During the 1980s, Donruss was my favorite card manufacturer. Please don’t misunderstand, I didn’t think that they released the best set of cards every year. My feelings were more the result of the fact they were the ones attempting to modernize baseball card designs (at least, on the front of the card.) Some of the them were hideous, especially the 1988 Donruss Baseball’s Best which replaced the blue in the borders of the regular ’88 set with orange, thus providing a look so horrifying that the set should’ve been released on Halloween. But as I said in my review of 2014 Topps Turkey Red, I’d rather the card companies try something different and fail miserably than be absolutely lazy and boring. However, there’s no such issue with Panini’s resurrection of the Donruss brand. In fact, the 2014 Donruss set, the first in nearly 10 years, now makes Panini my favorite card manufacturer.
That’s quite the feat considering that they don’t have a license from MLB. However, over the past year in particular, Panini has shown exceptional adroitness, flexibility, and growth in figuring out how to properly remove team logos and insignia from the photos they use. I didn’t write a review about their 2013 America’s Pastime offering (although I did write about why I felt the John Kruk & Carlos Ruiz dual autograph card was by far the best Phillies autograph card of the year), but in my opinion it was actually the best high-end set of the year. In addition to assembling a complete team set, I also acquired as many of the inserts as I could. I’m sure my ability to purchase nearly every base card and insert was enhanced by the fact that so many collectors are turned off by the lack of MLB licensing, by I viewed that as their loss and my gain. In my opinion, if Panini continues issuing sets that exceed those produced by Topps, then collectors will force Topps and MLB to take notice.
After the release of 2014 Donruss, Topps and MLB should take notice. This is what a low-end set should be. Let’s start with the bast set. As other collectors have noted, the design uses elements of the 1987 set with a cursive script for the team’s home city. I’ve seen a couple different collectors refer to the script as reminiscent of that used on Topps’s 1978 set, and while I understand the sentiment, I don’t entirely agree. If you look closely at the script on the ’78 Topps cards, it is a different cursive font — all cursive fonts look vaguely similar. Really, the city name font on 2014 Donruss is the same script Panini used on America’s Pastime, only slanted and italicized. They’ve brought back the logo Donruss employed from 1982 through 1985 — though it’s much more prominent than it ever was on previous sets — and the backs look fairly similar those throughout the ’80s, though for some reason Panini chose to only list 2013 stats and career totals, rather than list the last five seasons of stats in the manner Donruss did 20 years ago. I also couldn’t help but notice that Panini jettisoned the “Contract Status” and “How Acquired” information from the design Donruss faithfully employed for nearly 10 years, starting in 1983. Beginning a theme that will start running throughout the insert sets, Panini mixed design elements from different year by coloring the backs blue like the 1986 sets, rather than the gold used on the back of the 1987 set.
Beyond the regular base cards, Panini also properly included Diamond Kings and Rated Rookie subsets, though the design of the Diamond Kings subset is clearly borrows from the 1984 set rather than the 1987. Unfortunately, Panini didn’t pay for original artwork for use on the Diamond King cards and instead relied on a photo treatment to make the photos appear vaguely like artwork. I suppose that’s just a sign of the times (Topps currently isn’t any better), but it would’ve been nice to see artwork, even if Dick Perez was either unavailable or too expensive. There are no foils or gimmicky variations to increase interest, and while parallels, as such, didn’t exist in the ’80s, the ones Panini issued — Press Proofs, Career Stat Line, and Season Stat Line — properly reflect the parallels created by Donruss before it lost its MLB license in 2005.
Panini continued paying homage to various Donruss designs from the ’80s with the insert sets. The Team MVP set, which includes Mike Schmidt and Ryan Howard, is nearly identical to the 1989 Donruss Bonus MVPs, with the MVP text moved from the bottom of the card to the top. The Rookies, which Donruss originally issued as a self-contained box set, interestingly utilizes the color-scheme of the 1988 Donruss set and the name plate from that year’s Diamond Kings subset to create another design that is both new and retro. The same applies to the No-No’s set, which superimposes 1989 Donruss border colors onto the basic 1986 Donruss design.
But it’s the Game Gear relic set that may possess the most interesting amalgamation of Donruss designs. It appears to use a variation of the 2002 Donruss Originals What If 1980 as the basic design, and then takes the team name font from the 1981 set for the Game Gear set name. I only call this one the most interesting because someone at Panini possessed enough knowledge about the history of the brand to make a connection to the What If 1980 insert set. Too bad someone at Topps wasn’t showing this level of creativity on this year’s Turkey Red set. The two remaining insert sets containing a member of the Phillies, Hall Worthy and Breakout Hitters, don’t appear to have any analogues to previous Donruss issues, but I’m willing to admit that it’s possible that my ignorance of such sets, certainly inserts of some sort, results from the lack of a Phillie in the originals.
In a set chock-full of things to love, I do have a few very minor quibbles with the final product. First, the main set is too small. At a minimum, the set should’ve been 660 cards, since it was Donruss, along with Fleer, who established that as an acceptable minimum for a comprehensive, modern set. Second, while I loved seeing each and every single one of the variations on Donruss designs from the ’80s, I personally would have loved to see Panini slowly tease them out over the course of a few different sets. On the other hand, it might be better that Panini issued the overt homages to Donruss’s en masse so that with future releases it could move the set forward in a new direction. Finally, I also noticed that the year was missing from its place next to the Donruss logo. Although Donruss stopped incorporating the year in such a manner in the mid ’90s, I always thought it was a nice touch that provided collectors, both new and old, with a very easy way to immediately identify the year the set was released.
However, those quibbles detract in any discernible fashion from my enjoyment of 2014 Donruss. It’s a wonderful reintroduction of the brand, and its creative homage to its past works quite nicely. Panini manages the neat trick of issuing a low-end set that contains the requisite parallels and inserts that many modern collectors expect, and Panini does this by employing designs for the insert sets that make it clear which set they accompanied — something that’s not always true with insert sets. Aside from my nitpicky criticisms, the only thing that could’ve made this set better was an MLB license. Alas, we have a Topps monopoly on that until the year 2020. It really is a shame we have to wait that long for Panini to potentially receive one — that lack of license is standing in the way of the hobby properly embracing these sets.
One Final Note: I couldn’t find a way to properly work it into the review, but Utley’s base card appears to have an uncorrected error: the back of his card lists his name as “Chase Cameron Headley.”
Featured cards: 1988 Donruss Baseball’s Best #184, Lance Parrish; 2013 Panini America’s Pastime #123, Steve Carlton; 2014 Donruss #111, Cliff Lee; 2014 Donruss #19, Chase Utley; 2014 Donruss The Rookies #11, Cameron Rupp; 2014 Donruss Game Gear #39, Domonic Brown; 2014 Donruss #151, Marlon Byrd