I've mentioned this before, but the baseball cards that I grew up on were, above all others, the 1988 through 1991 sets - specifically, the '89 & '91 Topps and the '88 and '90 Donruss sets. Sure, there were plenty of Score and Fleer and Upper Deck in there, but those were the main ones I collected every year.
For those who collected cards around the same time - before the "insert" craze got out of hand - one of the most memorable subsets by any cardmaker was Donruss's annual set of Diamond Kings. Numbered 1 - 26 each year, the Diamond Kings featured one "star" player from each club, no matter how bad the club or how underwhelming the "star". The Baseball Card Blog has a pretty solid write-up on these Diamond Kings:
The Diamond King subset cards in 1982 Donruss were the first cards to feature out-and-out paintings since 1956 Topps. For nine years, 1982 to 1990, the subset featured the previous season’s stars, one from each team, in goofy headshots on colored backgrounds, each year more outrageous than the last (culminating in the bizarre Alexander Calder-esque background explosions of 1990).
Read the rest of that post for some interesting observations on what happened to the set. Eventually, in 1992, it became an official "insert set" (or whatever collector's call those things), and were thus no longer a part of the standard cards put out each year. It was at this point that I stopped caring about the Diamond Kings (and most baseball cards, frankly).
But in those ten years, Donruss made some fun cards and some interesting choices. The art-work was always great to look at (the blatant Latin-ness of Fernando and Jose above notwithstanding), and few cards were as fun to come across that first time. But who all were the Diamond Kings? Using various resources on the internet - mostly card images found on eBay or Google and this list of Donruss complete sets found at the Baseball Almanac - I compiled a list of all 260 Diamond Kings between 1982 and 1991 (26 teams * 10 years).
I expected to find plenty of repeat winners - just how many stars did the 1980s Braves or Mariners have, anyway? - but there were actually very few. That tells me that Donruss must have made a deliberate effort to spread out the winners to as many players as possible. And while that may be nice for a few teams with more than one star that might otherwise have been dominated by their best player, it certainly made for a few interesting choices. Below are a few of the more surprising, odd or noteworthy Diamond Kings.
(Click "Read More" to continue reading.)
1982 Dodgers - Steve Garvey: The 1981 season was all about Fernando and Fernando-mania. He even won the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young awards. How then did Garvey get the call as the Dodgers' initial Diamond King? Were they looking for the most recognizable faces of each franchise?
1988 Expos - Tim Raines: Rock Raines certainly deserved to be called the Expos' Diamond King for his fantastic '87 season, coming out of the collusion and everything. The big thing here is that this was the only year that Raines was ever recognized as such.
1986 Pirates & 1989 Angels - Johnny Ray: Of the 260 Diamond Kings between 1982 and 1991, only 28 players were repeat winners, which means that there were 232 different players named a Diamond King in that time. Somehow, one of those 28 repeat winners was one-time All-Star Johnny Ray. He was an All-Star in '88 and had a career-best 119 OPS+, but it's still hard to count him among the other repeat winners.
1986 Reds - Tony Perez: The Reds' aging star, and future Hall of Famer, played in fewer than 100 games for the fifth year in a row in 1985 (72 games), but was somehow named the Diamond King for the year. Perez would play in 77 games in 1986 and then call it quits.
1986 Phillies - Jerry Koosman: That 1985 season must've been a strange year, considering all the odd Diamond Kings in the 1986 set. The 42-year old Koosman pitched in 19 games in 1985 with an 80 OPS+. Mike Schmidt, meanwhile, hit 33 home runs for the 5th place Phils, but he didn't drive in 100 runs or make the All-Star team. Koosman did not play again after the 1985 season.
1991 A's - Bob Welch: Rickey Henderson was the A's 1983 Diamond King the year after he set the single-season stolen bases record. In 1990, he won his one and only MVP. Bob Welch, however, and his 27-6 W-L record came away with the '91 Diamond King.
1989 Phillies - Steve Bedrosian: Bedrock won the 1987 NL Cy Young Award as the Phillies' closer. The '88 Diamond King, however, went to Shane Rawley, whose 17-11 record and 4.39 ERA wasn't exactly top-of-the-line. They made up for it the next year, though, when Bedrosian was given the 1989 Diamond King despite a poor season. (For more on these "Diamond Kings by Default", see The Baseball Card Blog).
1991 Yankees - Dave Righetti: As I said before, the people at Donruss seemed to go out of their way to avoid duplicating Diamond Kings throughout the decade. Sure, a Cal Ripken or Tony Gwynn or Carlton Fisk might assert himself so strongly on a single club that he'd show up as a Diamond King for that club more than once in the decade, but, for the most part, they seemed to actively discourage that kind of double dipping. Which makes the Yankees list so odd. For the 10 years that we're looking at here, the Yankees had four duplicate winners: Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Willie Randolph, and Dave Righetti. Were they just pandering to the largest market? The same thing was true with the Tigers, who had three repeat winners in those ten years.
I could probably go on and on looking at this list, but I think I'll stop here. The Diamond Kings were a great part of my card-collecting childhood, and it's fascinating to me now to look back and try to decipher how Donruss awarded them. I'm sure I'm not the only person who remembers this set so fondly. For those of you like me, check out the complete list of Donruss Diamond Kings, by team (1982-1991) and tell me who surprises you the most.
**EDIT: Thanks to Big League Stew who tweeted this wonderful link - every Diamond King ever, by Dick Perez, the artist behind the cards. It's a fantastic look at the artwork of all of these cards, and a great place to see that, yes, Keith Moreland was the Cubs' Diamond King in 1987.