The baseball card junk wax era refers to a period of time in the 1980s and 1990s when Topps and its competitors made far more cards than the market could absorb. Excruciatingly high demand prior to 1994 propped up prices somewhat, but prices did not recover after the 1994 baseball strike.
People argue about when the junk wax era started. It could be as early as 1981 but was certainly in full swing by 1987. The end was definite, in 1994, when players went on strike and Bud Selig, the acting commissioner of baseball, cancelled the World Series.
Roots of the baseball card junk wax era in the 1970s
Topps had a monopoly on baseball cards throughout the 1970s, unless you consider Kellogs and Hostess serious competitors. During that decade, Topps steadily increased production. Topps never released its official production numbers, but we can get an idea from the number of graded rookie cards of Hall of Famers how much Topps increased production.
For example, at the time of this writing, PSA had graded 6,382 examples of Mike Schmidt’s 1973 rookie card. But PSA graded 9.141 examples of George Brett’s 1975 card. And PSA graded 18,843 examples of Rickey Henderson’s 1980 card.
It’s impossible to know how much of this population increase is because people became more likely to save cards than throw them out as the decade wore on, so we can’t say for certain that Topps made 50% more cards in 1975 than in 1973, and doubled production again between 1975 and 1980. But we do know that Topps increased production, and looking at the relative scarcity of the valuable cards in various sets gives us an idea how much.
What happened in 1981
A rival gum maker, Fleer, had been trying to break into the baseball card market since the 1950s. In 1980, it finally got the legal go-ahead to produce a full-sized set of contemporary players. A third rival, Donruss, also decided at the last minute to enter the fray. So in 1981, Topps suddenly had to share the market with two rivals for the first time since 1955.
Topps, as the oldest and most established brand, remained the market leader. But all three companies continued producing cards in larger and larger numbers, and they even produced special, smaller sets for retailers who wanted them, starting with Topps’ infamous 1982 Kmart set.
And the market grew to accommodate all three companies’ efforts. Not every retailer carried every product, but it’s not an exaggeration to say baseball cards were almost everywhere in the 1980s. Numerous books and magazines appeared to promote baseball card collecting. And any store that carried any sort of candy and gum had at least one brand of baseball card there too, if not all three.
1987: A pivotal year for junk wax
Some people point to 1987 as the start of the junk wax era. I see it as more of a milestone, because the wheels had been in motion several years before 1987. Baseball cards boomed in popularity around 1987 because of an influx of popular young stars. Wally Joyner and Jose Canseco represented something of a tipping point in 1986, and there was a flood of young stars right behind them who made their debut in the 1987 sets.
And the market accelerated from there. An additional brand, Score, entered the market in 1988, followed by Upper Deck in 1989. Topps even brought back the Bowman brand in 1989, hoping to gain market share with a second brand. Both Score and Upper Deck tried to push the envelope, using higher quality paper and higher resolution printing methods and better photography to produce a more modern and better-looking card.
The growth couldn’t go on forever. What brought it crashing down was 1994, when players went on strike in August. The general public saw it as a catfight between millionaires and billionaires. They didn’t have a lot of sympathy for either side. When they resumed play in 1995, television ratings and attendance dropped, and so did sales of new baseball cards. The value of existing cards crashed as well.
The market consolidated rapidly. Pinnacle, the makers of Score, merged with Donruss in 1996. Fleer’s parent company went bankrupt in 1996, emerged in 1998 and changed hands several times before it went out of business in 2005 and its trading card line was acquired by Upper Deck.