The Death of the Retail Branded Set

Growing up in South Florida in the late-80s, I had three baseball card shops I could ride my bike to. If my mother was feeling generous and offered to drive me, I had 7 card shops near-by that were 100% dedicated to sports cards. Not only did I have choices but almost every weekend in malls and hotels all around our city we had weekly or bi-weekly card shows. Baseball card collectors were everywhere and it seemed anywhere you went, you had a chance to find new cards. There were only a few companies printing their flagship sets but many found their way around the system by producing exclusive sets found in retail outlets all over the U.S.

Donruss, Upper Deck, and Pinnacle were building relationships with restaurants like McDonald’s and Denny’s to release their wares. Fleer, a company quickly losing ground to the competition, flooded the market with all-star type sets in the dozens every year. Topps on the other hand was going after big name retail outlets of the time including Ames, Woolworth’s, Toys R’ Us, Kay Bee Toys, and former giant, K-Mart. I had all these issues thanks to my mother spoiling her only child but let me tell you, these cards most definitely did not pass the Pepsi Challenge. I’m not even talking about those awful, airbrushed food releases found in cereal and soda boxes but 100% licensed cards from all the major manufacturers.

For starters, these cards always featured lazy photography. Despite having team logos and colors, collectors young and old looked down on these releases. I could never in a million years trade say an ’87 Kay Bee Toys Canseco for a ’90 Upper Deck. At best, these releases gave collectors early opportunities to pad their collections long before the days of eBay and the like. By 1992, my collection of Jose Canseco was pushing 40 different cards despite not having any of his rookie cards or early-issue releases due to insane prices at the time. To give you an example, in 1993, my aunt bought me Jose’s XRC ’87 Topps Traded card from a show at the mall she worked at. The price tag? $36.

At some point in the early to mid 90s, the baseball card bubble exploded once collectors realized that many of their new cards were printed by the millions and would never reach ’52 Topps Mantle rarity no matter how great the players on those rookie cards would eventually turn out to be. Sadly, there are still collectors sitting on mountains of 1989 Topps Future Star Greg Jefferies and Kevin Maas’ record-setting ’90 Upper Deck card, which never even had a chance to be as iconic as ’89 Upper Deck’s Junior rookie. Almost 30 years later, now in Southwest Florida, there isn’t a single dedicated baseball card shop in my city and thanks to online shopping, there never will be.

Ironically, most of the retailers who gave into the card bubble are long gone. Kay Bee Toys ceased operations in 1997. Ames, 2002. Toys ‘R Us, 2018 and K-Mart is closing 40 stores by March of 2019, after closing 143 locations in 2018. They are on life support. The funny thing is that I always blamed K-Mart for the “error” card you see below. At least, that’s what I assumed when I found in my box set of 1990 Fleer League Leaders, a photograph that had already appeared in Fleer’s 1987 Baseball’s Best set. I was upset, even as a 10-year-old, that Fleer recycled a picture that was likely from Jose’s ’86 season. Of course, my anger was misdirected as it was Fleer’s lazy efforts that caused this mix-up.

Sorry, K-Mart.


I guess this is another reminder that nothing ever stays the same. I have gone from a young, wide-eyed kid to a man pushing 40 and fighting Father Time. Sure, I am still knee-deep in this hobby but I also have a child to keep happy and a job to continue to excel at in order to provide for my own family. Those brands I once ridiculed, like Fleer and Donruss, they too are long gone. At least in their original form. Upper Deck owns the licensing to Fleer / Skybox but no longer produce baseball cards and Panini America owns the rights to Donruss and Pinnacle, but their efforts are sloppy and well below the quality of those retail-branded sets from my youth.

All that is left now are memories of card shops and weekend shows from 1990.


One thought on “The Death of the Retail Branded Set

  1. The internet sure did a number on local card shops… and social media, YouTube, and video games haven’t helped either (since my students would much rather spend their free time doing those three things than sorting and collecting cars). Wonder how many of us will still be collecting in another 30 years.

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