The Knight’s Lance Guest Post: Looking Back at the Legacy of the Legendary Elite Series

December 02, 2011

Editor’s Note: Kevin Wade covers sports collectibles on his blog, The Mojo Beard. In this special contribution to The Knight’s Lance, Wade explores the proud — and still-going-strong — legacy of The Donruss Elite franchise.

There were a lot of changes in the sports collecting hobby in the late 1980s and early 1990s. New companies and sets where entering the market and introducing new concepts and themes. Certified autographs, mainstays today but still needles in the proverbial haystack at the time, started making more appearances and Donruss released one of the earliest serial-numbered sets in the form of The Elite Series. The third head to the beast that is modern collecting, memorabilia cards, wouldn’t pop up for a few more years.

Donruss Elite cards were a big hit upon arrival. They were inserted in regular wax packs and were huge pulls at the time. The set first arrived in 1991 and featured the biggest stars of the day. Each player’s cards were numbered to a then-low 10,000.

You are seeing that right: 10,000! There are base sets these days that have lower print runs. Even at 10,000 per card you didn’t come across The Elite Series cards very often. When perusing display cases at card shows back then, you stopped to take a closer look when you saw an Elite card. The first year of Elite featured a good-looking but pretty straightforward design. They had a little bit of a gloss look but it wasn’t until 1993 that they got what I consider to be the “Elite” look.

The shiny prismatic look of the cards may not seem all that impressive compared to today’s offerings, but in 1993 they were head-turners. The border really pops and the solid color in the middle of the card provides nice contrast. Player photos superimposed over a design had been done before, but these took the concept to new heights. We got to see that a baseball card could be more than a simple player picture on a piece of cardboard.

Elite is one of the most tried and true sets of modern collecting.  It is still being produced 20 years later. Something that can’t be said about many of its early 1990s counterparts.

The numbering and look of these made them, well, elite. The Dave Winfield card is in my collection and has been since shortly after my dad pulled it from a pack back in 1993. I remember staring at it wide-eyed and not believing we had such a rare card in our house.

The Elite set also featured autographs in the form of Elite Signature Series. The early days saw one auto card per year, and they were numbered to a then unimaginably low 5,000. The first year featured Ryne Sandberg and the second had Cal Ripken.

A couple of Hall of Famers ain’t a bad way to get things started. These autos were incredibly rare, some of the first truly exciting chase cards. I still have yet to see either card in person.

When they first arrived, the regular Elite cards sold for more $100, with big name players going much higher. You can now pick up the lower-end guys for $5-$10, with bigger names peaking at about $30. The Cal auto has become a true classic and still draws a few hundred bucks.

These cards are still cool and can add a touch of history to any collection.