Before we get started, just a quick note regarding the nature of these rankings: Comments have been left railing against my choices for top-ten-caliber sets. As a response, I’d like to simply reiterate that I’m not ranking these sets based on my own personal like or dislike. I’m ranking them in terms of their importance to the hobby at the time and taking into account if the hobby (or part of the hobby) adopted an innovation introduced in a given set. One comment expressed a strong dislike for the ‘Bowmanization’ of the rookie card. 1991 Bowman may be reviled by some, but it’s one of the most important sets from the early Nineties simply because it changed the nature of the rookie game. Now let’s get back to the Countdown.
Most of the sets in this Countdown are separated by only the slightest differences. Some had an important rookie, others featured excellent design or an above-average checklist. Very few of these 70-odd sets actually had much hobby (or historical) impact. In their collective defense, at the time of their release sets were made to be competitive with each other, not to have a place in history. That’s what makes it all the more impressive that certain sets were able to attain an instant-classic status.
One such set is 1993 Topps Finest. There’s simply no way to over-estimate its importance within the hobby at the time or the precedent it established for all the sets that have since followed. That’s a bombastic statement to make, especially for the set that is only ranked fifth, so here’s some bombast to back it up.
Let’s start with the short, stars-only, elitist checklist. Now, Finest wasn’t the first set to feature a short base card checklist (OPC Premier was probably the first modern set to do so), just the first to make that fact meaningful. Let me explain.
In 1992, Topps released what would be its last 792-card flagship set, ballooning that figure to 825 cards for 1993. By setting the cap on Finest at 199 cards, Topps cut 626 potential subjects—essentially guys #8 through #25 on each team’s roster. With an entire checklist comprised of only stars, Topps was able to set Finest apart as the company’s home for the game’s elite (or ‘finest’… See what they’re doing there with their name? Ehh?).
The choice of name would end up with multiple meanings: not only did the set feature the finest players in the game, but the cards were among the finest collectors had ever seen. People were blown away. Etched metal, crushed beer can art, whatever you want to call it—Finest innovated card design across the hobby for years to come (whether you personally approved of that or not (I was among those who did not)).
And it did so without straying from the rules of what a baseball card should look like. The player’s name was in a small box next to the Topps logo, and with a large action photo that clearly showed the name of the player’s team and his main function on the field (pitchers were shown pitching), all the design had to accomplish was keeping the player rooted in reality, which it did with the deft sandwiching of metal between player and photo background. As for the backs, they were an afterthought.
As if the base design wasn’t enough, Topps included a hard-to-find parallel set: Refractors. Seeded one in every nine packs, there was a very good chance the average collector (ie the kid who scrimped and saved for weeks on end just to buy a single pack) would never find one. And because the Refractors were a parallel of the base set, there were 199 different ones to collect. Talk about tall orders to fill if you decided to go for the master set.
But who really could afford to do so? Only six cards came per pack, with only 18 packs per box. Let’s say you bought a box: that gave you 106 regular cards and two Refractors (barring doubles). You would still need 93 cards to complete the base set and a whopping 197 Refractors. In the end you were probably looking at buying three to four boxes just to make one base set. Unless you had a barrel of disposable income, the Refractor set was out of your reach. And who ever heard of needing disposable income for new cards? Nowadays that seems like par for the course, but at the time it was an outrageous proposition.
The single most significant innovation that Finest contributed to the hobby was the new audience it was able to draw to collecting. Let’s face it: Finest wasn’t for little kids (unless they were ‘discerning’ little kids), it was for investors, er, I mean collectors ready to spend real money on baseball cards of contemporary stars. And while other brands had set their sights on attracting collectors of this nature, those similar sets from the period (1990 Leaf, 1989 Upper Deck, 1991 Stadium Club and to a certain extent 1992 Bowman) have lost their value. That this edition of Finest hasn’t is simply remarkable.
How does it continue to be relevant? With a checklist comprised of superstars and no real rookies to speak of. With fewer cards per pack and fewer packs per box. And with an innovative design and parallel insert technology gimmick that has set the pace for the fifteen years and counting. Like I said: remarkable.