May 31, 2007

Card Critic’s Countdown: 1990 to 1994

Opening Remarks

As Nolan Ryan lofted that football and the Eighties drew to a close, the hobby came to a turning point. With the help of Upper Deck, its limited quantity, higher price point and tiny little holograms, collectors came to expect more from sets and the hobby across the board. And the Nineties didn’t disappoint. The next half-decade was a Burdickian nightmare—or wet dream, depending on your outlook towards cards at the end of the iconic, blue chip Eighties.

Starting with the introduction of Upper Deck in 1989, the next five years would see the debut of no less than twelve new products, forever changing the hobby landscape and collectors’ priorities: what they collected, how they collected and how much they were willing to spend.

It used to be that collectors bought every set from a given year. In 1979, this was easy: there was one set (not counting O-Pee-Chee and regionals like Burger King). In 1981 there were three regular sets and a boxed Traded set towards the end of the season. By the end of the decade, ‘Collect ‘em all’ was still a legitimate goal: there were six major sets in 1989.

Just two years later there were eleven sets. By 1993 that figure ballooned to at least fifteen sets, not including end-of-the-year Rookie and Traded sets, nor am I counting the endless stream of insert, parallel and chase card sets that had quickly matured from novelty to necessity for all manufacturers.

As the decade progressed and the landscape expanded exponentially, pack-buying became less about building sets than about simply buying and opening packs. It was during this time that a pack’s ‘Success Rate’ began to be a serious issue. Packs had to be good. Often a collector could only give a new set one or two chances to prove its worth. If the design wasn’t up to par, or the pack failed to produce an insert or simply wasn’t memorable, there were plenty of other sets to try. Thus the availability of inserts and parallels (and later autographs and relics) became a huge selling point for sets (see mid-decade Fleer). Seriously, who can forget hot packs?

Inserts became such a draw that building a base set, once the cornerstone of the hobby, had all but crumbled away. Base cards were for fools and if there was a set you wanted, all you had to do was purchase the whole thing in one fell swoop at a drugstore like Walgreens.

So then how did the hobby survive? You could make the argument that it didn’t (and that it’s been in a spiral of denial ever since). And you can argue the other side, that because of the rise in the number of sets and the abundance of inserts and chase cards, the hobby was just hitting its stride.

New collectors had become involved thanks to the draw of ‘premium’ sets like UD, Fleer Ultra, Leaf, Stadium Club, SP and Finest; sets positioned in the price tier above the standard issues. These new, adult collectors, because they were paying more up front per-pack and per-card, could thus enjoy a second time around with an old pastime, separated from the stigma that might follow an adult involved in something widely considered a child’s hobby.

A point that can’t be argued is that it seemed for a while there that insert cards were more plentiful than base cards—a definite turnoff for many longtime collectors. And though for a few years there manufacturers were able to successfully navigate that shift in the hobby (attracting many new collectors), those collectors lost in the wake gave up hope, never again to return.

The Countdown
It’s felt obvious to me for the past year that a Card Critic Countdown of the Nineties was needed. And every time I started one, I couldn’t get past the enormous scope of the project. The Eighties, for all their bluster, were a manageable 54 sets. But the Nineties? At least 76 different product lines were produced from 1990 to 1994; more if we’re going to count individual sets. That’s almost twice as many as all of the sets from 1980 to 1989, produced in half the time.

Well, I’m ready now. One thing though: as you can see from the title of this post, the countdown will only consider product lines produced between 1990 and 1994. I’m not including sets from 1995 to 1999 simply because I stopped collecting in 1995 and I’m just not comfortable with ranking sets I don’t have very much experience collecting.

Same rules apply from the Eighties countdown. You can review those rules here. The only change that I’m going to make is that I’m going to rank the product lines from each year, not each individual regular set and its related rookie/traded/update set, because that’s just too much. Instead, the R/T/U sets will be incorporated into each product line. So for example, 1991 Fleer will include the regular set, the update set and the relevant insert sets: All-Stars and Pro-Visions. Likewise, the review and ranking of 1994 Score will include the regular and update sets, the Gold Rush parallels for both and the six insert sets. I think this will be good for the rankings, because strong sets will stand—no matter how many or how few insert sets they have, weak sets may get help from certain strong insert sets and parallels and other weak sets will rank low because they are truly horrible.

#76 to #72 coming soon.

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