Monday, December 15, 2014

The All-Time Topps Countdown: 63-53 (A tribute to Sy)

I, like so many others around the card community, was saddened to hear of Sy Berger's passing at the age of 91 yesterday afternoon.

Mr. Berger is generally regarded as the father of the modern baseball card, and he earned every word of that label. Without his influence on this great hobby, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now. 

Sy Berger is responsible for the many glorious hours I've spent in cardboard paradise throughout my life. For that, I thank him with all my heart. 

If there's a light at the end of the tunnel, it's that Mr. Berger's unfortunate passing gave me the kick in the pants I needed to finally work on a project I've been planning for a long time.

Starting tonight, I'll be running through my ranking of all 63 Topps sets, up to and including 2014. This isn't a new idea by any means, but I've always been interested to see how my own personal countdown would turn out.

Before we start, I'd like to mention a couple things. First off, I'll be posting these weekly in groups of ten over the next couple months. The first few posts (including this one) will contain eleven sets to account for the odd number.

Secondly, I'm not including 1951 Topps as a part of this countdown because a) it's not generally regarded as an "official" Topps set, and b) I don't own any of them. (Yet.)

All good? Awesome. I'm looking forward to this little series. Let's get started.

This one's for you, Sy.

#63 -- 1999 Topps

UPS -- I can't really think of any, if I'm being brutally honest. Intricate bios, I guess.

DOWNS -- Unreadable player/team names. No position on the front. Forgettable photos. Ugly, ugly border color. Hopelessly small stat lines on the back. I can go all day.

My two cents...

It hurts to give 1999 Topps the dubious distinction of being The Worst Topps Set Ever.

I didn't want to do it. It is, after all, one of the sets of my youth. I opened a lot of packs of 1999 Topps as a wide-eyed seven-year-old kid after Little League. But there's no getting around it.

This set sucks.

You need super vision and/or a magnifying glass to read the team and player names on these. The nameplate is especially hurt by the fact that 1999 Topps is a Pointless Foil Design. (Hereby designated as a PFD from here on out.)

And whoever chose that God-awful border color should be fired.

#62 -- 2007 Topps

UPS -- Easy-to-read back bios. A break from the white-border gluttony of recent years.

DOWNS -- A prime look at what happens when borders take over the card. Silver foil on black borders? Just...NO. No position on the front. And what's with those colored boxes?

My two cents...

I'm afraid we have another PFD here.

Topps's unhealthy obsession with foil in recent years has hurt more sets than it's helped. I think 2007 Topps is one of the best examples of that. If the nameplates were, say, white, without any foil, I think I'd like this set quite a bit more. The foil just ruins it for me.

I'm not against black borders, but card companies need to tread carefully when using them. Black borders are good as a supplement to a design, not as a dominant. They're definitely dominant here, which takes away from where our focus should be.

I applaud the non-white borders, but Topps got a little carried away with themselves in 2007.

#61 -- 2000 Topps

UPS -- Color-coordinated front design. Kind of.

DOWNS -- Probably the worst backs in Topps history. If the median age of card collectors really is rising, then Topps should make the stat lines bigger, not smaller. And another PFD. (I'm sensing a pattern here.)

My two cents...

I gave thought to putting 2000 Topps at the bottom of this list.

I'm not entirely sure what saved it. It's not the unreadable foil. It's not the gut-wrenchingly bad photography, probably the worst of any modern Topps set. (Right, Javy Lopez?)

It's not the shamelessly self-aggrandizing "Topps 2000" label on the front of every card. It's definitely not the borders (what color IS that, anyways?) or the hopelessly busy backs.

So, what is it? I don't know. Maybe the semi-color-coordinated fronts? Something like that?

Dammit, I'm second-guessing myself already.

#60 -- 1990 Topps

UPS -- I have to at least applaud the attempt for a colorful border, right? The Monthly Scoreboards on the back are a nice touch.

DOWNS -- To quote Kramer, this set is too busy. Also, the worst photography of any Topps set ever made, hands down. That's a big negative for me, as you might already know by now.

My two cents...

Sometimes, I think that 1990 Topps gets more hate than it deserves.

But then I look at a couple cards from the set and those feelings instantly wash away. There are exactly zero memorable photos from 1990 Topps. 

I can appreciate the fact that Topps tried something different with the design, but that odd little dotted border is just plain distracting.

Even Jim Abbott is less than impressed.

Although that might be because he hit his head on the "S" in ANGELS.

#59 -- 2002 Topps

UPS -- The ribbon design is fancy. I like the placement of the team logo.

DOWNS -- The vomit orange borders weren't a wise choice. And, yes, ANOTHER PFD. 

My two cents...

This countdown is starting to make me sad.

Only now am I realizing how bad the Topps sets of my youth really were. The ribbon design certainly stands out, but the stupid foil (again) makes the names almost unreadable. The backs are about as average as average gets.

There's not a lot to say about 2002 Topps.

#58 -- 1996 Topps

UPS -- A mostly unintrusive design. The blue stat boxes on the back are fun as well.

DOWNS -- Again, unreadable foil. And that scrunched face thing next to the nameplate on the front has to be the single worst innovation in Topps history.

My two cents...

I'd probably have this set a bit higher if it wasn't for that scrunched face thingy.

The backs are actually pretty nice, although Vince Coleman's perennial stolen base crowns in red don't work very well with the blue stat box. But you can't blame him for that.

And, in what is quickly becoming a trend with the sets at the bottom of this list, we have another PFD with 1996 Topps. Gold foil on a blue nameplate doesn't work.

I'm sorry if I'm starting to sound like a broken record.

#57 -- 2008 Topps

UPS -- Actually not a terrible use of foil, for once. And the team bubbles certainly grab the attention.

DOWNS -- It seems silly, but I really hate that little bump where the Topps logo is. One of the worst offenders in the photo-to-border ratio as well.

My two cents...

Of all the sets in this post, I think 2008 Topps is the one with the most missed potential.

It could've been a memorable design. It could've been one for the ages. But it isn't. The photo space is just too small, so small that it makes every player look like he's bumping his head on the top of the design. 

Maybe if Topps would've made the team bubbles a little smaller and taken away that stupid bump...

Oh, well.

#56 -- 1970 Topps

UPS -- Cartoons on the back are always a plus. And the only set to feature a full string of those glorious Pilots uniforms.

DOWNS -- Easily one of the worst border choices in Topps history. And, both on baseball cards and in real life, I despise cursive.

My two cents...

We've come to the first vintage set on this list.

I'll always have a bit of a soft spot for 1970 Topps because of all the Pilots cards, but #56 is as high as those will take this set. There's not a ton to like about it aside from that. The borders are awful, and the coloring of the team names on the front doesn't often go well with the photo.

And I don't like cursive.

I'll just leave it at that.

#55 -- 1997 Topps

UPS -- Some of the best back bios in Topps history. Take a gander at this Todd Zeile tidbit for proof. The color-coded-by-league innovation makes it stand out.

DOWNS -- The backs seem a little squished to me. The bright red makes some of the bios hard to read. Oh, and PFD. Big time PFD. Again, I'm sorry if I sound like a broken record. I simply hate unnecessary foil.

My two cents...

I really can't figure out why Topps is so enamored with foil.

Foil, to me, is like beer. Best in moderation. Trouble is, Topps has been on a foil bender since the mid '90s. And, if the cardboard of my youth is any indication, it hasn't led to many memorable designs.

It's a shame, because I actually do like quite a bit about 1997 Topps. The bios are among the best ever printed, Topps or not. And '97 Topps is probably the only set to ever color-code by league. (Red for AL, green for NL.)

Maybe I'm placing too much emphasis on this whole foil thing, but, to me, it's like a cop-out. If you feel the need to use flashy foil, then you obviously don't think your design is all that special.

The problem is that some of them, like 1997 Topps, could have been special.


#54 -- 2001 Topps

UPS -- A handful of nice photos. Mr. Pierre might be the best of them all. Also, one of the biggest checklists in Topps history. And the return of Topps Gold.

DOWNS -- The foil doesn't bother me as much as those odd green borders. The lack of a position on the front bugs me.

My two cents...

I don't know about you, but I always thought every Topps set should list the guy's position on the front.

Part of the job of a baseball card should be to tell us what we need to know. I shouldn't have to flip to the back to find out that Juan Pierre is an outfielder. You should give me that info right up front.

Like foil, position-less fronts are another big factor in determining my appreciation for a design. I didn't know how big it was until I started making this list. Interestingly, eight of my bottom eleven sets don't list a position on the front, 2001 Topps included.

Just give us the info, Topps.

#53 -- 1982 Topps

UPS -- Hockey sticks!

DOWNS -- The backs hurt my eyes. Also, a good example of the dangers of facsimile signatures.

My two cents...

The first part of this countdown ends with a set that used to be a lot higher on my list.

Yes, the hockey stick design is indeed cool and instantly sets '82 apart from any other Topps set of the '80s. But, dang, those facsimile signatures sure are distracting. I don't think any card shows that better than this Joe Niekro. Topps had to sneak his John Hancock up the foul pole to make us notice it.

As far as I'm concerned, facsimile signatures can only hurt a design. The only time I ever notice them is when they get in the way.

As they do in 1982 Topps.

Well, that wraps up the first part of this countdown for Sy. All this negativity is making me uncomfortable. I want to get into the Topps sets I actually like. 

If anything, I guess Topps only gets better from here.


Mike said...

Glad you got started on this!...I think I'd have put 1990 on the bottom....

Anonymous said...

Agreeing with you on the overuse of foil. Personally I'd rate all of Topps sets from 1990-2009 as "forgettable" designs. None of 'em stand out in my mind.

acrackedbat said...

very creative tribute! so far, I agree with your comments. none of these are on my top Topps list.

shoeboxlegends said...

Great post, looking forward to the rest. Pretty much agree with you so far!

Johnnys Trading Spot said...

Can't wait to see the top Ten!

Zippy Zappy said...

Very cool idea. Out of curiosity, if 1951 Topps did count (and you had one), where would it rank on your list?

hiflew said...

Cool. I wish every blog would do this from time to time. I did this a few years back and we ended up with the exact same bottom set. 1999 would have been a bad year to start collecting. I am definitely surprised to see 2007 and 2008 ranked so low. I had them mid-pack, but I can understand why some people really dislike them. I am also surprised to not see 1969 yet. That set was horrible.

Marcus said...

My least favorite set from my youth was '94, but probably because I loved the '92 and '93 sets so much. '94 was the introduction to the foil, though the photography wasn't bad (I know you're a fan of that George Brett card). I actually kinda like that it says TOPPS 2000 on those cards, because after '96, I have a hard time distinguishing between the next decade's worth of cards. That's not a good thing.

Nick said...

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Zippy -- I'd probably put '51 Topps near the middle of the pack. It's not a knockout design by any means, but I'd still like to own one someday.

hiflew -- I have an irrational explanation for 1969 Topps that I can't explain. The photography is certainly bottom-of-the-pack, but there's something about the design I like. I can't put my finger on it.

BaseSetCalling said...

When I first saw the word "UPS" I thought you were naming the set after the United Parcel Service. Which should never ever never be connected to baseball cards.

And 1982 has the best Trout auto of All-Time!

Adam Kaningher said...

Wow. This is harsh. It almost hurts to read some of these. I know there are a few foil sets I think you'll rate pretty high, like 1995 and possibly 2004?

Other than that awful mustard color, 2002 is actually pretty nice.

We can all agree that 1990 is quite terrible, but I can think of one memorable photo - Frank Thomas in his Auburn uniform tagging a guy out.

Interested to see where this will go and how high the top-ranked foil set will land.

BobWalkthePlank said...

I really hated the 2007 set. What the hell were they thinking with that design.

Drew said...

Great post, I really enjoyed this! Looking forward to see the rest of your list come together!

GCA said...

Amen on the foil foibles! Why can't they use CONTRASTING colors at least?? Silver on white, gold on brown, NOOO. How about white on black or vice versa?
The other eye straining thing is the numbers on the back. 2002 gets points for large high contrast numbers. The 99's are the worst with the little bubble blending into the photos. The rest aren't as bad as some others. 2009 is the worst for that....

Fuji said...

Ouch... it hurts to see two of the designs (1982 & 2008) I really enjoy on your list. But I guess that's what makes our hobby so great. One man's junk is another man's treasure.

Can't wait to see the rest of your countdown. As usual, you come up with awesome ideas for series. Keep up the great work Nick... and Happy Holidays!