Well, as the guy with the guitar that was kind of off-key on the platform of the downtown F said slightly incoherently last Thursday while I was waiting for the uptown train back to Queens, ‘We’re knock knock knockin’ on Heaven’s door…’ Only in our case, you should probably replace ‘Heaven’s door’ with ‘The Top 10 Sets of the 1980s’.
Yes, to quote every single high school valedictorian speech and yearbook table of contents (and Bill Walton on more than one occasion), what a long, strange trip it’s been. I naively thought I’d be able to get through this list in about a week. But then I realized how deeply I cared for each and every set, and how important they figured into my formative years.
I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, so I’ll quit this premature eulogizing with another Walton quote: ‘This is just whore-able.’ Wait, that wasn’t the one I was thinking of… here it is: ‘Throw it down, big man. Throw it down!’
Consider it throwed-down.
10. 1980 Topps
When, in the course of baseball card set ranking related events, a person comes upon the 1980 Topps set, what does that person think? Does this set resonate or does the person even care? I, for one, never realized how much I cared until I spent a little quality time with it and now I realize that this set is one of the most underrated of the decade. It lacks the splash of later-decade Topps sets as it has very few subsets, the All-Star denotation is on regular cards and rookies (for the most part) are not announced. But it makes up for this lack of pageantry with a strong checklist, including the desirable 2nd year Ozzie Smith and third years of Molitor, Trammell and Murray, plus great cards of hobby powerhouses Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Yount, Winfield and a cache of others like Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose and Bench, Fisk and Yaz. And how could we forget: this set features the rookie of, according to Bill James, the fourth greatest left fielder to ever live, Mr. Rickey ‘Refers to Himself as Rickey’ Henderson.
But most importantly, this was Topps’ last year as the only major issue. 1980 was the last year of Topps’ 18-year run as a baseball card monopoly (beginning with Fleer’s 1963 issue and not counting SSPC’s attempts in 1975 and 1976). This is important in myriad ways. First, it was the last year that there was (obviously) only one set put out, so there is only one Nolan Ryan card that year, and only one version of the Henderson rookie. It was the last year before Topps began issuing yearly traded sets, so if there were going to be big rookies or guys on new teams, the company had to try extra hard in not screwing it up.
I think that these last two points are huge. I started collecting right in the thick of things: there were already three card companies going strong, an upstart was encroaching on valuable space (Sportflics) and it would be less than three years before there would be 5 major players vying for my baseball card dollar. If I pined for a Bo Jackson card, I was pining for as many as six Bo Jackson cards, all of them with a legitimate claim to being his rookie. But with Rickey, there was only one set, so there’s only one rookie. And for there to be only one rookie of Rickey Henderson seems fitting, as he broke every mold the game had to offer. (And by the way, when Rickey finally gives up the ghost and officially retires from showing up newbies at Spring Training, he should call up former SuperSonic Michael Cage and they should join the WWE circuit as the tag team Steal Cage, and the WWE scriptwriters could pit them against other tag teams and then at Wrestlemania Cage could turn on Rickey and Rickey would enlist Dave Henderson (who would be a plant in the audience, much like Hasselhoff was at the American Idol finale) and Hendu would come in the ring and rip off his tear-away warm up pants to reveal yellow and green wrestling tights and stomper boots, and thus Steal Cage would be dead and the Flying Hendersons born. I don’t know what would happen to Michael Cage…maybe he could get Old Man Larry Nance off the couch to tag team as Achilles Knees…You know, you could put together a formidable pro-wrestling circuit made up entirely of former legitimate sports figures. Tree Rollins and Jon Koncak would be Ebony & Ivory, Dan Majerle and Darryl Dawkins would be ‘Thunder Brothers’ and Kurt Rambis could wrestle on his own as Oculoptopussy, cause Rambis wore glasses and because I personally hate the Lakers. In fact, I might pay around $10 to watch a battle royale featuring Hot Plate Williams, The Refrigerator Perry, Stanley Roberts, Don Baylor, Gabe Kapler, the Phillie Phanatic, Kevin Duckworth, Leon Lett and Rickey Henderson. I would bet Rickey would win that one, even if he was scripted to lose. He’s just that good.)
Aside from the star quality and strong checklist, this set has a kick-ass design. You know, it’s funny that it’s so strong because really Topps was just riffing on itself: it took the bland, forgettable 1974 design (the one with the squarish pennants) and made it more dynamic, tilting the pennants 30 degrees, ballooning the picture (one of the largest photo spaces of any set from the 1980s, possibly the largest) and adding a facsimile signature. This last design element is really an added bonus because you got to see who had mastered the art of penmanship and who could barely scratch out an ‘X’ (my personal favorite is Willie Aikens). Topps did this on the fronts of a handful of sets before 1980: 1952, 1954, 1955, 1959, 1967, 1971, 1975 and 1977, and only once after 1980 (1982). They also had it on the back of cards in 1953 and 1974. It was a fun design element that added a personal touch to the cards, blurring the line between player and collector, like the player had held his card only moments before you got it in your pack. The fact that Topps didn’t use this feature on any design after 1982 (I can only think of the silver and gold signature cards in Upper Deck’s Collector’s Choice series and one or two of Leaf’s Studio sets in the mid-1990s that did) leads me to believe that autographed baseball cards sets are so ludicrously popular today because my generation didn’t know cards could feature facsimile autographs. Can you imagine a clunker like 1990 Topps with facsimile autographs? I would argue they’d be more desirable than the quick-fix mudroom insulation they’ve become.
While I’ve been doing this countdown, I’ve tried to elevate certain ‘iconic’ cards, ones that I think could do a fair job representing an entire set. Some have been obvious, like the Canseco Rated Rookie from the 1986 Donruss set, others not so much, like Dewey Evans’ 1981 Topps card. For 1980 Topps, you could make a pretty persuasive argument that the iconic representative should be the Rickey rookie—it is, after all, the most desirable and valuable card in the set. But for now, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the Rickey argument, I’m going to put forth Biff Pocoroba as the iconic card of this set. Here’s why. Have you ever gone through your cards looking for a weird photo or a weird name or a player that’s especially hairy or ugly? Of course you have (maybe it was the reason you started collecting in the first place, to feel better about yourself). Usually any given set will be split 50/50 between weird and normal players, but if you take a look at the Atlanta Braves team, it’s like there was something in the water down there. Pull out their cards the next time you’re going through your box of 1980 Topps and you’ll see what I mean—it’s like a lineup for a less-intimidating version of The Dirty Dozen. No wonder they finished in the basement (even though Phil Niekro won 21 games, he lost 20. Now that’s some Hall of Fame pitching!).
1980 Topps is underrated. There’s no doubt about it. And, in fact, I would argue that every set in the 1976 to 1980 corridor deserves more love, attention and support. Today a typical player who probably won’t accomplish very much in his career will have upwards of 15 to 20 rookie cards, each valued at some ridiculous and unwarranted price. But guys like Ozzie Smith, Dennis Eckersley, Rickey Henderson—certifiable Hall of Famers who changed the game itself—only have one rookie each, and they’re not worth as much as their accomplishments should demand.