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Insert: Baseball cards are the original insert. They were packaged with other products like cigarettes, tobacco, gum, candy, ice cream, and other goods as incentives for consumers to buy more of those products. Once cards became viable commodities on their own, and there was a proliferation of brands competing with each other, card makers came up with ways to make their brands more attractive. Simply stated, an insert is a card that is separate from the main, base set that is pulled from the same packs as those base cards. While card makers had included many different extras in their wax packs almost from the start, from stamps to tattoos to mini-posters to small sets of cards, it wasn't until 1990 that the term "insert" came into it's own with UD's Baseball Heroes. Since then, almost every brand has had some sort of insert to add value to the product.
Inserts became extremely important in the early and mid-'90s. In 1991, UD continued the Heroes subset with Hank Aaron in their low series set, and Nolan Ryan in the high-Number series, again with autographed Inserts both random and rare. Other brands quickly followed suit with varying degrees of success. 1992 Fleer jumbo packs had the hyper-popular Rookie Sensations. Pre-priced $1.99 packs were selling for as much as $5 at one point, and the Frank Thomas card from this set was selling for $150 straight out of the pack. Unfortunately, they came in poly-packs and were very searchable. Even if you could find some of these packs, they were probably cherry-picked.
Throughout the 90s the importance of inserts began to wane as the rookie card Renaissance began. Inserts for various subjects appeared and some were met with great enthusiasm, but many with deep yawns. Several brands, such as 1994 Fleer baseball, had over ten different insert sets within their packs. 1993 Topps Finest Refractors are still some of the most sought-after cards, though they have been surpassed in price and scarcity many times since their debut. Some had some significance in the history of the hobby. The 1994-'95 Score Hockey "Check-It" insert cards were the first cards in over a decade that showed the violence inherent in the sport. The NHL had for years refused to show hard hits, fights, and board work on cards, but they finally relented slightly (there were only a few cards that really showed good hits).
By 1997 inserts had fallen from grace due mainly to over saturation, and the fact that Beckett still does not recognize them as rookie cards. They began to distract from the base set, and the card makers were just plain running out of ideas. While there are still plenty of inserts out there, and they are still counted on to drive sales, even "completist" single-player collectors are being more selective. Card makers have responded by putting greater effort into them with autographed cards, inserts with very low print runs, and cards including pieces of game Used equipment. Like it or not, inserts will always be around. Until 1999 Victory (which tanked, due mainly to lack of lottery appeal), the last baseball set with absolutely no inserts was 1994 Bowman.
Pre-1990 inserts, though basically identical conceptually to what we call inserts today, have had a hard time gaining acceptance. They fall under the oddball definition currently, though the hobby seems to be coming around on them as the quest for scarcity. Beckett continues to recognize the overlooked value in them, especially those of the late '80s that contain cards of McGwire, Griffey and Sosa.