I Didn’t Find the Nolan Ryan Elite Card, But I Found These

Donruss’ 1991 Elite inserts were generally numbered to 10,000, though there were exceptions. Slight changes to the name “The Elite Series” and unique design elements marked two as being special among special cards. One of these features Nolan Ryan and was limited to a print run of 7,500.

The Ryan card stands out in several ways beyond more limited production. Its borders feature a mix of silver foil and the visual styling of burled walnut, giving it the appearance of a luxury item. The title shifts slightly from “The Elite Series” to “The Legends Series.” Unlike other cards in the set that utilize color photography, this card leans on the artistic talents of Dick Perez. Collectors were already very familiar with his work, as Donruss had used his paintings as the basis for the popular Diamond Kings subset for nearly a decade.

Half of the text on the back of the card is dedicated not to the player on the card, but rather to an account of how Donruss executives gave the original artwork to Ryan. One has to laugh at the idea of the Texas pitcher accepting the painting while wondering what he is going to do with it. I briefly feared for the safety of the Donruss management team after considering the wisdom of trying to distract Ryan prior to pitching a game. A quick review of the box score shows he wasn’t the pitcher in that day’s contest against the Royals, so all apparently went well.

The card was well received, especially after Ryan recorded his 7th no-hit game during the ’91 season. The card’s print run was 25% lower than the regular Elite cards, engendering a bit of an extra chase element. When Beckett first reported transaction data for these cards, it was the more limited Nolan Ryan and Ryne Sandberg cards that collectors held in higher regard. Both were considered equal by the hobby’s reigning price guide, though the Ryan card quickly settled into second place. It has remained in that position ever since, being ever so briefly joined by Barry Bonds around the turn of the century.

What I Found Through a Decade of Opening Packs

The story with all 1991 Elites is the same. I never found one in a wax pack despite seemingly opening every pack I ever came across. I must have tired of this at some point in 1991, as I did grab some packs of the Series 2 edition of Leaf later that year.

Leaf followed up its successful 1990 return to the hobby with its own insert set. The base set had no rookie cards, instead packaging them as a separate 24-card insert. Arriving at an insertion rate of 1:4 packs, Gold Rookies had an extra pair of cards added to the checklist with the release of Series 2. Veterans Nolan Ryan and Rickey Henderson both had an incredible day in May when they each set new baseball records. Henderson became the all-time stolen base leader and Ryan added a record 7th no hitter to his accomplishments.

These cards looked fantastic, though they are not in any sense difficult to find. The 1:4 insertion ratio and small player checklist implies Gold Rookies production levels of about one third that of 1991’s base Leaf cards. It didn’t matter, I found two of the black and gold Nolan Ryan inserts in my packs.

That’s where things stood for several years. 1991 Donruss packs somehow disappeared from store shelves and were replaced by newer offerings. By 1994 I was mowing lawns on a regular basis and was able to buy an entire wax box of Collector’s Choice from the local Roses discount store every few weeks. The set was an attempt by Upper Deck to move down-market in price. Each pack contained 14 base cards as well as a single silver or gold parallel version. Both parallels featured facsimile player signatures in the appropriate shade of foil stamping. Silver cards were the most plentiful, arriving at a rate of one per pack. One pack per box had gold versions instead.

Having sat out 1993’s refractor craze, these were the first parallels I ever seriously tried to collect. In one of my boxes I pulled the Nolan Ryan silver signature card shown above. My brother, a huge Ryan fan at the time, snagged the silver version of a checklist picturing the Texas pitcher as well. Ryan had retired the previous year and this card served as Upper Deck’s send-off. The back looks fantastic with a massive table of statistical data printed in a highly condensed font. With 30 years of hindsight, I believe this is actually the best insert I ever pulled from a pack.