Donnie Baseball was also Donnie "Donruss" for much of the '80s.
For a stretch, the beloved Yankee's 1984 Donruss rookie was the most coveted card from the hobby's most celebrated set. And while interest has waned since Mattingly's retirement, his inaugural issue remains the most significant card in a set considered by many to be the company's finest.
"The Mattingly rookie is so important," said Ray Boehm, a Maine native whose 1984 Donruss set ranks sixth on the PSA Set Registry. "Donnie Baseball just dominated the mid-to-late '80s and was such a true Yankee ... It's a tough one to find centered but a nice, mint Mattingly rookie does it for me."
Bill Davidson, a Northern California resident who owns the PSA Set Registry's top set, has also noticed the centering issues with the legendary Bronx Bomber's card. He points out that only around 1% of Mattingly cards submitted to PSA have been graded 10s.
The Mattingly is the anchor of the 658-card set that also offers two additional unnumbered "Living Legends" singles (A-Rollie Fingers and Gaylord Perry, B- Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski) that were included in wax packs but excluded from factory sets.
Reportedly printed in smaller quantities than previous Donruss issues, the 1984 product also introduced hobbyists to "Rated Rookie" cards, a cachet that would become a staple of Donruss sets for years. Also distributed in wax and rack packs were pieces from a 63-piece Duke Snider puzzle.
Unintentionally, error cards also helped this groundbreaking set gain notoriety. The Diamond Kings issued in packs, for example, were printed with the artist's name spelled incorrectly ("Steel" instead of "Steele"). The mistake was revised for the factory sets. A similar scenario arose with the Mike Stenhouse and Ron Darling cards. During the pack run, these singles were produced with no card numbers, an oversight that was remedied for factory sets. In both cases, the numbered versions command a premium.
Other notable rookies in the set include Joe Carter, Andy Van Slyke, Darryl Strawberry, Tony Fernandez, Tony Phillips, and Tom Henke. Complimenting these freshmen are sophomore singles of Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, and Ryne Sandberg.
"I think that, without a doubt, the '84 Donruss set is their classiest issue. Best set of the '80s," trumpeted Boehm.
And a number of hobbyists agree, citing the set's design as a reason for its desirability.
"I really fell in love with the simple design and the great quality of the photography. It really reminded me of my all-time favorite set – the 1957 Topps baseball set," said Arnold Varona, a Florida-based hobbyist whose set ranks second on the PSA registry.
"For starters, it's a classic design – blazing white borders on all sides which highlight each card's unique background. Add in quality photography, card design and nice colors, it's hard to ignore. When you closely look at each card of the set, it's evident that care was taken to include poses that are extremely pleasing to the eye. For instance, there is very little inclusion of background players."
Similar to the Mattingly rookie, however, cards from this product are often hampered by centering problems. The Joe Carter rookie is one single that is renowned for being off-center.
"Typically these (Joe Carter rookies) are off left to right, but you can find them centered if you are patient enough," noted Davidson.
The savvy collector points out that it's certain common cards – not the high-profile rookies – that are most challenging to find in high grade. The Joel Youngblood (Card #480), for instance, is particularly tough.
"Everything I see of him in raw is just grossly off centered," explained Davidson. "I haven't found any that were even close to worth submitting (for grading) from a centering standpoint."
If he had to pick the most elusive card to find in pristine condition, however, it would be the Omar Moreno (Card #637). Aside from centering issues, this single is typically hindered by a "spider web paper defect" in the upper-left portion of the card. It's a flaw that likely occurred in the manufacturing process.
Davidson has also noticed that, in many cases, the cards produced for factory sets are smaller than those printed for packs.
"Factory sets tend to have cards with thinner borders, which is the direct result of factory cards being cut to a slightly smaller size than wax or rack packs," he said.
But these idiosyncrasies are part of what has endeared this set to collectors. Hobbyists say that the best sources for high-grade cards are eBay and trading with fellow collectors.
"I've always loved the set. That combined with the enthusiasm of the other '84 Donruss registry guys and an opportunity to trade for a high-end raw set from a friend motivated me to get started," said Boehm.
In recent months, interest in this once red-hot set has picked up again.
"It is a very popular set now and will likely gather more interest as the children of the '80s grow up and begin to spend disposable income on the cards they knew as kids ... If this happens and interest builds, the investment potential will grow as well," said Boehm.
Varona agreed, "In ranking this set amongst the '80s Donruss sets, it is head and shoulders above the rest ... It is a good long-term investment because there aren't cases and cases of the stuff lying around."
Of course, there are not a lot of hitters like Mattingly "lying around" either. That's the reason George Steinbrenner hired the 1985 American League MVP as his hitting coach after the 2003 season – marking Donnie Baseball's return to the Yankees' dugout. And with the resurgence of interest in the 1984 Donruss set, Donnie "Donruss" seems to be making a comeback of his own.