If you had asked me a week ago which set would end up on top, I would not have known what to tell you. I had four potential Number One contenders (see sets two through four for the others), and if you thought ’87 Topps was a clear-cut choice for the top spot, I would've said that you’d be doing a disservice to the competition. So how did it end up here, and not at number 2, 3, 4? My approach to this set changed. When I talked with my friends or got an email from a reader or fellow collector, everything seemed to revolve around this set. Simply put, it was the set that launched a million collections, the set that made little kids care about baseball and little league, and it was the first set that I could afford that Beckett proclaimed would make me very, very rich as long as I held onto those $5 Will Clarks and Mike Greenwells.
This set had more iconic cards than all of the 1986 sets combined, more than the other two 1987 sets combined, and more than all of the 1988 sets combined. I’ve already touched upon the tremendous, league-defining rookie class from 1986-7, but I think I’m not alone when I say that nobody cared if you got a Fleer Ruben Sierra or Bobby Bonilla, but it was everybody’s business when you pulled one of these guys out of your pack of Topps. Hell, even the commons were iconic. Guys like Jeff Reed on the Twins, Steve Crawford on the Red Sox, Luis Quinones on the Giants, Rob Wilfong on the Angels and the electric green of Donnie Hill on the A’s. And speaking of green, how about those flippin’ sweet green packs? When I was 8 I could spot packs of ’87 Topps at 300 yards, thanks to my superpowerful coke bottle glasses (that’s not a joke; those lenses were painfully thick) and my 1987 Topps radar set to ‘Green’ (I wanted to coin a new term just now for ‘baseball card radar’, but all I could think of was ‘cardadar’, and it sounded too much like a seldom-used Spanish verb).
Personally, this set was always my second personal favorite, after 1986 Topps. I’ve always felt 1986 had the better design, because when it came out I thought that the wood grain seemed a little cheap, like a wood-paneled basement (which always seemed cool until the day your Dad had it installed and you realized you couldn’t get a good return bounce from that pink rubber ball you used to bounce against the cement basement wall). But for the purpose of the countdown, personal favorites weren’t a deciding factor in terms of rank. 1986 Topps never had the strongest checklist. 1987 Topps had one of the strongest—if not the strongest—of the decade.
You know, it’s funny. Look at the other sets that feature some kind of border designed to emulate items in the home: 1955 Bowman (the color TV set series), 1962 Topps (the original wood-grain) and 1968 Topps (I always thought the border was supposed to look like a TV set, or at least mimic the cloth screen cover of a hi-fi stereo speaker). All three are among the most memorable sets in their respective decades, so certainly the wood-grain of ’87 was no design fluke (1987 was also the 25th anniversary of the 1962 set).
But the really cool thing about this set is that it’s the pinnacle of baseball cards. Not just the 1980s, but the whole damned history, from the 1880s to today. This set is the bona fide Everest summit of cards: every set leading up to this one was building towards it: the strongest checklist with the most rookies featured in the most different kind of ways, with great All-Stars (including a fat Keith Hernandez and Dave Parker with his warm-up jacket on), inspiring Record Breakers (that Clemens RB, card no. 1, no less made me want to break records, too (something we may yet accomplish at The Baseball Card Blog…)), semi-lame-semi-awesome Turn Back the Clocks, plus cards of Pete Incaviglia, a thoughtful John Kruk, Dave Righetti with his eyes closed again, those scripty Manager cards, Future Stars of guys you knew even at 8 years old would never pan out, Frank Tanana with his mouth closed, seventeen cards per pack!, getting Team Leaders cards of lousy teams with no real leaders (hello Seattle Mariners), Jorge Orta: living member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, Terry Kennedy bitching out an unseen Padre, Frank DiPino’s wicked bizarre lips, Todd Worrell flying a kite and guys with names like Cliff Speck and Rod Scurry, guys who look like Otis Nixon and Oil Can Boyd, and finally, Gary Redus’ card where he reveals his kids are named Lakesha, Manesha and Nakosha. Sure, every set had fun stuff like this, but this set had 792 cards like this. It is the set every other set should be measured against before it can take a place in the pantheon of baseball card sets. It even gives Mike Schmidt a hard-on. Tell me, what more do you want?
For a long time, this set was my get-rich-quick scheme. I thought I would ride that wave of McGwires and Clarks and Cansecos and Bonillas and Bondses and Greenwells and Larkins all the way to college, and that once I made it to college I would be able to afford a big house and a nice car and all the junk food I could ever hope to eat. And while I still have that fantasy from time to time, I know that it’s only just that: not a reality I so convincingly believed would happen. And you know, the more I think about it, what I really would’ve done if I had sold my cards would’ve been to buy more cards. So if you want to think about it differently, a little more menacingly, this set catapulted a million ‘occasional buyers’ to ‘hard-core regular buyers,’ kids who would normally save their allowance for a car you built out of a box would all of a sudden uncontrollably spend their life savings at CVS or some other drugstore, in the process cleaning out whatever packs the store had laying around. Ah, the good old days. That takes me back.
And while those days have subsided, this set still has meaning, though one that’s metamorphosed over the years. Like a great book or movie, I read it differently today. No longer am I concerned with what cards from this set are worth: it’s become my guilty pleasure, the set I can buy a box of for the same price as when it came out (only now I can afford it). It’s the set I have just about twenty times over but still want to put together another. The set that creeps into my thoughts nearly every day, though I oftentimes don’t consciously understand the connection between it and the world around me. I could go on and on for days about this, but a set this good doesn’t need a dissection. All it needs are three cheers and to be set off into the night, to be shared by all.
Look for answers to reader mail sometime over the weekend.