I’ve been putting the rest of the countdown off for the past few days, if only because, as I was thinking on the subway going in to work yesterday, now is where things get difficult. The sets become more iconic, pitfalls become less obvious and the merits of each deserve more attention.
Invariably the countdown will step on collectors’ toes: I am aware that from now on there will be people out there who think I’m full of shit for listing ’83 Fleer over ’81 Topps, or ’89 Topps Traded in the top 33 at all. I’m prepared that every set will be somebody’s favorite; maybe someone’s first set was ’84 Topps, someone else’s last set ’86 Donruss or ’83 Fleer and therefore that set is firmly planted at the top of their own Best Set list. I guess all I can say is that I’m not letting nostalgia cloud my review and ranking of the remaining sets. If there was a Canseco rookie in a given set (for example), and mostly everybody spent their youth pining for it and saving up the $35 to buy it, you bet I’m going to take that into consideration. But no way in hell does that make that set better—especially if it was just Canseco and a pile of commons—than one with a wider selection of quality rookies, stars and cards in general.
By the way, I would like to thank everyone for noting that I can’t add or do simple multiplication. And now, nearly every night, I wake up in a cold sweat…the number 132 haunting my every dream.
Right. Enough explaining.
33. 1986 Fleer
Not exactly a Canseco and a pile of commons, but pretty close. Okay, that’s not a fair assessment, but this Fleer set is so uninspiring. And this was right in the middle of the Fleer/Donruss golden years from 1984 to 1987, so why so many goddamn headshots? I mean, c’mon. You’ve got second years of Puckett, Clemens, Gooden; you’ve got a Coleman rookie, a Canseco rookie—on one of those awesome rookie doubleheaders found at the back of the set, no less (Fleer’s neat but ultimately pathetic stab at the Donruss monopoly on rookie-cool)—and a sleeper rookie in Cecil Fielder (also on one of the rookie doubleheaders at the end of the set).
But this set lacks charisma. It doesn’t have any recognizable style, or maybe more accurately, it extends the ‘boring non-border’ sets of 1983 and 1985. But while those designs were decidedly non-busy to counteract the classic Topps designs and the ‘hey-look-I’m-a-baseball-card’ Donruss front of 1983 and the über-technological, Kit voice LED equalizer, Knightrider-esque Donruss design from 1985, it was old and over-extended by the time the blue non-border ’86 Fleer set rolled out.
So while this set gets negative points for design, it does get back a few of those points when it comes to graded cards. I can imagine that, like with the ’86 Donruss set, it must be hard to successfully slab a card from this set at 9.5 (or even at 8.5). Those blue borders were a bitch to keep sharp.
Here are the positives: the special cards, the rookies and the player selection. Again, here’s where the Canseco helps and hurts this set. It helps because it firmly sets itself apart from Topps (Topps waited until the 1986 Traded set to unveil Canseco), and in the company of Donruss, it’s true arch-nemesis. It gave collectors something to buy packs towards finding, and if I remember correctly, the card was worth more than the entire ’86 Topps set at one point. Finding a card worth over $30 in a pack was a life-changing event, one that others would reverentially discuss in hushed tones. But for me, and I would gather many others then under the age of ten, that experience was never going to happen because packs were out of our price range.
So unless you got a pack of from this set as a birthday present, you never saw these cards until later in life. That’s why this set is mired at #33.
32. 1989 Topps Traded
I would argue that Topps never really went away in the 1980s. They never put out a forgettable design, nor did they ever really miss the boat on players (and if they did on some, then they didn’t on others, or had others that Fleer or Donruss didn’t have. Future Star Pat Dodson, anyone?). So I don’t think that it’s a stretch to have the ’89 Traded set on the cusp of the top 30. And yes, I would rate it higher (and thus more deserving) than ’86 Fleer, for a couple of reasons.
First, this set is helped by the Griffey Factor, and not at the expense of the regular 1989 Topps set, which is a great set without a Griffey rookie. In contrast, I would argue that the 1989 Score Rookie/Traded benefited from the Griffey Factor at the expense of the regular Score set, because 1989 Score needed all the help it could get. I’ll admit, the logic is a bit confusing, but I would say that because of a strong regular Topps set, the Griffey Factor is doubly beneficial to the Traded set.
I would also argue that 1989 Topps Traded benefits as the last set that qualifies for ‘pre-Upper Deck’ status (even though, because it came out in 1989, that’s technically not true). This set is the last set pre-UD to showcase ‘event cards’, like the Griffey and the Nolan Ryan wearing his Rangers cap like a trucker (or a model train engineer). I think you could say that Upper Deck redefined the event card, making it more difficult for cards to attain this status.
As a definition, an ‘event card’ was a card that, at one point or another, could represent an entire set. It could’ve been from a subset (like an All-Star or a Future Star), or a special card, but it had to transcend its status as subset or special card. 1989 Topps was full of event cards (one reason why it’s a great set), most notably the Gregg Jefferies.
Within the 1989 Topps Traded set, the Griffey rookie was the obvious event card, because it was in every set that year. The less obvious event card was the Nolan Ryan. (For some reason—and this is something I’ve never quite understood—Nolan Ryan is a hobby god. I won’t get really deep into this tangent right now, but if some of Dave Stieb’s one-hitters had been no-hitters, would he have been a hobby god too? I doubt it; there must be more to the Ryan Mystique…) Seeing Ryan in his new Texas Ranger duds was shocking, especially for someone who didn’t really have a good grasp on what free-agency was at the time. And besides, that’s a really white uniform he’s got on and it’s a little disconcerting in combination with his pasty white skin. Another less obvious event card was the Eddie Murray-as-a-Dodger card. When I first saw this card I totally thought Murray had sold out. He had always been one of my favorite players and had made it acceptable to silently root for the Orioles, even as a diehard Red Sox fan. For him to go to the Dodgers was blasphemous. Not only did he desert his lifelong team, he deserted me. Whenever I think of 1989 Topps Traded I think of that Murray card, more so than the Griffey.
Lastly, this set is worthy of its position because it had the two things that generally decent sets have in common: good player selection and a serviceable if not great design. It’s missing a Belle, but the set doesn’t suffer because he’s not included.
31. 1981 Topps
1981 Topps was the last set to denote an All-Star on his regular card. That changed in 1982, when All-Stars were given their own subset for the first time since 1974. 1981 was also the first set to include team rookie cards since 1972, and the first to split the cards up (not put them all together at the end of the set) since that same year, 1972. As for design, it was one of the best
of the decade (if you ask me). The fronts were colorful, the team name displayed on a cap in the lower left corner and a big photo surrounded by a color border. The cap was cool, and doubly cool when it was an Expos player, because then the cap was multicolored.
Other neat things about this set:
• I had about five or six of the Carlton Fisk card, even though I never bought packs of this set (I started collecting in 1986). I got the team set as a birthday present one year, got one in a trade, bought one at a card show, and then, left alone in a box, they had sex with each other and multiplied like rabbits from there.
• This set is better than the 1986 Fleer set because of the rookies. Canseco, Fielder and Coleman cannot go head-to-head with the Valenzuela/Gibson/Baines/Tony Pena/Bruce Hurst/Tim Raines/Lloyd Moseby combination and expect to come out victorious. It’s just too strong.
• The set featured a lot of guys sitting on the bench, doing nothing. One of the best shots of a guy doing nothing is Dwight Evans’ card. He looks genuinely pissed that there was a strike, if only because he was on his way to a career year with 22 home runs when the season ended after 108 games. It’s as if Nostradamus had been working for Topps that year:
Topps Executive 1“Hey, Nostradamus! What did you think of the photographer’s presentation earlier?”
Nostradamus “Should’ve had more shots of guys doing nothing, if you ask me.”
Topps Executive 1 “Why’s that?”
Nostradamus “There’s gonna be a strike this season.”
Topps Executive 1 “Oh yeah? Where’d you hear that?”
Nostradamus “Heard it in a dream.”
Topps Executive 1 “Heard it in a dream, huh?”
Nostradamus “That’s right.”
Topps Executive 1 “You hear that, Jack, old Nostradamus had a dream that there’s gonna be a strike this season.”
Topps Executive 2 “A strike, huh?”
Nostradamus “That’s right.”
Topps Executive 2 “Well, I guess we should’ve had those photographers show more shots of guys doing nothing.”
Coming Soon: Sets 30 - 28