Saturday, November 6, 2021

The Unforgettable Topps Cards From Don Mattingly’s Dominant Peak

During the prime years of his career, New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly established himself as one of the best players in baseball.  Between 1984 and 1989, Mattingly’s impressive list of accomplishments included winning the MVP Award, earning five Gold Gloves, picking up three Silver Sluggers, capturing a batting title, producing five 100-plus RBI campaigns, and securing All-Star selections in all six of these seasons.  As youngster growing up, I became aware of Mattingly while he was racking up these achievements and the slugger soon became one of my favorite players.  One of the joys of my childhood was collecting baseball cards.  I loved studying Mattingly’s cards and memorizing the statistics on the back.  Based on how deeply his batting average, home run, and RBI totals have been seared into my brain, their level of importance ranks somewhere just below my date of birth and social security number but above my license plate and credit card numbers.  Although I collected packs of all card manufacturers, Topps were the most readily available and I generally preferred their designs over their competitors.  Thus, I associate Mattingly’s dominant peak with his main card from each year’s Topps set.

I can trace the origins of becoming a Don Mattingly fan back to my elementary school years in 1986.  One of my neighbors, Eric, shared my passion for baseball card collecting and was a huge fan of both the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies.  Not surprisingly, Eric’s favorite players were the top hitters for these two teams, Mattingly and Mike Schmidt.  For whatever reason, Schmidt and the Phillies didn’t appeal to me but I was drawn to Mattingly and the Yankees.  Soon, like many kids, I was collecting Mattingly cards and had a poster of the slugger in my room.

1984 and 1985 Topps
I started buying packs of baseball cards in 1983 but my first serious year as a collector was 1984.  For this reason, the 1984 Topps set will always be special to me and among my favorite designs.  Although Mattingly made his major league debut late in the 1982 season, he was not included on either Topps’ 1983 base or Traded sets.  Thus, Mattingly’s first appearance on a Topps card came with his 1984 rookie.  Mattingly’s 1983 stat line on the back of the card was good for a first-year player—4 home runs, 32 RBI, and a .283 batting average in 91 games across 305 plate appearances—but not enough to factor into the AL Rookie of the Year vote.  However, Mattingly’s rookie numbers were accompanied by a series of minor league campaigns in which he hit well over .300.  These impressive minor league statistics were a better foreshadowing of the dominance that was to come.  The main shot on the card shows Mattingly, sans his trademark mustache, playing off the first base bag.  Though he is playing first in the picture, the card lists his position as OF-1B since he had spent slightly more of his rookie season patrolling the outfield than manning first.  The card also displays Mattingly wearing a different number than his customary 23 as he used 46 during his initial campaign.  One of the criticisms often directed at the 1984 Topps design is the square headshot of the player inside a solid-colored box.  The previous year’s design used a photo of the player inside a circle featuring a sky or a stadium background so many felt the solid-colored box was a step backward.  Unlike the main shot, the photo of Mattingly inside the box captures him sporting his familiar mustache.  Topps used purple for the lettering and orange for the box, two colors the manufacturer had often featured on Yankees cards for their late 1970s and early 1980s designs.

After spending the opening weeks of the 1984 season bouncing back and forth between the outfield and first, Mattingly finished April with a .324 batting average to cement himself as the club’s starting first baseman.  The young slugger continued scorching opposing pitching and ranked among the AL leaders in batting average throughout the year.  On the final day of the regular season, Mattingly went 4 for 5 to raise his average to .343 and in the process passed veteran teammate Dave Winfield to win the AL batting title.  In addition, Mattingly’s 207 hits and 44 doubles also led the AL while his 110 RBI tied him with Eddie Murray for fifth-best in the junior circuit.  He also showcased his superb contact skills, striking out just 33 times and ranking second to only Marty Barrett with 18.3 at bats per strikeout.  Mattingly’s excellent sophomore campaign also earned him a fifth-place finish in the AL MVP vote.  New York concluded the season with a solid 87-75 record, good for third place in the AL East, but a full 17 games behind the dominant Detroit Tigers who raced out to an early division lead and never looked back.  Had the Yankees been able to present more of a challenge to the Tigers, Mattingly may very well have won the AL MVP since there was no clear front-runner for the award.

While Mattingly’s 1984 Topps features him playing off the bag on defense, his 1985 card shows him leading off the bag as a base runner.  Topps once again used purple on the Yankees cards in this set but this time opted for a shade that has a slightly more blueish hue.  Mattingly’s 1985 Topps marks the last time during his playing career that he appears clean shaven on his main Topps card.  Although I opened dozens of packs of Topps in 1984, I never was fortunate enough to pull a Mattingly rookie.  By the time I became a fan of the slugger, his 1984 Topps was selling for prices that were out of my childhood budget.  It wasn’t until years after his retirement that I finally got around to purchasing Mattingly’s rookie.  I did, however, buy his more reasonably-priced 1985 Topps at a hobby shop shortly after becoming his fan.  While I had loved the design of the 1984 Topps and bought packs every chance I could get, I found the look of the 1985 series underwhelming and my interest in collecting temporarily waned.  But, as you get older, often times even the stuff you didn’t care for when you were young becomes nostalgic and you grow to have more of an appreciation for it later on.  That is certainly the case for me with the 1985 Topps set.

1986 Topps
Mattingly followed up his excellent sophomore campaign with an even more dominant 1985 season.  Mattingly led the AL with 145 RBI, well in front of Eddie Murray’s runner-up total of 124.  Mattingly also ranked among the AL top-five in the other Triple Crown categories with his .324 batting average good for third-highest and his 35 home runs slotting in fourth-best, only a handful behind the 40 of league-leader Darrell Evans.  Mattingly finished atop the AL in doubles for the second year in a row with 48 while also pacing the circuit with 86 extra-base hits and 370 total bases.  In addition, the young slugger’s 211 hits trailed only Wade Boggs.  Despite Mattingly’s incredible season, the Yankees had to settle for second place, finishing just a pair of games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in a close division race.  New York got off to a slow start and were unable to catch Toronto who took over the division lead for good in mid-May.  Mattingly did his best to help his club catch the Blue Jays, being named AL Player of the Month for both August and September as he hit .350 from August 1-on with 23 home runs and 66 RBI in 62 games.  Over that stretch, the Yankees went 42-20.  Although, New York fell short of making the postseason, Mattingly was recognized for his outstanding campaign, winning the AL MVP.  He picked up 23 of 28 first-place votes with the remaining five going to the runner-up, George Brett.  Mattingly’s award-winning season also included his first of what would be three straight Silver Sluggers.  In addition, the slick-gloved first baseman was recognized for his defense, winning the first of five consecutive Gold Gloves.

After being unimpressed with Topps’ 1985 design, when I opened my first pack of their 1986 offering, I jumped back into collecting with both feet and bought cards with more frequency than ever before.  Mattingly’s 1986 Topps immediately was one of my favorites of this set and will always be memorable to me because it was the first card of the slugger I pulled out of a pack.  The black and white colors featured throughout this card are in perfect symmetry.  Some of the color coordination is coincidental like the black and white borders, the Topps logo in right corner, and the player’s name lettering at the bottom.  Other parts are intentional such as the team lettering at the top and the position bubble.  The black and white design fits the image of the mustached Mattingly, eye black smeared across his face, clad in New York’s midnight navy pinstriped home jersey, dropping his bat as he jogs out of the batter’s box after making contact.

Throughout Mattingly’s career, the Triple Crown line of home runs, RBI, and batting average along with hits were the most commonly used stats to evaluate a slugger.  However, in the last couple of decades, advanced metrics like WAR and OPS+ have become the primary tools to judge hitters.  In addition, previously overlooked stats such as walks, OBP, and runs scored are now viewed alongside the Triple Crown and more traditional means of evaluation.  As I learned about baseball statistics, seeing the bold and italicized league-leading numbers on the back of Mattingly’s card let me know he was a phenomenal hitter.  The one statistic of Mattingly’s that stood out to me more than any other was his eye-popping 145 RBI which was the highest total since George Foster’s 149 in 1977.  During my main baseball card collecting years, which ranged from 1983 to 1995, no one was able to match Mattingly’s RBI mark.  The closest any hitters came over that period of time were Andre Dawson and Mark McGwire, whose respective totals of 137 and 134 were each attained in 1987, a season which saw scoring reach unusually high levels due to a curiously live baseball known as the “rabbit ball.”  Mattingly at least owed some of his lofty RBI total to the presence of Rickey Henderson at the top of the batting order.  Prior to the 1985 season, New York acquired the speedy Henderson from the Oakland Athletics in multi-player trade.  Henderson finished 1985 with a superb .419 OBP, led the AL with 80 stolen bases, and also paced the circuit by scoring an astonishing 146 times in 143 games.  Similar to how Mattingly’s 145 RBI stood out in this era, Henderson’s 146 runs scored was the highest total since Ted Williams crossed the plate 150 times in 1949.  While Mattingly took home MVP honors for his brilliant campaign, voters also recognized Henderson’s excellence as he finished third in the election.  Mattingly and Henderson played together from 1985 to 1988.  During their four seasons as teammates, the combination of Henderson’s top of the order on-base skills and Mattingly’s timely hitting from the heart of the lineup fueled New York’s potent offense.  This was never more apparent than in 1985 when Henderson was driven in 56 times by Mattingly and the Yankees led the AL in scoring.

1987 Topps
Mattingly’s dominance continued into 1986 with another marvelous campaign.  The reigning MVP both paced the league and set career highs with 238 hits, 53 doubles, and 388 total bases.  Mattingly achieved another personal-best by hitting .352.  Only the presence of perennial batting champion Wade Boggs’ .357 mark kept him from taking home the batting crown for a second time.  Mattingly also ranked among the AL leaders with 31 home runs and 113 RBI.  New York once again finished second in the AL West, this time five and a half games behind the Boston Red Sox.  Mattingly did his best to help the Yankees catch the Red Sox down the stretch, batting .434 during a career-high 24-game hitting streak which ran from August 30 through September 26.  He was also named the AL Player of the Month for second September in a row.  Mattingly drew ample MVP support, garnering five first-place votes and finishing runner-up to Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens in the election.

For their 1987 design, Topps used wood grain borders that were similar to the look of their 1962 and 1968 sets.  It took a while for me to warm up to the wood grain design since it clashed with the colors of several teams, particularly the blue jerseys of the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays, who were two of my favorite teams to collect cards of.  However, the refined wood grain design complements Mattingly’s classic Yankees pinstripes while the red box at the bottom of the card matches the red from the team’s logo.  The shot of Mattingly shows the slugger in the batter’s box, readying for the pitch.  Although I felt Topps had taken a step backward with their 1987 set, it didn’t stop me from buying oodles of packs.  Over time, the wood grain design grew on me and now this is one of the main sets I associate with my childhood.

That same year, I purchased my first baseball poster when I brought home a Starline poster of Mattingly.  I remember my friend Eric having a Mattingly poster and, like countless other fans, I wanted a framed shot of the slugger to proudly display in my room.  The poster image captures Mattingly at a similar angle to the one used for his 1987 Topps.  However, this shot, taken a moment later in his batting sequence, showcases his coiled stance as he is crouched down, awaiting the delivery of the ball.  Starline’s poster designs always did a good job of using colors that matched the ones used by the player’s team.  The navy borders, white lettering, and thin square outline form a suitable frame for the photo of Mattingly in his pinstriped uniform.  A year or so after buying Mattingly’s Starline poster, I came across a poster which features six Yankee legends—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Thurman Munson.  I felt the six legends each symbolized a different decade of success for the franchise with Ruth representing the 1920s, Gehrig the 1930s, DiMaggio the 1940s, Mantle the 1950s, Maris the 1960s, and Munson the 1970s.  It was fitting to bring this portrait into my room alongside my poster of Mattingly who I felt was the Yankee great who best represented the 1980s.  Years later I found out the image of the six legends had been originally used for the Yankees 1985 yearbook.

1988 Topps
The 1987 season was an eventful one for Mattingly.  In early June, he was in the midst of a 15-game hitting streak when he was placed on the 15-day disabled list due to injured discs in his lower back.  Mattingly shook off the injury and on July 8 hit a pair of homers in a 13-4 win against the Minnesota Twins to begin a stretch in which he went deep in eight consecutive games.  With his incredible eight-game stretch, Mattingly matched the record previously set by Dale Long in 1956.  Mattingly tied a different home run mark on September 25 when he hit a grand slam during an 8-4 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.  The bases loaded shot was Mattingly’s fifth of the year, equaling the single-season grand slam mark attained by Ernie Banks in 1955 and Jim Gentile in 1961.  Four nights later, Mattingly broke the record with his sixth slam in a 6-0 win against the Boston Red Sox.  Mattingly finished the year with a .327 batting average, 30 home runs, and 115 RBI despite being limited to 141 games due to his back injury.

On the surface, Mattingly’s 1987 season looks like a conglomeration of his previous two campaigns as his batting average was similar to his 1985 mark and his home run and RBI totals were almost identical to his 1986 numbers.  However, 1987 was the year of the “rabbit ball” which saw home runs hit at a never-before-seen rate and runs scored per game rise to its highest level since 1950.  Thus, Mattingly’s 1987 numbers, while statistically similar to 1985 and 1986, were actually a slight step below those prior campaigns.  Modern analytics bare out this difference as Mattingly’s 146 OPS+ for 1987 was below the 156 figures he produced in both 1984 and 1985 as well as his 161 mark from 1986.  Moreover, after pasting his name all over the leaderboard in such categories as hits, doubles, RBI, and batting average over the past three seasons, 1987 represented the first time since his rookie season that Mattingly did not lead the AL in any major offensive category.  Nevertheless, Mattingly’s 1987 campaign was impressive and would represent a career-year for most players.  The Yankees led the AL East standings as late as August 8 but struggled down the stretch and did not factor into the late season division race, slipping to fourth place by the end of the campaign.  The combination of missing time due to his back injury and New York’s inability to stay in the division race, kept Mattingly out of the conversation for the MVP but the slugger still received his share of support and finished seventh in the election.

I remember opening my first pack of 1988 Topps and immediately loving the design of the card.  After a year of looking at wood grain, the clean white borders of the 1988 set were a welcomed sight.  As I explore the cards of my youth, I noticed that I preferred designs that featured clean white borders.  This makes sense because the 1983 and 1984 Topps sets that served as my entry into the hobby both featured clean white borders.  For their 1988 set, Topps used a different color for the team’s name, the player name, and the thin square box which outlines the photo.  Examining other cards in this set, it appears Topps tried to choose colors that matched the team’s uniforms but, for the most part, was only partially successful.  With the purple box outlining Mattingly’s photo, we see the return of one of Topps’ favorite colors to use for the Yankees.  In addition, there is also the reappearance of red from the previous year, this time spelling out the team’s name.  Although I really liked this set when I was younger, I notice that on a lot of cards the player’s head covers the team’s name which can look pretty goofy.  Fortunately, on Mattingly’s card his head only obstructs the bottom of a couple of the letters.  Another odd choice is Topps’ use of yellow for the strip surrounding the slugger’s name.  The photo of Mattingly is the closest shot Topps has used for his main card.  It is also the first standard issue Topps card featuring the former MVP in the Yankees’ road gray uniform.  The image of Mattingly is similar in sequence to his 1986 Topps where he is shown in the process of dropping his bat and running out of the batter’s box after making contact.  Here we see Mattingly, bat in hand, taking a longer gaze at the ball, preparing to run but with less urgency.  By the expression on his face, it looks as though he has hit a fly ball that he hopes will drop but fully expects to be caught.

1989 Topps
After the year of the “rabbit ball”, the 1988 campaign saw the beginning of a five season stretch in which AL scoring was much lower in comparison to 1987.  For the second year in a row, Mattingly made a trip to the 15-day disabled list, this time being sidelined at the end of May after straining a muscle in his right rib cage during pregame batting practice.  The injury limited Mattingly to 144 games and he finished the campaign with 18 home runs, 88 RBI, and a .311 batting average.  While Mattingly’s stats were impressive, they represented another step down from his peak seasons as evidenced by his 128 OPS+.  This also marked the first time since his rookie campaign that he failed to draw support in the MVP vote.  Although Mattingly did not stand atop the AL leaderboard in any of the major offensive categories, due to his outstanding contact skills he was able to pace the circuit with 20.7 at bats per strikeout.  New York led the standings for the majority of the first two and a half months of the season but ultimately wound up at the tail end of a razor close five-team division race despite finishing just three and a half games behind the AL East champion Red Sox.

I always felt the 1989 Topps was an appropriate follow up to the 1988 set.  Topps retained the large white borders from 1988 while also bringing back the square outline, albeit with rounded corners on the top left and bottom right.  Topps made a nice change by moving the team’s name towards the bottom of the card and placing it overtop of the player’s name to form a ribbon extending out of the rounded right corner.  The card manufacturing giant also did an excellent job of matching the team and player names with colors similar to their club’s uniform.  The color coordination is evident on the Yankees cards where the ribbon is decorated with a pleasing blend of purplish-blue and gray while the player’s name is spelled out in white lettering.  For the third consecutive year, we see the presence of red on Mattingly’s card, this time forming the square outline.  The use of red here is the only curious color selection on the card.  In my opinion, black or a different shade of blue would have been a more suitable choice for the outline.  Mattingly is shown wearing the Yankees’ practice or spring training jersey with his first baseman’s glove tucked under his arm, having just walked into the dugout from the field.  Mattingly’s eyes are fixed on the freshly grabbed bat in his hands.  The image captures all of the slugger’s trademark facial features: his perfectly groomed mustache, lantern jaw, and cleft chin.  While I certainly have good memories of collecting 1989 Topps during my childhood, I don’t think I truly appreciated the superb design or the classic shot of Mattingly.  I now put this card alongside his 1986 Topps as my favorite of the slugger.  For the remainder of Mattingly’s career, I considered Topps’ card designs hit-or-miss.  Aside from 1992, I never collected packs as aggressively as I had during the 1980s.  Thus, Mattingly’s 1989 card is the final in a memorable succession of Topps cards that I associate with the first baseman’s peak seasons.

Mattingly finished out the decade with yet another solid campaign, batting .303 with 23 home runs and 113 RBI.  After back-to-back seasons with stints on the disabled list, he was able to stay healthy throughout 1989 and play in 158 games.  The slick-gloved first baseman continued to be one of the game’s most respected players and among its best on defense, earning both his sixth straight trip to the All-Star Game and his fifth consecutive Gold Glove Award.  Mattingly ranked in the top-ten of several categories, with his 113 RBI eclipsed only by Ruben Sierra’s mark of 119.  Mattingly’s RBI total was even more impressive considering New York traded leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson back to Oakland on June 21, depriving the slugger of his main table setter.  On top of that, power-hitter Dave Winfield missed the entire season due to a back injury.  Without the presence of Winfield, who normally batted behind him in the order, Mattingly had little protection in the lineup.  Newer metrics show Mattingly’s 1989 campaign to be a slight improvement over the prior year as he raised his OPS+ from 128 to 133.  Ever the contact hitter, Mattingly averaged a career-best 21.0 at bats per strikeout, good for second-best in the AL and his sixth straight finish of fourth or higher.  Nevertheless, he was unable to keep the Yankees from nosediving to a 74-87 record and suffering their first losing season since 1982.  Despite his lofty RBI total, New York’s poor record prevented Mattingly from drawing serious MVP consideration and he finished fifteenth in the election.

The 1989 campaign represented the end of a spectacular six-year run in which Mattingly averaged 203 hits, 43 doubles, 27 home runs, and 114 RBI, while batting .327.  Over that six-year span Mattingly posted a 147 OPS+ and struck out an average of just 34 times.  Unfortunately, the back problems that sent Mattingly to the disabled list in 1987 resurfaced in a much more serious way during 1990 and caused the first baseman to miss nearly a third of the season.  Mattingly continued to be plagued by back problems and went from being one of the game’s most dominant sluggers to a slightly above average hitter over the remainder of his career.  However, Mattingly was still regarded as one of the finest defensive players in the game and picked up four more Gold Glove Awards to bring his total to nine for his career.  Among first basemen, Mattingly’s nine Gold Gloves are the most attained by an AL player and trail only the 11 achieved by Keith Hernandez.  Mattingly was also recognized for his leadership qualities and was named captain of the Yankees prior to the 1991 campaign.  Mattingly finally experienced his first taste of the postseason in 1995, batting a scorching .417 during a closely-contested ALDS in which New York was narrowly defeated by the Seattle Mariners.  After taking the 1996 season off, Mattingly officially announced his retirement on January 22, 1997, bringing an end to his distinguished 14-year playing career.  Later that year, on August 31, the Yankees held a ceremony to retire Mattingly’s number 23.

----by John Tuberty

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