To discuss baseball is to discuss rankings, ratings. List making. Ratings of players, teams, managers, ballparks—everything. If something can be affected by something else, it can be rated. Which brings up the idea of overrating something and underrating something. Last week I said that the 1980 Topps set is the most underrated set of the decade: it’s got a strong Hall of Fame rookie in Rickey Henderson, a nice design and a strong checklist of early-year Hall of Famers Yount, Molitor, Murray and Ozzie, not to mention Hawk Dawson, Winfield, Brett and Ryan. It’s just a great set that deserves more attention. Other sets that are underrated are 1981, 1984 and 1977 Topps (three mostly-forgotten gems) and 1983 Fleer (great rookies, nice design, fun special cards). Are there overrated sets? Sure, of course there are. If you want a good example, look at 1989 Upper Deck. Actually, hold that thought for a few more days and we can examine it together.
But the real question is not if there are underrated or overrated sets, but if there is a middle ground, something to compare these extreme polarities against. There can’t just be two classifications, because if there are then they’re meaningless. Seriously, whatever happened to something just rated fairly?
I’ve tried my best to give the sets on this list a square deal, though sometimes it’s been a little hard, especially when emotion gets in the way (see #11, 1986 Topps). There have been a few that I probably wouldn’t have ranked so high (I’m thinking of you, 1982 Topps), and a few I wouldn’t have ranked quite so low (it’s lonely down there at #40, isn’t it, 1988 Score?). I’ve tried my best not to acknowledge whether a certain set has been historically ‘under-‘ or ‘overrated’, though now that’s a bit harder. We’re halfway through the top 10 sets of the decade, staring down the barrel at one of the most iconic sets in the hobby: 1984 Fleer Update, a set you could make a case as one of the most overrated sets not just of the 1980s, but of all-time. And while I don’t agree with that assessment—it’s not in the Top 10 for nothing—I can see why some collectors would think this way.
First of all, there are really only two cards that separate this set from its Topps counterpart, and that set wasn’t exactly a prizewinner (actually, the two sets differ by 17 to 20 different players, depending on whether you’re awake when you compare the two sets’ checklists). But those two cards are the crux of both arguments: that it’s an overrated set and that it’s a legitimate contender for one of the best of the decade.
Without Clemens and Puckett, it’s true, this set would rank right around where the Topps Traded set is (maybe even a little lower because it was Fleer and Topps was better designed). But because it has Clemens and Puckett and Topps does not cements its standing as legitimate contender. The ‘Overrated’ Argument would state that one or two strong rookies do not a great set make. Hell, I’ve even made this same argument against other sets that are basically one or two strong cards teetering precariously at the top of a pile of commons (see 1986 Fleer and 1989 Fleer). But if you want to play that card, then let’s compare the two strong cards in each set. In the case of 1989 Fleer, Clemens takes Griffey easily in terms of both worth and desirability based on one very central argument to the Clemens card as cornerstone of the hobby resurgence in the 1980s: like there is only one Rickey Henderson rookie card, there is only one true Roger Clemens major-issue rookie card. Pit it up against any card from any set issued during the 1980s and I’d put my money on the Clemens card coming out victorious. Nothing against the Griffey—but when it comes to desirability, there were 4 regular-issue Griffey rookies in 1989 (Bowman, Donruss, Fleer and Upper Deck; Score and Topps included him in their rookie/traded/updates). Let’s not even bother with the undercard match of the Puckett rookie versus the Billy Ripken obscenity card. It’s just not worth the energy. And by the way, while we’re discussing this idea of ‘overrated’-ness and ‘underrated’-ness, is it just me or is the Puckett rookie vastly underrated? Seriously, I can’t think of another card that deserves to be valued more (besides maybe the 1980 Topps Henderson).
As for 1986 Fleer, if you put the Clemens against the Canseco it’s not even a contest and I don’t know who you want to embarrass against the Puckett…maybe the Fielder rookie? Take your pick. The only cards that stand a chance against either of these cards, if we were to arrange a steel cage round robin tournament would be as follows:
• 1986 Donruss Canseco
• 1984 Donruss Mattingly
• 1983 Topps Gwynn
• 1989 Upper Deck Griffey
• 1985 Topps McGwire
• 1985 Donruss Clemens
• 1987 Fleer Bonds
• 1982 Topps Ripken
• 1982 Topps Traded Ripken
That’s it, though if this tournament were held twenty years ago we could’ve included the Will Clark rookie from 1987 Fleer. I think only two of those cards were ever listed in Beckett over $100 (the Ripken Traded and the McGwire), because for some reason I remember the Canseco topping out at $60 and the Clark at $35. The Puckett conservatively lists for $60 and the Clemens is regularly over $200. I mean, that’s sick. So, in terms of monetary value, this set wins based just on the value of two cards.
Another argument: it’s overrated because only 5,000 sets were made, thus making it an early example of elitism in the hobby. The values of the cards were inflated because of the stated print run, forever ruling out the possibility that an average collector (ie kid) could ever afford it. The idea of not being to afford a certain set or card is definitely a bitter pill to swallow, one that can lead to resentment and, coupled with a few teenaged years of acne and rejection from the opposite sex, deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy. All because you never had the chance to turn the Clemens card over in your hand, never mind the joy of seeing that little ‘u’ wink at you, a promise of the very good life you’d most certainly be entitled to. Sigh.
Anyway, here’s where the ‘overrated’ arguments die: this set is very small. And yet despite being very small, it toppled Topps, that struggling old behemoth. It made the company re-evaluate its position within the hobby and in turn helped to prompt a great response: a certifiable renaissance where Topps HQ yanked their design, subset and special card restraints from 1980 to 1984 and, in a short span of 3 years, produced two of the best sets of the decade.
I’ve always thought that one of the tenets of considering something ‘overrated’ was that that thing, whatever it may be, was all surface—and no substance. I know that this might sound cliché, but if you look at Kobe Bryant’s stats from this past season, it’s true he nearly averaged 35 a game. But then you see that there’s no one else on the team, so there’s the argument that somebody has to score. It’s like Tony Campbell on the old Timberwolves teams from the early Nineties: he’s a benchwarmer his whole career and then suddenly he’s a 20-a-night guy? I don’t know, it sounds like somebody’s putting up empty numbers.
I don’t think 1984 Fleer Update is an ‘empty number’ set. Fleer had the balls to include Puckett and Clemens on top of Gooden and Langston and Saberhagen. They pushed at Topps, dared them and outdid them and by doing so helped make the next 3 years very fun to collect. And there’s nothing empty about that.