Prospect Cardboard: 1990 & earlier
I'm thinking this guy may be good...
conjunction with the Opelika Police Department, the 1987-88 Auburn Tigers Greats card is part of a 16 card set used as a stadium giveaway and given out by the local police force at various events. Another notable in the set is Bo Jackson, posed in his football uniform. Printed by McDag Productions, the set is the second series in the Auburn Tigers Great line, the first a 3 card, baseball only set from '86 that also includes Jackson. Collectors mistakenly credit the two series as one 19 card set.
While much debate has existed as to the actual release date of this card, T.S. O'Connell, by way of Bob Lemke, confirms this card was indeed released in 1990.
Despite being a prospect before the modern explosion of parallels and mind-numbing availability of set choices, Frank Thomas has a surprisingly large number of rookie and XRC cards available. Scarcity is varied amongst the lot, as is popularity. The 1990 Leaf #300 is likely Frank's most recognizable early piece of cardboard; collectors and non-collectors, alike, frequently recount the days in which it sold for more than $100. Less common than its other mainstream counterparts, the 1990 Leaf Baseball set still suffers from overproduction, and today Frank's Leaf rookie can be had for less than $10.
Frank's most scarce rookie is the fabled 1990 Topps NNOF #414. With estimated production runs in the hundreds, compared to the multi-millions for the majority of the cards in the set, it is by far the most limited of early Frank Thomas spoke clickers. High grade examples frequently sell for several thousand dollars. In the spring of 2012, the only PSA 10 Gem Mint example, from the former collection of ex-Major Leaguer Dmitri Young, sold for over $25,000 at auction, with buyer's premium. For many collectors, price, not availability, keeps this card from their respective collections.
Frank's next most rare prospect card is his 1987-88 Auburn Tigers Greats card, with a reported print run of 5000 copies. Though the '87 Greats card was produced at at least 10 times the print run of the '90 Topps NNOF, its availability at online auction sites and sports card stores is much more limited. I theorize that the majority of these sets are either in storage or have been destroyed over the years. In the late 1980s when the Auburn Tigers sets were being distributed, the hobby-sure-fire-best-thing-since-sliced-bread-bet was Bo Jackson; Frank Thomas was only an impressive sophomore who had a monster freshman season, with, at the time, no professional projections. Sad to imagine, but likely true, many collectors and prospectors pulled the Bo Jackson card from set and discarded or forgot about the rest. In today's market, this storm of events has lead to a much more difficult card to isolate than any other Frank Thomas rookie or pre-rookie card. Supporting my theory, the Bo Jackson football card comes to online auction sites with much more regularity. Many copies of Frank's card sold on the open market are actually the same cards - caught in a cycle of being passed from investor to investor - further distorting availability.
Other "rare" prospect Thomas cards include both Tiffany set issued parallels, and the 1987 Pan-Am Blue Team USA release. While the actual print runs of the Topps and Bowman Tiffany examples were not reported, they were limited in comparison to their pack-issued cousins. It is estimated that the Topps and Bowman premium editions have runs of 15,000 and 3,000 sets respectively - similar to the Tiffany issues printed in the late 1980s - though some conflicting information exists on the subject matter. The 1987 Pan-Am Blue card is a notable chore due to its condition sensitivity. Two versions of the card have been isolated, suggesting two separate print runs, but both versions appear to be genuine period pieces. While both examples exhibit obverse and reverse printings lacking proper alignment, the most common variation suffers from an extreme miscut on the back when found with 50/50 centering on the front. The reverse miscut is so noticeable that it chops off the last word - ago - from its sheet neighbor, Ed Sprague. In this print run, cards with well centered reverse printings are horribly miscut on the front. Another notable feature of this print run is image cropping that is shorter left and bottom, but longer top and right as compared to the other known version. The next, and seemingly more limited print run, does not suffer from a miscut cut reverse when the obverse displays proper centering, and none of Ed Sprague's biography is included on the back. However, like its brother, this print run suffers from plate alignment deficiencies, only on the face of the card versus the back. Both printings were done in a 3-step process, involving separate runs of black, magenta (red), and cyan (blue) plates; however, version two of this early card suffers from an improper alignment of the black plate to its cyan and magenta counterparts. The result is an image that sits unaligned within the red frame, and the year "1987" fails to align within the black and white image, causing a white halo behind the script. Besides the misaligned printing, the image used on version two includes more of the original photograph on the left and bottom borders, and less of the image on the top and right borders than its brother print run. Most notable, the top of Thomas' pants, beneath the waistband, are visible. The black name plate also exhibits variation in placement. It should be noted that both versions have been confirmed to be pulled in factory sealed sets. 1987 Pan-Am sets also came in a tight shrink wrap and are known to suffer from factory corner wear.
Frank Thomas' remaining early cards are not difficult to find or purchase, but may suffer from condition commonalities that increase their respective prices in high grade. In my personal collection, I am struggling to locate a high grade 1990 Best Bonus #318, due to black borders, print spots, and edge chipping.