Wednesday, September 16, 2015

In defense of the Topps monopoly

(Disclaimer: Tonight's post is not saying that I'm in favor of the Topps monopoly, because I don't think anyone is. This is just one argument that could be used to defend Topps' cornering of the market.)

I've finally started cataloging my Vladimir Guerrero collection these past few weeks.

I own more cards of Vlad than any other single player, and it's not even close. I was approaching 800 different ones the last time I checked. For the most part, I wouldn't exactly say gone out of my way to acquire as many Vlads as possible. It's just that there's a lot of cards out there for me to chase.

Guerrero's sunset issue can be found in 2012 Topps. It's the only card he had released that year because Topps was well into its monopoly at the time, and didn't see fit to include him in any of their other checklists. Vlad was little more than an afterthought to Topps in 2012.

The peak of his career, I'd say, came between about 1998 to 2004.

And this is why there are so many cards of his on the market.

It does seem substantial to say that I own around 800 different Vlads, but I'm guessing that covers about two percent of the guy's entire catalog. Most collectors have taken to calling the late '80s/early '90s as the "overproduction era," but perhaps the label would be better used to describe the late '90s/early 2000s.

The popularity of baseball cards was in a downspin at the time, and, to card companies, the solution to that problem was apparently to print as many different sets as humanly possible. Vlad played in the peak of that gluttony of brands.

As I've been cataloging my Vlads, I've come across so many obscure sets from that period that I bet not one person remembers today.

I don't know about you, but I've sure never heard of this Piece of the Game brand.

Upper Deck may have been the worst culprit in the business.

The names are plenty. Everything from UD Ionix, Upper Deck Ballpark Idols, UD Black Diamond, and UD Authentics (which is seen above).

Not surprisingly, most of these obscure brands were one-and-done shots.

The almighty Topps had a foot in the pool as well.

They weren't as bad as most of the other companies, but long-forgotten releases like Topps Reserve did still manage to sneak onto the market.

I can't imagine many of these sets turned a profit.

Pretty much every card company was guilty of this overproduction during Vlad's heyday.

A lot of them were merely game-used jersey dumps, I assume (like the aforementioned Piece of the Game), while some others seemed to have the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" mentality behind them.

Trouble is, only a small fraction of these sets actually stuck. Most faded into obscurity. I was collecting in the early 2000s, and I do vaguely remember slews of different brands being on the shelves at the card shop I used to frequent as a kid.

I felt overwhelmed.

Now, here in 2015, player collectors like myself have to come to grips with the fact that God-awful sets like Fleer Game Time actually existed in the first place.

What went on between around 1998-2004 was basically the polar opposite of what we're experiencing now. There were nearly a dozen different brands churning out truckloads of sets each year for the sheer purpose of making more cards.

In a perfect world, I'd like to have more of a choice with my dollar than Topps and unlicensed Panini brands, but, after thinking about it, I think I like the easy pace of today's hobby more than the flooded market I remember as a kid.

Granted, you could basically ignore the plethora of forgettable sets that came into existence in the early 2000s. But player collecting doesn't really work that way. Now, I know I'll have maybe a dozen base cards to chase of guys I collect each year, at the most.

I wasn't big on chasing cards of certain guys when I was a kid. Had I focused on Vlad and decided to collect him back in 2001 or so, I probably would've curled up in a corner and lamented the 80 different base cards I'd have to buy of his each year. (And that's not counting inserts, parallels, etc.)

And, believe me, the sets I've shown here today barely scratch the surface of all the one-and-done brands that were released during Vlad's career.

I probably still have a lot to track down, and part of me kind of wishes that Topps was the only game in town when Vlad was at his best.


Jeff Jones said...

I don't know man it's fun to find Chipper cards I've never seen before after all this time.

Vlad was always a favorite of mine even though he always seemed to rake at Turner Field.

Fuji said...

If I were the almighty ruler of baseball cards... I'd have Topps, Upper Deck, and Panini competing against each other. Each of these companies would be allowed to create one flagship (entry level) set, one mid-level priced product (boxes in the $75 to $100 range), and one "free pick" product where they could go "retro", "highend", or whatever else they wanted.

Can you imagine a world where Topps only produces three baseball products each year? That's cardboard blasphemy! I'm sure a lot of people are glad that i'm not the almighty ruler.

Derek McKim said...

I collect player's sunsets cards myself provided that their complete career stats are on the back. I am not sure you are aware but Guerrero has a 2012 Topps Heritage card also

Adam said...

I used to work in a card shop in the early 2000s and I remember getting in a lot of crazy stuff. Some of the ones I remember ... Fleer Authentix, Topps Total, Upper Deck Vintage, Upper Deck Sweet Spot just to name a few. I remember being super excited about getting the error card in a box of UD Vintage, back then it was about $20-$25, now nearly worthless. In the shop, we also had a TON of those Fabric of the Game cards and a bunch of similar looking football jersey cards that were so notable that I can't even remember what they were (Shirt Off My Back comes to mind but I know that's not right). Coming from that perspective though, I can totally agree with you in saying that the late 90s/early 2000s were just as bad of an overproduction era than the late 80s/early 90s.

Stubby said...

They actually did try that, Fuji. They allowed companies three products each. 1 Flagship, 1 entry level price point (like Topps Opening Day), 1 high end. It didn't work. And, somehow, Topps still had 20 sets on the market. That said, I think the concept is worth another try. Still, you'd have to give manufacturers 5 products each, at least. And, for now, I'd just let Panini in. Upper Deck has....other issues right now.

The "Piece of the Game" card has the "Playoff" branding. Playoff was a company that made these weird and wonderful football cards (the off companies were doing some wonderful things with football cards). I don't think they ever had a baseball license. The economics of the time were tough on some of the indy card producers. Playoff, ultimately, couldn't hack it. Donruss/Leaf/Pinnacle bought them out. So the Playoff name came to baseball. Later still, Donruss was bought out by Panini. And now none of them have an mlb license.

Julie Owens said...

I believe the Topps monopoly has forced Panini to be more creative. They have produced some beautiful cards over the last two years - Diamond Kings comes to mind. Were they to gain a license, I wonder if creativity would take the back seat? Or perhaps Topps would take notice and hire a new design team? I'm not the card snob I once was but Topps still fails to impress me.