Sunday, August 5, 2012

Topps: Through the decades

This is one of those post ideas that I've toyed with for a while.

For most ideas where I rank "the best of this" or "the worst of that", I already have an answer planned in my head. But this one really made me think.

During my time in the blogosphere, I've seen a few great posts that rank different sets or card manufacturers, specifically the recent "Best Topps Set Countdown".

While I've never took the time to make a list like that, I bet I could rank my favorite Topps sets year-by-year. It would take a while to do, though.

Instead, I've chosen to take a look at Topps by each individual decade and see what comes out on top.

As I just mentioned, it proved to be a lot more difficult than I thought.

Topps' first mainstream set was the now-famous '52 issue, coming a year after the under-the-radar '51 Topps Red Backs. (I'd still like to own a '51 Topps card someday, though.)

As we all know, card #1 in that illustrious set was of Mr. Andy Pafko, who would probably have been long forgotten had Topps not come along.

It's been an interesting ride since then.

So let's take a look at the best and worst of Topps, shall we?

Ironically, the decade that introduced me to the hobby is my least favorite in Topps history.

It's pretty much the opposite for most collectors who have a few years on me.

Let's face it. The '90s were simply not the best time for baseball cards. The industry was just coming out of the major post-overproduction era crash, and the game of baseball itself was still recovering from the 1994 strike.

Fittingly, my favorite set of the 1990's came before any of that happened.

Before I joined the blogosphere, I'm not so sure 1991 Topps would've ranked as my favorite set of the '90s. It was basically one of those sets that was just there. I didn't love it, but didn't hate it.

However, starting this blog has forced me to take a deeper look into my collection, specifically my "Gems of Junk Wax" theme. 1991 Topps already has three "inductees" into that theme. There's easily a few more on the horizon, especially with this outstanding Billy Ripken issue.

Not to mention that '91 Topps brought back horizontal cards, which hadn't been seen in the hobby since 1973.

Other than '91, though, there really isn't a whole lot to get excited about from the 1990's. I'm fairly certain that my first year of collecting was around 1999, when Topps released one of their most bland sets on record.

Here's my breakdown:

Above-average: 1991, 1992 (the year I was born)
Shoulder shrug: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997
Close, but no cigar: 1990, 1996, 1998, 1999

I drifted in and out of baseball cards during the 2000's, so my first impressions of a lot of these is a bit fuzzy.

The one set I remember falling in love with is 2005 Topps. I'm not quite sure why, though. Judging from what I look for in a baseball card, I shouldn't like it. The focus on the design rather than the photo itself is usually a major minus for me.

But for some reason, there's something about this set that speaks to me. The big nameplate across the top of the card is certainly a unique characteristic, one that the hobby hadn't seen before and hasn't seen since.

You don't have to search long if the player featured isn't your everyday name. There's no mistaking that this is a Geoff Blum card.

A close second to 2005 came at the tail-end of the decade with 2009 Topps, by which time I was already a full-on baseball card collector. A nice, simple design, although my scanner doesn't seem to agree with them.


Above-average: 2003, 2005, 2009
Shoulder shrug: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006
Close, but no cigar: 2000, 2007, 2008

In my view, the most "average" decade in the history of Topps was probably the 1980's.

It had its ups and downs just like any other, but it didn't really hit the extremes in either facet of the hobby.

Still, it was hard for me to pick my favorite set of the decade. For me, it's basically a toss-up between 1986 and 1987 Topps. Both managed to incorporate color-coding in the design, based on the team colors of each individual player.

I gave the slight nod to '86 Topps. While I'm not a huge fan of black borders, I'll be the first to admit that it works exceptionally well with this design.

Plus, 1986 Topps gave me my only card of Cesar Cedeno as a St. Louis Cardinal. Just another thing to love about the set.

One of my earliest card-related memories comes from an '80s set. One of my first big purchases as a card collector was a big 1000-count box (or something along those lines) of 1981 Topps for about eight bucks. It had some of my first "big name" cards with guys like Pete Rose and Carl Yastrzemski.

All those '81s still happily reside in my collection, probably close to a decade after the fact.


Above-average: 1981, 1983, 1986, 1987
Shoulder shrug: 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985
Close, but no cigar: 1988, 1989

While I tried to hide it, my vintage bias does come through a bit in the countdown.

It proved difficult to pick between the '50s, '60s, and '70s, but I managed to finally come to a decision.

Coming in at number three on the "decades" list is the 1960's.

It's a bit of a shocker to me, considering the decade produced my all-time favorite baseball card set in 1965. I've said it before, but when someone mentions the word "baseball card", this is the design that pops into my head. This '65 Maris is easily one of the more "iconic" cards I own. (Not bad, considering all I had to give up were a few five-dollar game used cards for it.)

The team-name pennant is my personal single favorite characteristic in the history of this hobby.

I love any "vintage" baseball cards. The design is really secondary when it comes to the overall texture of an "old" baseball card. They're all little pieces of history, no matter what they might look like.

That being said, I just don't feel that there's too much else to get overly excited about with 1960's baseball cards, at least design-wise. The only other sets I really like from the '60s are '63 and '69. All others are a "shoulder shrug", at most, with '68 probably gaining the dubious honor of my least-favorite vintage set.

1965 saved this decade from dropping a lot lower on the list.


Above-average: 1963, 1965 (the best...ever!), 1969
Shoulder shrug: 1960, 1961, 1964, 1966, 1967
Close, but no cigar: 1962, 1968

One of the things I've been most surprised about during my time as a blogger is the almost unanimous distaste for 1957 Topps.

Besides the fact that it set the current proportions for what a baseball card should be, it's always been one of my all-time favorite sets. In fact, it would probably take a spot in my "Top 5" should I ever take the time and actually make a list of my favorite Topps sets.

What's not to like? The colors are second-to-none, and the photos are more "pure baseball" than almost any Topps set in history. Look no further than this one for evidence of that.

And no, your eyes aren't deceiving you. That is actually a good-conditioned vintage card in my collection, at least as far as the front is concerned. A slight bit of paper loss on the back enabled me to take it home for a paltry three bucks last year.

I came awfully close to naming the 1950's as my favorite decade of Topps. Baseball cards are pure art, and no decade did a better job of illustrating that than the '50s.

Still, I just couldn't bring myself to declare it my favorite decade.


Above-average: 1952, 1953, 1956, 1957, 1959
Shoulder shrug: 1954, 1955, 1958
Close, but no cigar: None. All 1950's sets at least warrant a shoulder shrug.

In terms of baseball cards, I'm a bit like Walter from "The Big Lebowski".

I'm living in the past.

In this case, it's a past that I never lived through in the first place. My only first-hand accounts of what it was like to collect in the '70s come from my dad, who was nine years old when 1975 Topps hit the shelves.

As much as I'd like to, I just can't imagine a time where every kid and their brother opened packs of baseball cards. I can't imagine a time where corner stores sold baseball cards. (Heck, I don't think I've ever even stepped foot inside an actual corner store.)

Look, I love most of the goings-on in today's hobby. Sets like A&G and Topps Update never cease to amaze me. Seeing a new product on display at my local Target is a rush like no other, and has been for quite some time.

Still, not having to worry about the "big rookie card" or image swaps or "super short-prints" seems like a much simpler and better time in the history of baseball cards. The simple joy of pulling a card of your favorite player (as I'm sure "Goose" Gossage was to many back in '75) is something that has been diminishing in recent days.

I've never opened a pack of cards on the curb of a street with any of my friends. It's one of my unfulfilled dreams.

I think the true meaning of "collecting" hit its peak during the 1970's, probably right around the time when '75 Topps was released. It's the single most publicized set I've seen during my time as a collector, and for good reason.

Next to 1965, '75 was probably the best issue in Topps' history. I know I throw the term around a lot, but 1975 Topps is indeed the most "iconic" set ever.

I don't know that there's any denying that.

The only blemish of the decade was the initial release in 1970. Gray borders and cursive font aren't a great formula for exciting baseball cards.

But unlike the '60s, the 1970's aren't just about one set for me. 1971 would probably also rank in my top five favorite Topps sets. Same with the "Magical Mystery Set" in '72. And perhaps even '73 as well because of all that great photography.

The 1970's are indeed my favorite decade of Topps.


Above-average: 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977
Shoulder shrug: 1974, 1976, 1978, 1979
Close, but no cigar: 1970

We're only three years into the "teens", but it's already shaping up to be an interesting decade.

I can safely say that Topps' 2010 and 2011 releases are among the best of my collecting lifetime. In fact, 2011 gives '05 a run for its money as the absolute greatest.

2012 Topps is probably in between a "close, but no cigar" and a "shoulder shrug" ranking right now. It's a bit early to tell.

Sure, while we might gripe and complain about Topps from time to time. But through it all, they've always been there for the card collector.

Without Topps, I'm not so sure we'd even have a hobby to talk about today.


hiflew said...

I just had a thought. For all the complaining that people seems to have about the current monopoly in cards, it seems that most of Topps' best sets occurred when there was no competition. I would rank the 60's as my favorite decade (well the early 60s anyway) and the 70's were fantastic and Topps was the only game in town (aside from a couple of 60s leer sets). Topps had the most competition in the 90's/early 2000's, which also produced some of my least favorite sets ever.

Maybe competition doesn't breed creativity and good product.

AdamE said...

50s for me. My list of all time favorite sets would go 53, 56, 55, 54, 60... With four of my top five favorite sets being from the 50s how could I choose anything else?

Matt said...

50's for me as well, my list would go 56, 54, 55, 52, 53. I've been slowly working on a set of 56's for the past year.

Mike said...

I would rate the 74s,76s and 67s higher.....and the 57s lower....and probably name 75s as my all-time faves....but overall we pretty much agree!

Jess said...

Hey I love the 57s too! :o)