Hobby Update: By George... It's Complicated, The 1990 Topps George Bush Baseball Card

Joe Orlando
Jul 9, 2013

The 1990 Topps George Bush baseball card has been one of the most desirable rarities of the past three decades. The front of this 1990 Topps card pictures the 41st President of the United States as a member of the Yale baseball team. It has long been believed that exactly 100 copies of this card were made, and specifically for the White House. In fact, many sellers have touted this version of the story in auction catalogues for years.

To be fair, there are others who have challenged the story. For one, a typical Topps sheet contains 132 cards to begin with, so even if the card was limited to 100 copies, that means the other 32 hypothetical copies had to be destroyed. This all assumes that only one sheet was made and only 100 individual cards were kept, which none of us have actual knowledge of, no matter what the manufacturer's intent was at the time or what version of the story was told to the public.

There have also been allegations that some of these specially-made cards escaped from the manufacturer or some, allegedly, made it into Topps packs. An article appeared in People magazine in 1990 where two Illinois shop owners claimed to have pulled one of the rare cards from an unopened pack. While Topps claimed it was impossible, the owners had the card in their hands.

Arthur Shorin, the CEO of Topps at the time, presented President Bush with 100 of these special trading cards in a 3-ring binder.

The vast majority of the authentic 1990 Topps George Bush cards circulating in the marketplace look and feel just like a regular 1990 Topps card. In fact, this includes examples graded by all the major third party grading services. Within those examples are some slight color variations in the border area, but the general feel and construction of the cards is the same.

Here's where things get interesting.

Recently, the former Governor of New Hampshire (1983-1989) and White House Chief of Staff (1989-1991), John Sununu, submitted a small group of these cards to PSA for grading. Some of you may recall Sununu appearing on the Tonight Show in 1992, when he traded Jay Leno a couple of novelty "John Sununu, Governor" cards for a low grade 1953 Topps Satchel Paige and a couple of 1948 Bowman baseball cards on the air. As you might expect, Sununu is an avid card collector and has been for a long time.

When the cards arrived, a difference in appearance was immediately noticeable between these examples and virtually all of the examples floating around the marketplace. Each card provided by Sununu had an almost laminated appearance, exhibiting a clear coating along the entire face of the card.

This is not the typical clear coating that collectors are accustomed to seeing on popular modern issues like Topps Finest cards or the like. The cards submitted by Sununu were not simply "glossier" than a regular 1990 Topps card. These cards have a clear, yet relatively thick, layer that was placed on top of the cardboard itself. In fact, the coating was often slightly oversized where you can actually see a tiny bit of excess coating along some of the edges. It almost appeared a little amateurish, which seemed peculiar for such a special card made by Topps.

Former White House Chief of Staff, John Sununu, submitted a small group of these cards and every one of them possessed the coating on the face of the card.

Was this done to protect these specially-made cards?

Was it done to simply distinguish these cards from the regular issue?

Was it done to give this special project some pizzazz?

The truth is that we may never know since the person responsible for handling the project from design to presentation, Ric Mahig, passed away a few years back.

Our initial reaction was to question whether or not the coating was added after the fact, by the owner, or if they were actually manufactured with the odd coating by Topps. We decided to reach out to Arthur Shorin, the former CEO of Topps (1980-2008) and its director since 1960. Shorin was the man who presented the special cards, which were placed in a three-ring binder, to the President. If you search the Internet, you can actually find an often-used image of the encounter, with President Bush proudly displaying the notebook full of these exact cards.

Shorin was extremely helpful to PSA and eager to find the answer himself. During our conversation, Shorin realized that the only way to know for sure was to analyze the single copy he owned, a copy that the President himself signed for Shorin.

When I described the coating to Shorin over the phone, it didn't sound familiar to him. He kept one autographed copy in an old fashioned "screw-down" for protection and knew that the answer to my question lied in that old plastic holder. Shorin told me he would locate the card, remove it from the holder and send pictures as soon as he could. The very next day, his assistant emailed some images of the card and the answer was clear.

In this montage, you can see the slight reflection against the coating, which is present on the cards gifted to President Bush.

Shorin's card possessed a similar coating. In fact, President Bush signed the card on top of the coating. This wasn't a case of someone trying to protect the card and autograph after the fact, like some people used to do in the past by shellacking baseballs for example. The card was presented to the President with the coating affixed to the card.

At this point, we are of the opinion that the cards actually presented to President Bush did possess this characteristic, the additional coating, which is absent on the multiple examples that escaped the factory over the years.

So, we continued to do some investigating and came up with more information. As it turns out, a former Topps employee sold approximately 70 copies of the card privately after departing from the company. Those examples, along with others, have been circulating in the hobby over the past 20+ years. Keep in mind these cards are 100% authentic, but in our opinion, they just weren't part of the group that made it to the White House.

Today, the question is not about the authenticity of the cards. It is about the authenticity of the story and each card's travels. The key is how to distinguish between the two versions of the card; and we felt it was important to share what we found with the hobby, to minimize confusion in the marketplace and ensure that hobbyists are informed about the card and its history.

At PSA, we have decided to place an additional line on our labels for examples that feature this coated characteristic. While both versions are authentic, we feel it is important to distinguish between the copies that, in our opinion, were actually presented to the President and the ones that were not. So, as a result, these examples will be labeled as "White House Issue" on the third line of the PSA label to separate them from the non-coated examples.

In this close-up, you can see the coating, which actually extends slightly beyond the borders and corners in some cases.

Cards escaping from the factory, whether malicious or not, is nothing new. It has been happening for over 100 years. In fact, many high-grade vintage cards have originated from "escape" scenarios. Most high-grade T206 cards came from uncirculated groups, like the Southern Find. Do you really think that T206 Walter Johnson portrait in PSA Mint 9 you saw at auction ever sat in a dingy tobacco pack? Chances are... no.

The same can be said of countless trading card issues. When you see high-grade 1954 Wilson Franks cards, do you think they were all pulled from hot dog packages? Probably not. Even as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, it was not uncommon for some dealers to miraculously have 5,000-count bricks of certain rookie cards. Did these dealers sit down and slowly pull those cards, one by one, from packs or factory sets? Some dealers may have done so, but logic tells me that most of them didn't. Why? Because they were getting fed the cards through the backdoor.

It is important that we make one point very clear. In many cases, like the one covered in this article, the manufacturer may not be part of the problem... if you want to call it a problem per se. Cards have been escaping factories and traditional methods of distribution for many years, and that has often produced some of the hobby's best cards in terms of quality. How do you think all those beautiful, vintage Topps Test cards ever reached collectors through the years?

What is important here is that sellers cease describing the cards they are selling as absolutely one of the cards presented to the President, and definitively as one of only 100 made, because we know that is not true. There may have only been 100 made for President Bush, but there were more than 100 made in total.

At PSA, our job is to render our opinion, to authenticate and grade various types of items. We also take pride in providing information to the hobby. In this case, the good news is that all of the cards we have seen are authentic Topps cards, with or without the coating. We simply feel the hobby should do a better job of distinguishing between the cards now that we have additional information. We believe the new information is credible and our conclusion is logical. This way, potential buyers will better understand what they are purchasing.

Our research on the matter will continue. There is always additional evidence to consider. The exact number of authentic copies, when adding both versions together, is unknown at this time and will probably remain a mystery.

I believe it is important to avoid talking in absolutes because new information may be just around the corner. We strive to stay open-minded about all hobby issues, but based upon the current chain of events, this is where PSA stands today and we want the hobby to be informed.