Tuesday, July 4, 2017

1983-1987 Donruss Action All-Stars

The Donruss Company started out in Memphis in 1954 as the creation of two brothers named . . . wait for it . . . Donald and Russell Weiner. Their father, Thomas, had made his money mainly in candy production, and his company was very successful in the 1940s and 1950s with its Super Bubble gum brand. The brothers took charge of dad's company in 1954 and gave it the portmanteau name of Donruss. Don took over as the sole shareholder by the early 1960s.

During the 1960s, they issued non-sports cards for a variety of TV shows including the Monkees. The candy side of the company did well enough to convince General Mills to purchase the company in 1969. 

In the 1970s, Donruss continued issuing TV show cards and also branched into music with sets for Elvis Presley and Kiss. This production of cards led Donruss to be well positioned to enter the baseball card market in 1981, after Fleer successfully challenged Topps's monopoly in court.

For oddball purposes, it apparently took a couple of years for Donruss to feel secure enough in its licensing to take the plunge. That, or perhaps it was the fact that in 1983, Huhtamäki Oyj (a Finnish company) had purchased Donruss, Beatrice US Confections, and the Leaf Candy Company and merged them together into the single entity of Leaf, Inc. (at the time, the maker of Jolly Rancher candies). This would make sense, because Donruss had a big problem in its first two years in distribution.

Thus, the Donruss Action All-Stars set was born and in all likelihood was merely an attempt at leveraging and using the licenses that Donruss had obtained from the MLBPA and MLB.

The Donruss Action All-Stars sets were issued in 1983, 1984, and 1985. The name changed to just "All-Stars" in 1986, but the cards retained their large size. When I posted this first, I had not included 1986 or 1987 due to the name change, but the size of those cards puts them into this set.






Each of the sets includes 60 cards and measure 3.5" x 5". As you can see, Donruss never really settled on a particular presentation format to use as its design until it changed its name to "All-Stars". While there is nothing wrong with that approach, the design over the first three years seemed to be trying to find something that worked. In other words, it's the making of an oddball. 

In 1983, the cards sort of remind me of the 1960 Topps set with an action photo and a portrait -- but it's not an exact match. The gray background on the 1983 cards features the player's team name repeated as a sort of boring wallpaper. The backs of the cards are all red and white with black writing providing a full accumulation of career stats, birthdates and locations, acquisition background, contract status, and career highlights. In its packs, the 1983 set also included 3 pieces of the 63-piece Mickey Mantle puzzle which Baseball Card Pedia calls "one of the toughest Donruss puzzles of the era." This Mantle puzzle was exclusive to the Action All-Stars, as the flagship included a Ty Cobb puzzle.

In 1984, Donruss tried something completely different and was very successful, in my opinion. The fronts of the cards all feature action shots and the backs provide the portrait photo. To my memory, this might be the first time that the backs of a card product featured a full-color photograph. Of course, Donruss brought back that boring wallpaper of team-name-on-gray for use as the portrait background. But, the action photos were excellent and made use of larger card size well. The backs also include all the vital statistics contained on the first card backs but in a smaller and less legible print. As for the puzzle piece, the Ted Williams puzzle was exclusive to Action All-Stars while the flagship included a Duke Snider puzzle. 

The 1985 set came closer to mimicking the flagship design than did the 1983 or 1984 sets. While Donruss's flagship went with a black border with five red lines of varying width beginning about 3/4 of the way down the front of the card, the Action All-Stars drew from that bastion of design -- graph paper -- and used a checked pattern on a black border. Call it the Max Headroom-ification of baseball card design. The light-blue card backs were easier to read than the previous year's efforts, though moving the portrait back to the front made the backs just a bunch of text. For the puzzle pieces, Donruss went with the same Lou Gehrig puzzle that featured in its flagship.

In 1986, Donruss pretty much gave up on trying to be different with the set. The design tracks almost exactly the flagship design. The back changed to include only the 1985 All-Star game stats along with a career All-Star game total. The backs are outlined in yellow with a white background and the team and All-Star Game logo. The packs included the Hank Aaron puzzle from the flagship. But, for the first time, a second insert was included: a pop-up subset of 18 players (the All-Star starters) was included. Here's an example:

1987 was similar to 1986 -- same name, same types of stats on the back, and same inserts included. Donruss did not include the little ball design that was included on its flagship on the middle part of the card on these, however, so the 1987 All-Stars are a pure black border.

Each of these sets through 1986 were packaged in clear cellophane packages so player collectors can add another item to their collection by finding that package with their guy on the front or back. The 1987 set was packed into wax packs.

Eddie Murray, Reggie Jackson, Andre Dawson, Phil Niekro, Johnny Bench, Rickey Henderson, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, Rollie Fingers, Dave Winfield, Rod Carew, Bruce Sutter, George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken Jr., Robin Yount, Mike Schmidt, Gary Carter

Yount, Henderson, Ryan, Dawson, Ripken, Wade Boggs, Carlton, Paul Molitor, Jackson, Ryne Sandberg, Bert Blyleven, Murray, Jim Rice, Tom Seaver, Brett, Schmidt

Tim Raines, Ripken, Murray, Winfield, Rich Gossage, Schmidt, Tony Gwynn, Ryan, Yount, Sandberg, Brett, Rice, Ozzie Smith, Fingers, Boggs, Jackson, Niekro, Carlton, Carter

Gwynn, O. Smith, Henderson, Brett, Murray, Ripken, Winfield, Rice, Fisk, Raines, Ryan, Gossage, Sandberg, Dick Williams, Molitor, Boggs, Blyleven, Sparky Anderson

Winfield, Kirby Puckett, Ripken, Henderson, Boggs, Sandberg, O. Smith, Gwynn, Schmidt, Carter, Whitey Herzog, Brett, Murray, Raines, Rice

It's almost surprising how few Hall of Famers were included in these sets when you think about the fact that these are intended to be "All-Stars." When you look at who might have been included, though, you can see that the mid-1980s have a fair number of stars who have not made it into the Hall. I cannot understand how Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker are not enshrined, for instance. 

For a card issuer that seemed to make a ton of mistakes with its flagship sets, the Action All-Stars are surprisingly lacking in errors and variations.

In 1983, the Reggie Jackson card has a variation where part of his career statistics are covered by the red banner printing that was intended to be behind only the top line information of name, birth date, etc., and the bottom line of contract, acquisition, and career highlights. That mistake was corrected.

1984 does not have any reported errors or variations. Neither does 1985, nor does 1986, nor does 1987.

I recall the first time I saw any packs of these Action All-Stars. My mom had decided to take us to a five-and-dime store in a nearby "city" to where we lived -- not the closest town, but the closest city of about 10,000 people. I seem to recall that it was a Ben Franklin Store in Hartford, Wisconsin. It was there that I found a lot of the more "exotic" cards that I bought with my nickles and dimes in the early 198os.

In my mind's eye, I can still see -- even sort of smell -- that store. The store focused a lot on crafts, and my mom was really into crocheting at the time. So, we would drive over to Hartford (which was about a 10-mile drive) and she would pick up some skeins of yarn. If I was lucky, I'd get to pick up a pack of Fleer or Donruss cards (because Topps was always available at the local grocery store) or I'd run across one of these oddball issues. I had a bunch of the 1983s, very few of the 1984s, none of the 1985s, some of the 1986s, and I don't recall ever seeing the 1987 cards in stores. 

I have always liked these Action All-Star cards. They work great for autographs -- particularly the 1984 set with its action photos on the fronts -- and Ultra Pro has a sheet that fits these cards in perfectly. These sets started to show Donruss as a true competitor to Topps as well. Even in the early 1980s, a card company could not make enough money, it seems, just by leveraging its license through a flagship product only. 

How available are these today in unopened packages? An unopened box of 38 packs each containing three puzzle pieces and six cards will run you $24.71 for the 1983 offering. So, doing the math, that's 114 puzzle pieces (63 is the complete puzzle) and 228 cards. For 36 packs of three puzzle pieces and five cards in 1984, that same price of $24.71 applies. As for 1985, it was packaged with three puzzles pieces and five cards as well, and there is a box available as of this writing on eBay for $14.85. That means in 1984 or 1985, you'll get 108 puzzle pieces and 180 cards in each box. 

In other words, if you buy an unopened box, you are almost guaranteed at least a complete set of the cards, and you have a good chance to complete the puzzle too. It's a fun rip, and it lets you leave some packs unopened.

The 1986 and 1987 cards appear to be less available. There is one unopened box of 1986 and of 1987 on eBay currently for $19.99 each, and the same seller has a lot including a box each from 1986 and 1987 for $39.99. These boxes include 108 puzzle pieces, 108 All-Star cards, and 36 pop-ups. You still have a decent chance to complete these sets, but the correlation has to be good.


  1. I had stacks and stacks of these. There came out in my 'buy everything' era. I still have the Orioles and some of the others floating around someplace. I sent a few off to be signed, one to Fernando Valenzuela that I intended to give to my father-in-law. As far as I remember I never got any back.

  2. I've always been a fan of oversized cards (death to minis!) so I've got a bunch of these, but like you'd been at one time, my collection is weighted towards the earlier end of the series. I have a complete set of 1983, but only one or two cards from 1987.

    If you take requests, maybe you can feature the one-and-done 1984 Donruss Champions set?

  3. I stumbled upon this blog post while searching for the proper sized Ultra Pro sheet for these cards. Let me just say I'm glad I did. What a nice historical breakdown of these sets! Thank you for posting this. I think I may have found my next set(s) to collect. Oh, and another blog to add to my feed.

    I have the same memories of 5/10 stores as you. I can smell it as well. A trip to my grandmothers about twice a month always afforded me the chance to get non-Topps cards. I loved it!

    Now for why I ended up here: What size Ultra Pro fits these best?

    1. Ultra Pro has a 3.5" x 5.25" 4-pocket sheet that I use for these. I have to use them for police cards too because the police cards are so oddly sized.

  4. Probably 20 years ago, I picked up a set of 1983 in a Kevin Savage auction back before there was eBay and you found all of your auctions in the pages of Sport's Collectors Digest. What was unusual about the set was that it was 60 unopened packs, one with each different card in the set on top. I didn't pay a lot for it then and it's unlikely to be worth much more now than what I paid, but to me it's still one of the cooler items I own.

  5. Probably 20 years ago, I picked up a set of 1983 in a Kevin Savage auction back before there was eBay and you found all of your auctions in the pages of Sport's Collectors Digest. What was unusual about the set was that it was 60 unopened packs, one with each different card in the set on top. I didn't pay a lot for it then and it's unlikely to be worth much more now than what I paid, but to me it's still one of the cooler items I own.