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Box Sets Haven’t Lost Their Appeal

by Paul Angilly
March 30, 2004

I was glancing through the price guide section of a recent issue of Beckett Baseball Collector and I saw something that took me by surprise -- a listing (with a picture, no less) for the 1987 Fleer Hottest Stars boxed set.

With the coveted "up arrows" next to the price, the complete sealed boxed set listed at $30 to $60 (March 2004 issue), with the prized single -- a rookie-year card of Barry Bonds -- priced at $15 to $40.

With Bonds just two home runs behind Willie Mays on the all-time career list (with 658 HRs), demand for his cards has never been higher. Bonds is also 56 homers behind Babe Ruth’s career total of 714 and 97 behind Hank Aaron’s record 755. After hitting 46 and 45 homers the past two seasons, fans are anticipating that Bonds could pass the 700 mark before the end of the season.

With that in mind, investors are gobbling up copies of his cards, especially professionally-graded rookie cards.

Although not technically considered a rookie card since it did not appear in packs, the 1987 Fleer Hottest Stars Bonds card (issued the same year as his "official" rookie cards) has become a popular card to have graded. Because of the way the card was distributed -- issued with complete sets in a thin cardboard box, rather than sealed wax wrappers -- most copies of the card earn high marks from professional graders.

According to the Beckett magazine, professionally-graded mint copies of the card are selling for $70 to $120, with a PSA 10 graded specimen recently selling for $510. Not bad, considering the whole set could be purchased just a few years ago for pocket change.

The 1987 Fleer Hottest Stars set was one of more than 60 different small (33- or 44-card) sets issued by Fleer and Topps for sale at retail chain stores between 1982 and 1991 -- with more than 50 of them coming in the four-year span of 1987-1990. The cards, commonly referred to as "boxed sets," came as complete sets inside a sealed cardboard box for a retail price of about $2 to $3.

Most of the sets could only be found in specific retail stores. For instance, the 1987 Fleer Hottest Stars set was exclusive to Revco drug stores. Other stores carrying various boxed sets included Walgreen’s, McCrory’s, 7-Eleven, Ben Franklin, Cumberland Farms, Eckerd’s, Toys ’R Us, Kay-Bee toy stores, Hills department stores, Kmart, Woolworth’s, Rite-Aid and Ames.

The decade-long phenomenon hit its peak in 1988, when Fleer issued 10 different boxed sets, Topps had six different and even Sportflics got into the action with a 25-card "Gamewinners" boxed set (the only issue of its type to ever come from a company other than Topps or Fleer).

The fad began innocently enough in 1982, when Topps produced a special 44-card Kmart 20th Anniversary set, featuring one card each for the A.L. and N.L. MVPs over the prior 20 years, along with three highlights cards. When first issued, the set was very popular, especially since it included legends such as Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, among others. But due to massive overproduction, the complete boxed set could easily be found for as little as 10 cents in the mid- to late-’80s.

Despite that, Fleer issued its first boxed set in 1985, simply called "Limited Edition." Like all of Fleer’s boxed sets, it showed current players with a unique design and included 44 cards plus an assortment of team logo stickers.

Also in 1985, Topps produced its second boxed set. The 44-card All-Time Record Holders set was originally made for Woolworth’s department stores, but was re-issued two years later in a Boardwalk and Baseball (amusement theme park in Florida) box.

In 1986, Fleer continued the "Limited Edition" line and added "League Leaders" and "Sluggers vs. Pitchers" sets. Topps countered with a Kay-Bee "Young Superstars of Baseball" set -- a nice issue with retro 1971-style backs -- and Woolworth’s "Super Stars." The two Topps sets that year set the company’s pattern over the next five years: 33-card sets of current players with high-gloss fronts.

"Limited Edition," "League Leaders" and "Sluggers vs. Pitchers" all returned for Fleer in 1987, along with six new sets: "Award Winners," "All-Stars," "Exciting Stars," "Game Winners," "Hottest Stars" and "Record Setters."

Topps returned in 1987 with a Kmart 25th Anniversary set called "Stars of the Decades," plus a Boardwalk and Baseball "Top Run Makers" set. It also continued the Kay-Bee "Superstars of Baseball" line and introduced sets for Toys ’R Us ("Rookies") and Woolworth’s ("Highlights") that would continue each year through 1991.

With major baseball card issues numbering more than 50 per year these days, it may seem hard to believe that collectors were overwhelmed by just over a dozen different small boxed sets in 1988, but it happened. In the days before eBay, it was very hard to track down all the various boxed sets issued, especially since some of them were only available in chain stores that don’t have outlets in this part of the country.

Ben Franklin stores had Fleer’s "All-Stars" set (upon which the design for the 2003 Fleer Platinum set was based), Cumberland Farms offered Fleer’s "Exciting Stars," Eckerd’s had Fleer’s "Record Setters," Kay Bee stores had Fleer’s "Team Leaders" and Topps’ "Superstars of Baseball," Revco offered Fleer’s "Hottest Stars" and Topps’ "League Leaders," 7-Eleven had Fleer’s "Award Winners," Toys ’R Us was the place to find both Fleer’s "MVPs" and Topps’ "Rookies," Walgreen’s offered Fleer’s "League Leaders," K mart had "Memorable Moments" from Topps, Rite-Aid offered Topps’ "Team MVPs" and Woolworth’s sold Topps’ "Highlights" set. Fleer also made "Superstars" (a continuation of its "Limited Edition" line) and "Sluggers vs. Pitchers" available at a variety of retail stores.

Fleer cut back in 1989, offering just six boxed sets, then issued its final four boxed sets in 1990. Topps issued six boxed sets in each of those years.

Topps’ 1991 Toys ’R Us "Rookies" and Woolworth’s "Highlights" issues have (so far) marked the last boxed sets of this type ever produced.

About the author
Paul Angilly is a sports reporter for The Bristol Press in Connecticut, and has been collecting sports cards and memorabilia for 30 years. He is not a dealer, nor does he make a profit from buying and selling cards. His weekly sports card and memorabilia collecting column appears each week in The Bristol Press and several other daily newspapers in Connecticut.

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