From Boom to Bust: The Junk Wax Era of Baseball Cards

Ken Griffey Jr. Junk Wax Era Card

Last Updated On: September 22nd, 2023

The 1970s and early 1980s began as an excellent time for the sports card hobby. Demand was high, interest was red-hot, and baseball still played a central role in American culture.

But the hobby was hurtling toward a cliff that became known as the Junk Wax Era.

In this article, we’ll investigate the Junk Wax Era, diagnose its causes, explore where (if any) value exists among cards produced from that time, and then what lessons can be gleaned from this period. 

What is the Junk Wax Era?

The Junk Wax Era of sports card collecting violated (probably) the most fundamental law of economics: when supply goes up, demand (or value) goes down.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the hobby flourish. But this period also saw the hobby go from an entertaining pastime to a savvy future-saver. In short, the hobby went from being about collecting to investing. Even the Wall Street Journal took sports cards seriously as “hedges” against inflation and termed them “nostalgia futures,” per author Davie Jamieson in 2010. 

But its professionalization would go on to have dire consequences for the hobby.

What period defines the Junk Wax Era?

The Junk Wax Era is traditionally pegged as the seven-year window between 1986 and 1993. 

Why it became known as the ‘Junk Wax Era’

In sports card collecting, “wax” refers to unopened boxes of cards or packs, which are usually sealed in wax-like plastic. Collectors from this era often hoarded these boxes and refused to open them, with the idea being that they would naturally increase in value over time, with the most valuable cards being those which were unopened, thus lacking wear and tear and more likely to receive a PSA 10 Gem Mint grading.

Now, though, we know that many of these boxes are worthless. They are, for good measure, junk. Reams of cards from this era can be purchased for one cent per card. 

But this still begs the question of why. How did we end up in this Junk Wax Era to begin with?  

Card Production and Market Saturation

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, two things combined to usher in the Junk Wax Era. First and most obviously was the expansion of the hobby, which resulted in massive overprinting to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for the product. 

New York times headline from Junk Wax Era reads "A Grand-Slam Profit May Be in the Cards"
New York Times articles like this one from 1988 helped legitimize sports cards as an investment (Source: New York Times)

Second, and perhaps less obvious, was the engine behind this demand. As noted, the hobby became more professionalized. This forced more significant swaths of the public to consider the field as a sound investment rather than a childish hobby. As a response, card companies overproduced their products and began tailoring them more to the investment class rather than the hobby class. And when the cards were produced for those in the hobby, they were often low-quality, low-frill, and, frankly, flat-out boring.  

This suggests that at least part of the value of sports cards comes from the sentimentality attached to certain cards. That’s what companies overlooked when producing cards with expressed purpose that they would increase in value. 

Yet a card itself has little intrinsic value. They are, at base, a photograph on cheap cardboard. 

Its value all comes down to external factors like rarity, condition, player performance, and the sentimentality and nostalgia associated with card collecting.

Expansion of card companies and their impact on production

During the Junk Wax Era, a slew of new card companies entered the hobby. The floodgates opened up in 1980 when Fleer successfully sued Topps’ monopoly on baseball cards. As a result, licensing exploded and new card companies cropped up, including Score (1988) and Upper Deck (1989).

In addition, Topps brought back the Bowman brand in 1989, which had been discontinued since the 1950s. Today, Bowman is one of the premier MLB brands, with many high-end rookie cards coming under the Bowman name. 

More competition spurred the need for innovation in the industry. And no brand introduced as many innovations as Upper Deck, which improved the card stock, employed hologram logos, and put out special tamper-proof packaging.

As a result, Upper Deck was able to charge more for its cards (up to 99 cents per pack), which contributed to the idea that these cards would seriously grow in value over time, as compared to the far-less expensive competition. 

Finally, two publications fundamentally changed the hobby in the 1980s. Tuff Stuff and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly provided catalogs that attempted to estimate the price of various cards. Before, most of the hobby’s card value was based on speculation; Tuff Stuff and Beckett helped legitimize and professionalize the industry, giving credence to the idea that the hobby was more than just a leisure activity. 

Beckett Price Guide Mantle and Ripken Jr. Cards on Front
Catalogs like Beckett’s helped professionalize the hobby (Source: Beckett)

Excessive levels of card printing and distribution

The competition and new publications were nice, but it also helped that the hobby experienced a burst of activity in the 1970s and ‘80s. The flurry of activity was capped off by the sale of a Honus Wagner card for $100,000 in 1988 (adjusted for inflation, that price would be $252,000 in 2023). And look no further than the sale of Beckett catalogs as a symbol of the hobby’s health: 

“We walked the school hallways in the ‘80s with our Becketts sandwiched between our textbooks, and we followed the price fluctuations of our favorite players with slavish devotion. Beckett’s valuations served as the foundation for all card trades.”

Dave Jamieson recalled of the era in 2010

Eventually, card companies caught on to this boom. On the eve of the Junk Wax Era, the hobby had perhaps its greatest base to date: the card-crazed youth that had always been there and the investment-focused adults who had been persuaded of trading cards’ likely ever-long value. 

Upper Deck, Fleer, Topps, and the like were all too happy to give the people exactly what they wanted. 

Except, they might have given them…too much. 

Baseball cards from 1989 are the fourth-most graded year in PSA’s history at 764,066 total cards graded, trailing only 2020, 2018, and 2019. 1987 isn’t far behind, with over half-a-million total cards graded from that year.  

PSA graded baseball cards by year

To compare, PSA has graded only about 155,000 cards from 1979, just a few years from the Junk Wax Era. 1977 was roughly the same, with around 163,000 cards graded by PSA. 

And keep in mind, these are only cards graded by PSA. Consider the other grading companies, and countless more still sitting in sealed wax in attics across the country.

According to one estimate, companies produced 81 billion cards per year in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That shakes out to about 300 cards per person living in the United States. Cards were everywhere.

The market was flooded.  

Impact on the card collecting hobby

The Junk Wax Era’s effect on the card-collecting hobby is what one might expect. Card sales continued to climb, but as those like Upper Deck set new bars in cost, the non-investors (e.g. children) who once made up the hobby’s bedrock were effectively priced out. 

Gradually, so too did the investors leave the hobby. Once it became clear that companies had vastly overpriced — and by extension, nerfed the value of — cards, those looking for alternative investments moved on to other collectibles (like…Beanie Babies).  

While at its peak, the sports card industry was reeling in one billion dollars annually, the market cooled considerably. Before the most recent boom, during the COVID-19 pandemic, sports card revenues had fallen to roughly $200 million per year.

It might also go without saying, but most of the cards from the Junk Wax Era have failed to retain any value. For instance, a sealed 1990 Topps Baseball set of 792 cards can be had on eBay for less than $30. The cost to purchase the same set in 1990? $30. Not even inflation over a 30-plus year window has helped increase its nominal value.

Noteworthy Cards and Sets of the Era

Of course, not every card from this era is absolute junk. A slew of superstar rookies took the field (though the impending Steroid Era certainly negatively affected a few players’ prices). 

The most iconic baseball cards of the era

The list of impactful rookies from this era is extensive. Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Derek Jeter, Jose Canseco, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas all got their starts during this period. 

Of those, Griffey’s card is inarguably the most iconic from the era. He defined the late 20th century of baseball as a supremely gifted athlete who eschewed steroids when the rest of the league drifted in the opposite direction. It’s no surprise, even his rookie card, a 1989 Upper Deck, was #1.

1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie Card #1 PSA 10 Gem Mint
1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie Card #1 PSA 10 Gem Mint

Another iconic baseball card of the Junk Wax Era is Mariano Rivera’s 1992 Bowman #302. Here, Rivera looks as cool and breezy as he did on the mound for the New York Yankees. 

And then there’s the 1993 Derek Jeter Topps Rookie Card #98. It’s not the most valuable Jeter rookie card (more on that in a moment), but the iconic print would go on to influence Vladimir Guerrero’s 2019 rookie card.  

Finally, Randy Johnson’s 1989 Fleer Rookie Card looks rather boring on the surface. But a closer look reveals something far more interesting. Just over his right shoulder is a sign for Marlboro, a cigarette manufacturer. Marlboro’s inclusion was so controversial that subsequent versions of the card blacked out the sign. 

Randy Johnson Marlboro Junk Wax Era rookie card
Randy Johnson’s 1989 Fleer Rookie Card PSA 8 NM-MT

Key sets of the Junk Wax Era

Unsurprisingly, the 1989 Upper Deck 800-card set is one of the key sets of the Junk Wax Era. As mentioned, Upper Deck changed up the game with its product design, and the 1989 inaugural run is one of the very best. Included among this set is the iconic Griffey rookie #1, as well as Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield rookies. 

Next up is the 1992 Bowman. Fresh off its resurrection by Topps, the 1992 Bowman featured Bowman Prospects for the first time, the same line that collectors still associate with baseball rookie stardom. The set also introduced its own innovation, abandoning its oft-used brown cardstock for a lighter version. That new color can be best seen in the Rivera rookie card from this set. 

One of the most aesthetically pleasing sets from this era is the iconic 1993 SP from Upper Deck. This set epitomized Upper Deck’s attempt to create a card that appealed to the high-minded investor: it was shiny, the set was limited, and featured a handful of excellent rookies, including Jeter and Johnny Damon.

1993 SP Foil Johnny Damon Rookie Card #273 PSA 9 MINT
1993 SP Foil Johnny Damon Rookie Card #273 PSA 9 MINT

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the 1987 Topps set. This inclusion is less about the set itself; its status in this era has held up largely because the 1987 rookie class was stellar. Greg Maddux, Bo Jackson, Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin, and Rafael Palmeiro all feature. But the cream of the crop was Barry Bonds, who is caught swatting with a still-slender frame that would go on to be the source of significant controversy over his career.

1987 Topps Barry Bonds Rookie Card #320 PSA 9 MINT
1987 Topps Barry Bonds Rookie Card #320 PSA 9 MINT

Junk Wax Era Cards Worth Money

The Junk Wax Era cards worth money are usually rookie cards. With several incredible talents coming up to the big leagues in this era, many of these top-end cards have even held their value, despite rampant overproduction. 

Factors influencing the value of Junk Wax Era cards

Availability, availability, and availability. This is the single greatest factor influencing the value of Junk Wax Era cards. With a quarter-of-a-billion cards alone graded by PSA, it takes a truly special card and a truly special player to overcome this hurdle. 

But that’s not the only factor. The Steroid Era of baseball also affected the value of many cards from this era. Just as the era dampened fan interest in the game, so too did steroids hurt the value of the era’s greatest (supposed) talents.

And then there’s the fact that these cards are usually just plain ugly. Many are dull, easy to reproduce, uninspired looks that speak to the goals these companies had at the time. It was all function and no form.

Most valuable Junk Wax Era baseball cards

The most valuable card from this era is a Derek Jeter rookie. However, it is not the ‘93 Topps, but rather the 1993 SP #279. A PSA 10 Gem Mint card is valued by PSA at $360,000.

Derek Jeter 1993 SP Foil Rookie Card #279 PSA 7 NM
Derek Jeter 1993 SP Foil Rookie Card #279 PSA 7 NM

The values really take a tumble from there. Even Griffey’s Upper Deck #1 in PSA 10 Gem Mint is only valued at $2,050 by PSA, a sign of its massive overproduction. A 1986 #11 Topps Traded Barry Bonds Tiffany, one of the more valuable cards of this era and a low-pop variation to the original, recently sold for $4,900.

Even the easy breezy Rivera rookie valued at a PSA 10 only tops out at about $700. And the Randy Johnson Marlboro print – cool as it is and with a lower pop count since it was eventually discontinued – recently sold for just $271 in PSA 10 condition.

1992 Bowman Mariano Rivera Rookie Card #302 PSA 10 Gem Mint
1992 Bowman Mariano Rivera Rookie Card #302 PSA 10 Gem Mint

Beyond Baseball: The Junk Wax Era in Other Sports

By this era, football and basketball card production was in full swing (one of the most valuable cards from this era is the 1981 Joe Montana Topps rookie, which was produced a few years before the Junk Wax Era). But the two sports went in very different directions in terms of long-term value.


For starters, football cards from the Junk Wax Era have managed to hold onto their values fairly well. Of the most valuable football cards from this period, there are far fewer PSA 10s floating around than is the case for baseball (and as we’ll see, basketball as well). 

Some of the most prominent football cards from this era – the 1986 Topps Jerry Rice, 1990 Score Emmitt Smith, 1988 Topps Bo Jackson, and 1992 Stadium Brett Favre – all have PSA 10 pops of less than 1,000. The most valuable card of the bunch, Rice’s Topps, sold recently for $75,000, which is far more than one could get for nearly any baseball card from the Junk Wax Era. A PSA 10 Bo Jackson and Emmitt Smith rookie also nets over $1,000 typically. 

What’s the reason for this price difference? Once again, it comes down to scarcity. The population counts are simply lower for football cards from this era. But more than that, the PSA 10 pops are lower from this era, mainly because fewer collectors hoarded football cards the same way they did with baseball. This has led to fewer pristine football cards and, by extension, fewer cards with a PSA 10 grade.


Unfortunately, the same is not true of basketball cards. For starters, far more of the most valuable cards from this era have higher PSA 10 pop counts. One notable example, among many of Shaq’s rookie cards, is the Stadium Club Shaquille O’Neal rookie from ’92, which recently sold for only $66 even in PSA 10 condition. The reason for this difference, once again, boils down to how collectors acted during this time. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s was an exciting time for basketball. Between Michael Jordan and the Bulls, the 1992 Dream Team, and thrilling rookies like O’Neal and Scottie Pippen, the moment simply felt special.

As a result, collectors hoarded many cards from this era, leading to a greater number of pristine cards and, by extension, more PSA 10 grades for the best cards of the era.

The End of the Junk Wax Era

The Junk Wax Era came to an end in 1993. By now, there was a clear perception that production had run amok, which led to a cooling off of the hobby. Throw in the dawn of the Steroid Era in the mid-90s and the baseball lockout in ‘94, and the sport as a whole took a serious hit around this time, as well. The 10,000 sports card shops that sprung up during the Junk Wax Era shrank to roughly 1,000. 

Lessons learned

Two clear lessons can be gleaned from the Junk Wax Era. First, a card’s future value is far from guaranteed. As early 20th century cards began going for exorbitant amounts of money during this era, so came the collector’s hope to land the next Mickey Mantle or Honus Wagner. But the values of those cards developed fairly organically and remain the product of many different factors; the value can’t simply be projected onto a card at the moment of production. 

Second, hoarding a card is no guarantee that a card will maintain value. Yes, overproduction hurt the hobby, but so too did the action of collectors who inflated the pop count of pristine cards. 

Of course, this exposes a difficult challenge for the collector: taking a card out of its wax exposes it to the elements and puts it at risk of earning a lower grade if not protected well. But, as this era has taught, keeping it in the wax for a future payday might also be a risky move. 

Perhaps the answer is to just enjoy the hobby for the purest reason possible: it’s fun. Leave money and investment alone; if that’s the only reason you’re in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Modern era of card collecting

After a period of cooling off, the hobby once again took off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Modern tools like eBay have digitized card conventions: anyone with an internet connection can find and bid on a card of their choosing. 

Once again, the hobby is professionalizing and commoditizing. Not only can one bid on cards on eBay, but one can watch live pack breaks on apps like WhatNot. And unlike the Junk Wax Era, the modern era has drawn interest in a host of sports: basketball, football, soccer, and even MMA.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw some of the highest sales on cards in history. In fact, the 25-highest sales for sports cards have all taken place since 2020, including 19 that eclipsed $1,000,000. Before 2020, not a single card ever sold for more than $700,000. Even more eye-opening, only six of those 19 sales were for baseball cards.

2009 National Treasures Stephen Curry Rookie Logoman Autograph became the highest-selling non-baseball card when it sold for $5.9 million in 2021
This National Treasures Stephen Curry Rookie Logoman Autograph became the highest-selling non-baseball card when it sold for
$5.9 million in 2021

Is history repeating itself?

This all begs the question: is history repeating itself? There are already signs that the hobby is slowing down a bit. But a key difference of this era versus the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is the speed to which cards are getting graded. 

Back then, cards were stashed in attics for future use. Eventually, many of those stashed cards were graded as companies like PSA and Beckett grew in popularity. 

Today, though, cards with potential value are often immediately routed to PSA or Beckett for grading. 

Another difference: the hobby itself likely isn’t facing a monumental collapse like ‘92. Demand for high-end cards is still sky-high. But the demand for more affordable cards has gone down as concerns about a recession forced consumers to focus on necessities rather than luxuries like sports cards. 

But there’s another concern: cards are once again everywhere. Beginning in 2018, Topps and other baseball card producers ripped off extensive print runs. Panini has done the same with basketball cards, creating a litany of parallels and variations featuring the same players. 

But card companies also are conscious about print runs. Basketball parallels, for instance, usually correspond to a specific number of cards produced. It’s an easy way to ensure everyone has access to some version of a LaMelo Ball rookie card while also ensuring scarcity for different versions of the same. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Junk Wax Era?

The Junk Wax Era refers to a period when sports cards were rampantly overproduced and hoarded to the point that many of the cards produced completely lost their value. 

When did the Junk Wax Era start and end?

The Junk Wax Era began in 1986 and ended in 1993.  

Why is it called the Junk Wax Era?

The Junk Wax Era got its name from the fact that many collectors during this period kept cards in original packaging in order to retain a card’s future value. But as more collectors did this, it also raised the total number of pristine cards, lowering their scarcity, and, by extension, their value. Rather than appreciate, the cards locked in wax became worthless. 

What are the most valuable Junk Wax Era baseball cards?

The most valuable Junk Wax Era baseball cards are the Derek Jeter 1993 SP #279, Mariano Rivera’s 1992 Bowman #302, Randy Johnson’s 1989 Fleer Marlboro print #381, and Ken Griffey Jr.’s Upper Deck #1 from 1989.


Aside from a great lesson in freshman economics, the Junk Wax Era is a reminder that sports cards don’t always maintain their value over time. It takes a special combination for a card to exceed even $50, let alone the $500,000 that seemed possible during the boom of the 1980s. 

In short, sports card collecting is at its best when done for fun and with an appreciation for the hobby. Anything beyond that isn’t guaranteed.

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