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1990 Topps Blackless Errors

[ sends a special thanks to Lance Tanaka for his insider accounts and experience with offset printing.  The information that follows is the result of countless hours of research and consultation into the production of 1990 Topps Baseball Cards.]


1990 Topps Baseball was produced through offset lithography, a process by which ink is transferred from a printing plate, to a rubber blanket, then from the blanket, to a printing medium.  Full color baseball cards are acheived by completing 4 separate printing passes with color-specific plates:  cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.  The combination of these inks in the right proportions creates the effect of full color imagery.  Due to the nature of printing solutions - often light sensative and pH specific - and the increased likelihood of human error common to multistep manufacturing, no shortage of opportunities to produce the 1990 Topps Blackless Errors existed at the time of their creation. will attempt to provide the most likely causes of these now iconic cards.

To fully explore the likely causalities of the 1990 Topps Blackless Errors, one must accept a few precepts; first, the errors are very limited, comprising a mere fraction of a percentage of total production; second, the cause of the error was inconspicuous, easily slipping through quality controls of the time; third, no "intermediate" errors showing a gradual loss of afixment of black ink have ever been isolated; finally, the resulting error is amorphous, with no logical boundaries and random placement.  Acceptance of these precepts creates the possibility that the errors had the potential to go undiscovered until some point after pack-out and product release; though the possibility exists that press opperators were knowing of the production issue, corrected it, but failed to destroy the damaged sheet runs.


Possibilty #1:  Damaged Black Printing Plate

Printing plates are produced by chemically etching color separated photonegatives on to a metal or polyesther plate.  First, an image is separated into cyan, magenta, yellow and black color negatives.  Next, each of the four photonegatives is aligned to a printing plate and exposed to chemicals and light capable of etching the negative image on to the plate.  After a series of chemical washes, the plates are cleaned and kept from further exposure to light and foreign agents.  This process allows for two scenarios in which the Blackless Errors might occur.  In the production of the plates, something impeded the black photonegative from being properly etched to the metal sheet; possibilities include a chemical residue on the plate or negative, or other damage to the negative itself.  Also possible, the plate was inadvertantly exposed to light during the photochemical etching, causing a secondary chemical reaction to occur on a portion of the surface of the plate.


While both scenarios are possible, they aren't likely to have been the cause of the errors, as they would have been isolated either by the pressman immediately after etching, or during the pre-production, single color printing runs before going into full four color printing.  For either of scenarios to be the cause of the errors, an element of prior knowledge must be true, violating the above listed precepts.  Given the popularity of error cards in 1990, any intentionally created error would likely receive a much higher print run in order to create attainability and hobby interest.


Possibility #2:  Dirty Black Printing Plate

The presence of a residue on the black printing plate would cause printing deformaties, and attempting to manually clean such a residue would render the plate useless as any cleaning solvent would ruin the aluminum etching.


On the surface, this explanation may sound like the likely cause of these famous errors; however, printing science suggest otherwise.  Any residue on the surface of the plate would likely cause an increase in ink adhearance, not a lack of ink altogether, and any damage to the plate's etching would likely do the same.  Furthermore, it would be counterintuitive for a pressman to attempt to clean the surface of a printing plate, as the "swipe-like" blackless error would suggest.


Possibility #3:  Dirty Rubber Blanket

As with any manufacturing process, offset production equipment must be cleaned periodically, either as part of general maintainence or in response to events that occur during printing.  In most cases, cleaning ink cannot be acheived with water alone, and industrial solvents are necessary to prepare the printing surfaces between presses.  These chemical agents work by either attracting to the ink or other molecules and carrying them away, or by repelling them in the way water repells oil.  Should the rubber blanket used in printing the orange sheet F cards have become dirty and have been in need of cleaning, a solvent, like those mentioned above, would have been used to clean the blanket before pressing resumed.  If the solvent itself weren't washed appropriately, its presence would impede ink's adherence to the surface of the blanket, leaving a bare - or blackless - area on the rubber surface.  This theory is highly supported by the amorphous pattern to the area affected by "blacklessness," which appears as a "swipe" across the sheet, much the way one would wipe away spilled milk from a tabletop or leave a streak on glass while using window cleaner.


Further anecdotal evidence exists to suggest the rubber blanket became dirtied and cleaned with one such solvent, causing a lack of ink transfer from the black plate to the blanket, and therefore from the blanket to the cardstock.  This evidence is found in cases of 1990 Topps Baseball containing actual Blackless Error cards in the form of a second printing variation of Frank Thomas' iconic #414 rookie card.  While easily dismissable and rather unimpressive, this variation displays missing black ink in several key locations, including in Frank's name and in the border surrounding it.  It is possible that the pressman on duty saw a small artifact or residue on the surface of the rubber blanket, stopped the press, cleaned the blanket with a chemical sovent, but failed to then clean the solvent from the blanket.


In theory, any number of reasons may exist for a solvent to be either intentionally or accidently found on a printing blanket; no matter the reason, all industry professionals consulted agree that this cause is the most likely explanation for the existance of the 1990 Topps Baseball Blackless Errors.



The 1990 Topps Blackless Errors occurred randomly, without intention, and for a very small press run.  The existence of the Frank Thomas NNOF rookie is a matter of pure, blind luck; unlike many famous errors from that booming era in the hobby, this card - all of these cards - came to be because of an unidentified problem in the manufacturing process, mostlikely a dirty rubber blanket.  It may be argued it was in Topps' best interest to purposefully manufacture such a blatant error, one featuring a future Baseball Hall of Famer, as the creation of false scarcity could have driven damand for Topps products.  However, the error is too random in nature, and too many cards were effected in a nonsensical way to support the idea of premeditated intention.   Further more, the errors are much too scarce to support the notion of intention, as attainability is a key factor in hobby demand, and the NNOF rookie was hardly attainable, much less recognized nationally until a much later time period.  Beyond that, Frank Thomas was barely a top 50 prospect at the time of printing, and many other young players featured in 1990 Topps Baseball would have had the potential to create much more interest in the product.  While all of these statements are assumptions, the evidence supports this conclusion.


A modern baseball card mystery.​

In the winter of 1989-90, early in Topps Baseball's release, nameless First Round Draft pick cards of a young prospect out of Auburn University began to surface in wax packs from a variety of box-outs.  Localized reports of this error card were recorded in standard wax boxes, in retail display wax cases, and in oversized wax boxes, mainly in New England, the northern Midwest, and across the Eastern Seaboard, with scarce reports out of Texas and the Southwest.  While rumors stirred at major sports card shows across the country, a couple of years of lore were required for this Frank Thomas rookie card to gain mainstream hobby recognition.


Despite Frank Thomas' early success and popularity, the existance of the NNOF error was purely anecdotal until its national feature in the February 1993 issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly; with an original list price of $5.00, the error saw immediate monthly growth in price as its scarcity became more clear.  Its ever-expanding pricetag was the inspiration for fraud, and counterfeit copies of the enigmatic card popped up across the country.  While many were simply recolorations of the corrected pack issued rookie card, more elaborate forgeries involved complete recreations of the nameless prospect card.  The earliest reprinted fakes had most simply been photocopies of the more abundant rookie card with the words "FRANK THOMAS" rudimentarily blued over with the technology of pre-digital printing; however, subsequent forgeries attempted to recreate the actual streak of blacklessness present on legitimate copies of card #414A.  The NNOF Rookie would go on to climb to record heights in the various printed price guides of the era, but the majority of hobbiests were forced to wait until the explosion of eBay in 1997 for legitimate copies of the rarity to become obtainable.  Major hobby clout notwithstanding, the origins of these copies of early '90s gold would remain a secret for the greater part of two decades.


[editorial]  In my youth, obtaining a copy of Frank Thomas' NNOF Rookie card was my ultimate hobby goal; having the budget of a child, I began following known copies of the card and theorizing as to its production in an effort to more affordably obtain my Moby Dick, or white whale.  Knowing that the actual footprint of the error was in a downward swipe from left to right, it was my belief that other cards printed on 1990 Topps Baseball Sheet F were indeed aflicted with missing black print.  Having burned the pages of the internet independently - and unsuccessfully - for years, but more tirelessly over the course of some months, I sought the help of dedicated hobbiests whom I believed would become impassioned with my goal for themselves.  In the spring of 2009 - based solely upon a hunch - a group of collectors on PSA's Collectors Universe forum got together to scour boxes of 1990 Topps Baseball, in an effort to shed light on a modern baseball card mystery.  The months that followed would yield stunning card variations that had remained undiscovered for nearly 20 years.


To read about the process, visit this thread at Collectors Universe:  1990 Topps Frank Thomas NNOF revisited...introduction to my theory


Across the major publication houses of the hobby, there appeared an instant belief that the NNOF Rookie was caused by an early production mishap, subsequently recognized and corrected almost immediately in the printing of 1990 Topps Baseball.  Telling of this, the original error was denoted with the number 414A, while the standard rookie card was denoted as #414B, thus acknowledging the standard card as a later correction.  Following suit, the since discovered variations were also denoted with the suffix "A" upon being officially recognized as variations in the Beckett Big Book of Baseball Cards.  The Krause Publications Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards recognizes only those errors with the most drastic variations, but does not catalog those cards with subtle variations.  According to Bob Lemke, former editor of the Standard Catalog, it is Krause's intention to remove and cease recognition of all variations, less the NNOF Rookie card.


Debate continues as to the legitimacy of the 1990 Topps Blackless Errors as being true, recognizable variations.  Should the causality of the error be a freak event, at some point much later in the printing process than currently recognized, the Blackless cards are indeed a simple production error, no different - in theory - to a common fisheye or random ink obscurity.  However, should the cards be actual first run production errors, which required early correction, the argument is strong for these cards to be recognized as true variations.  As the actual production history is unknown, the debate is certain to fuel on through the future of the sports card hobby, but, with certainty, realized values at public auction suggest an overwhelming tendancy toward legitimacy by the hobby's faithful.  Both BGS and PSA grading divisions will denote the variations on their respective labels, however very few of the newly discovered variations have been encapsulated due to scarcity.  Excluding the Frank Thomas rookie, of which several dozen to several hundred examples are known, less than one dozen copies of each variation are known to have been isolated.  Though, it stands reason, at the time of production, each error was produced in the same quantity. 


Due to the nature of the 1990 Topps Baseball blackless errors, and possibly by the lack of interest in the discoveries from the Topps Company, exact print runs of the variations will never be known.  This reality, however, doesn't stop even the most seasoned of hobby veterans from asking the question, "how many?"  Using sales data from internet auction sites and general deductive reasoning, one experienced collector - Patrick Greenough - has set out to put numbers to the game.  Any reader capable of shedding light on this topic is invited to contact and Patrick at Radicards, as we embark to provide more accurate data on the subject.

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