Monday, January 26, 2015

The All-Time Topps Countdown: 20-11

We're nearing the end of what has been a fun few weeks around here.

This is the second-to-last post in my All-Time Topps Countdown for Sy. On a personal level, I think the sets in the Top 20 were much harder to rank than those in the Bottom 20. After some deep thought, I've had to revise my list a few times in the past week or so.

I'm almost positive that my rankings will change in the coming weeks, months, and years, but here is how they stand as of this evening.

Let's get to it.

#20 -- 1977 Topps

UPS -- Pennant-based designs are almost always a good idea. Lots of great poses. Nice, colorful team names on the front.

DOWNS -- I wouldn't mind the player names being a little more prominent. Facsimile signatures are a little distracting on some cards.

My two cents...

It's hard to be rational with sets from the Golden Age of the mid '70s.

While I wouldn't be born until fifteen years later, I feel like I've lived through the era from all the stories my dad has told me. I'm sure that kind of nostalgia (if it's possible for a 22-year-old to call it that) biased my list a little bit, but I did my best to provide a fair, unaffected ranking.

It's hard to go wrong with a pennant design, and 1977 Topps is near the top in that regard. The muted, magical poses that made the '70s so great are packed into this checklist. Simply a solid design all around.

To use a bad pun, 1977 Topps was certainly a banner year for Topps.

#19 -- 1992 Topps

UPS -- I've always been a big fan of those colorful blocks for the team/player names. Some of the best photography the '90s had to offer. Backs are very basic and straight to the point, which is a compliment.

DOWNS -- Not usually huge on border-within-a-border designs. They make the photos seem a little claustrophobic at times.

My two cents...

Again, it's a little hard to be completely unbiased with 1992 Topps.

It is, after all, my "birth year" set. I'm not sure when Topps released Flagship in the '90s, but there's a chance 1992 Topps and I share a close birthday. (I was born in February of that year.)

That aside, this set isn't #19 on this list only because of our birthday ties. To me, 1992 Topps might just be the most underrated design of the '90s. If not one of the more underrated Flagship sets ever, for that matter.

There's a slew of great photography in '92 Topps. I seem to keep discovering more with each passing day. The color-coded blocks for the team and player names are a nice touch and something that I don't think Topps has tried since.

Sure, the whole "birth year" thing might have bumped 1992 Topps up a couple notches, but it's a top-tier set no matter what.

#18 -- 1952 Topps

UPS -- This, folks, is how you get the most out of a facsimile signature. Museum-quality photography all around. The first set to ever feature stat lines on the back.

DOWNS -- Not sure I like the placement of the team logos. They clutter up the photos a bit.

My two cents...

This was a tough one.

It's easy to slip 1952 Topps into the Top 10 for the sheer fact that it was the precise moment when Topps became, well...Topps. I was tempted to put it a lot higher on this list for the history alone. I mean, we're talking '52 Topps here.

But, taking all that away, is this really one of the five or ten best designs in Flagship history? I don't think so. It's a beauty, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure there's anything here that warrants it a higher spot in this countdown.

The biggest compliment I have about '52 Topps is that it's one of the only sets to use facsimile signatures in a way that I actually enjoy. They work perfectly within the design, and they're not distracting in the slightest.

Also, we have to mention that no other set in the history of baseball cards listed stat lines on the back until '52 Topps came along. From what I've read, this whole design was pretty much Sy's idea.

We can't thank you enough, Sy.

#17 -- 1983 Topps

UPS -- Got to love the double images on the front. Though it's done in a very subtle way, the colors really make the fronts stand out. Arguably the best set of the '80s in terms of photography.

DOWNS -- Not much to dislike. Maybe a more exciting font for the player/team names.

My two cents...

This is one of those sets that's hard to hate.

I am, by my account, a bit of a cynic. I can usually find a little something to dislike in almost every design, no matter how minute it may be. But I've barely found anything to nitpick about 1983 Topps. It's the very definition of a tight design.

Double images can get cluttered if used wrong, but this set structures them in a very concise way that doesn't take away from the overall look one bit. The action-vs-posed clash is an obvious tribute to 1963 Topps, though it does so without being a total knock-off.

I wouldn't say that I'm completely blown away by 1983 Topps, but I'd bet that it's one of the most universally liked sets in Topps history.

#16 -- 1960 Topps

UPS -- The last all-horizontal set in Topps history. Fronts are nicely split into three distinct sections. Love the timeline-structured bios on the backs. Very vivid colors. Some of Topps's finest cartoons.

DOWNS -- Some of the color combos don't exactly clash very well. It's easy to only see M L P P A on this particular card.

My two cents...

I don't know that we'll ever see another all-horizontal set, so 1960 Topps could well be the last of its kind in the world of baseball cards.

I personally love the concept of a horizontal-exclusive design, especially one that utilizes color as well as this. True, the whole appeal of the horizontal could wear off if every set used it, but I like the idea of having one every few years or so.

Aside from that, 1960 Topps is probably one of the more economical sets in the catalog. The fronts are succinctly divided into three sections (action pose, mugshot, team/player name) with plenty of room for each. I'm a big fan of the "Season's Highlights" timelines on the backs as well.

But, yeah, I think it might be time for another all-horizontal set.

It's only been, oh, fifty-five years.

#15 -- 1987 Topps

UPS -- Wood-grain borders, of course. Fantastic placement of the team logos. Perhaps the most memorable backs of the '80s and easily among the best ever.

DOWNS -- No positions on the front.

My two cents...

I'm sorry to say that 1987 Topps has actually dropped a bit in my rankings lately.

If I were to have made this list last year, it would've been a lock for the Top Ten. It might've even snuck into the Top Five. But here, in January 2015, the best I could do was #15.

That's not to say I don't enjoy '87 Topps. Far from it, actually. The wood-grain borders are still among the finest in Topps history and it has to be one of the most iconic sets ever released. The backs are probably some of the best you'll find as well.

Still, when I step back and take a long look, I can't justify its placement over any of the fourteen sets ahead of it. Although I can't put my finger on exactly why, I don't see '87 Topps as a Top Ten set any longer.

It's fascinating to see how quickly my personal tastes can change.

#14 -- 1958 Topps

UPS -- Cards without backgrounds can be hit and miss, but this is a definite hit for me. One of the most colorful sets in the Topps catalog. Everything you'd ever want in a baseball card back.

DOWNS -- A good portion of the player names and background colors don't match very well. Red letters on a yellow background isn't exactly ideal.

My two cents...

I don't know if it's possible for the #14 set to be underrated, but I'm thinking 1958 Topps deserved to be bumped up a few slots.

It has the misfortune of being sandwiched in between two of my all-time favorite Topps designs. (Both Top 10 nominees.)

I know that some people aren't as big on '58 Topps, but I absolutely love it. It's in an eternal competition with '59 Topps for being the most colorful set of the '50s. I'm not usually a big fan of designs that completely omit backdrops, but this one makes it work.

It seems like '58 Topps has a card for every color of the rainbow.

#13 -- 1991 Topps

UPS -- Return of the horizontal! Some of Topps's finest photography. Clean, simple design, strengthened by the red borders on the back. My pick for the best Topps set of the last twenty-five years.

DOWNS -- Again, not big on borders within a border, although this set almost manages to make it work.

My two cents...

This might be the set that has risen the most in my Topps rankings.

I remember not thinking much of 1991 Topps when I first started this blog. It didn't strike me as anything special.

Oh, how times have changed. These days, 1991 Topps is my personal favorite of the overproduction era and one of the best designs of all-time, in my opinion. It's simple, subtly colorful, and mostly lets the photos do the talking. Those are some of the finest qualities a set can have.

Perhaps the biggest plus for '91 Topps is the fact that it brought back the art of the horizontal. You'd have to go all the way back to 1974 to find the last landscape cards in a Topps set. I think most of us can agree that a world with horizontals is a better world for collectors.

We have 1991 Topps to thank for that.

#12 -- 1976 Topps

UPS -- Like most of the top-tier sets, we have another colorful design here. The shadow figures are up there as one of Topps's better innovations ever. Can't go wrong with the green backs.

DOWNS -- Are there any?

My two cents...

Now we're getting to the point where I really have a tough time nitpicking the negatives.

I don't know that 1976 Topps has any glaring flaws. No facsimile signatures. Color-coordinated player/team names. Awesome backs. Tito Fuentes's headband. All positives.

The main selling point for '76 Topps is the addition of the little shadow figures in the bottom corner of every card. I'd have to go back and check, but that might be my single favorite innovation in the Topps catalog.

Merely listing the positions of each player would've been enough, but Topps really went the extra mile in 1976.

Like so many sets of the '70s, this is some of Topps's finest work.

#11 -- 1986 Topps

UPS -- The dueling black and white might be the best border choice in Topps history. I'm not sure what to call the large team name font, but it certainly grabs the eye. Great use of the position bubble. Solid backs.

DOWNS -- Not the best photography, but the design pretty much cancels that out.

My two cents...

If nothing else, 1986 Topps is proof that I can truly enjoy a set with mediocre photography.

While there are a few gems spread throughout the checklist, you're not going to find many captivating images in '86 Topps. Most, like this Brett, are your standard candid shots. 

In the grand scheme of things, however, that's not a big concern for me. Yes, I always crave stand-out photography on my cards, but that's not all that matters. Granted, it's not easy to make me ignore a lack of good images. Only the most inspired sets can make mediocre photos negligible.

But that's exactly what 1986 Topps does. The black-and-white borders make every card feel like a masterpiece, no matter the photo. The blue-black combo we have with the Royals (and a few other teams) is probably my favorite color clash of any set, Topps or not.

Like 1991 Topps, this is another set that wasn't all that high on my list a few years ago. Thankfully, I've come to my senses. 

Still, while I tried my best to sneak it in, I just couldn't put '86 Topps in my Top Ten.

You'll have to wait until next time for the grand finale.


Mark Kaz said...

Great, as usual. Particularly your write-ups on '91 and '92 Topps, which were really in the sweet spot of the collecting days of my youth. I love '92 for the reasons you stated, but also that set makes me a little sad, as it was the first set to shuck the gray cardboard in favor of white card stock. Things would never be the same thereafter...

Anonymous said...

Nice to see 1991 and 1992 getting some love... I've long felt that both of these sets are underrated because of their junkwax status.

I feel like I'm the only collector around who doesn't like 1952 or 1960.

I've always loved the photo on that 1987 Kevin Mitchell card (and not just because he's a Met and Mike Fitzgerald is an ex-Met).

night owl said...

OK, that's it. I wasn't going to do my own countdown, but now that '83 Topps was placed so low I'm seriously reconsidering. Top 5 set there my man. Definitely not worse than '58 or '87 Topps.

P-town Tom said...

The '91 set's photography on the whole was just wonderful... Santiago, Weiss, Clemens just to name a few. Glad to see it getting some love!

defgav said...

I wish 1986 Topps would have worked a few more key rookies into the checklist. Canseco, McGriff, Cecil Fielder, etc. That would have helped it hold up better in collectors' eyes, I think. There's not really a "hit" in the whole checklist. Gotta go to the Traded set for anything notable.