Bringing Clarity to Randy Johnson Rookie Cards

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In the 2nd Round of the 1985 MLB June Amateur Draft, the Montreal Expos selected Randy Johnson from the University of Southern California. He has 7 official rookie cards along with 2 parallels and another 7 cards that are oftentimes viewed as rookie cards but are not!

Imagine if you will, a left-handed pitcher that can throw the ball at 102mph on demand. This same pitcher is 6’10” tall. Add to this the MLB regulation of a 10″ pitchers mound brings his height to 7’8″ respectively.

It gets better. If his long-armed swooping delivery didn’t scare you perhaps his mean-mugging death stare will do the job. On the mound, he looked angry, he often spoke to himself, and it seemed like he wanted to take out all of his life’s frustrations on you, the batter. Think about it, an eight-foot angry giant getting ready to throw a hard object towards you and you can’t see it! Do you understand now how he’s recorded 4,875 career strikeouts?

Where He Ranks All-Time

Johnson ranks 2nd All-Time in Career Leaders for Strikeouts. For 22 years batters were reluctant to face him because they feared him. Among lefties, many have placed him in between Sandy Koufax and Warren Spahn as one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game of baseball.

For Us Nerds

Notable accomplishments include pitching a complete game shut out in Game 2 of the 2001 ALCS and pitched a perfect game on May 18, 2004, versus the Atlanta Braves. His career numbers are Wins 303 | Loses 166 | ERA 3.29 | Innings Pitched 4,135.1 | Strikeouts 4,875 | WAR 101.1

He is a 10x All-Star | 5x Cy Young Winner | 2001 WS MVP | 4x ERA Title | 2002 NL Triple Crown Winner | 2001 World Series Champion

What Randy Johnson Says About it

During his Hall of Fame Induction, Randy explains how it took him a long time to harness his talent. He spent 4 years in the Minor Leagues and when he finally got the call to the Montreal Expos roster it took him an additional two years for him to find himself. Randy says, he “had people who believed in him and attributes the success of his career as a byproduct of his teammates.”



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1989 Donruss, Card No. 42

This 660 card set is one of my favorite sets printed in 1989. What impressed me most was card design, they really did something special with the borders on the front of these cards. The border sides are a gun-metal black, the top and bottom borders are a dual-colored gradient fill. Stamped on the front is the “Rated Rookie” logo the hobby has grown to love.

A couple of things that hurt this set: 1) Print runs. Decisions made by Donruss caused many cards to be DP meaning Double Printed. Trends of the day already produced high print runs and to double print is borderline irresponsible. 2) Also, this year’s offering of Donruss suffers from miss-cut cards, which is a common characteristic of mass-produced cards. There are no parallels in the Donruss set.

1989 Fleer, Card No. 381

The depressing gray / pin-stripe design appears to be a card design for the State Penitentiary. Nonetheless, it is an official rookie card of a Hall of Fame ballplayer. The set has a way of growing on you over the years. Especially, with all the history this set has within the hobby, how can you not appreciate all that it offers to collectors.

This set offers many rookie cards of Hall of Famers. And it also features card number 616 which is the infamous Billy Ripken error card. But “The Big Unit” Randy Johnson also has a variant rookie card that is worthy of mention here.

Just over Randy’s left shoulder is an electronic billboard that originally displayed a Marlboro Cigarette Ad. As one can imagine this was not kosher for a hobby that extended to a much younger audience. I won’t get into all the details but what ensued was several failed attempts at getting it right. The Marlboro Ad with “green tint” ad still visible. The Marlboro Ad that was “partially blocked” and finally the Marlboro Ad that was completely “blocked out.” The variant with the actual Marlboro Ad is the hardest to find.

There is one parallel to this one. Fleer Glossy, sold in factory set form via Hobby Shops and QVC.

1989 O-Pee-Chee, Card No. 186

The best way to describe this one, it is an abridged version of the ’89 Topps set, with some differences of course.

Card design at first glance mimics the American Topps version quite a bit. But I typically like to quote Rafiki from the movie Lion King when he says, “looooook haaaaaarrrder” and you will notice: the primary difference is in the number of cards in the set.

This one has 396 cards as opposed to 797 cards in the Topps set. O-Pee-Chee was the Canadian version of Topps and primarily depicted full 25 man rosters of the late Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos of course, which were former Canadian MLB franchises the other teams only had partial rosters within the set.

Three ways to tell the difference between Topps and O-Pee-Chee are, the brand is proudly displayed on the upper right-hand corner of both the front and back. O-Pee-Chee copyright on the lower backside of the card and of course English with French translation where ever applicable. There are no parallels for this set.

1989 Score, Card No. 645

This 660 card set was distributed as a single series. The Score brand made a hobby splash as they made their very successful debut in 1988. This encore release offered collectors a not so popular design, at least that’s how I remember it. Great photo as we see The Big Unit torquing his upper torso to release that fireball from his hand. The card back gives us everything a good card back should have, player bio, full statistics, great commentary, and a color portrait photo. There are no parallels.

1989 Sportflics, Card No. 224

To have a 225 card set in 1989 was considered a small set. All other sets in this era were 2x, 3x bigger in size. Another feature that makes this set unique is the technology offered. Identified as “Magic Motion” cards because when tilted the card front displayed three different players.

While researching for this post this one really caught me by surprise. Up until a few days before this post, I did not know that Johnson had a Sportflics rookie. It made me question myself, “how did I not know that?” I whispered.

So obviously, like any legit collector, I had to go on eBay and immediately purchased one. I picked up a PSA GM-MT 10 for under $30.00 shipped! I was ecstatic! There are no parallels for this card.

1989 Topps, Card No. 647

Topps kept it simple, not too much razzle-dazzle here just a clean, simple card design that allows us to see more of the photo. White borders outlined in a navy blue line that have a couple of rounded edges and a couple of sharp edges on the photo give it a nice touch and that all impressive team/player name swoosh is classic!

The card back gives us a good player-bio, stats and commentary but can be challenging to find gem mint copies due to the black, reddish/pink card stock. There is a Topps Tiffany parallel for this one.

This is a generational set. There are many collectors today that will tell you their favorite set is the 1989 Topps, why? Because this was the first set of cards introduced to them, and/or because of the unforgettable card design.

1989 Upper Deck, Card No. 25

Upper Deck was the new kid on the block in 1989 and promised collectors quality photos, quality paper stock, quality printing, and let’s not forget the security holograms. Man! Did they deliver? This product was second to none and lit the hobby on fire. There are many notable Hall of Fame rookies in this set including this one of Randy Johnson.



Watered Down Rookie Cards

A concern that I have deals with the misrepresentation of the term “rookie card.” Today, it seems to be used very flippantly. There is lots of confusion amongst collectors and whenever the topic is brought up a debate is sure to arise or worse yet an agreement that may turn to a “whatever” mindset. Meaning, every collector has his or her own opinion of what an RC is and that’s okay. This is a scary thought.

The cards listed above are oftentimes referred to as “Randy Johnson RCs” but legally, officially, and logically they are not. The reasons are simple. For decades the hobby has had criteria that were used to determine true RCs.

Why Aren’t They Rookie Cards?

Some of these criteria say, 1) a product must be distributed nationally in pack form when released. Regional sets may be desired by some collectors but the industry doesn’t include those because of the regional distribution. The purpose of this fair and equal distribution leads to fairness for all collectors.

Also, 2) cards from unlicensed manufacturers depicting players in minor league uniforms shall not be considered an RC. Example: Just, Classic, Pro Cards, or cards sponsored by a product such as Post, Coca Cola, Hostess, etc.

And finally, 3) cards distributed in specialty boxed sets which are an extension or a spin-off of mainstream card sets are not considered RCs. There’s a lot to learn when it comes to the sacred rookie card. I get into this topic in a three-part series, the first of three posts can be found here, History of the Rookie Card.

Happy Collecting Collectors,

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Randy Johnson Stats | (accessed March 6, 2020).
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