Rafael Palmeiro’s Most Memorable Baseball Card

There is something that immediately comes to mind when one thinks about Rafael Palmeiro; the image of him pointing at members of Congress when testifying in the 2005 Restoring Faith in America’s Pastime hearings. In his remarks, Palmeiro forcefully denied ever cheating and then promptly failed a test for PEDs two months later.

The failed test cemented the image as the centerpiece of the hearings, supplanting looped recordings of Mark McGwire repeatedly saying he didn’t come to a hearing about historical use of PEDs to talk about the past. Given the blowback towards the era in which Palmeiro played and had the finger point never happened, the most recognizable image of him may have come from a 1993 baseball card.

Card #52 in the 1993 Upper Deck set features four Texas Rangers teammates posing against the backdrop of their Arlington ballpark. All were known for prodigious athletic feats and all would go on to become linked with the steroid era. Palmeiro is shown kneeling in the lower left. Diagonally opposed in the upper right is newly arrived Jose Canseco, the guy who styled himself as the “godfather of steroids” and claimed in his memoir to have introduced the substances to Palmeiro while in Texas. One can just imagine a comic scene in which a trench coat-clad Canseco approaches Palmeiro and, upon holding one side of the coat layered in rows of needles and vials, asks, “Hey kid! Do you want to try some vitamin injections?”

The other players pictured also had their run-ins with allegations of playing unclean. Canseco claimed in the same book to have personally injected Ivan Rodriguez with PEDs. Rodriguez made it into the Hall of Fame and has kept a somewhat low profile after giving evasive sounding answers to questions about the era. Juan Gonzalez has taken a more forceful tone in denying PED use, but the discovery of steroids and related items in his airport luggage pretty much sealed his legacy.

Palmeiro Was the Best Player on that Card

I wouldn’t have ranked Palmeiro in the top three of a list of players appearing on that Upper Deck card back in 1993. Thirty years later, I have to admit that he put up the best overall numbers of the group. Gonzalez and Canseco had the best individual seasons but injuries and late career performance declines limit them to the “Hall of Very Good” discussions. Ivan Rodriguez is one of the best catchers to ever play the game, but Palmeiro’s offense leaves him in the dust.

Raffy was consistent, sneaking up on readers of statistical tables. He had the second highest hit total of the offense-laden 1990s, actually beating Tony Gwynn’s monster decade by a couple dozen hits. These hits weren’t just singles, either. Palmeiro accumulated more career home runs than Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson and came close to 50 in two different seasons. He drove in 148 RBIs in 1999, a total that has only been eclipsed by four players since that time. Despite these accomplishments, Palmeiro never led the league in any of the popular triple crown categories. With 500+ HRs and 3,000+ hits, he makes a compelling case for best player on the ’93 Upper Deck card.

Raffy’s Briefly Popular Refractor

If prices paid for a card are any indication of popularity, the Palmeiro card was briefly he most sought after component of the 1993 refractors. In the early 2000s several collectors were aggressively competing with each other to assemble the highest grade complete sets via the PSA Set Registry. A handful of cards were proving extraordinarily elusive in gem mint condition, one of which was the one featuring the Rangers’ mustachioed first baseman. A gem example first came to light in 2006 and ignited a bidding war. The card was indeed added to one of these sets of perfect 10s after reaching an unheard-of price of $4,494.44. Apparently this exuberant demand came from only two collectors. With the collecting needs of the high bidder satisfied, the second highest amount paid for a gem mint Palmeiro refractor was more than 85% below that record hammer price.

I do not play in the gem mint sandbox, preferring to stick to the nearly perfect looking land of MT and NM-MT grades on modern items. I spend a lot buying baseball cards, but not enough to consider regularly hitting four figures in a single drop. Luckily those price tags do not pop up often and mint condition Palmeiro refractors can be acquired for the same cost as a can of house paint or a ticket to a theme park not ending in “-isney World.”

The one added to my set is one of four cards that previously resided in a set completed by a Las Vegas card player. I wrote in an earlier post about how I reached out for some key cards after finding out he was breaking up the set. While we only reached a direct agreement for one of the cards, I ended up as the high bidder when the other three were set out for auction. I like knowing about where cards come from and being able to trace the story of their previous ownership really adds to the collecting experience.