They Never Told You About This Version of the 1992 Donruss Elite Cal Ripken Jr.

1992 Donruss Elite Print Ad
1992 Donruss Elite Print Ad

By 1992, the market was quickly approaching the tail end of the Junk Wax Era (1986-1993). In 1992, Donruss brought us its sophomoric release of the forever desirable Elite Series. If you collected in 1992, you probably have fond but likely at least mildly disappointing memories of ripping through countless packs of 1992 Donruss and never pulling a single card from this nearly impossible set. I was one of those collectors.

To see what’s currently on eBay from 1992 Donruss Elite, click here.

The 1992 Donruss Elite set consists of 10 cards with card number continuation from the 1991 Donruss Elite set. The cards are serial numbered to 10,000 with two short printed cards at the end of the set – one commemorative and one signature. The signed card is the unicorn and carries a print run of just 5000. In 1992 that unicorn was Cal Ripken Jr. and to this day, the card remains on the Most Wanted lists of many collectors.

Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite #S2 /5000
Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite #S2 /5000

The Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite card continues to carry weight in the hobby. Collectors can usually grab one of these raw to mint for $200-$300 with rare gem examples bringing thousands. A PSA 10 sold on eBay on February 12, 2018 for $2,324.

You’d think with a print run of 5000, these would be easier to pull from packs. They’re not. That should give you a bit of perspective on how much 1992 Donruss was produced. It’s called the Junk Wax Era for a reason. Supply is so high, it crushes any hope for long-term investment potential. We’re up against multiple millions of copies per card in the 784-card base set of 1992 Donruss. Print runs this high do severe damage to insertion ratio odds, we’re talking total annihilation. This was the catalyst for our disappointment in ripping packs as kids. It’s also the same reason why this card has held value all these years.

Cal Ripken Jr. hard at work signing 5000 copies of the 1992 Donruss Elite card.
Cal Ripken Jr. hard at work signing 5000 copies of the 1992 Donruss Elite card.

There’s something magical about scarcity. It motivates us to take action before it’s too late. It’s why we dial-in immediately to place orders to get twice the number of kitchen knives on the Home Shopping Network. It’s why many college seniors try to get the most out of their final year before it’s all over and they have to face reality. It’s why programming becomes more intriguing when it’s labeled for mature audiences only. It’s also why we feel strongly prompted to take advantage of limited-time clearance sales. Scarcity functions as an obstacle to goal attainment, which in turn intensifies the value of the goal.[1]Scarcity Makes Everything Desirable.

What happens when the already scarce becomes even rarer?

While at the 2019 National, I was introduced to a collector who presented me with two versions of the Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite card, one of which was a first appearance for me.

Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite

Depicted here is the standard pack-issued version (left) and what I refer to as the Archive Proof (right). This version didn’t get the signature treatment nor did it get the numerator in the serial number.

Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite

I’ve seen these versions before with some cards from the mid-late 1990s, but rarely earlier than that. I know one collector who has a Jose Canseco 1991 Donruss Elite of the same variety as this Archive Proof shown here – missing the numerator in the serial number. That particular Jose Canseco card was probably intended to be a replacement. We’ll get to that in a moment.

The question I often get with stuff like this is how many were produced and it’s almost always followed with the what’s it worth question. Value is the easiest number to produce because it’s always what the market is willing to bear. Granted, some folks may be willing to pay more than others. Heck, find the right collector (in this case, a Cal Ripken Jr. collector) and there’s a chance you could make out handsomely. It’s the first part of that question that’s difficult to answer with any degree of certainty.

How many were produced?

This is a tough one to answer but let’s consider something – why would a card like this be produced in the first place?

In my experience, I’ve learned that some companies like to keep a record of what they’ve made for any one product. For trading cards, these records come in the form of samples. Often times, these are produced with some minor character change – different card stock (Ultra), blank back or color proof (Topps Vault), words like “Sample,” “Pre-Production,” “Promo,” and “Promotional” printed or hand-written right on the cards (Donruss, Leaf, Topps, and Upper Deck), serial numbers with XXX or 000 in numerator position (Donruss, Fleer), or in this case without the autograph or numerator in the serial number. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, stated promos were mainstream and offered to the market for their intended purpose – promotion.

During the early years of this so-called record keeping, this stuff was kept behind closed doors in company storage away from public release and mass consumption. I theorize this was done for a few reasons:

  1. Hard copy record keeping helps facilitate design and marketing of future products. While this may be a stretch, hard copy record keeping has a way of coming in handy during marketing presentations such as investor meetings. This is me now speaking as a marketing consultant.
  2. Since companies have to store samples, they don’t have any incentive to produce but a small sample size if even more than one copy at all.
  3. Help reduce, minimize, or otherwise prevent consumer confusion and misinformation.

This is why I believe very few copies of these Archive Proofs were made, 1 maybe 2.

Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite

There’s another theory that has *some* weight but isn’t completely bullet proof. Let’s start with what we do know. In 1992, Donruss produced some number of Donruss Elite cards with partial serial numbers and kept them in stock for the sake of fulfilling customer replacements when notified that a customer pulled a damaged example. Here’s proof of that:

1992 Donruss Elite Replacement Letter | Wade Boggs
1992 Donruss Elite Replacement Letter | Source: @iowacardshows
Wade Boggs 1992 Donruss Elite #9 Replacement
Wade Boggs 1992 Donruss Elite #9 Replacement | Source: @iowacardshows

To fulfill replacement requests, Donruss would have had to produce some number of each of the 1992 Donruss Elite cards without numerators in the serial numbers. This would streamline the process of reproducing the exact serial number on the replacement that was found on the damaged copy as shown here with the Wade Boggs replacement.

Some unused replacements have escaped into the secondary market, which is why we sometimes find cards with partial serial numbers out in the wild i.e., the 1991 Donruss Elite Jose Canseco.

Here’s where things get foggy. The Cal Ripken Jr. is the only card in the 1992 Donruss Elite set that’s signed, which means if we generalize the replacement method across the set, then the Cal Ripken Jr. replacement would be found with a partial serial number AND signed. This would make sense from an efficiency standpoint.

It wouldn’t make sense for Donruss to leave some of these cards behind before sending 5000 to Cal Ripken Jr. to sign. It would make more sense to send Ripken slightly more copies – say 5010 – with the remaining 10 being those with partial serial numbers. That way, if a customer writes in about a damaged Ripken card, Donruss could simply complete the serial number with the identical numerator and send it to the customer all without repeatedly bothering Cal Ripken Jr. for additional signature requests. An added benefit of this is reducing fulfillment lead times. Donruss wouldn’t have to mail replacements with signature requests to Cal Ripken Jr. and wait for them to return since the cards would already be signed.

I’m not saying it didn’t happen the way the Boggs replacement was procured, but from a business efficiency standpoint, it would be extremely unproductive and costly both in time and money to withhold partial serial number copies of the Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite that are unsigned.

So here we are, back to the record keeping theory.

If they were made for internal record keeping, how did they make it to the secondary market?

This brings us to an interesting part of the conversation. This stuff often ends up in the hands of collectors through situations such as employee backdoor, equity liquidation and bankruptcy, company buyouts, etc. If equity is moved around, smart acquirers will find ways to monetize old stock. We see Topps doing this today when they put Topps Vault Proofs on eBay (I’ve bought many of them over the years). Keep in mind, every single one of those Topps Vault Proofs is a one-of-one (1/1). When they sell, that’s it!

To see the current eBay auctions for Topps Vault Proofs, click here.

Consider this: in addition to the standard base design, Topps Vault Proofs often come in a variety of unique CMYK-type colors. Could this mean similar proofs were made for the Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite card? These are the kinds of thoughts I have when I review cards like this. Thing is, I don’t know if the production process at Donruss mimicked that of Topps. There are a lot of unknowns here. What we do know is that this Archive Proof version of the Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite is exceedingly rare and commands attention.

Cal Ripken Jr. 1992 Donruss Elite
Chad Lazar: owner of the cards (left) and I (right) at the 2019 National Sports Collectors Convention.

Within minutes of sharing this article on social media, I learned some of its possession history. This exact card has been owned by three different collectors.

Thanks to Chad Lazar for providing some of the images used in this article.

To see the current eBay auctions for the 1992 Donruss Elite Cal Ripken Jr., click here.


1 Scarcity Makes Everything Desirable.


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