Box Break... Bust!
Updated: May 16
Related: Premier Box Breaks
A renewed interest in the hobby over the past fifteen months, which peaked during the strictest of COVID lockdowns, and the growing popularity of live breaks have created a demand for unopened wax that has never been higher. But there are still some boxes available at a decent price that offer both the fun of ripping through wax (or foil) and the possibility of striking decent rookie cards in top condition.
That was my mindset when I picked up a box of 1989-90 Topps for $150 CDN. I thought it would be a great opportunity to find a crisp, PSA 10-worthy Joe Sakic RC, maybe even a couple.
A couple of months ago I was browsing the PSA population report and decided to look up Joe Sakic's 1989-90 OPC RC. I had recently seen a PSA 10 copy sell for about $800 CDN, which caught my interest. At the time, a lot of vintage cards were selling for all-time highs, but this particular sale still surprised me.
The 1989-90 OPC set is widely considered the end of the vintage era, since it was the last set produced by Topps/OPC while they had the market to themselves. But it also marks the beginning of hockey's so-called junk wax era, a period defined by severe overproduction and low value on the secondary market, which is why a raw Sakic RC in Mint condition can still be found for less than $15 CDN.
What stood out in the population report was the low number of PSA 10 copies of this card, given the number submitted. Of the 3,802 OPC Sakic RCs submitted, only 244 received a grade of PSA 10 (Gem Mint). That's a conversion rate of 6.4%. The Topps version had even fewer, with 1,256 total submissions yielding just 17 PSA 10s, or just 1.4%.
Those numbers were minuscule when compared to Jaromir Jagr's 1990-91 OPC Premier RC, another card from this era, and one which I've covered extensively. The Jagr card has a PSA 10 conversion rate that is five times higher. There are a couple of obvious reasons for this. First, the 1990-91 OPC Premier set used higher-quality paper stock than the 1989-90 set. Second, the white borders of the Premier set make those cards more grading-friendly than the blue and gray borders of the 1989-90 set, which exaggerate even the most minor chipping.
PSA 10 Conversion Rates
Sakic OPC RC - PSA Total: 3,802. PSA 10: 244. Conversion: 6.4%.
Sakic Topps RC - PSA Total: 1,269. PSA 10: 17. Conversion: 1.3%.
Jagr Premier RC - PSA Total: 8,662. PSA 10: 2,806. Conversion: 32.4%.
When I considered buying a 1989-90 Topps wax box, it was the favourable odds of finding a Sakic RC that made the decision a no-brainer.
An unopened 1989-90 Topps box contains 36 wax packs, each with 13 cards (plus one sticker) inside, for a total of 468 cards. The Topps set only contains 198 cards. So, in theory, I could count on finding an average of 2.36 copies of each card, including the Sakic RC. By comparison, a 1989-90 OPC box would only yield an average of 1.02 Sakic RCs (48 packs, 7 cards per pack, 330-card set).
But those numbers were purely theoretical, based on predictable collation. In other words, that Topps inserted cards into packs and packs into boxes with a relatively even distribution. That was indeed the case when I broke two boxes of 1990-91 OPC Premier. The collation was so good in those boxes that I assumed it would be similar for 1989-90 Topps. This was a very bad assumption on my part.
It's always fun opening old packs of cards. But any warm feeling of nostalgia I got from tearing through wax and flipping through crisp, gum-dusty cards quickly gave way to disappointment, as I discovered the same cards showing up, over and over.
Let me start by saying that I bought this box from a very reputable seller on a popular Facebook group, so my poor break results are 100% the fault of Topps and the awful quality control measures they had in place back in 1989.
Of the 468 total cards in this box, 203 were of just 11 players. That's 43.4% of the entire box. Here are the cards I got tired of seeing:
#10. Dave Archibald: 19
#57. Michel Goulet: 19
#63. Randy Cunneyworth: 18
#82. Steve Thomas: 19
#95. Paul Coffey: 18
#107. Bernie Federko: 18
#108. Gary Suter: 18
#124. John Anderson: 19
#127. Jimmy Carson: 19
#145. John Cullen: 18
#165. Mike Ridley: 18
The most frustrating part of this break was that some subset of these 11 cards seemed to show up in every pack, usually in groups of five or six, as shown in the image below. Obviously, the collation in this box by Topps was just atrocious. Even for a set that has some double-printed cards, this amount of repetition was beyond anything you would ever reasonably expect.
By the time I made my way through the entire box, I ended up with the three stacks of cards shown below. Stack #1 (left) contains the 145 different cards from the set (72.3% of the set). Stack #2 (middle) is made up of doubles, not including the 11 cards listed above. Stack #3 (right) is comprised of doubles from just those 11 cards. Again, very disappointing.
My goal when buying this box was to find a nice Joe Sakic RC or two. Imagine my disappointment every time I saw the left side of a Michel Goulet card, thinking it might be a Sakic RC. That happened 19 times!
I did manage to find one Sakic RC, as well as two Brian Leetch RCs, but none were in great shape, certainly not worthy of grading. It was also interesting to see how different the Topps versions of these cards are from the OPC. Most significantly, the images on the Topps cards are darker and less sharp. This was very noticeable when placing the Topps and OPC versions of the Sakic RC next to each other, as shown below.
It's probably no surprise that gum left inside packs for 30-plus years caused some issues, notably staining of the bottom card of each pack. And, no, I did not try the gum.
The highlight of breaking these packs was probably finding the star cards from the set. And with Topps, there was the added bonus of finding the All-Star sticker inserts. I even cut out the box-bottom cards, which included Mario Lemieux.
There is no way I could ever recommend buying a box of 1989-90 Topps. Maybe my experience was a one-off, but maybe not.
As I said earlier, I never should have assumed that the consistent collation I had seen previously with 1990-91 OPC Premier would also be seen with 1989-90 Topps. Lesson learned. But at least my lesson came at a relatively low price.
Hopefully this is not the case for all Topps wax. I mean, can you imagine buying a 1985-86 Topps wax box (potentially containing Mario Lemieux's RC) for thousands of dollars and running into the same problem? That would be absolutely disastrous.