Sports Cards: 10 Undervalued Baseball Superstars of the 1990s

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2022

Sports Cards: 10 Undervalued Baseball Superstars of the 1990s

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    The 1990s were the peak of the baseball card boom, and as nostalgia-driven collectors have rejoined the hobby in recent years, that era of collecting has come into focus once again.

    While Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter remain two of the most popular names on the card market even in retirement, other 90s stars like Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Kirby Puckett, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Mike Piazza, Cal Ripken Jr., Ryne Sandberg and others have also seen a slight uptick in interest in recent years.

    However, some players still remain extremely undervalued relative to their peak hobby standing and their career body of work, and that's who we're going to highlight here.

    Ahead we've selected 10 superstars from the 1990s who are undervalued in the hobby, including a look at each player's top rookie card and how much it's selling for based on recent eBay sales.

Jeff Bagwell

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Top Rookie Card: 1991 Stadium Club #388 RC (Recent Sale Price: $4)

    Hall of Fame teammates Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are both largely overlooked in the hobby, and both could have found their way onto this list, but we'll go with Bagwell as the bigger oversight by collectors.

    An immediate hobby darling when he burst onto the scene and won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1991, Bagwell steadily evolved into one of the game's most productive middle-of-the-order threats, peaking in 1994 when he won NL MVP with a 213 OPS+ and 7.7 WAR in 110 games during the strike-shortened season.

    He finished his career just short of the hallowed 500-homer club with 449 long balls, but he ranks among the all-time leaders in OPS+ (149, 40th), RBI (1,529, 52nd) and WAR (79.9, 63rd), and after seven years on the ballot, he finally punched his ticket to Cooperstown in 2017.

    Since he broke camp with the starting first base job in 1991, his rookie cards were included across a wide variety of products, with nine rookies in total. All of them are available for a few bucks, with his 1991 Stadium Club generally viewed as the most popular of the bunch thanks to the premium card stock and attractive photography.

Albert Belle

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Top Rookie Card: 1989 Fleer Update #25 RC (Recent Sale Price: $2)

    One of the most feared sluggers of the 1990s, Albert Belle was the anchor of some of the most potent lineups in MLB history during his time in Cleveland.

    He finished in the top 10 in AL MVP voting five times in a span of six years, including a huge 1995 season when he hit .317/.401/.690 with 52 doubles, 50 home runs, 126 RBI, 121 runs scored and 7.0 WAR, only to finish runner-up to Mo Vaughn in the balloting.

    His prickly personality and a relatively short 12-year career that ended prematurely because of a degenerative hip condition have rendered him as something of a forgotten superstar. But at his best, Belle was as dominant an offensive performer as any of the biggest stars of the 1990s.

    His only true rookie cards are part of the 1989 Fleer Update and 1989 Score Rookie/Traded update sets, and both can be regularly found for $1-2 on eBay. He was included in countless insert sets during the 1990s, so there's a wide variety of cool, low-cost cards available in his collection.

Joe Carter

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Top Rookie Card: 1984 Donruss RC #41 (Recent Sale Price: $6)

    Joe Carter hit one of the biggest home runs in baseball history when he walked off Game 6 of the 1993 World Series to clinch the title for the Toronto Blue Jays.

    He was already 33 years old and well established as one of the league's best run producers when he hit that memorable blast. During the 12-year span from 1986 through 1997, he averaged 29 home runs and 107 RBI per season. He earned MVP votes eight different times and was selected to five All-Star teams during that span.

    A lack of on-base ability (.306 OBP career) and poor outfield defense (-15.8 dWAR) left him well short of superstars status in the eyes of advanced metrics, with just 19.5 WAR to his credit over the course of his 16-year career, but during his playing career he was unquestionably a star.

    He has just one rookie card in the 1984 Donruss set, where he was included as part of the company's inaugural "Rated Rookie" class. It's a difficult one to find in high-grade condition as there were some serious centering issues with that set, but raw versions are readily available for under $10.

Juan Gonzalez

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Top Rookie Card: 1990 Donruss #33 ERR RC RevNeg (Recent Sale Price: $2)

    There are 31 players in MLB history who have won multiple MVP awards.

    That prestigious group includes 23 Hall of Famers, two others (Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols) who are a lock to join them in Cooperstown, and another (Bryce Harper) who is steadily building that type of resume in the prime of his career.

    And then there's Juan Gonzalez.

    The Texas Rangers slugger took home the hardware in 1996 (145 OPS+, 47 HR, 144 RBI) and 1998 (149 OPS+, 45 HR, 157 RBI), and he had five 40-homer seasons in a span of seven years when he was widely regarded as one of the best players in the game. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to just 186 games and 37 home runs after his age-31 season, and speculation about potential steroid use clouded his legacy.

    His rookie card can now be found for pocket change, with the exception of his 1990 Donruss rookie which has a reverse-negative error variation that shows him hitting left-handed and the subsequent corrected version. One of the more iconic error cards of the 90s, both cards still sell for a couple bucks.

Randy Johnson

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Top Rookie Card: 1989 Upper Deck #25 RC (Recent Sale Price: $2)

    There's an easy case to be made that Randy Johnson is one of the 10 greatest pitchers in MLB history, and he belongs right alongside Steve Carlton, Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Whitey Ford and Clayton Kershaw in the conversation for greatest left-hander of all-time.

    He won five Cy Young awards, including four straight after joining the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1999, and his 4,875 career strikeouts trail only Nolan Ryan (5,714) on the all-time list.

    He is also one of just 31 players to accumulate at least 100 WAR over the course of his career, and one of just 11 pitchers on that prestigious list.

    Despite all of that, his rookie cards sell for a few dollars, due in large part to the mass-overproduction in 1989. That said, his inclusion in the ground-breaking 1989 Upper Deck set does still hold some value, especially high-grade versions. A PSA 10 copy sold for $176 on eBay just a few days ago.

Barry Larkin

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Top Rookie Card: 1987 Fleer #204 RC (Recent Sale Price: $4)

    Barry Larkin was the best shortstop of the 1990s looking at the decade as a whole, bridging the gap from Cal Ripken Jr. in the 1980s and early 1990s to rising young stars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra during the second half of the decade.

    The face of the franchise for the Cincinnati Reds throughout his 19-year career, he hit .295/.371/.444 with 2,340 hits, 379 steals, 1,329 runs scored and 70.5 WAR, a total that ranks 11th all-time among guys who primarily played shortstop during their career.

    He was a 12-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, and he took home NL MVP honors in 1995 when he helped lead the Reds to a division title and an NLCS appearance.

    He has three rookie cards in the 1987 Donruss, 1987 Fleer and 1987 Topps sets, and with a slightly lower print run than the other two sets, the Fleer has held its value the best, though all three can easily be scooped up for less than $10 combined.

Pedro Martinez

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    Jeff Carlick/Getty Images

    Top Rookie Card: 1991 Upper Deck Final Edition #2F RC (Recent Sale Price: $2)

    Pedro Martinez had arguably the greatest peak by a pitcher in MLB history.

    At the height of the Steroid Era, he was borderline unhittable, posting a 2.20 ERA and 213 ERA+ during the seven-year span from 1997 through 2003 while winning three Cy Young awards and finishing in the top three in balloting three other times.

    His 291 ERA+ in 2000 is the modern-era record, as he went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and 284 strikeouts in 217 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .167 batting average to win his third Cy Young award unanimously.

    Originally signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, he has just one true rookie card in the 1991 Upper Deck Final Edition update set. His entry in the iconic 1992 Bowman set is actually his most sought-after early card, while his first Topps flagship card didn't come until 1993.

Fred McGriff

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    Top Rookie Card: 1986 Donruss #28 RC (Recent Sale Price: $5)

    While Chipper Jones remains a popular name in the hobby and Greg Maddux holds as much appeal as any pitcher from his era, slugger Fred McGriff is largely overlooked as one of the key members of the Atlanta Braves teams that were perennial contenders throughout the 1990s.

    He is best remembered for his time with the Braves, but he was already a well-established star when he came to Atlanta at the 1993 trade deadline, finishing up the sixth of what would be seven straight seasons with at least 30 home runs that year.

    The "Crime Dog" finished his 19-year career with 493 home runs and 1,550 RBI, and while he spent the full 10 years on the Hall of Fame ballot, he never received more than 39.8 percent support on crowded ballots filled with prolific sluggers.

    His only rookie cards are in the 1986 Donruss set and its Canadian counterpart 1986 Leaf, which featured a smaller checklist and both English and French text on the back.

Mike Mussina

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Top Rookie Card: 1991 Bowman #97 RC (Recent Sale Price: $5)

    The conversation for best pitcher of the 1990s generally begins and ends with the trio of Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz also receiving some love for their role on those loaded Atlanta Braves staffs.

    However, Mike Mussina rarely gets the recognition he deserves as one of his era's elite hurlers.

    With 82.8 WAR for his career, he ranks 23rd all-time among pitchers, ahead of all-time greats such as Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Juan Marichal and Jim Palmer, as well as the aforementioned duo of Glavine and Smoltz.

    The No. 20 pick in the 1990 draft out of Stanford, he has four different rookie cards with the 1991 Bowman being the most sought-after of the bunch. That set also has rookie cards of Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell and stands as one of the more underrated products of the early 90s.

Larry Walker

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    Top Rookie Card: 1990 Leaf #325 RC (Recent Sale Price: $2)

    The lazy argument against Larry Walker has always been that his stats were a product of Coors Field.

    However, he was already an All-Star with the Montreal Expos before he ever joined the Rockies, and in his MVP-winning 1997 season he hit .346/.443/.733 with 29 home runs and 62 RBI in 75 games away from Coors Field, so that line of thinking doesn't track.

    Hall of Fame voters finally got it right when he was inducted in his 10th and final year on the ballot in 2020, and with 72.7 WAR and a 141 OPS+ in 17 seasons, he was more than worthy of a place among the sport's all-time greats.

    A 20-game debut in 1989 paved the way for him to be included across most 1990 products, and he has eight different rookie cards as a result. The most valuable of the bunch is part of the 1990 Leaf set which also includes the top rookies of Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa.

         

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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