The 1989 Donruss set is controversial, due to the number of variations in it. There are no fewer than six variations of the set, all minor. But there is no effect I can find in the value.
1989 Donruss variations hinge on the presence or absence of a period after the abbreviation “INC” and the number of asterisks in the line “DENOTES LED LEAGUE.” This makes for an interesting and (usually) inexpensive curiosity for completists to chase in an overproduction-era set, but it typically has no effect on the card’s value.
1989 Donruss variations and effect on value
To attempt to confirm or refute the presence of these variations, I went looking for Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards. When a variation makes a difference in the value of a card, the rookie card of a Hall of Famer who was one of the most popular players of his era is where it’s going to show up in a big way. See Thomas, Frank.
It took me five minutes to find three different variations of the Griffey rookie. The hardest part was finding a listing that bothered to show the back, where the variation shows up. I found dealers who have sold in excess of 50,000 cards on Ebay who didn’t bother to show the backs of their Griffey rookie cards. And the grading agencies don’t mention which variation a card is on the 1989 Donruss cards I found.
If the grading agencies don’t care, then nobody cares.
Effect on value
PSA 10-graded Griffey rookies, regardless of variation, consistently sold for between $180 and $240 in the 90-day timeframe that was available on Ebay when I examined them in February 2019. No one mentioned which back the card had. Only about half the listings bothered to show the back. When a listing did show the back, it didn’t make much difference in the price. Several dealers had success selling the cards at $220 via Buy it Now. The auctions ending on a Tuesday or a Thursday evening tended to do slightly better than the ones ending on Sunday, and ending around 8 Central seemed to work better than ending at 9 Central.
Charging 50 cents less for shipping made more difference than showing the back of the card.
But rookie error cards are valuable!
Some people call these error cards, but that’s really a stretch. Yes, in US English, you’re supposed to put a period after an abbreviation. It’s optional in some other English-speaking countries, including the UK. If you’re a stickler, then yes, the 1989 Donruss set offers three backs with errors, and three more backs with variations.
The 1989 Donruss error card scam involves the rookie card of an obscure player, citing an unspecified error. The scam has been successful in slightly increasing the sale prices of this card, from 10 cents to a few dollars. It plays off the perception that error cards are valuable and rookie cards are valuable. Therefore, this rookie error card must be really valuable.
Except it isn’t. See the example of Ken Griffey Jr. None of the Donruss variants push Griffey’s Donruss rookie card higher than the value of his iconic Upper Deck rookie card.
1989 Donruss variations
Donruss was certainly inconsistent in the 1980s, and the 1989 set put its inconsistency on display, just a bit more subtly than it had been in 1981 or 82. There are six total variations in the layout of the back of the 1989 Donruss set, and these variations exist on any player.
The variations involve the presence or absence of a period after the abbreviation, the number of asterisks by the line “Denotes Led League,” and the size of the gap between the player’s statistics and contractual status.
You can find the following combinations:
- one asterisk and a small gap after INC
- two asterisks and a small gap after INC
- one asterisk and a small gap after INC. (note period)
- two asterisks and a small gap after INC. (note period)
- one asterisk and a large gap after INC
- two asterisks and a large gap after INC.
The variations probably occurred because of the number of printing plates Donruss went through in producing millions of cards that year, the height of the junk wax era. In this instance, the people who laid out the plates just weren’t consistent.
Collecting 1989 Donruss variations
If you’re a completist and want a challenge that won’t cost a fortune, try to collect all six variants of your favorite players. If you want a challenge that will keep you occupied for a few years while remaining somewhat inexpensive, try to build complete sets of all six variants.
It’s an obscure challenge involving a set that’s now almost 30 years old, and it’s cheaper than buying new cards. I can tell you from experience that’s a different experience than collecting 30-year-old cards in 1989 was.
If you’re a dealer looking to sell 1989 Donruss cards, taking a second to mention in your listing which variant the card is might help you attract a bid from someone who’s chasing a specific variation. It won’t increase your bottom line every time, but unlike charging 50 cents less for shipping, it doesn’t cost you anything.