that may be, the plan back when Ozzie was still doing backflips was that when we reached this point, his baseball cards that I obsessively hunted and gathered would be worth a fortune. Certainly back in 1990, that was the case, or the perception anyway, for the baseball cards of Hall of Famers like Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, whose careers had been over for nearly a quarter of a century. Well, Ozzie might not be in that tier but he was a sure-fire Hall of Famer even back in 1990 – at least, that’s the narrative I remember – and the natural order said that as baseball cards aged, the value increased as well.
But a funny thing happened. The grown-ups in the room ruined the baseball card industry in the early 90s by over-saturating the market and steering it away from kids who could afford to collect cards with a meager allowance and towards older people who could easily hand over $5 for a single pack of something called Topps Stadium Club or Fleer Ultra.
The problem with this strategy, other than the whole inflation thing, is that it ensured there would not be another generation to step in when the current one dies off. And because of the inflation part, prices stagnated, and whatever Beckett Monthly quoted as the value for my 1983 Topps Tony Gwynn rookie card in 1991 is probably what I would have to sell it for today, if I were even that lucky.
The same goes for my Ozzie cards. All 500 of them or however many I own. And Ozzie was a good guy to collect if you were a minor in the heyday of the industry because his cards weren’t very expensive nor hard to find. When the new sets of Topps, Donruss, Fleer, and later Score were released in the spring, you only needed $0.50 for a pack and before long you would find what you were looking for and be on your way. Upper Deck came around in 1989, they were a bit shinier and cost $1.50 a pack – a sign of troubling things to come – but no one really cared at the time because they were durable and looked great.
All this to say, I owned every Ozzie Smith card manufactured by one of the major trading card industries from 1979-1991,* after which point with numerous sets released each year by various subsidiaries of the name brands, it became impossible to boast such a claim. I still own these cards, because I’m certainly not getting rid of them now, and if I’m being honest, I probably wouldn’t have even if they had gone on to become the worthwhile monetary investment as per the plan. I’ve owned some of these cards for over 30 years and whether that qualifies me as an expert on the matter, what follows are what I believe to be the ten best Ozzie Smith baseball cards ever made, with #10-6 today.
(Something to remember, things moved slower back then. Everything was a year behind. With an exception of an Updated or Traded series – something we’ll get to in Part 2 – if a baseball card was from a 1985 set, that typically meant it covered stats up to 1984, with a picture from that year as well. E.g., Ozzie’s 1982 cards show him in a Padres uniform even though he won a World Series with the Cardinals that season.)
10. 1987 Fleer, #308
This is of a personal preference because I loved 1987 Fleer. Legend had it in my neighborhood that one aggressive collector liked this set so much that he bought as many as he could on the open market and hoarded them for himself. I don’t know if that’s true, but 1987 Fleer was more rare than was usual. This set had a gloss finish and the gradient blue border allowed other colors to jump off the page. Pictured above is Ozzie presumably in spring training wondering how many home runs he would need to hit that upcoming year to finish with a 6+ WAR season. (Answer: 0)
This card in gem mint condition (that means top condition) can currently be purchased online for $8.99.
9. 1987 Topps, #181
The collapse of the baseball card industry in the early 90s neatly coincided with the Ozzie and Michael Jordan posters on my wall being replaced with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. I was an embarrassing Smashing Pumpkins fan. If lucky enough to catch a ride to a Best Buy, I would jet-line to the CD section in search of anything new, as if a Pumpkins album or single would somehow be released without me having heard about it. This never materialized but for the time I found the obscure 20 Explosive Dynamic Super Smash Hit Explosions! covers compilation by mostly Illinois bands, featuring a version of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils hit “Jackie Blue” by the Pumpkins. The CD probably cost $13 and I bought it for one song. I only listened to one song. It’s a perfectly fine cover but that might be beside the point.
That song is this card. It was found by rummaging through a box of commons in search of value and finding a team leaders card with Ozzie somewhat visible behind a Mike LaValliere and pitcher Ray Soff mound meeting. Good enough. (I annotated the first card with a circle and arrows in the event you missed Ozzie.) Teams leaders cards were bad. They weren’t as bad as getting a pack with a checklist but bad nonetheless. But if Ozzie was even barely associated with a card, it was going in the book. It didn’t even have to be a real card. For instance, what’s pictured below was cut with scissors (kinda poorly, I might add) from the bottom of a Score box. It is also in the book.
But a card from 1987 Topps has to be included here because 1987 Topps and the beautiful wooden border is legendary and to not include one on a list such as this would be a crime. Here are the real 1987 Topps Ozzie cards, if interested.
Last thing of note, the back of the Cardinals Leaders card reveals that Andy Van Slyke led the team in home runs in 1986 with 13. Probably related, the Cardinals finished 28.5 games behind the Mets that year.
The team leaders card in good condition can currently be purchased for $0.99.
8. 1985 Donruss, #59
I genuinely love this card because it’s exactly what I remember about Ozzie, the player. If you need an avatar for the shortstop position, you can’t do any better than this photo. Judging by the long sleeves and what appears to be yet-to-grow ivy behind him, let’s believe this to be from a cold spring day at Wrigley Field early in the 1984 season. When the Cardinals announced before last season that they were bringing back the victory blues as an alternate in 2019, there was excitement because most of us were picturing this: Roos cleats, high stirrups, pullover jerseys…that, my friends, is a baseball uniform. Leave the belts and piping at home.
1985 Donruss was another set that also wasn’t easy to come by at the time. If you collected cards in this era, go through your box of commons and for every 1985 Donruss card, you’ll find ten 1985 Topps cards. It’s just the way things were.
This card in near mint condition can currently be purchased for $12.59.
7. 1981 Topps, #254
There’s nothing inherently special about this card other than it’s another solid action shot, and it was the first baseball card I remember owning that was worth more than five bucks. And the first Ozzie as a Padre card in my collection as well. Don’t ignore the baseball incorporated as the Topps logo or the hat with the player’s position and team. There were three things minimum you needed on every card – name, team, position – so that’s a good job by Topps.
We don’t know much about what happened in this particular at-bat, we just know it did not result in a home run. Ozzie, of course, didn’t hit his first home run from the left side until his famous walk-off in Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS. He did, however, hit four triples as a lefty in 1980, so we can pretend in good faith that’s what’s happening here.
This card in mint condition can currently be purchased online for $13.00.
6. 1982 Donruss, #21
*Earlier I wrote that I owned every single Ozzie card manufactured by the big boys between 1979-1991. That’s not entirely true. I own every single card but one and it’s this one, the 1982 Ozzie Diamond King. For a very long time I didn’t know that it existed. When I learned of it, it was too hard to find. Once the internet came around and it was no longer too hard to find, I didn’t care. Well, now I do care, and this card with a factory miscut can currently be purchased for $6.99. Done.
This was the first of two Diamond Kings for Ozzie. I don’t know if that’s a rare distinction, like headlining Coachella twice or something, but Donruss made another Diamond King for him in 1987 when he was wearing the right uniform and in more of a classic Ozzie fielding pose. Maybe it would have been better suited for #6.
They’re both great. Most Diamond Kings were. But the scarcity of the 1982 card and the background which looks like something from a late 70s vinyl store gives it the nod here. Not to mention his brown Padres jersey, which is…velvet? I was alive in 1981 but not old enough to remember it and that truly is a shame.
Part 2, the top five Ozzie cards, coming soon.