37. 1991 Topps
Though generally not that great and a little on the cheap side, excuse me, way on the cheap side, 1991 Topps should be remembered as a watershed for the company, a much-needed transition (read: mid-life crisis) set from the mealy-cardboard Eighties to the sleek, sophisticated Nineties.
It was the last Topps set without images or color on the back of the card, and the last to use straight, no-gloss cardboard. Also, it was the first set on which Topps did any kind of foil stamping, with a delicate gold-foil palm trees logo for the much-sought-after Desert Shield parallel set distributed to the troops in the Middle East.
It was the first set where Topps put a heightened emphasis on the photography, probably due to a combination of trickled down Kodak/Stadium Club quality and the sudden realization that Upper Deck and Score routinely–and handily–beat them on the photo front. (Granted, this photo-centric attitude only lasted through the 1992 flagship set, but it was important nonetheless.) It was important not only because the subsequent photos were of higher quality, but there were a few cards that featured photos which were obviously staged. I’m not talking about a sidelines shot of a pitcher at the end of his windup. I’m talking about a photo like this one of Benito Santiago. The photographer is sitting on a crane, or an especially tall ladder, Benito’s got his game face on, the lighting’s just right, and it’s not an in-game shot. It’s got a cinematic quality, and because it seems Topps didn’t have access to the three-frame, overlapping motion photography that Upper Deck was using, it was as close as Topps could get to a stunt card.
It was also the first set where Topps acknowledged their own place in history on each and every card (not just as a sidebar or for a Turn Back the Clock subset). With ’40 Years of Baseball’ emblazoned just below the Topps logo on the front of each card, the company was staking their claim as the baseball card company. It seemed a little stodgy to me at the time, but it makes a lot of sense: it was a way–perhaps the best way, as it didn’t really require very much–to distinguish the cards in a very crowded marketplace. And wouldn’t you know it? 17 years later Topps still clings to this angle. (It also made sense at the time because Topps released Archives: 1953 Topps that same year. As an aside, I’ve decided not to include the three mid-Nineties Archives sets (1953, 1954, Dodgers) in this Countdown. I didn’t think it would be fair to the other sets, as 1953 and 1954 are, in their original form, top 10 classic sets, and the Dodgers set was a compilation set.)
Is 1991 a pretty set? Hardly. It’s not as ugly as its evil stepsister 1990 Topps, but it’s up there. I guess I would call it ‘utilitarian.’ Thin lines rule in the front-of-card design (an obvious precursor to 1992), and actually the gaudiest contribution to the front is the ’40 years…’ logo. Also, team names are represented by a variation of their respective logos, sitting atop a pennant-style rectangle (the first pennant since 1980). I believe the team logo thing was the first time this occurred on a Topps design (and last, thank God). As you can see from this card of Larry Walker, anything that wasn’t a line or line-based in its design (like the Rookie Cup) seems disjointed and out of place with the rest. The icon floats, which can work (see 1978 Topps)—just not here.
The backs aren’t anything to write home about, but at least the writing’s legible on a light background underscored by a gigantic ’40 years…’ logo. (Jeez, Topps really beat us over the head with that ’40 years and a mule’ crap, didn’t they? Did they think we wouldn’t get it if they only mentioned it once on the card?)
But you know what? I don’t remember this set because of any of these reasons. I remember it because it was cheap, it was boring (for the most part), and there was a ton of it out there.