Monumental mission: Collecting the 1983 Topps Baseball set autographed

April 7, 2023

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

Where have you gone, Paul Serna?

That’s a question Cory Slay has been asking for the past couple of years.

Slay is attempting to acquire an autographed card of every player in the 792-card, 1983 Topps Baseball set.

Featured on card #492, Serna was an infielder who played 95 games with the Seattle Mariners in 1981 and 1982 and has since seemingly disappeared.

“I’ve had a couple of leads [on Serna],” said Slay. “Someone sent me an address and I sent a card to him with no luck. Someone said he was a baseball coach somewhere in California for a Division III team and I actually sent a card to the university a couple of years ago and never had any luck.”

Serna is the only autographed card Slay needs to complete his set. Former players, like Serna, that have vanished or have no interest in signing autographs represent the biggest obstacles for collectors like Slay. But the thrill of the hunt is what fuels Slay to continue to write letters to ex-players, scour eBay regularly, network with other collectors and watch for private signings.

Slay is fortunate that his dad, Avery, started collecting autographed 1983 Topps cards through the mail in the 1980s (He had about 450 of them signed), but he picked up where his father left off about three years ago.

This year represents the 40th anniversary of the 1983 Topps Baseball set, which is widely considered to be the company’s best set of the decade. It offers the rookie cards of three Hall of Famers – Ryne Sandberg, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn – as well as the final Topps cards (from their playing days) of Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench.

“When I got back into collecting [around 2008], I had a renewed respect for how beautiful the 1983 Topps cards were,” said Todd Ryfinski, who’s a George Brett card (#600) short of completing his autographed set. “You had the two-picture inlay there where you had a head shot and then typically an action shot. And with a lot of Topps sets up until that time, it was just head shots.”

Tony Williams, who’s collecting a 1983 Topps autographed Chicago White Sox team set, agrees.

“It’s just a pretty set,” he said. “You have the main picture of the player and you have that little head shot in the corner. And then, of course, you’ve got some iconic rookie cards in there, you’ve got Sandberg, Boggs and Gwynn.”

A photo of nine cards from Todd Ryfinski’s set.

But admiring the cards is one thing, tracking them down autographed is another monumental task altogether.

On top of the challenges mentioned earlier, if you were starting a quest like this today, you’d need deep pockets, says Alan Barcoff, a well-known autograph collector in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Collecting the 1983 Topps set [autographed] really now is more of a money game,” explained Barcoff, “Like Rickey Henderson, for a quick example, he’s on a 1983 Topps Record Breakers card, a 1983 Topps regular card, an All-Star card, an A’s Team Leaders card and the Stolen Base Leaders card with Tim Raines. So Henderson at a card show is at least $120 [per autograph], so if you wanted those cards signed, you’re already going to be in it for over $500.”

George Brett and Carl Yastrzemski are two other Hall of Famers with multiple cards in this set whose autographs are expensive.

According to Barcoff, Brett has never been an accommodating in-person signer and he only does the occasional private signing. So it’s not a coincidence that Brett’s card (#600) is the only one Ryfinski needs to complete his set.

“I know I could get it but laying down $200 for him to sign it is not as fun and trying to find another collector who got it,” said Ryfinski. “But at some point, maybe I’ll just break down and do it.”

Ryfinski says Yastrzemski’s autograph can also be expensive to obtain. At the most recent private signing with the Red Sox legend in March, the price was $185 per card.

“He only does like one signing a year,” said Ryfinski.

The 1983 Topps cards featuring multiple players present another challenge. Collectors like Ryfinski and Slay want these cards signed by each player. For example, the Stolen Base Leaders card (#704) highlights Henderson and Raines, so collectors will have to pay for two autographs to complete this card.

Photo: Steiner Sports

But the biggest challenge remains the players, like Serna, that have vanished or simply aren’t interested in signing.

Here are some of the other elusive players whose signatures are hard to find on 1983 Topps cards, according to collectors:

Tony Bernazard (#698)

This former infielder played 10 big league seasons and later worked as an executive with the New York Mets before he was fired for his volatile behaviour in 2009. Little has been heard from him since.

“His autographs are just in such huge demand,” said Slay.

Collectors have heard that Bernazard has declined offers to participate in a private signing.

Pete Vuckovich

(Featured on three cards: #321 Brewers Batting & Pitching Leaders, #375 base card, #394 All-Star card)

The 1982 American League Cy Young Award winner, for the most part, has refused to sign autographs in person or through the mail.

“The 1983 set has three different Pete Vuckovich cards . . . He’s very difficult to get,” said Ryfinski. “There are horror stories of people that have tried to approach him and ask for an autograph.”

He will also not respond to mail requests.

“He hates having stuff sent to his house, which I can completely understand,” said Slay.

John Denny (#211)

For a long time, the 1983 National League Cy Young Award winner would not sign autographs. But in recent years, he has done at least one private signing with Under the Radar Sports Promotions. You can expect to pay more than $100 for his autograph.

“He is an absolute nightmare to try to get a signature from,” said Slay.

Jerry Dybzinski (#289)

The former light-hitting shortstop has declined to sign autographs through the mail or participate in a private signing. He has a card in the regular 1983 Topps set that showcases him with Cleveland (#289) and another in the Topps Traded set that pictures him with the White Sox (#27T).

“For awhile, he would apparently sign through the mail,” said Williams. “But I missed that window . . . I’ve sent a card to his address and I’ve put $20 in there and I’ve explained to him my scenario and sent return postage and I tried to make it really easy for him, but he’s not signing, so that’s the last one I’m missing.”

Deceased Players

Bo Diaz

The Philadelphia Phillies catcher died when he was crushed by a satellite dish at his home in 1991. He was only 37. He is highlighted on two cards in the 1983 set. Diaz’s base card (#175) is not hard to find autographed but uncovering the Phillies Batting & Pitching Leaders card (#229) with his signature on it is almost impossible.

“Generally speaking when someone was going to put a card in front of him to sign, it was going to be his base card,” said Williams. “So it [the Phillies Leaders card] was probably signed exponentially less than the base . . . So if that one ever came up in an auction authenticated, that would fetch big money.”

Alan Wiggins (#251)

The speedy second baseman had 70 stolen bases for the National League pennant-winning San Diego Padres in 1984. Sadly, he died of AIDS in 1991 when he was just 32.

Barcoff says Wiggins wasn’t the most accommodating in-person signer, but the former Padre did sign through the mail for a stretch. So a signed example of his 1983 Topps card shouldn’t be impossible to find. There is one listed on eBay for $149.99.

Dan Quisenberry

(Featured on three cards: #155 base card, #396 All-Star card, #708 1982 Leading Firemen)

The Royals sidearmer was one of the best closers of the 1980s. Sadly, he died from brain cancer in 1998 when he was only 45.

“He was a great signer, but his signed 1983 Topps cards have dried up,” said Barcoff.

“Finding Dan Quisenberry’s autograph on the saves leader [Leading Firemen] card was difficult,” added Ryfinski. “People would usually just get his regular card signed.”

Most expensive autographed 1983 Topps card?

A signed Tony Gwynn rookie card is likely the most expensive autographed 1983 Topps card. In recent years, autographed rookie cards have become highly sought-after.

“Tony was always very, very nice to me,” said Barcoff, who owns a signed Gwynn rookie (shown above). “He was one of my absolute favourite players . . . His signed rookie card has gotten expensive . . . That’s a card where Gwynn passed away [in 2014] before people were loading up on getting rookie cards signed.”

A signed Gwynn rookie card with the autograph authenticated by PSA/DNA fetched $399 on eBay in late March.

Toughest autographed 1983 Topps Toronto Blue Jays cards:

(Writer’s Note: This is a Canadian baseball blog, so, of course, I asked the collectors who the most elusive Blue Jays autographs in the set were.)

1. Dale Murray (#42)

“He is a tough one for some reason,” said Slay of the former Blue Jays reliever. “I’ve sent to him in the mail a couple of times and he doesn’t return a thing.”

2. Roy Lee Jackson (#427)

“He’s a preacher now, I guess,” said Ryfinski of the ex-Blue Jays right-hander. “And he does not want to talk about his baseball days. He knows what his autograph is worth, so he has turned down people trying to do a private signing with him.”

3. Damaso Garcia (#222)

“He was not the greatest signer [when he was an active player],” said Barcoff of the Blue Jays former All-Star second baseman. “But he would sign . . . He was gettable on a 1983 card. He was around long enough to get him on one of those cards.”

Unfortunately, Garcia was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 1991. The surgery left him with limited motor skills which made it difficult for him to sign. He passed away in 2020.

4. Luis Leal (#109)

After hanging up his playing spikes, this former workhorse righty returned to Venezuela and little has been heard from him since.

“He still has a presence in Venezuela baseball,” said Ryfinski. “I picked his card up in a large lot.”

*Thank you to Cory Slay, Todd Ryfinski and Alan Barcoff for providing card images for the article.

10 thoughts on “Monumental mission: Collecting the 1983 Topps Baseball set autographed

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  1. Thanks Kevin, this was a great article. Never had the patience or funds to finish sets when I was a kid but still love the look of the Topps (OPC) sets from 1982 to 1985. I admire the dedication of the autograph set collectors. For anyone that likes stories about autograph chasing, this is a link to a guy who got the 1983 scouting report book autographed:
    He has some similar stories to the collectors about hard to get autos

  2. Thanks Kevin. Great story. Good to see another collector’s story, especially about cards. Well done!

  3. Thanks for the great story on the 1983 Topps set. Corey Slay must of had a lot of patience collecting all these autographs.

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