April 22, 2006

Best Set Countdown: 44 – 39

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

44. 1989 Fleer Update
If you’re like me, you poured a ton of your money as a kid (and teenager…and perhaps adult) into buying baseball cards. But not only the cards themselves—you bought pages and top loaders and other supplies and, more importantly, you bought into the idea that your cards may actually be worth something. So you read Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. And you read it religiously. I still have a couple of them from 1987, when they listed practically every card (and still had room for a thriving classified ads section in the back), and they’re still enjoyable to read. Which brings up my point: when a set like the 1989 Fleer Update came out, it was an important issue because it had some legitimate rookies that weren’t in the (I believe overrated) regular issue set: Abbott, Belle and Omar Vizquel. And Fleer was smart (or dumb) enough not to include another Griffey card in the Update set, which wins points with me, since it would have sort of devalued his regular issue rookie card (which was the best card in my collection at one point).

But if you read a Beckett now, it barely mentions this set (or any from the 1980s, for that matter) and I think it has to do with the fact that Griffey’s not included. Call it the Griffey Factor (or the Griffey Curse), but the success of your set hinged on whether or not you included a card of him. Regular-issue Topps did not, but they were Topps, and thus smart enough to reach back into their cavalcade of fantastic subsets and put in as many as they could (including the revival of the Draft Pick idea, which I would argue was the second-biggest introduction to the hobby in 1989; inaugural Upper Deck being biggest). Regular-issue Fleer did include Griffey, elevating a borderline awful, corrugated cardboard design and briefly making it desirable. And because the regular-issue included him, the Update set thus did not. And while it did include other rookies (Belle the giant among them), this set was forgotten almost as soon as it was released.

43. 1989 Score Rookie/Traded
I think you could make a very convincing argument that this one is the best of the update/rookie/traded sets from 1989. OK, mostly everyone agrees that the regular issue of 1989 Score was a clunker. The Rookie/Traded set was only less so, but it really didn’t take much to be the best u/r/t set this year. I mean, how hard is it to screw up? You put in a Griffey, Jr., you put in a Randy Johnson on the Mariners, you put in a Ryan on the Rangers and, if you’re smart, you out-maneuver Topps and put in an Albert Belle.

If the design was crappy to begin with, Score used better colors in this set: purple and green anybody? I know, it sounds bad, but that combination gave life to a design that was dead on arrival. And good thing it did, too, because at least it gave a little momentum to the blockbuster, 300,000+ card set that was 1990 Score. ’89 R/T also saved a relatively new card company from the embarrassment of having its head up its ass with the regular-issue set. So, I guess you could say that this set was the re-animated, undead corpse of 1989: slowly, menacingly marching with its mouth slightly open, oozing a little bit of bluish blood, onwards to the bright lights of 1990, 1991 and 1992.

42. 1989 Donruss
What can I say about 1989 Donruss that I haven’t already said? Of the six major-issue sets from 1989, this one is kind-of-okay-not-so-great. It does have a Griffey—as a Rated Rookie, no less. And you could argue that each year of Donruss had a desirable, buy-packs-until-you-got-one RR, but I would say that Griffey was the most highly regarded RR since McGwire or Bo Jackson in 1987. In fact, here’s how I think Griffey stacks amongst other 1980s Rated Rookies:

Top 10 Rated Rookies: 1980s
1. Joe Carter, 1984
2. Ken Griffey, Jr., 1989
3. Jose Canseco, 1986
4. Mark McGwire, 1987
5. Bo Jackson, 1987
6. Fred McGriff, 1986
7. Mark Grace, 1988
8. Roberto Alomar, 1988
9. Randy Johnson, 1989
10. Gary Sheffield, 1989

Hon. Mentions: Danny Tartabull, 1985; Devon White, 1987; Rafael Palmeiro, 1987; BJ Surhoff, 1987; Ron Darling, 1984; Kevin McReynolds, 1984; Tony Fernandez, 1984

41. 1983 Topps Traded
Remember when the Darryl Strawberry card was worth $20? Yeah, me too. This was the last Topps Traded set where Topps owned the traded set market (which I would argue they only had started to counteract the re-introduction of Fleer and the inaugural Donruss set in 1981). One thing that I always liked about collecting cards was that you knew how many cards were in a set—it never changed. Topps: 792. Fleer: 660. Donruss: 660. Score changed it around a lot, but they don’t really count anyway, since you only bought packs of Score when you got sick of buying Topps, Fleer and Donruss (Score was more like a pageant and less like a set you took seriously, especially from 1990-1992).

Topps Traded was always 132 cards. 132 was always a number that baffled me. It’s not divisible by 3, so the set never ended on a full page (when you put the set into pages in a binder), or even on a full row. 792 is divisible by 3, so there was always a nice clean break at the end. You could say that Topps Traded ceased to matter after the 1984 set, but I would argue that it stopped mattering with Reggie Smith at card #110 of the 1982 Traded set. He was the next card after Ozzie Smith (the first card of him as a Cardinal). After that Topps was an also-ran in terms of traded sets until 1988 (with the Olympic cards).

40. 1988 Score
Yellow-orange barf. For a long time, this is how I characterized 1988 Score. Then I entered a phase where I looked past that and started to appreciate the balls Score had to enter a market in a weak year and actually put out a decent set. My friend was all about this set for a long time and only later did I see why: pretty good photography, an attractive, clean front and back, and perhaps the biggest thing of all…drumroll…color on the back. And not just color, but a color headshot. Fleer experimented with color on the back in 1982, and with black and white headshots on the back in 1983, 84 and 85, but a color headshot? I don’t think so.

I would argue that the headshot on the back of 88 Score was the most memorable thing about the set. In fact, any time a company put a headshot on the back of a card and it was big enough to tell who that player was without squinting was a big deal. That’s one of the reasons that Upper Deck blew everyone else away in 1989: color photography was woven into the front and back of each card. Correct me if I’m wrong, but pre-1992, the last time Topps tried photos on the front and backs of cards was 1971. I would say we have Score to thank for this modern innovation in card design. Too bad the fronts were yellow-orange barf.

39. 1981 Topps Traded
Is this set really anything more than Malibu Stacy with a new hat? Maybe not. But it least it showed that Topps wasn’t gonna let two snot-nosed little punks crowd it out of the baseball card racket. I would argue that without Donruss and Fleer, Topps would’ve continued to do a traded series every couple of years, basically whenever it felt like putting in the effort. It probably would never have been its own set, more like a couple cards tacked on like in ’72, ’74 and maybe a full-fledged series like in ’76. But that would’ve been it. Collectors would just have to wait until next year if a big star got traded during the season, so then Topps could do a big flourish and showcase the card with some snazzy photo of the player in his new uniform (like the A-Rod card of him in the 2001 set in his new Rangers duds).

And because it was the first set of its kind (though it was number 727 – 858, thus making it seem like another series in the regular-issue set), Topps made a choice that I would say can be classified as update/rookie/traded set no-no: including cards of Raines and Valenzuela, two guys with rookie cards in the regular-issue set. Why are they included in this set, except to stick it to Donruss and Fleer? It may have lent this set a little weight, but not in the long run. Now it just makes them look desperate.

Coming Soon: #38 – 34


Anonymous said...

I just cracked 2 boxes of 1987 Donruss and couldn't pull out a Bo Jackson OR a Mark McGwire RR. I also couldn't manage a Raffy or Maddux or most of the other good rookies (I did get three Bonds, I suppose).

Anonymous said...

I liked that 1988 Score set, especially the photography. If I remember correctly, one of Score's big selling points was the every-shot-is-an-action-shot thing, which was nice, given how bad Topps was getting with its photography (which bottomed out in '89, IMO). I also liked the simplicity of the design, and how they switched up the card colors. Stacked up against the Donruss (hideous) and Topps (boring, if serviceable), that set was pretty good looking. Although I do remember liking the '88 Fleer set a lot.

Anonymous said...

What, no love for the 1986 Donruss Andres Galarraga and Cory Snyder RR's?

Anonymous said...

I picked up the 83 Straw-man XRC for $3 at a show last weekend. WTF!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Don't waste your time on 87 donruss wax. Get the factory sets for as much as a box, and you are guaranteed everyone, usually in really great condition, vs. packs which can have dinged corners. For an added bonus, you get 13 Clemente Header cards!!!

Pablo said...

I am not a collector, but came into possession of a Donruss 1989 Darryl Strawberry baseball card in mint condition, still in the plastic wrap. It is packaged with two other cards. The one in back is a Brett Morgan Butler. The one in the middle is a mystery.

Should I open the wrapper to see who the third card belongs to, or is it worth more in the wrapper? Are any of these cards likely to be worth the trouble of trying to sell them on eBay? Thanks!