Showing posts with label Countdown. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Countdown. Show all posts

August 18, 2008

1948 - 1979 Countdown:
#34. 1959 Fleer Ted WIlliams

Before Topps' institutionalized exaltation of players like Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Mickey Mantle, and Upper Deck's lavishly illustrated Baseball Heroes, hero worship was one of the many options in composing a baseball card set. Witness Fro Joy's 1928 Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig's face and facsimile signature on every card in the 1934 Goudey set. But most of all, feast your eyes on the big wet sloppy kiss on the lips that is Fleer's 80-card set from 1959: Baseball's Greatest, Ted Williams.

Six cards of a guy I can live with (that's about the length of a standard subset). And even 250 cards with Gehrig's little smirking face in the corner isn't bad (Gehrig is just part of the design, not the subject of each card). But 80 cards of the same player? You'd think that would be overkill. Of course, you'd be right. It turns out that you can form a pretty good picture of who Ted Williams was as a ballplayer with just five or six cards, not 80. And you really only need one card to form a solid image of who Ted Williams was as a human being: card #54, "Dec. 1954, Fisherman Ted Hooks a Big One."

From the back:
"Ted is an avid and expert fisherman. He devotes more time to fishing than anything else, except baseball. His status in the fishing world is as renowned as his status in the baseball world. Williams is particularly interested in game fish, such as marlin, tarpon or sailfish. On December 10, 1954 at Cabo Blanco in Peru, Ted caught the 8th largest black marlin ever landed with rod and reel. It weighed 1,235 lbs. Ted calls this 'my greatest fishing thrill.'

(The Best of the Set is Ted Signs for 1959 (card #68). It's by far and away the most valuable card in the set, and the most important for set collectors.)

Fleer made a big splash by signing Williams away from Topps in 1959, and they planned on getting their money's worth out of the deal. The set from 1959 was just the start of Teddy's cardboard coronation as he approached retirement. 1960 saw the first of two Baseball Greats sets of retired players, which lauded Williams as the brightest star among stars.

So then why, if 80 cards is overkill, does this set pull rank on a number of full-bodied sets made up of a season's worth of players? For a number of reasons, not the least being that it was the first post-war set of unabashed hero worship.

Fleer wasn't the first rival of Topps to sign away one of its major stars, but it was the first to do it after Topps swallowed Bowman in 1955. Also, it wasn't just a small-time regional star Fleer built around. It was Ted Williams, The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. I don't know if this is a fair assessment, but if Fleer doesn't land Williams in '59, does it release baseball cards in 1960, 1961, and the aborted series in 1963? I'm not sure those other sets happen without Williams on board. Heck, the whole reason the Baseball Greats sets exist at all was to include cards of Williams as part of his contract.

Also, if this set didn't exist, I'd argue that subsequent hero worship would've looked a lot different. Remember, Topps' Babe Ruth Story subset in the 1962 set came on the heels of Williams' defection to Fleer (and Maris' record-breaking 61 home runs in 1961). Before the BRS subset, Topps had limited experience in the way of hero worship: they gave Ted Williams card #1 three times (1954, 1957, 1958) and within the first five in 1955 and 1956. The only other instance I can think of is Roy Campanella's post-accident 'Symbol of Courage' card (#550) in the 1959 set.

Following the BRS, hero worship was part of the Topps repertoire, to be used in 1974 with Hank Aaron, 1985 and 1986 with Pete Rose, 1990 with Nolan Ryan, and in the recent abyss composed of every Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds insert set the company has felt compelled to produce. All of these go back to the Babe Ruth Story subset in 1962 Topps, which in turns goes back to Fleer's 1959 set, Baseball's Greatest, Ted Williams.

August 11, 2008

1948 - 1979 Countdown: #35. 1963 Fleer

Up until my most recent week's absence from writing, I was on a tear, one not unlike Fleer's first series of cards in 1963. I'm not in any way equating my writing with this set in terms of importance within the hobby, nor is Topps suing The Baseball Card Blog to get the idea into my thick skull that baseball cards is their thing, not mine.

Because Topps blocked Fleer in the courts, what could have been a landmark set and perhaps the start to a beautiful Fleer decade was stopped before it really got started. With only 66 cards, plus a scarce, unnumbered checklist, the set Fleer released has to be viewed as incomplete.

As far as formal checklist strategy is concerned, there are a number of interesting things going on. This is the first Fleer checklist to group team members alphabetically by team, though on a much smaller scale than in the sets released in the 1980s. 1963 opens with a handful of Baltimore Orioles, then a bunch of Boston Red Sox, followed by a few Cleveland Indians, Kansas City A's, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Washington Senators, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Colt .45s, LA Dodgers, Milwaukee Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, and San Francisco Giants.

At 66 cards, not everybody from these teams is included. Take the Yankees: only Ralph Terry and Bobby Richardson are in the set. Presumably Howard, Mantle, Maris, et al would've been in a later series. What is surprising is the All-Star quality found in the short checklist. Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, Don Drysdale, and Willie Mays all made it in. And let's highlight the Mays card for a second. His is the only card separated from the rest of his team (Mays is on card 5, while the other Giants are on 64-66). Another notable card in the set is that of Milwaukee Brave Joe Adcock (#46). This is a short-printed card, making it harder to find than the other 65.

The design is classic Fleer, following 1960's and 1961's lead with white borders. This set also marks the first modern-era use of fielder position silhouettes in the front-of-card design (1973 and 1976 Topps being the others). Finally, the Best of the Set is the rookie of Maury Wills (#43). For reasons that are still hard to figure out, Wills was one of the very few players whom Topps did not tender a player contract to before his rookie season. Therefore, this is his true rookie card. His first Topps card would not come until 1969. All those times you've seen Maury Wills on a 1962 Topps design? Yup, card doesn't really exist.

July 29, 2008

1948 - 1979 Countdown: #36. 1976 Topps

I don't know how many people share my views, but I feel that the trio of sets Topps released from 1976 to 1978 are three of the most underrated sets the company has ever produced.

The multitude of stars found in these sets is astounding. The year under review, 1976, featured second-year Brett, Yount, Rice, Carter, Hernandez, and Lynn, plus a third-year Winfield and a bevy of others not yet waist-deep in their respective All-Star careers. Guys like Mike Schmidt, Dwight Evans, Carlton Fisk, George Foster, David Concepcion, Greg Luzinski, JR Richard--each was getting really just their first true taste of success.

I haven't even mentioned the mid-to-late career stars like Jim Hunter, Carl Yastrzemski, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, or Gaylord Perry. Or Hank Aaron, whose importance to the 1976 set is unmatched (though I'll never understand why Topps didn't checklist Aaron on card #660 in 1976, as he was in 1975).

Yet despite the concentration of established and nearly-established stars within the set, there are relatively few worthwhile rookies. I think you can even count them on one hand: Dennis Eckersley, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Chet Lemon, and Mike Flanagan. That's not too many, especially for a decade that developed the great stars of the following decade.

The other reason I've listed this set this low is because of the photo quality and design. A lot of collectors are endeared towards the 1976 design, but it feels homemade and a little cheap to me, especially on those particular cards that feature airbrushing. And while we're talking about airbrushing (a truly lost art), were this a countdown of the greatest airbrushed sets, 1976 would come in at or near the top of the heap.

Best of the Set
With so many great stars from which to choose, I'm going to go with an obvious choice (at least it should be obvious if you my taste in cards): 1975 Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Champ Kurt Bevacqua (#564). This card has got it all: a ridiculously large bubble gum bubble, a ridiculously terrible baseball player who saved his best performance for the World Series, top billing for Joe Garagiola, and something that looks like a bubble protractor or forceps. What's not to love?

July 25, 2008

1948-1979 Countdown: #37. 1950 Bowman

These rankings appear a bit random, don't they? Like, who in their right mind would list this set so low? And lower than 1973 Topps? Is this some kind of joke?

No, it's not a joke. 1950 Bowman may have nice artwork and no words on the front (propelling the Bowman Mystique), but the checklist is missing Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial and, for the era, has a relatively weak rookie class (lead by Don Newcombe, Ozark Ike, and Roy Sievers). And in a few instances, Bowman used the same artwork better in another set (case in point, the same shot of Ted Williams was used much more effectively in the long rectangle format of the following year).

This was the only year when Bowman was the only game in town, and they didn't disappoint. It was the largest checklist the company had ever done, the cards are nice to look at and though the rookie class isn't spectacular, there are a host of stars from the Fifties who make their first cardboard appearance.

Best of the Set
The checklist has a whole handful of established stars, including Ted Williams (his first with Bowman), Jackie Robinson, Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, and Roy Campanella. But for my money (and I don't have enough to afford this set), I'm going with Yogi Berra (#46). Those post-war sets liked to show catchers in mid-motion, decked out in their gear and pads, and gazing skyward for a pretend foul pop.

And though Yogi's still padded up, his action looks and feels much more natural. It's a much different version of the star, one that's almost all but forgotten: No Nonsense Berra (as opposed to Whimsical, Fun-Loving Yogi). Needless to say, this card would make a terrific poster. And for some reason it reminds me of this painting.

July 24, 2008

1948 - 1979 Countdown: #38. 1966 Topps

Topps has plundered and riffed on their own back catalogue since 1980, when they released a baseball set that looked eerily reminiscent of their set from 1974. 1980 also saw the release of Topps Basketball, itself a riff on the 1978 baseball design. (You could even make the case that the plundering and riffing began in 1966 with the color tv cards in Topps Hockey, harking back to the 1955 Bowman baseball design (by 1966, that and other Bowman designs belonged to Topps), and in 1977 baseball, with the team-name pennants, reminiscent of 1965 baseball.)

It's here at #38 that the set from '66 falls. I can count on one finger the design winks and nods that can trace their way back to this set: 1988 baseball's player-name banners, and even those didn't actually occur in the set from '66.

All of this makes you wonder about the opinion of the design at Topps HQ: Do they see it as weak? It worked on some of the cards in the original set, and if you sort through the cards long enough, you kind of begin to like it: Team-name banner in the upper left corner, large photo area (reminiscent of the 1961 set), and easy-to-read backs.

As for checklist, the 1960s is a complicated decade to assess. Naturally, it's our instinct to rate the checklist from each year higher than those of the succeeding decades, simply because the sets are regarded as classics with scores of Hall of Fame players. But every decade has one or two sets that aren't as good as the others. 1966 is one of those years.

Even if we tagged the design as 'likable enough,' this set is still weighed down by its relatively lousy checklist (for its era). With rookies of Hall of Famers Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, and Don Sutton, and not to mention others of Lee May, Roy White, Tommy John, Bobby Murcer, and Boomer Scott, the rookie crop is decent. But not great, especially when we compare it to the rest of the decade.

Like other sets from its era, 1966 has team rookie cards, league leaders, team combo cards, and a slew of variations (there were errors in the text on the backs of four cards, and nearly every checklist had something wrong with it). There was also a creepy photo mix-up on card #447 that went uncorrected: Dick Ellsworth's photo was actually of Ken Hubbs (Hubbs died in a plane crash in 1964).

Best of the Set
So with a relatively weak rookie class (for the decade), and the Ghost of Ken Hubbs dancing around, whose is the best card of the set? The default answer is Mickey Mantle, but he's not mine. For me, the card that sums up 1966 Topps is Sandy Koufax (#100). Retiring after the Dodgers lost the 1966 World Series to the Orioles, Koufax went out as the most dominant pitcher in the game. You can almost feel his pain through the photo on this card.

July 23, 2008

1948 - 1979 Countdown: #39. 1969 Topps

"Boring design" often gets mistaken for "minimal design," and 1969 Topps is a perfect example. The fronts featured a large, usually over-saturated color sidelines photograph complemented with a team name in dropped-out caps across the bottom (reminiscent of the far superior 1967 Topps design), and a small circle in an upper corner with player name and position. Minimal? Sure. Boring? Definitely.

Here's what this set reminds me of: an old kitchen table from the Sixties, the one with the glossy formica top and the grooved metal tabletop sides. You know what I'm talking about? I believe it was standard issue for every home for the 1960s. That table is the real-life equivalent to the design of this set.

The backs are much better than the fronts, if you ask me, and even they are boring. The only fun thing about the backs were the caricatures on the manager cards and that the backs of the All-Stars formed a photo puzzle of Pete Rose.
The checklist is highlighted by Reggie Jackson's rookie card (#260) and Rollie Fingers' rookie (#597). The set also features an interesting error/variation series of cards with player last names in white instead of yellow (the most notable variation is Mickey Mantle (#500), in his last active card with Topps).

The Best of the Set
Any sane person would choose one of those three cards I've highlighted as the best of the set. That's why I'm going with Aurelio Rodriguez's rookie card (#653). In one of Topps' great uncorrected errors, it's not Rodriguez on the card, but Angels' batboy Leonard Garcia.

1948-1979 Countdown: #40. 1979 Topps

Sometimes, good things come in ugly packages. This is not one of those times. This set features what has to be one of the most awful card designs ever, with a pretty terrible checklist to match. Needless to say, it was one of the first “older” sets I tried to complete. Besides a select few highlights, this set is garbage. Not worth taking out of the box, let alone putting in pages (and yes, my set is in pages).

Few rookies, bad photos, and a lackluster amount of subset cards make for a painful year of Topps baseball.

Best of the Set
No, it isn’t Ozzie Smith (#116), though unless you are Pedro Guerrero or Pedro Guerrero’s mother, Smith's is the only meaningful rookie card in the set. The best card of the set belongs to Ozzie’s Padres teammate Mark Lee (#138). If I have to explain why this is the best card from a set littered with bad photos… well, let’s just say that the closest Mark ever got to an All-Star Game was wearing that patch on his jersey.

Good Morning From The Blog

It's a muggy day in the neighborhood, one that is fit to welcome Andy from 88 Topps to our talented and prolific stable of writers at A Pack A Day.

Also, wanted to extend a Hello to all of you who found your way over here from the ESPN The Magazine website. Welcome to The Baseball Card Blog! (If you're reading this and you have no idea what I'm talking about, click here.)

And one last note, later today I'll be resurrecting the Pre-1980s Countdown (back by reader demand). It will be much, much shorter than the chapter-long essays I've done on previous sets in previous countdowns, but it will be fun.

If you can't think of a better way to spend your day than to get caught up to where I am in the Pre-1980s Countdown, here are a few helpful links:

1948-1979 Countdown Introductory Essay
#46. 1960 Fleer Baseball Greats
#45. 1960 Leaf
#44. 1953 Bowman Black & White
#43. 1976 Topps Traded
#42. 1974 Topps
#41. 1970 Topps

May 07, 2008

The One-Two Punch

1990 Score and 1991 Topps Stadium Club: it’s come down to these two sets and really neither of them is better than the other. In a perfect world I’d rank them 1 and 1a. But this isn’t a perfect world. People want order, they want debate. They want controversy. And I was ready to give you all of the above and name Score victorious, but then I really started to examine the situation.

I’ve decided that’s there no way Score wins this one. It’s a phenomenal set, no question about it. But is it the best representative for the early Nineties? More so than Stadium Club? No, it’s not. Here’s why.

1990 Score feels like it should have been released a year or two before it was. What I mean is, with its fun subsets (Dream Team, Highlights and those Draft Picks), the event cards scattered across the bloated checklist and the cheap packs, it felt more like a typical set from the late Eighties than a set from the early Nineties. Granted, it was released in 1990, but it followed those sets that came before, not setting precedents for those that followed it.

1991 Stadium Club, on the other hand, set the tone for the rest of the hobby for the rest of the decade. The plain and simple truth is that the early Nineties were about one thing and only one: the evolution of premium cards. And there is no better example than 1991 Stadium Club.

Let’s take a look at these sets, starting with 1990 Score. You don’t need me to tell you that the Bo Jackson football/baseball card was the biggest event card in a time when the hobby was completely awash with them. You also don’t need me to tell you that you probably had three or four of the Sandberg error, if you could remember what the error on the card was. Or how about Dream Team? Or Rookie Dream Team in the factory set? Or the fact that the Draft Picks subset was flat-out awesome, with rookies of Knoblauch, Ben McDonald, Mo Vaughn, Earl Cunningham (who?), Roger Salkeld and Frank Thomas. Or the fact that Thomas and Vaughn became stars after the others showed what they could do, which ensured the set with at least two rookie waves.

While this was technically Score’s third edition, it was really the set that put the company on the map. It had everything: enough superstars to clump at the beginning and spread throughout the remainder of the checklist, enough rookies to choke a horse, winning, inventive subsets and at least two Bo Jackson-related event cards (FB/BB and All Star Game). The cards featured a winning design, the packs were relatively cheap and Eric Lindros was in the Rookie/Traded set. ”He’s an unknown quantity right now because he’s so inexperienced,” said one scout. “But he has all the tools to make it big.”

What more could you want?

Like a handful of other sets from 1991, Stadium Club featured a Jeff Bagwell rookie (though no Chipper Jones or Mike Mussina). Unlike the others, though, the fate of the set did not rest on who was or was not included. That’s because unlike the other sets, the quality of Stadium Club was unbelievable. Full-bleed Kodak photography (Topps was smart to officially enlist Kodak; it gave the set a certain gravitas. Plus, if baseball card collectors are anything they’re brand-conscious to a tee), gold foil at a time when that simply wasn’t done, and Topps rookie cards on the backs.

The other thing that Stadium Club had going for it was that they were perceived to be scarce (though the validity of that perception was never determined). Packs were expensive. The cards were desirable. Nolan Ryan was shown in a tuxedo. I mean, c’mon. If the elder statesman was this excited about the set, comparison with Stadium Club’s contemporaries was completely unfair.

I’m not going to compare the two head to head. They excel in different ways. I will, however reiterate my main point: that while 1990 Score is a tremendous set, it belonged to the previous, pre-Upper Deck era of baseball cards (and were it released in the Eighties, it would rank in the top ten sets of the decade). Stadium Club, with its borderless photography, gold foil, perceived scarcity, Bagwell rookie and UV gloss, was a premium experience, one that exemplified the baseball card hobby in the early Nineties.

1. 1991 Topps Stadium Club
2. 1990 Score

End of story.

And of the 1990 – 1994 Countdown. It almost took a year, but now it’s done. If you’re looking for older Countdown reviews, in the next two weeks I plan on going back and tagging the rest of the relevant posts.

If you can't get enough early Nineties, head over to The Baseball Card Blog's sister site A Pack A Day, where the Cardboard Junkie will be live-blogging packs of both sets ranked here.

Top 9 Iconic Baseball Cards (1990-1994)

Well, we've made it to the last two sets of the Early Nineties Countdown. To celebrate, I've listed the top nine iconic baseball cards from the time period.

1. 1990 Score Bo Jackson FB/BB

2. 1994 Upper Deck SP Alex Rodriguez

3. 1990 Topps Frank Thomas Draft Pick Error (No Name on Front)

4. 1991 Score Jose "The Steroid Stallion" Canseco Dream Team

5. 1991 Topps Stadium Club Nolan Ryan
(and his inexplicable tuxedo)

6. 1990 Leaf Frank Thomas

7. 1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter

8. 1991 Upper Deck Michael Jordan (insert)

9. 1991 Studio Steve Lake

10th Card Honorable Mentions: 1990 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson Baseball Heroes (autographed), 1990 Donruss Brian Downing Diamond King (reverse negative), 1990 Donruss Juan Gonzalez (reverse negative), 1990 Score Rookie/Traded Eric Lindros, 1992 Bowman Mike Piazza, 1993 Topps Finest Nolan Ryan (refractor)

May 06, 2008

1990 – 1994 Countdown: #3. 1992 Bowman

Every sport has at least one: a set with such a high quotient of rookie superstars that it’s not even fair comparing it to others. Basketball has three entries, simply because cards weren’t made all that often: 1957-58 Topps, 1961-62 Fleer and 1986-87 Fleer. Only in the last one were there a large number of actual rookie superstars, not just players enjoying their first card. In football, there are 1984 Topps, 1986 Topps and 1989 Score. Hockey’s got 1951-52 Parkhurst and 1980-81 OPC & Topps.

Baseball’s littered with sets like this: 1949 Leaf and 1952, 1954, 1965, 1975, 1985 and 1987 Topps come immediately to mind. And of course there are others, like 1992 Bowman. As an exercise of mental dexterity, I’m going to list the names of ten players who appeared in ’92 Bowman and I want you to tell me which ones had their rookie appear in another set. Ready?

Derek Lowe
Pedro Martinez
Jeffrey Hammonds
Mike Hampton
Manny Ramirez (two cards in the set!)
Carlos Delgado
Mariano Rivera
Mike Piazza
Trevor Hoffman
Garret Anderson

Only Martinez, Piazza, Hammonds and Ramirez had rookies in other sets. Now I want you to tell me if that mattered.

Of course it didn’t. 1992 Bowman was, is and always will be the muthafuckin’ set for early-Nineties rookies, and I’ll be damned if it mattered that Pedro Martinez’s only true rookie wasn’t part of it (it came in 1991 Upper Deck Final Edition). If you were a young player—and your name wasn’t Shawn Green—your rookie, for all intents and purposes, was in this set.

This was easily the biggest thing in the hobby in 1992. No other set even came close: ’92 was an off-year for the blossoming ‘premium’ craze as Leaf, Ultra, Stadium Club and Studio put out so-so sets. Only Pinnacle (Score’s foray into higher quality) made its debut. In other words, it was a perfect time for a below-the-radar set like this to take hold.

And thanks in part to a handful of short-printed cards, Bowman’s leap into foil (no more simple, thread-bare gold foil relegated to a corner icon, as in 1991) and at least three distinct rookie waves, it’s never had to loosen its grip.

As I mentioned in a previous post, 1992 was the most popular of the early Nineties Bowman sets. But was it the most deserving of the attention? I happen to like 1991 more, but that set doesn’t bring as much to the table as ’92.

1992 is in the top five of the early decade not just because it’s a rookie juggernaut. It’s in there because of the foil, the short prints and the general overhaul Topps did on Bowman between 1991 and 1992.

It’s fair to say that 1991 Bowman wasn’t much to look at. Actually, if we’re more truthful, the last time Bowman had released a good-looking set was 1955. Taking that into account, Topps printed 1992’s set on coated white stock with a bright action shot and thick white borders on the front and a color headshot on the back. All together it wasn’t a bad design; you could almost even call it attractive. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know the average card was a Bowman were it not for the completely indecipherable block of statistics on the back, the brand’s trademark inclusion.

The funny thing about this set is that it is one of the few modern-era sets that’s as relevant today as the day it was released. Simply put, every player of the last generation—regardless of his star quality—had a card in this set. Okay, at least a number of them did. And it’s not even that 1992 had such a great rookie class. It’s that this set managed to include a lot of guys years before they showed up in other brands. Take Derek Lowe, for instance. After his Bowman card in 1992, he doesn’t show up in another brand (besides Bowman) until Donruss 1998. Granted, he didn’t make the majors until 1997, but that was Bowman’s thing: get a guy early, way before the competition.

May 05, 2008

1990 – 1994 Countdown: #4. 1990 Leaf

Why are baseball cards made? I know I keep asking that question, but it’s important. I’ve been batting around different ideas, but the most realistic answer I’ve come up with is “Because it’s big business.” Name me another product that is tied to childhood, nostalgia and bonding with family and friends more than Topps Baseball Cards. I can think of only four: Coca-Cola, firecrackers, TV and Playboy Magazine. All are timeless products that have helped shape the American identity. “The first time I…” with each is a venerable rite of passage.

One side of business is branding, so obvious and important in the baseball card business (especially during a period such as the early Nineties, when there were scores of different products competing for dealers’ shelf space and collectors’ attention).

Another side is competing in the marketplace. For all intents and purposes, there was one manufacturer from 1956 to 1980. In 1981 that figure tripled to three and by 1989, with the introduction of giant killer Upper Deck, there were six. And though for those thirty-some-odd years it may have seemed like there was Topps and then there was everyone else in terms of market share, Topps’ response to competition (or lack thereof) helped the company slip in the standings. It got so bad for the company that it took them two years to respond to the biggest threat the company had yet to face: Upper Deck. In Topps’ defense, it was the worth the wait, as the inaugural 1991 Stadium Club release was a fantastic set, and Topps wasn’t alone in its delayed reaction. It also took Fleer two years to lob its response (1991 Ultra).

But by waiting two years to respond to the higher-quality standards of Upper Deck, Topps and Fleer were no longer responding to just one company, they were jumping on the bandwagon of a hobby trend: premium cards.

Born out of 1989’s Upper Deck (and possibly even 1988’s Score set), premium cards were printed on higher-quality stock, with better photography, brighter colors and more bells and whistles, most noticeably the heavy use of metallic ink. To ensure their desirability, manufacturers released them in a more limited quantity (or that was the idea). As such, they could charge dealers more per case, dealers would pass on the price increase to the collector and the value of individual cards would skyrocket. Add in the big ball of hype surrounding the hobby at the time and it was a recipe for success.

The company that didn’t wait to see if premium would survive more than a year was Donruss. By repositioning their Leaf brand as a premium set, they ensured not only that theirs was the first Big Three (Topps, Fleer, Donruss) response to Upper Deck, but that the set would garner more attention within the hobby.

All this preparation could’ve backfired had the set been terrible. Luckily for Donruss (and collectors) it wasn’t. Far from it. If we pull back for a moment and look at the long-term values of the set and individual cards, the Sosa rookie is still within the $15 to $20 range, which is remarkable considering all the bad press he’s accumulated over the past five years. Unopened boxes still go for $30 - $60 each and it’s safe to say that the cards remain in demand.

Long-term card value is not the reason why I’ve ranked this set so high. Premium or no, this was a great set. The design wasn’t bad: there was a subtle futurism thing going on that included more than a healthy dollop of metallic ink. The photography was excellent. The cards were printed on clean, smooth white stock. And the checklist was stellar.

With big-name rookies (Thomas, Sosa, Olerud, Justice, Walker) and strong second-year guys (Griffey, Belle and Randy Johnson), Leaf was suddenly the coolest kid on the block. The Thomas rookie was at one point as big as Griffey’s iconic Upper Deck rookie from the year before and when Sammy Sosa became a household name in 1998, there was no bigger card of him than his Leaf rookie.

It wasn’t just the rookies and young guys that made this set desirable. Like with any popular card set, what’s old was suddenly new. Cards of veteran stars and other established players were desirable.

But perhaps the most telling statistic for the popularity of a given set is the price for individual commons. For context, you can probably get a common from 1990 Topps for two or three cents. For Leaf, expect to pay a dime per common. That’s five times the average rate for a Topps common from the same year. That difference is, in a word, sick. I think you have to go back to 1984 Donruss before you see a common price that’s even remotely in the same league. Seems like the initial decision to limit the quantity paid off.

Was it a good decision for Donruss to jump the gun on their response to Upper Deck? I think so. It was a strong set that whet collectors’ appetites not just for more Leaf, but more premium cards in general. And though our opinions differ of if it was good for long-term card quality, we all can agree it was good for business.

May 04, 2008

1990 – 1994 Countdown: #5. 1993 Topps Finest

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.

May 01, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #6. 1991 Bowman

Back before card manufacturers had (somewhat) strict rules about who and who was not eligible for a rookie card, anybody was pretty much fair game. And coupled with the vast hype focused by the media and collectors on the rookie bubble as part of the hobby explosion in the early Nineties, it was only a matter of time before a manufacturer capitalized on the situation. Enter 1991 Bowman.

More so than any set before it, Bowman’s 1991 release was all about rookie cards. Legitimate rookies, guys who would never set foot on a major league diamond—like I said before: everybody was fair game, and everybody was included.

It wasn’t a bad thing for a set like this to exist. For one thing, it set up a nice working model for 1992 Bowman (as classic and hobby-defining a set as there is). It also made a relatively strong rookie class and made it stronger, not by adding more quality rookies but adding more rookies and career minor leaguers in general. It’s a ‘phonebook’ set: if you made it to Spring Training, you probably had a Bowman card. It’s also a ‘sidelines’ set: a sea of faces, crouches, poses and the odd throwback painted card. Few and far between are actual cards that feature what could be considered ‘action’ shots: out of a 704-card checklist, I only found only 189 (the best being of Cal Ripken’s back, excuse me, I mean Junior Ortiz). That’s less than 30% of the set. Action shots comprise almost 100% of brand flagship sets today. It’s funny how trends die out and others take hold.

Anyway, this set reminds me of an essay I wrote last August that addressed the idea of why baseball cards exist. If my thesis has some merit—that cards exist to validate the hard work minor leaguers put in to make the big leagues—then 1991 Bowman exists so that guys like Pat Lennon can get a major league rookie card. Think of it this way: just because only seven of the 12 guys at the beginning of this article ever made it to the major leagues doesn’t mean the others didn’t try just as hard. More often than not, guys just don't get there, or they're the odd man out if and when they do make it (just ask Pat Lennon). Only Sean Cheetham failed to have any semblance of a baseball career: the other 11 combined to tally service in 3,365 minor and 185 major league games.

As I mentioned above, this set was blessed with a strong rookie class (beyond just those on their ways to long minor league careers), made stronger because with no insert sets to speak of, there was nowhere for them to hide but amongst their team set. Rookies of guys either destined for the Hall of Fame or the Veterans Committee ballot like Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Mussina, Javy Lopez, Kenny Lofton, Tim Salmon and Luis Gonzalez and other guys like Rondell White, Reggie Sanders, Ryan Klesko, Raul Mondesi (yeaahhh boy-eee!), Mike Lieberthal, Jeromy Burnitz, Roberto “Father Time” Hernandez, Bret Boone, Jeff Conine, a flameout like Todd Van Poppel and the colossal jerk Carl “Someday I’ll Head-butt an Umpire” Everett; all of them got their start in 1991 Bowman. This is not to say that other sets didn't feature one or most of these guys as well, but all of them together in a one-series regular set? Bowman was your only option.

Don’t get me wrong. There were problems with this set. The design was an afterthought, the backs made no sense, the photography was at best uninspired and at worst terrible and as I said, it was both a ‘sidelines’ and a ‘phonebook’ set. But so what? The checklist was incredible. And it had a purpose: to include not just everybody, not even just everybody who was anybody--but everybody who was everybody, everybody who was anybody and everybody who was never going to be anybody. And that’s the very reason baseball cards exist.

April 30, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #7. 1994 Score

You see, this set is a bad mother--
(Shut your mouth)
But I'm talkin' about 94 Score
(Then we can dig it)

Admit it, you were thinking the same thing… and you’ve seen this set the same way since it came out. 1994 Score is a bad mother: it’s strong in the right places, it makes risky moves and they work, it’s classy and suave and no one understands it but its woman (I guess “its collectors” would be more appropriate). If this were 1994 and you lived in a magical world where baseball cards came alive, you definitely didn’t want to run into Score down a dark alley. Unless your name was Fleer or SP, it would beat your ass every time.

It would do this in a number of ways, least of all with its silent-but-deadly, take-no-prisoners blue border. It’s almost impossible to believe that the same company responsible for 1992 Score created this set only two years later. Where the former was card design in puberty—an experimentation of ugly gradients and bright colors—’94 was understated and mature. Look no further than ’93 Score for the initial design shift towards sophistication, and though it’s not a popular set with collectors, that set did most of the heavy lifting for the brand’s later editions, ’94 included.

Also, where ’92 was bloated (893 base cards), ’94 was lean (660 base cards). Granted, we probably should give 1992’s set a pass on its massive checklist, as it was produced a year or so before it became industry custom to strip subsets from base sets and upgrade them into inserts, a practice Score started in 1993. By 1994, formerly traditional base set highlights like Dream Team and The Franchise (represented in ’94 as Gold Stars) had been sequestered to life as hard-to-find inserts, cutting down on the number of base set subsets. The strategy worked. In 1992 it was fun to get a Dream Teamer in your pack. By 1994, getting one was the best thing to happen all week (and yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s how sad my social life was as a 15-year-old).

But this set didn’t just beat you with a flawless base set or good-looking inserts. It beat you with a classy parallel. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: I do hate parallels. But we’re talking about 1994 here, fool, the year the parallel came of age. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if news came out that 1994 Gold Rush was hand-crafted by dwarves burrowed deep beneath the Misty Mountains. Seriously, I think Heaven is missing a baseball card-related angel: Gold Rush is the most perfect parallel set ever created.

And as if that weren’t enough for you, if by some fluke you were still conscious after this pummeling, Score would send you to the hospital with its version of the right-arm wind-up, left-arm knockout. I’m speaking of course of Rookie/Traded.

Sure, it included the awesome Alex Rodriguez rookie “Call Up” redemption card, but the real scene-stealer here was the R/T base card design. It looked, in a word, terrible (though putrid, ugly, forgettable and shitty also fit the bill). But that wasn’t the point. The point was that the cards didn’t look like the regular set.

Thinking forward once again, Score took the opportunity Rookie/Traded created and not only debuted a new company logo but debuted a new card design, one that would—with a few tweaks here and there—carry over into their 1995 product. It was an ingenious move. The set itself, besides the hard-to-find Rodriguez insert, was weak and forgettable. But the idea that it could be an extension of the regular set and be some kind of live testing ground for future sets, well, that’s pretty powerful.

April 29, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #8. 1990 Donruss

By 1990, Donruss and the other baseball card companies were beginning to understand that their industry was in a very different place from as little as three years before. Following the initial across-the-board quality of Upper Deck, the others suddenly found their market shares smaller. In order to stay competitive, they had to find the intersection between maintaining a traditional set and adapting to the competition with bells and whistles.

From what I can tell, Donruss’ idea of “bells and whistles” was to go red. Eye-catching, hellfire, mid-life crisis, love-it-or-hate-it red. That’s not to say their strategy didn’t work. I, for one, was both shocked and pleased to see them shake their black and blue funk (every year’s design from 1985 to 1989 had either been black or blue). The new color, coupled with the risk-taking cursive signature player name on the front, helped the set stand out in the crowd.

They made two other significant changes from the previous year. First, they put together a fantastic checklist with Diamond Kings you wanted, an intriguing “insert set” (MVPs), kick-ass ‘King of Kings’ and ‘5,000 Ks’ Nolan Ryan cards and one of the strongest Rated Rookie classes in years. Second, they let the presses fly without bothering to hire proofreaders.

Obviously that claim isn’t true, but consider the circumstances: just a year before, one of their competitors (Fleer) grabbed endless headlines after one of its cards (Billy Ripken) featured an obscenity. In order to prolong the news (or simply because they didn’t know how best to handle the situation), Fleer corrected the card not once but four different times throughout the season, resulting in five available versions of the card and guaranteeing a hard-to-find, highly collectible product.

Granted, it’s hard to monitor quality on every single card of a set, but 1990 Donruss featured eight error cards, with two of those being high-profile Nolan Ryan cards and one coming in the insert set (Glavine for Smoltz). Makes you wonder about motive.

Like other strong Donruss sets, in order for it to be truly great there had to be rookie balance over the entire checklist. This was certainly the case for 1990. Donruss had a track record of including great Rated Rookies since Bill Madden put together the first on-card-denoted subset back in 1984, but ran into trouble sometimes when it came to seeding rookies into the rest of the checklist. No such problem in 1990. With eleven desirable Rated Rookies (the most since 1987), the set found balance with rookies of Sosa, Larry Walker, Bernie Williams, John Olerud, David Justice, John Wetteland and flameouts like Junior Felix, Dwight Smith and Jerome Walton.

Yes, the base set lacked a Frank Thomas rookie (and so did the boxed Best of AL and end of year Rookies sets), but in this instance (unlike with 1990 Bowman or Fleer) it didn’t matter. Bowman nor Fleer had Rated Rookies to divert the attention away from the glaring Thomas omission.

Regardless, despite its overall quality and the changes the company made for 1990, this set finds Donruss at a crossroads. Yes, it has a checklist with more than a few highlights. Yes, it has the company’s third foray into insert cards. And yes, it was done with an eye-catching palette. But with the introduction of Leaf as a premium brand, created to compete and out-do Upper Deck on its own level, 1990 was the first year Donruss was the other brand for the company.

You know, it’s funny, but some companies seem to be able to cope year to year; their releases make sense as a cohesive whole. On the surface, this seems to be the case with Donruss (at least in terms of design). But if we dig a little deeper and examine the sets they released from 1990 through 1992—the first three in their role as secondary brand—the company seemed to go a few steps forward in 1990 (clearly their best set of the early Nineties, and their best since 1987) and then two or three giant leaps backward the next two years (crap in ’91 and more of the same for ’92).

It’s as if Donruss simply didn’t know what to do with the brand now that it was number two. Two series? Full color fronts and backs? Save rookies for an insert set? Did anybody even notice? Or care? Despite creating a great set for 1990, it was the beginning of a sad period for the brand.

April 27, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #9. 1992 Topps

What makes a set truly great? Are there certain things great sets possess that lesser sets do not? If a great set is the product of previous years’ evolution, then shouldn’t earlier years be considered great as well? Just what is it that pushes the great set to a higher plane? I’ve asked myself these questions a number of times while writing this countdown. And while their answers are hard to pin down in the majority of cases (because there are very sets that stand apart from the pack), 1992 Topps is different: There’s more than one thing that elevates it to greatness.

In 1991, Topps debuted gold foil stamping on some of the subset cards in the Bowman set. (Topps also added a small gold foil palm tree accent to a miniscule quantity of its flagship and sent them to troops as part of their Desert Shield distribution program.) Interesting in a footnote kind of way, the gold foil itself didn’t add much to overall card design. If anything, it was a ‘hey, look what we can do’ kind of thing. That changed for 1992, which saw Topps increase its gold foil stamp quotient exponentially, resulting in the Topps Gold base set parallel. Really, there were two parallels—Gold and Gold Winners—but nobody really wanted Gold Winners: they were much easier to find than straight up Gold (this difference could very well have been the first instance of tiered desirability). And though Gold technically wasn’t the first time Topps had done a base set parallel (the Tiffany sets of the 1980s were Topps’ first true parallel sets), it was the first parallel randomly inserted in packs (Topps Tiffany cards had been available only as complete, factory-sealed sets).

In addition to the introduction of widespread gold foil stamping, ’92 Topps saw an increase in quality photography. Unlike Topps photography in the 1980s, (it took the company nine years to reach its zenith in 1988), 1990s Topps photography peaked early. With the introduction of the Stadium Club brand (and by extension officially bringing Kodak into the fold) in 1991, the idea took hold that every card, not just those of stars, could feature nice photos. There were a handful of such ‘cinematic’ cards in the 1991 flagship issue, but 1992 saw 26, certainly a dramatic increase by anyone’s count. In fact, it seems like the Pittsburgh Pirates hired their own private photographer; just about everyone on the team got decked out across their own empty Three Rivers Stadium backdrop.

Any great set has to have a great checklist. The first thing you notice about this set’s checklist is that Topps cemented institutional hero worship upon Nolan Ryan (#1 in 1990, 1991, 1992). Up until that point, the company had bestowed subset hero worship on four players (Babe Ruth in 1962, Hank Aaron in 1974, Pete Rose in 1986 and Ryan in 1990), and institutional hero worship on only one: Ted Williams (#1 in 1954, 1957, 1958). This may seem like a no-brainer on Topps’ part, but remember that while certain checklist numbers through the years may have ‘felt’ like they should have gone hand in hand with certain players (#500 with Mickey Mantle, #600 with Willie Mays, #250 with Stan Musial, #200 with Warren Spahn or Sandy Koufax), very few numbers were given to certain players repeatedly. (As an aside, just wait until the Mickey Mantle estate ends their relationship with Topps: I bet that card #7, their current holy number, will go right back into circulation.)

1992 saw the return of the four-headed rookie card, on hiatus since 1978. It was also the fourth year in a row that draft picks were given their own subset, highlighted by Cliff Floyd, Aaron Sele, Manny Ramirez, Shawn Green, Pokey Reese and Brien Taylor rookies. Record Breakers, All-Star Rookies and All-Stars rounded out the subsets. The All-Stars were especially strong, with seven Hall of Fame caliber players (plus Bonds and Clemens). I think it’s telling that three of the five subsets were rookie-related. Add in a boatload of unmarked rookies and this set is literally crawling with them (110 total for the set). Chalk it up to the Bowman Effect. With Topps establishing the Bowman brand as the legitimate ‘home of the rookie card’ in 1991, the company built off of that assertion in the 1992 Topps flagship by including scores of ‘cup of coffee’ type players, older rookies and career minor leaguers briefly up in the majors. As a result we’re treated to cards of guys like Alonzo Powell, Jose ‘The 700 Year Old Rookie’ Mesa, Bryan Hickerson and John Wehner. For a lot of guys, 1992 Topps would be their only major league card for their career.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a bad proposition (What if your only card was in 1988 Donruss?). This set is one of the best-designed sets the company has ever released. You may regard that last sentence as pure hyperbole, but I beg to differ. Let’s break this down. Clean white borders had been a Topps design staple for most of their 40-odd years of producing cards (notable years without continuous white borders: 1962, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1975, 1986, 1987, 1990), so their inclusion in 1992 was no real surprise. If anything, the surprise is how well the borders play off the rest of the card.

On the front, thin lines framed the photo, with one specific to team colors, the other white. Player name and team were set against small team-colored rectangles that filled out along the bottom of the frame, though never touched the white border. The three card front elements (the accent frame and two bottom boxes) each featured a different team color. For the Rangers, the accent frame was in gray, the player name box in red and the team name box in blue. It’s done to complement the photo, and achieves this in striking manner. It’s interesting to note, but nothing besides an odd arm or leg ever touches the surrounding white border. That may not seem like much, but previous years’ design routinely allowed elements to touch or overlap the borders (see 1988, 1985, 1980 and various others).

So while the frame and borders evinced a certain Frank Lloyd Wright sense of design, the real star of the card was the photograph. The photo was given free reign over the frame, giving nearly every subject a larger-than-life, magazine cover presence. In those instances where the player didn’t seem to literally pop off the card, the photograph was interesting enough to make you think they did.

As for the card backs, 1992 was quite possibly, in my estimation, the best-designed Topps back since 1971. ’92 was the first Topps flagship back to feature anything in color, and instead of a meaningless headshot (like Fleer used for its 1991 back), Topps chose a panorama of that player’s home stadium. It was a nice touch; gave the card grounding. Besides, not all of the cards had a photo, only for those players with a few years experience. Most veterans had too many years of service to list everything and include a photo, so when you got one with a photo it seemed special. Out of 792 cards, 595 featured a stadium on its back.

One of the questions I’ve asked myself before ranking a set is whether the set in particular was a product of its time, or a product that helped create its time. In this vein, the innovations put to use in 1992 Topps (gold foil stamping, tiered parallel sets) not only added to the frenzy of card collecting at the time, it laid partial groundwork for the years that followed. Add in its glorious design, killer checklist and stunning photography and not only do you have a great set, you have the best Topps set of the early decade.

April 16, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown:
#10. 1991 OPC Premier

To properly celebrate the hot shit that was 1991 OPC Premier, I should really do my review in French, or some half English/half French (like the cards themselves). The only problem is that I don't know French, so I'm afraid you're going to have to bear with me.

When I was a kid I did not grow up wishing to be President (I spent my childhood trying to figure out how to take over a baseball card company). Even now, politics don't enter my thoughts all that often. That said, were I to assume an office, my choice would be head of tourism for Quebec. I'd bet that as soon as I got in there and put my ideas in motion, people would forget all about the gratuitous backroom fixing that was required in giving me, a U.S. citizen, a prominent job in the Canadian government.

First order of business: hire an intern and make him/her wear the Youppi costume and travel around the province for a series of impromptu photo opportunities. Second order of business: buy up the remaining unopened cases of 1991 OPC Premier and give out packs at hotels, tourism offices, hospitals, border crossings, forest ranger stations and with credit card bills at fine restaurants. Because really, card collectors already know of the majesty (and no-longer-valuable bounty) of the set, so saving them for hobby use is without merit. Really, a set of this magnitude needs to be shared by all.

Just how great was this set? Great enough that it's one of the best French Canadian exports of the last 25 years (definitely higher on the list than Celine Dion, herself a national treasure). Great enough that I still feel a lump of excitement in my belly every time I run across a loose card in a stack, like that card could somehow still be worth something, or its subject could come back to light up the circuit in one last go round.

It was unapologetically Canadian, with a boatload of Blue Jays and Expos. It was also unapologetically elitist, before that term really existed amongst manufacturers. It was high-class, with an elegant front, understated back and checklist to match. With only one or two rookies you could get your hopes up about (Kirk Dressendorfer, anyone?), Premier was all about second-year guys and superstars. Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, Bernie Williams, Kevin Maas, Mo Vaughn, Moises Alou, David Justice, Juan Gonzalez, plus most of the biggest names in the game (though no McGwire or Bonilla). With only 132 cards, the whole checklist had only two Brewers (Molitor and Yount), two Mariners (Griffey and Tino Martinez), two Phillies (Morandini and Dale Murphy) and one Pirate (Bonds). Oh, and exactly zero members of the Houston Astros.

The cards were thin, but printed on quality stock. They came seven to a pack (this at a time when packs had at least ten cards per) and cost an average of $1.25. Buck twenty-five in 1991! And I paid it gladly for a chance at Thomas, Belle and the others. And you know what? I don't think I was alone. This was a premium set that I could afford. And for someone who missed out on Leaf and couldn't afford Stadium Club, Premier was an attractive alternative.

So the next time you're flipping through a magazine in the waiting room at Centre Hospitalier Universitaire De Quebec, remember that if I had it my way you and the guy next to you with the broken nose would be bonding over a few packs of Premier.

April 13, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #11. 1991 Studio

It's taken me a while to accept it, but I've decided there's no use beating around the bush anymore: there are just some things that I'll never truly be able to experience, no matter how many hours I spend outfitting my Delorean with time-traveling capabilities.

One such event was a certain brainstorm at Donruss HQ. You know the one I'm talking about. The one where they decided that the time was finally right to take the Glamor Shots phenomenon out of the malls and share it with an audience as yet unaware of its glory. And hell, the hobby was practically a perfect storm; no one would have noticed had it flopped.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm talking about the day Donruss sprung Studio on the world. And despite the fact that you may be able to take Glamor Shots out of the mall, no matter how you dress them up, you can't take 'the mall' out of Glamor Shots. And yet, this set was a hit. Because really, how could it not be? First of all, we're talking about 1991 here. If it was an air of quality that you were trying to exude, black and white photography set against a cross-hatched resume paper backdrop was de rigueur.

A limited checklist helps too. As does a metallic ink border (red copper, anyone?). Oh, and don't forget slapping big-time rookies right into the set instead of quarantining them as inserts. Who can forget Sammy Sosa's hair soufflé (even if they've spent the last 17 years trying)? One more thing helps distance this set from the rest: no inserts. And no bullshit.

Alright, a little bullshit. But in a good, Steve Lake-with-a-cockatoo-on-his-goddamn-shoulder senior superlatives way. That was what this set was known for; it was what separated it from the pack. Nothing wrong with that. Don't try to be more than you are, I say. Never mind that this was the first real, honest to God set that didn't use one color photo in 31 years (1960 Leaf had been the last). And while the return of black and white was somewhat of an accomplishment, the real hero here is the evolution of photographic equipment since 1960. Instead of a set of deer-in-the-headlights major leaguers, Studio could have been stray photos from a hairdresser's idea book: fades, mullets, crewcuts, feathered, layered; practically every style was represented.

It's too bad this set didn't exist in the late Seventies. Professionally-shot Avedon-esque portraits of guys like Oscar Gamble and Sammy Stewart. Can you imagine how great a set like that would be? I guess the closest set to Studio were the SSPC sets from 1975 and 1976, though the photos were taken at the ballpark. What can I say? I'm greedy. And disappointed that I'll never know what Willie Montanez's favorite TV show was.

April 11, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #12. 1992 Pinnacle

(Note: I figured out what set I had overlooked, so everything's okay now. Enjoy #12.)

Life is full of existential moments. Moments when you look around and say 'Goddammit, I'm alive!' Moments--however fleeting--when you can honestly admit you haven't the faintest clue why your life took the path it did, but you're willing to make the best of it.

I get this feeling every so often. Maybe it's because I'm mercurial by nature. Or maybe it's because I've been a card collector for so many years. My addiction has led me down strange roads, through countless binges on crap sets, depositing thousands upon teeming thousands of unnamed commons in boxes, bags and stacks in my closet, on my dresser, under my bed, in my thoughts and dreams. If somebody somewhere thought 1990 Fleer was a good idea, then there's no reason why I shouldn't exist too.

This is kind of a depressing tangent to indulge, but I wanted to somehow swing it back round to highlight just how welcome a set like Pinnacle's inaugural was in 1992. But I can't figure out how to do that, so I'll sum up my introduction like this: By the late winter of 1992, my class of baseball card collectors had been guzzling down set after lousy set, at least 19 since the start of the decade. We'd pined for Leaf and Stadium Club, ridiculed Fleer Ultra behind its back, kicked ourselves for stockpiling Ben McDonald and Greg Anthony and generally wondering how long we'd be able to keep collecting in the face of rising prices and our own waning interest.

Cue Pinnacle. The black borders. The silhouetted player photograph and gradient. The thin gloss on front and back. The Team 2000 insert set. The stars, the rookies--even the commons were awe-inspiring. On the whole, 1992 was a very good year for baseball card design, and Pinnacle was at or near the top of that heap. It was also one of the last mid-level 'premium' debuts before manufacturers began introducing high-end sets like SP and Finest in 1993.

It felt like there was a hierarchy with Score: Select was preferred, Score was the workhorse and Pinnacle was there to fill in the gaps. As a middle child myself, I was always endeared to this set for that very reason. This argument is not to say that the company did not invest in making Pinnacle a great brand; it did.

It was the quality of Pinnacle (more so than Select, if you ask me) that allowed the company to elevate itself back to the standard the premiere Score issue set back in 1988. It was a necessary move, especially as the perceived quality of the Score flagship brand began to diminish with its over-production in 1991 and 1992.

I never bought more than two or three packs of this set when it came out, but I remember pooling money with a friend to purchase the Series 2 set for $15 and going out of my way at shows to buy singles of my favorites. Why even mention this? My only point is that the checklist is a non-factor in my ranking this set as high as I do. By 1992 the checklist of a set became almost a non-issue in choosing a set to collect (key word here is 'almost').

With the explosion of the hobby came more rookie oversight. For instance, Bowman and Upper Deck included Kenny Lofton rookies in their 1991 sets (I consider UD's Final Edition as part of the 1991 set). You could chalk it up a casual exclusion by the other sets or as a Fred McGriff-type rookie scoop UD and Bowman got on their competitors. Whatever you want to think, it's very different from the old Donruss sometime-practice of including guys as Rated Rookies in more than one year (Danny Tartabull, Lance Dickson) and throws a wrench into the idea of knowing for certain which card is Lofton's rookie. Especially when Pinnacle includes him twice in its 1992 base set and again in the Pinnacle Rookies tack-on end-of-year set. And with confusions like this one, considerations towards checklist fall behind design in terms of determining a set's desirability.

Luckily in Pinnacle's case, the set's got design in spades.