Monday, February 2, 2015

The All-Time Topps Countdown: 10-1

Well, it's time for the grand finale.

I guess it's just a happy accident that the last installment of my Topps Countdown happens to come on the cusp of 2015 Topps hitting the shelves. I swear I didn't plan it that way.

Whether you've agreed or disagreed with me, I'd like to thank everyone who has read these posts thus far. Opinions make the world go 'round, and I happen to think that's especially true when it comes to baseball cards.

Most of all, I'd like to thank Sy Berger, the man who made this countdown possible in the first place. Without him, I don't know if the concept of baseball cards would've even made it to 2015. We're all forever indebted to Sy.

With that in mind, let's jump into tonight's post, the final edition of my All-Time Topps Countdown.

#10 -- 1963 Topps

UPS -- The little "photo bubbles" really make the dueling images pop. Love the color-coded bottom banners. Backs are some of the finest in Topps history.

DOWNS -- The team names and positions could stand to be a little bigger.

My two cents...

This is one of those sets that can fly under the radar without a close look.

For a long time, I was lukewarm about 1963 Topps. I kind of took it for granted. Only in recent years have I become more and more attached to this set.

The little photo bubbles are the most essential part of this design. That, to me, makes it one of the most recognizable layouts in Topps history. Many other sets have tried (see: 1983 Topps), but I don't think any design uses the mini photo bubble better than '63 Topps.

Don't sleep on the color, either. As you'll see with most of the remaining nine sets on this list, color played a big part in my rankings. The cards in 1963 Topps come in a variety of different shades, which helped bump it up a few slots in my countdown.

Put the bubbles and color together and you've got a Top Ten set.

#9 -- 1981 Topps

UPS -- Hard to express just how much I love the baseball cap-themed design. Very colorful, probably the most colorful set of the '80s. The photography might take a little while to grow on you, but there are some outstanding shots hidden inside the checklist.

DOWNS -- Some of the color pairings have a tendency to be a little strange. The backs aren't particularly exciting.

My two cents...

I'm not sure how many people will agree with me on this one.

Like a few other sets on this list, personal bias might've bumped 1981 Topps up a few slots on this list. These were some of the first "old" cards I ever saw when I was a young collector, and I've loved them ever since.

That aside, this set is still one of my favorites. Every great set has a distinguishing feature, and the baseball caps are exactly that for '81 Topps. Whether it's caps, bats, gloves, baseballs, or whatever, I always enjoy when companies work equipment into a design.

While some of the pairings are a little awkward, the colors are yet another stand-out feature of '81 Topps.

I apologize if I start to sound like a broken record, but you're going to be hearing about color a lot in this post.

#8 -- 1959 Topps

UPS -- My, oh, my, the colors. Big photo bubbles! Facsimile signatures work well within this design. I have a tendency to gravitate towards sets that use lowercase letters. Backs are impressive as well.

DOWNS -- Lose the red boxes on the backs.

My two cents...

If 1963 Topps is the high water mark for mini photo bubbles, than 1959 Topps is the king of big photo bubbles.

There's a very old-time feel to the look of this set. I'm reminded of the fade ins/outs from old movies whenever I see this design. You know, the one where the camera either closes/introduces the scene through an shrinking/expanding bubble? That's '59 Topps to me, in a nutshell.

You could make an argument that this is the most colorful set in Topps history. Blue, black, yellow, red, it's all there. And, although I'm not sure exactly why, the lowercase letters really resonate with me.

Might have something to do with me being an English major, but I can't say for certain.

#7 -- 1971 Topps

UPS -- Back in black! The return of the action shot. Lowercase letters again. Very innovative back design, especially the "First Game in Pro Ball/Majors" factoids. First set to feature a second photo on the flip side.

DOWNS -- Facsimile signatures could be nixed. In an ideal world, I'd like complete career stats on the back, although it's not a huge negative since it would've taken away from the rest of the design.

My two cents...

Black borders are very hit and miss for me.

When done wrong, they have a tendency to result in some of the worst designs known to man. See my ranking of 2007 Topps for proof. But, when done right, they can result in surefire masterpieces. To me, 1971 Topps is undoubtedly the latter.

Topps was kind of caught in a rut before '71 Topps came along. The black borders and revival of action shots blew a string of boring Flagship designs out of the water. And, in taking a page from '59 Topps, it brought back the subtle appreciation of lowercase letters.

The backs might be just as nice. Years before Upper Deck did it, 1971 Topps offered a flip side bonus photo to collectors.

It was the first clue of the Topps greatness that was yet to come in the 1970s.

#6 -- 1957 Topps

UPS -- Some of the most aesthetically pleasing shots in Topps history. Design has a very peaceful feel to it. Redefined the size of the modern baseball card. Backs are tidy and well-structured.

DOWNS -- Team/nameplates can be a bit tough to read in front of the full color photos.

My two cents...

Before you say anything, I know that I'm in the vast minority when it comes to 1957 Topps.

For whatever reason, most people simply don't like this set. I'm on the other end of the spectrum. I flat-out love '57 Topps, and always have. I'll grant that some of the team and nameplates are tough to read, but, beyond that, I think '57 Topps is pure gold.

It must be said that this set literally changed the scope of cardboard history. This was the first set to shrink to the 2 1/2-by-3 1/2 inch dimensions, the dimensions that we now recognize as the "modern" baseball card.

There's not a whole lot of action in the photos, but I'll be darned if this set doesn't have some of the most beautiful baseball shots ever taken. And I'm not just talking baseball cards there. Professional photographers would have a tough time bettering '57 Topps. I mean, just look at this Elmer Valo.

I tried not to let individual cards bias my rankings too much, but, my God, what a shot.

#5 -- 1972 Topps

UPS -- Color by the boatload. Easily the grooviest set in the Topps catalog. Manages to make the mismatched color combos work. Like so many other sets of the '70s, terrific backs.

DOWNS -- No positions on the front.

My two cents...

It's no secret that the '70s produced many of my favorite Topps designs.

No set sums up the decade better than 1972 Topps. It might be the only design to comment on general pop culture at the time. The times were getting groovier (and more drug-fueled), and so were the baseball cards. Despite the fact that disco wouldn't become a big thing until a few years later, '72 Topps has a very disco-ish vibe to it.

For a lot of sets, the mismatched colors would be a minus. But, because of the sheer craziness of the rest of the design, the quirky combos manage to work. Pink for the Cubs? Sure, why not!

I don't know much, but I know that Topps will never again match the grooviness factor of their '72 design.

#4 -- 1956 Topps

UPS -- The best use of dueling photography. Ever. Another subtly colorful design, though the pictures do most of the talking. Easily one of the Top Five backs in Topps history.

DOWNS -- You tell me, because I sure can't find any.

My two cents...

Many other bloggers have long since professed their love for 1956 Topps.

I was kind of a late bloomer in that regard. I never saw much of anything special with this set when I was first getting into vintage, but I've done a complete 180 since then. (Man, between my initial indifference for '63 Topps and now this, I sure was a stupid collector back in my teenage days.)

No design does double-images better than '56 Topps. The terrific action-packed shots, such as this one of Harvey Haddix on the basepaths, were years ahead of their time. It's one of the tightest and most aesthetically-pleasing designs in cardboard history.

I don't know if any set is more universally liked, to be honest.

#3 -- 1973 Topps

UPS -- The best photography of any Flagship set, hands down. The dawn of the shadow figure. Not usually a fan of vertical backs, but '73 Topps makes them work with flying colors.

DOWNS -- Are there any?

My two cents...

To me, 1973 Topps is the most fascinating set in baseball card history.

Many of the photos Topps used before and after 1973 were your standard posed shots. Maybe a little action sprinkled in here and there, but not much of anything that would make you turn your head.

But, for whatever reason, '73 Topps went rogue. Sure, it has the run-of-the-mill poses, but it also has some of the most breathtaking, eye-popping, and just plain weird photos you'll ever find in its checklist. We haven't seen anything like it since.

It's sheer bliss for a photography nut like myself.

#2 -- 1975 Topps

UPS -- The embodiment of an iconic design. My pick for the most colorful set in Topps history. Probably my pick for the best backs ever as well.

DOWNS -- Eh, I don't know. Maybe lose the facsimile signatures.

My two cents...

This is the kind of design that gets passed down through the generations.

I can't say I've ever opened a pack of 1975 Topps, but I sure feel like I have with all the stories from my dad and the rest of my fellow bloggers out there. In terms of vivid color, baseball cards reached their peak in 1975.

While it doesn't have the sheer action of '73, the muted greatness of the photography in this set is every bit as memorable. Let's not sleep on the backs, either. They're my personal pick for the best ever, and I'm not just talking Flagship.

But, as strongly as I feel towards '75 Topps and all the others in this post, there can only be one #1 in this countdown.

#1 -- 1965 Topps

UPS -- Everything. Pennant design, photography, team logos, colorful banners, beautiful backs, the list goes on and on. I love it all.

DOWNS -- None.

My two cents...

It seems like 1965 Topps has been #1 for as long as I can remember.

If you've been paying attention, that might not come as a surprise. I seem to express my appreciation for this set every other day on this blog. I can't help it. In fact, I can't recall a time where '65 Topps wasn't my all-time favorite Flagship set.

It manages to take everything I love about baseball cards and condense it into one design. Pennants, vivid colors, vintage Topps photography, and so much more coalesced within these iconic pieces of cardboard.

I've said this before, but when I think of a baseball card, this is what comes to mind. That's really the highest praise I could ever bestow upon a design.

Congrats to you, 1965 Topps.

You'll always be the best.


Mike said...

Great job with this,Nick!...
For the record,my top 5 would be '72,'75,'59,'65 and '73

JediJeff said...

"It might be the only design to comment on general pop culture at the time."

I think that is my MAJOR issue with 72. All the other designs have a feel for them. Like something that belongs and carries on. '72 is that pair of bell bottoms and the huge wide collar shirt that was out of style the following year. If you wore it, you were embarrassed and shunned - and rightfully so. It's that guy or girl that never changed their style from high school, and REALLY need to be updated to the times. All the other releases by Topps don't feel dated.

'72 does. And it's not is a good way.

P-town Tom said...

I think my favorite is the '56 set. The cards are just gorgeous. I only own a couple, and they're in rough condition, but they are some of favorites to pull out of the box and look at. I'm glad '56 made it into your top five.

Drew said...

I really enjoyed this series Nick, and you're right, just in time for 2015 Topps! I'd be curious to see at this point next year where you'd fit 2015 Topps into the rankings. I had a feeling 1965 was going to be up there, boy I'd love to do that set. One day.

hiflew said...

Although we only agreed on 3 of the top 10, I have loved reading through your choices. That's the great thing about lists like these. With 1000 different people you would probably get 1000 different top 10 lists. Collection diversity is one of my favorite things about baseball cards.

Adam Kaningher said...

I'd put 1991 in the top ten, but close enough. A 1959 Robin Roberts was the first vintage card I ever owned - a gift from my dad.

Marcus said...

'73 and '71 Topps would be in my top 10 as well, probably top 5. I'd never be able to do a full countdown, because my collection is pretty low on cards prior to '69, since that's when the Padres entered the league, plus I'm extremely biased and would have '92 and '93 near the top because I love them so much.

Mark Kaz said...

Can't with your top three; good choices all. I thought for sure you'd have '71 ranked higher given all it's quirkiness. Nonetheless, a great list, made with love for sure.

Mark Hoyle said...

Great list Nick.. I think I would have 8 out of the ten. Maybe in a slightly different order.
It would be interesting how you would slot the early Bowman 49-55 in your list.

Kev said...

great post - while (like everyone else) I don't agree with ALL of your choices, I do love the background notes on the reasons for each of them.

great series, even if I only tuned in for the last episode!

BobWalkthePlank said...

Like Adam I'm kind of partial to the 91 set too. It would have cracked my top ten. Great list!

Brian said...

In chronolgocial order 1956, 1959, 1963, 1965, and 1991 would be my top 5.

This was a great series to read - thanks for all the thoughtful commentary!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the countdown, Nick!

I was mildly surprised that 1973 made the top 10 - not because I disagree, but because many people dismiss it for having an overly plain design and wouldn't include it in their own Top 10.

1981 is the one set in your 10 that I have a personal quibble with; I collected the heck out of this set back in 1981, so I have a fondness for it, but I don't think the design has aged well.

Ana Lu said...

You put together in this post almost all my Topps favourites. Great!