A Ranking Of The Worst Baseball Card Sets Of All Time

January 23, 2023

Everyone always talks about the best, but that is way too boring. Everyone always picks 1952 Topps or T206 anyway. But what is the worst set of all time?

One that is so bad that we can’t believe a company would release this trash? Who cares, you ask? Well, first of all, this kind of list is fun. That is why you clicked on this. You like fun. And nothing is more fun than ranking the worst baseball card sets of all time.

Aside from that, it helps collectors know what to avoid. Many of the sets we will discuss here have some serious issues. Some are fundamental enough to detract from the cards’ value and aesthetic enjoyment. Finally, this is valuable information for those among us with a camp streak. Some of us, myself included, are drawn to trainwrecks.

When I was in college, we had a bad movie night every month. We would compete to find the worst movie we could and mock as relentlessly as we could. By the way, the worst movie of all time is Three Giant Men, or as everyone calls it, Turkish Spiderman.

You are welcome. In the same spirit, collectors may find these atrocious sets enjoyable. Just don’t spend too much money obtaining them; you may never be able to offload.

What we included when ranking the worst baseball card sets of all time

It was tempting to add some of the less-known cards sets that really suck. For example, the horrific 1998 Pacific Online release. It featured URLs, all of which have since expired, for each player. But not on the back of the card, which would be bad enough. No, this company plastered it on the top of the front. Yikes.

Or what about the 1981 Perma Graphic? These cards looked like a combination between a J.C. Penny credit card and the business card of your furniture upholsterer.

But no point in picking on the weak and feeble. Instead of picking on releases like that, we decided to bring the worst releases ever by the big guys. After all, their releases are the important ones. And my lord, they have dropped the ball on many an occasion.

How do you spot one of the worst baseball card sets?

What makes a baseball card set terrible? There are a few factors that come to mind. First, the design. Every now and then, we see a set that just makes us mad. You can’t enjoy collecting a set that makes you want to puke.

Another issue is the rookies. No matter how ugly a set may be, you aren’t going to knock it if it has that rare Mike Schmidt rookie. And gorgeous photography or not, the rookie class usually determines the wax’s value or a complete set.

Finally, you have an issue with quality control. Some errors can make a card set awesome. When you have a rare version of a card or something as hilarious as the Billy Ripken “fuck face” card, it can add to the mystique of a release.

But having said that, no one likes lousy centering and shoddy surfacing. With the importance of grading in collecting vintage and junk wax, quality control is now more critical than ever.

A set would have to do poorly on all these metrics for it to be truly awful. Or at least really stink up the joint on one of them without doing all that well on the others.

Ranking the worst baseball card sets of all time

With that in mind, what are the main sets to avoid? Which are the plain ugliest ever made? Which don’t have any saving graces and should fill those who conceived of them with eternal shame. We have you covered. Here is our effort at ranking the worst baseball card sets of all time.

10) 1961 Topps

Everyone always picks on the junk wax sets. You can’t find a list of the worst cards and sets that aren’t dominated by that definitive era. And while the late 1980s and early 1990s were an excellent time for ugliness, it’s not like every vintage set is a raving gem. In its early years, Topps competed with Bowman for supremacy.

They were young and they were hungry. But when their rivals went out of business, Topps became a monopoly. And with no competition, they got a bit lazy. Gone were the brilliant designs of the early 1950s, and in came some less inspired productions.

Perhaps the least inspired of the 1960s sets is this one. The design is really bland and unappealing. The color scheme looks like a cheap variety of banana and strawberry ice cream that was recalled because it caused food poisoning. And the print for team names was basically unreadable.

Apparently, they did not include logos because 1961 was a baseball expansion year, and when they went to print, the dust hadn’t settled yet. That is a reasonably good excuse, but the team names are all the more critical with no logos. And sure, centering in these sets is generally hit-and-miss. But in 1961 Topps was far more miss than hit.

1961 Topps has more subsets than most vintage sets. And that sounds like a good thing. But most of them are pretty ugly.

If you dare: Shop for 1961 Topps baseball cards on eBay

Rookie Cards In The 1961 Topps Set

As I do the rankings, I discover why people don’t usually rank vintage sets among the worst. The rookies are generally just too promising. Even the veterans are legendary superstars and worth quite a bit.

The 1961 set has some good rookies in it. But maybe not good enough to compensate for the subpar design and centering. It includes Juan Marichal, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo. Billy is definitely one of the most forgotten HOF’ers of his generation. But, of course, Marichal was an ace with a 243–142 record and a career ERA of 2.89. Meanwhile, Santo is a Cubs legend.

But the most valuable cards in the set tend to be the veteran ones. Not surprisingly, Mickey Mantle tops the list. But a good Yogi Berra, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, or Sandy Koufax can get an excellent value with a good grade.

Best cards in the set:

Shop for 1961 Topps rookie cards on eBay

9) 1981 Topps

The early 1980s sets aren’t particularly good. In retrospect, the card industry was at a low ebb of creativity. The designs weren’t any different than the 1970s releases, but because it was now a new decade, they seemed more tired and unappealing. The junk wax era would shake things up, but not always for the better. But at least it was never dull.

Ironically, the worst of the early 1980s sets is one that attempted to innovate. But the attempt fell flat. We are, of course, talking about the notorious “hat set.” It was so-called because of the presence of a hat in the bottom right corner, with the team’s name.

That may not sound like such a bad idea, but the execution is awful. Instead of placing the logo on these hats, as any decent human being might, the name of the team is printed there instead. Why? And to make things worse, the hat colors invariably clash with the ugly border colors. Finally, I can’t explain it, but that thin white border somehow makes the overall visual impact significantly worse. Look, these cards are frightful.

If you dare: Shop for 1981 Topps baseball cards on eBay

1981 topps

Rookie Cards In The 1981 Topps Set

The ugly hat situation was not saved by some magical stud rookie. By the standards of what was a good time for baseball rookie collecting, 1981 was a relatively weak year. Probably the coolest card here is the Dodgers Future Stars card. All vintage fans know this Topps series and cherish it.

This one is particularly good because it includes the socially significant Fernando Valenzuela (1981 NL Rookie of the Year) and Mike Scioscia, a two-time All-Star and top-notch manager. Yes, Jack Perconte is also on there. Almost forgot you, Jack. Another Rookie Stars card features Tim Raines.

Other than that, you have a Kirk Gibson rookie card. To my mind, it is one of the ugliest designs in the set. Hall-of-Famer Harold Baines has his cannon rookie in this set as well. Nothing wrong with these solid players, but there is no stand-out rookie star to set this release apart.

Best cards in the set:

Shop for 1981 Topps rookie cards on eBay.

8) 1991 Fleer

Any ugly card connoisseur knew this set was coming. I love to be contrarian and stick up for underdog sets that people hate unjustifiably. But there is no denying the ungodly ugliness of 1991 Fleer.

Just the thought of that off-kilter banana yellow gives me the beginning of a migraine. The kind that starts in the lower left side of your temple and takes over your entire head. Just look at it. I will wait while you get the Advil.

If the yellow isn’t ugly enough for you, the offensive-looking black print gives it that finishing touch. Unfortunately, the photos also tend to be either ugly or a bit blurry. There is simply nothing to like about the aesthetics of the base cards in 1991 Fleer.

The quality control on this canary yellow disgrace was lacking as well. Many cards are centered poorly and have unexplained dots on the front. The advantage is that when they appear on some of the stars’ cards, it creates a coveted “error card.”

There is a saving grace to this release. The hand-drawn pro-vision insert set. They feature 12 of the biggest names in baseball at the time. However, it is notable that only Kirby Puckett among them became a Hall-of-Famer.

You can blame that on the steroid era. With its drawn visages, the black-bordered insert is some of the most beautiful and sought-after cards of the 1990s. It is almost a shame that these works of art are included in one of the most ill-conceived sets ever created.

If you dare: Shop for 1991 Fleer baseball cards on eBay

Rookie cards in the 1991 Fleer set

Ok, so these cards are ugly as sin. But are they saved by a worthy rookie class? In a word: no. Ivan Rodriguez was a great catcher, but no one wants this rookie card of him when you have the Upper Deck and Tiffany Topps on the market. It is the same story for Jeff Bagwell. And overall, it was a pretty weak year. 

The most worthwhile card in the set is not one of the rookies or even those awesome pro-vision inserts. Instead, it’s the Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds second-generation card.

Sure, it has that ugly canary-yellow design. But it’s an SP featuring two of the greatest players of their generation (or any generation) together. Moreover, it highlights the fact that both have professional baseball-playing fathers.

Best cards in the set:

Shop for 1991 Fleer rookie cards on eBay

7) 1988 Score

I may have given you the impression that every bad set is a Fleer one. But no. There is plenty of mediocrity all around. Indeed, the 1988 Score may have the bad Fleer sets beat in just how boring, and unremarkable its design is.

Everything about the set screams badly made limited edition kiddie cards. But no. This was meant as a significant release.

Let’s cut the company some slack. The parent company of Score, Pinnacle Brands, was only formed in 1986. 1988 Score was its first foray into the baseball cards world. Score would continue to make some plain awful card sets over the years. One of the main reasons there are more notorious Fleer sets is that the latter company was a bit more creative and failed more spectacularly.

The main problem here is the design. What do I dislike about it? Everything. The meaningless stars. The colored borders clash with the photos and do not match the teams. Why on earth is the Ozzie Smith card purple? The man was a Cardinal.

And just to make things more pointless, there were no team logos on the card. So between the confusing colors and the lack of references to the team name, you had to look at the uniforms to figure out to which team the players belong. But with those bad photos, that was easier said than done.

The nonsensical white frame within the picture. The uninspired photo selection. There is literally nothing here to like. And you can’t see it in the pictures, but if you ever held early Score in your hands: they are beyond flimsy. The entire set is an unmitigated disaster.

If you dare: Shop for 1988 Score baseball cards on eBay

1988 Score baseball set

Rookie cards in the 1988 Score set

1988 wasn’t the greatest year for baseball rookies. Even if there were a player, you wanted to collect, 1988 Score probably wouldn’t be your first choice. But you do have a relatively nice Roberto Alomar rookie card in the rookie/traded set. He isn’t exactly an inner circle pick, but Alomar is a Hall-of-Famer nonetheless.

Craig Biggio has a rookie card in 1988 Score Traded, coming out one year earlier than the Topps rookie. So, that is a good one to go after. Finally, Tom Glavine is another Cooperstown resident with a card in the set.

Best cards in the set:

  • 1988 Score #638 Tom Glavine Rookie Card – A PSA 10 went for $55.
  • 1988 Score Traded #103T Craig Biggio Rookie Card – A PSA 10 sold for $65.
  • 1988 Score #105D Roberto Alomar Rookie Card – A BGS 9.5 sold for $170.

Shop for 1988 Score rookie cards on eBay

6) 2021 Topps

Thought we would just stick to picking on junk wax after an obligatory vintage mention? Not our style. And there is undoubtedly a case for including the horrific 2021 Topps set. So let’s start with the most obvious problem: the design. Sure, junk wax cards are a special kind of ugly. But how many are really worse than the 2021 monstrosity?

The company faced a good deal of backlash for its unsuccessful 2020 card design. But while the previous year had been underwhelming, these were notably bad. That is a step in the wrong direction. The design is wholly incoherent and just far too busy.

Many collectors have pointed out that it is far more in line with the traditional Donruss design principles than the simpler and more effective Topps legacy. That is an especially glaring problem considering that 2021 Topps commemorated 70 years of the release and should have had a nod to tradition. But it wasn’t. The 70th-anniversary stamp in the corner was another unattractive addition to an unsuccessful concept.

And you have to squint to make out the name of the player. It is really amazing that through all these years of card production mistakes, manufacturers still haven’t learned that visibility and readability are essential elements of functional card design.  

If you dare: Shop for 2021 Topps rookie cards on eBay

Rookie Cards In The 2021 Topps Set

Like many of the products in this list, the 2021 Topps release seems cursed. A stellar rookie class could only save a design this bad. But unlike most recent years, 2021 was a pretty mediocre year for rookies.

Many players are emerging as solid major leaguers, with the upside to be stars. Alec Bohm, Jonathan India, Jake Cronenworth, and Ryan Mountcastle come to mind. But compare that to superstars like Fernando Tatis Jr., Shohei Ohtani, and now Julio Rodriguez. They simply lack the flash that highly collectible rookies bring to the table.

If you look at the best prices cards from this release have commanded, none of the rookie cards are near the top. Of course, this may change as one or more of the rookies puts together a Hall-of-Fame career (my money is on Cronenworth). But the rookies do not come close to making up for the bad design.

Best Cards In The Set:

  • 2021 Topps Mike Trout SSP #27 – A PSA 10 went for $2,500.
  • 2021 Topps Fernando Tatis Jr. SSP #US1 – A raw card went for $487.
  • 2021 Topps Shohei Ohtani Memorial Day Camo Parallel /50 – A raw card went for $300.

Shop for 2021 Topps rookie cards on eBay

5) 1990 Fleer

Fleer is at it again. The 1990 design isn’t the most horrific thing Fleer ever produced. There is a lot of competition for that honor. This one is just uninspired. Clean white borders? Ok. Squiggly flag kind of thing at the bottom. Sure. Borders in team colors? Why not.

Just nothing special. Are you thinking of looking for some excitement on the back? I hate to break it to you, but somehow that is even blander. A primarily white back makes you want to flip back to the uninspiring front immediately.

They tried to do something creative by having the player’s heads pop out of the borders. It works on some of these cards, but generally, it makes everyone look like a ridiculous pop-up figure.

But that isn’t the real problem here. The centering in 1990 Fleer is bad. Like legendarily awful. And many of the photos are blurry. That just makes the tedious design around the nasty off-center pics all the more annoying. Let’s get real, Fleer appears to have cut every corner imaginable on this set, and it shows.

If you dare: Shop for 1990 Fleer baseball cards on eBay

1990 fleer ben mccdonald

Rookie cards in the 1990 Fleer set

Future Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas has a rookie card in 1990 Fleer, and some autographed versions are floating around. But the Topps, Score, and even Leaf ones are better investments.

Larry Walker also has a really ugly rookie in this release. A Sammy Sosa rookie can also be found here, but he is not in Cooperstown. But that’s really it for 1990. So, we are talking about a middling rookie class.

The Jose Uribe Card

The highlight of this terrible set is a strange one. The highest value card by far is the Jose Uribe error iteration. It’s not a rookie card or anything like that. Jose was a beloved player in San Francisco but not a star by any stretch of the imagination. And yeah, it’s an error card.

But the mistake in question isn’t much of one. The birth date is switched from January 21, 1959, to 1960. It is also a massively overprinted and uncorrected error card. But influencers decided it was worth a ton of money, and ever since, it has been.

I love the colorful halo around Uribe’s head, which makes it one of the most attractive cards in the set. Having said that, not sure I would pay several hundred thousand dollars for it. I’ll pay my house off, and then maybe.

Best Cards In The Set:

  • Jose Uribe error card – Sold for $50,000 raw. The price is really amusing because you can get an entire case of 1990 Fleer factory sets (which will likely include several of these) for $228. Buy one and sell them on eBay, and send your kids to college on Uribe’s dime.
  • Sammy Sosa rookie card #548 – a BGS 10 sold for $2,200.
  • Larry Walker rookie card #363 – a BGS 9.5 sold for $260.  
  • Frank Thomas rookie card #300 – a PSA 10 went for $200.

Shop for 1990 Fleer rookie cards on eBay

4) 1991 Donruss

While Donruss doesn’t have the best reputation among card companies, they generally did not have the worst releases of the junk wax era. One of the elements that saved them from shamefulness was the delightful hand-illustrated Diamond Kings inserts. But, of course, the other reason we like the Donruss cards of this era is the immortal “Rated Rookie” logos, which have since become iconic.

But even if we admire a lot of what Donruss did over the years, they certainly screwed the proverbial pooch on this one. First, they sacrificed the compact nature of their earlier releases in favor of a Series I and Series II structure. But of course, we forgive most releases for that annoying tendency.

While Donruss cards are usually decently designed, these are simply hideous. The cards come with either a blue or green background. The green from Series 2, in particular, clashes with the color stripes in an ungodly manner. Plus it doesn’t help that many of the cards were riddled with errors.

But if you prefer the blue, which was nicer, it looks almost exactly like the (classier) Donruss 1988 release. Come on, guys! But that isn’t even the worst part. I particularly despise the paint splatter on the card’s left-sided border.

Probably the best feature of the set was an early and excellent numbered insert. 1991 Donruss Elite cards were numbered 5,000 or 10,0000 and therefore transcended the junk wax problem of overproduction. But since the set was over-printed, very few consumers found these precious gems. That made the set all the more frustrating for collectors at the time.

If you dare: Shop for 1991 Donruss baseball cards on eBay

Rookie cards in the 1991 Donruss set

As we said, the “Rated Rookie” series is one of the main advantages of the Donruss brand. Does that save the 1991 release from infamy? Not exactly. The rookie selection in this release is about as bad as it gets.

Other sets that year included future Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, and Mike Mussina. 1991 Donruss was too good for these guys. But have no fear. Instead, they had Rated Rookie cards for Dave Hansen and Tim McIntosh. Yeah, a real unforced error here. There are few cards sets with a rookie class as pathetic as this one.

Therefore, the best cards in the set tend to be veteran ones. In particular, a few rare errors stand out as the most desirable items here. Notably, there is another appearance here for Jose Uribe, the world-renowned king of the unnecessarily valuable error card.

Best Cards In The Set:

  • 1991 Donruss Ken Griffey Jr. All-Star #49 Error Card – a raw card went for $5,000.
  • 1991 Donruss Jose Uribe #375 Triple Error card – a raw card went for $4,000.
  • 1991 Donruss Ken Griffey Jr. Donruss Elite #13 – A PSA 9 went for $500.

Shop for 1991 Donruss rookie cards on eBay

3) 1995 Fleer

This is going to seem mean. But with the prevalence of Fleer designs here, you start to see why they went out of business. 1995 was the early days of the computer graphics industry, and it shows.

You don’t want to go back and watch the Power Rangers movie that came out that same year for the same reason. Well, there are MANY reasons not to watch Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. Collectors can’t agree on much, but we all agree these are horrific. Some folks have referred to these cards as the “acid trip” design, but that is far too charitable.

Fleer came up with six other eyesores, I mean designs. One for each division. You can have hours of fun arguing over which of the six is the worst. However, the correct answer is the NL East, with the AL West close on its heels.

If you dare: Shop for 1995 Fleer cards on eBay

darren daulton 1995 fleer

Rookie cards in the 1995 Fleer set

I am not sure anyone has come up with an uglier design than the 1995 Fleer. But it does have an advantage. There are a couple of Derek Jeter rookie inserts, which are undoubtedly ugly but are still good cards.

Also, a Chipper Jones rookie card made the 1995 Fleer Update set. And honestly, it is so ridiculously unsightly that I like it. But unfortunately, it is basically worthless. The A-Rod rookie is a similar story. However, a limited /10 version does far better on the market.

Best Cards In The Set:

Shop for 1995 Fleer rookie cards on eBay

2) 2013 Panini Triple Play

Let’s be honest; baseball fans don’t take the unlicensed Panini cards very seriously. They give releases for children even less thought. That’s why it takes an extraordinary kind of kid’s set from these guys to raise the ire of the baseball collectors. And 2013 Panini Triple Play is that set.

What was so terrible about this set? Let’s start with the most remarkable fact of all. The cards in this set are printed on literal computer paper

As for the design, the concept is simple. Panini wanted to transform the hottest baseball stars of 2013 into anime characters. Some collectors take serious offense at that and treat it as blasphemous. I don’t have a particular problem with the concept.

They wanted to attract kids to the product, and connecting it to something they enjoy makes sense. Look at the Marvel inserts for an example of Panini doing this well. The problem here is the execution. Anime art can be utterly jaw-dropping. But these illustrations are so primitive and sparse as to insult the animated genre. The end result was so poor that both baseball and anime fans were disgusted.

The inserts are designed for children in the most condescending manner imaginable. They include temporary tattoos, eye-blackening stickers, and fake mustaches.

The hits in the series were “memorabilia cards,” including apparel that had never been in the vicinity of a ballpark or MLB player. Unfortunately, the set bombed so severely that Panini had to discontinue the entire product line. Thank goodness for that.

If you dare: Shop for 2013 Panini Triple Play baseball cards on eBay

Rookie cards in the 2013 Panini Triple Play set

It feels kind of dumb to talk about the rookies in this set. Is anyone going to seriously consider a card here to be a genuine rookie card? But 2013 wasn’t a bad year for rookies, between pitchers like Jose Fernandez and Gerrit Cole and hitters like Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. But no worries, besides Machado, this release didn’t feature any of them.

Best Cards In The Set:

  • 2013 Panini Triple Play Mike Trout #91 When I Was A Kid Angels – A PSA 10 went for $80.
  • 2013 Panini Triple Play Bryce Harper Stick on tattoos #3 – A PSA 9 went for 9.45$.

Shop for 2013 Panini Triple Play rookie cards on eBay

1) 1995 Studio

Let there be no doubt, 1995 was a miserable year for cards. But as bad as Fleer was that year, Studio had it beat. The product was the Donruss answer to the high-end products that Upper Deck and Topps had successfully introduced into the market earlier in the decade. They weren’t too great, but there was nothing to set them apart from other unremarkable junk wax sets.

However, Donruss determined to set Studio apart from the competition. So, they transformed the base card in the series into a credit card. Well, not a real one. But that was the design.

It is as pointless and distracting as that sounds. To make matters worse, Donruss also canceled the inserts with previous Studio versions. Instead, cards were only available in two parallels: gold and platinum. Yes, they carried this credit card thing a little too far. And that’s why you can’t start ranking the worst baseball card sets of all time without this one.

If you dare: Shop for 1995 Studio baseball cards on eBay

Rookie Cards In The 1995 Studio Set

The two big rookies of 1995 were Chipper Jones and Mariano Rivera. Unfortunately, they have a Chipper Jones card with the words “INJURED DID NOT PLAY” plastered on the front where the “credit card number” should be. Needless to say, it’s not his best rookie card. Meanwhile, they skipped Mariano altogether.

Most sets, even the absolute worst ones, have some very cool cards. Maybe a good insert or a rare error card worth an ungodly amount. But Studio 1995 doesn’t have anything like that. Indeed, a factory-sealed box is worth more than any single card in the release. For all these reasons, Studio 1995 is the worst baseball card set of all time.

Best Cards In The Set:

  • 1995 Studio Ken Griffey Jr. Gold Parallel #5 – a PSA 10 went for $86.
  • 1995 Studio Frank Thomas Gold Parallel #1 – a PSA 10 went for $51.
  • 1995 Studio Don Mattingly Gold Parallel #3 – a PSA 10 went for $49.

Shop for 1995 Studio rookie cards on eBay

The final word on the worst baseball card sets of all time

The hobby has been around for a long time. Over the years, countless sets have been released. If anything, it’s surprising how few major sets are absolute garbage. On the other hand, the vast majority of big company sets have been quite serviceable, and there is no shortage of gems.

However, when a set goes wrong, it can be horrifying to watch. Sometimes the concept is deeply flawed. Other times it’s the execution. And on occasion, everything stinks all at once, with irresistible results.

But what was great about the junk wax era was that if one company made garbage, another could save it. Unfortunately, now with the monopolies we have in the hobby, we are stuck with whatever garbage the big companies feed us. 2021 Topps is an excellent example of that.

Why we love ranking the worst baseball card sets of all time anyway

But our hobby wouldn’t be the same without these sets. The god-awful banana yellow of 1991 Fleer is utterly iconic. And let’s be honest, part of the reason we love junk wax so much is our campy delight in these unsuccessful designs.

So next time a genuinely horrible design mars your favorite flagship release, stop before you get angry. The worst designs are incredibly memorable. They are part of what makes the hobby special. The really useless sets are the boring ones. Those we forget as soon as the next product drops. The hideous designs live forever.

What about value in these miserable sets? The cards lose some when a baseball set becomes infamous for its ugliness or lack of quality control.

So even when one of these sets has a fine rookie class, collectors prefer alternatives elsewhere. We see this in the numbers for these sets over and over again. Even when they have relatively rare and good-looking rookies for significant stars, the value doesn’t compare to sets with a better reputation.

But there is still a surprising amount of value to be found in some error cards on this list, especially when the errors are for big players like Ken Griffey Jr.