May 24, 2006

Best Set Countdown: 12 – 11

(I’ve decided to shorten this post to just sets 12 and 11, because I thought I probably overstepped the boundaries of blogdom after posting a 3,700 word tome on Sets 17 through 13. So this one’s a little shorter, and hopefully the world’s a little better for it)

12. 1986 Topps Traded
To me, there is no denying that this is one of the cornerstone sets of the 1980s. It defined the rookie class for fans my age, it was quite possibly the set worth pining over, and one that I could realistically afford if I saved up my allowance for 6 months. It combined the classic design of 1986 Topps with the trademark brightness of Topps Traded. This set made you form bonds with commons like Dane Iorg, because even though he was a common, Goddammit, he was a common in ’86 Topps Traded. You know what I mean? Like I said in relation to Nettles, Oliver and Sutcliffe in the 1984 Topps Traded set, getting dumped by his former team in 1985 or 1986 did guys like Dane Iorg a great service.

The more I think about Traded sets, the more obvious it seems that Topps introduced the full-fledged ‘traded’ set idea in 1981 to counteract the inaugural Donruss and Fleer sets. By releasing a traded set, they were putting out product right around the time the Donruss and Fleer products were going stale. It also cemented Topps with baseball card shops, because weren’t they only sold through hobby stores? Just good planning on Topps’ part.

That’s why it seems so bizarre that Donruss would wait until 1986 to put out a Rookies set. Why didn’t they do anything for 1984, when Fleer introduced the Update set? It would’ve made more sense. I wanted to put the ’86 Donruss Rookies set higher up in the Countdown, but I always thought it smacked a little too opportunistic on Donruss’ part, so despite that set’s greater value, the Topps Traded set ranks higher. The only rookie/traded/update set that ranks higher is the hobby-defining 1984 Fleer Update set, and really, if I were to do this ranking over again, the only two rookie/traded/update sets I’d include are that ’84 Fleer set and this ’86 Topps one. They were as iconic as any set of the decade.

11. 1986 Topps
It breaks my heart that this set isn’t in the Top 10. I’ve been thinking about the Top 10 for a couple days now, pitting sets against each other just to make sure these rankings are fair and based on agreeable rules. But for all this rational thinking about rookie class, a full, quality checklist and other questions of value and worth, the emotional pull of a set like 1986 Topps is great.

This was my first set. Even now I consider many cards from this set ‘iconic’ if only because they were the first cards etched into my brain. Tony Perez’s Record Breaker where his arms are outstretched, holding his bat; Carney Lansford standing like a pencil, his bat held close; one of the greatest Kirby Puckett cards ever; Dennis Eckersley looking like he was trapped up against a wall; the old and weathered face of Bill Russell of the Dodgers; Nate Snell’s apparent whiff of a Floyd Rayford fart; Ray Knight grinning like a fool at the plate; Pete Rose as manager sporting the same haircut I had before my first haircut when I was two years old…the list is endless, as it should be.

The design is classic: those large block letters taught me to read (which, when I think about it, is probably a bad thing, seeing as how I was 7 years old when I started collecting. I hope I learned how to read before I was 7…). The small circle with a player’s position, the clean, squarish team and player name bookending the large, often crisp photograph. Another bonus with the photos: often the photo was taken during spring training, but instead of the generic photo of a player throwing in the outfield or posed in front of the empty stands, the photographer waited until a few moments after magic hour and captured a fantastic blue/green sky. For great examples of this, look at Nate Snell’s card and Roger Clemens’ card. Oh, and I almost forgot, a lot of the photos are of players doing a good job of looking pissed. Nolan Ryan is a good example, Razor Shines is another. I’m sure there are about a hundred others. Also—and I promise this is the last sidebar about the photos and design—what about those Pete Rose Hero Worship special cards at the beginning of the set? I liked them because, to me, looking at Rose through the years was like watching a Punch and Judy doll (or John Fogerty) age, year by year, and often not so gracefully: lots of hair, red cheeks and nose, and those sparklingly menacing eyes that could turn on you in a moment. His player card (card #1) made him look like a gigantic car from the 1930s: his legs running boards, his shins the whitewalls on the tires, his torso the cab and his face…well, I don’t know what his face is, but probably a bug-splattered windshield. And then you look at his Manager card later in the set and it’s like he’s a different person, somehow less iconic and more bus-stop, lunch-pail-
and-fake-fur-lined-denim-jacket Pete Rose, like the drug-addled characters at the beginning of Jesus’ Son. It’s great because he’s letting us in on the trick: he’s anchoring the set with that gigantic Cadillac and the hero worship at the beginning of the set, but once you’re in a couple of hundred cards or so, he’s buying you a beer and admitting he doesn’t know what the hell he’s gonna do for the rest of his life. What this set really needed was a third card of him somewhere at the end of the set of him asleep in the dugout or arguing with an umpire or waiting in line at the supermarket—something to validate his existence as either a guy who’s gonna die on the diamond or a guy who’s just gonna have to suck it up and be a man outside of baseball and get on with his life. Instead we’re left with a guy who’s making a game out of it and obviously doesn’t know how (or when) to quit.

So besides me loving this set, why does it deserve to rank as high as it does? What makes it different from 1989 Donruss, which features more desirable rookies, or 1986 Fleer, which is basically the same checklist as ’86 Topps, only worth twice as much? It’s very simple: 1986 Topps is a classically simple set, blessed with second years of three hot shit players (Clemens, Puckett, Gooden), 2 rookie waves through the years (the initial Vince Coleman wave and the much longer Cecil Fielder rookie wave), a great design, special cards that rocked, great
All-Stars and, last but not least, the cards were cheap. They were cheap to buy, it was cheap to put together a set, hell even the cardboard was cheap (but cheap in a good way, unlike 1981 Donruss). Plus, coupled with the heartbreaking 1986 World Series, it was the set that captured a generation of little kids and turned them into baseball fans and baseball card collectors. 1986 Fleer is a boring-ass set. 1989 Donruss is fun, but ultimately just another set. And while 1986 Topps may not have a Canseco rookie or any big name, long-term rookies to speak of, it does have enough fun cards to sink a ship, the bizarre Pete Rose man/myth dichotomy and a pissed-off Nolan Ryan.

And really, what more could you want, except maybe Dave Stapleton’s card back to read ‘Dave is known as a late-inning defensive specialist.’


voluntarheel said...

I love the 86 Topps as well. My only complaint is the Oakland A's cards look completely blank. They could have gone with writing the whole name, "ATHLETICS" across the top, but they went with A's. Maybe they could have framed each side of the A with Rollie Fingers mustache.

The Rev said...

Dude... you had me sold on the 86 traded set until you posted the Terry Francona card. Just drive a knife through a Phillies fan's heart.

Anonymous said...

86 Topps was my first collected set as well. I received an 1985 topps set for X-Mas the year before. I wasn't into cards then however, and really only pulled the cards and put them in a binder. Then in the spring of 86 my friend showed me his collection, and more importantly a Beckett. He started bragging about his second year Gooden for $3 and how he was saving for a RC. I said, "I have the Gooden RC" and he turned white. So I borrowed his magazine and went home to discover that my 85 set had some great cards in it. Best of all they were mint. Next stop was the local baseball card store, where I stocked up on supplies. Then it was back home with my own Beckett and the memory of picking up some 85 Donruss at summer camp the year before. I rifled through my closet and found a stack of about 300 cards, including the Gooden and Clemens RC. Holy Crap!!! After that, I was hooked. My friend sold his collection off about 5 years ago which was sad. But we spent some good years collecting and trading. As an aside, the next year at summer camp they sold more 85 Donruss. It was a .25 each and I knew it was going for $2/pack at home, so I made a deal with the trading post guy to buy him out!!! Not bad for a 12 year old.

Anonymous said...

for some reason 1986 topps always seemed prestigious to me, indestructible too. they dont make cardboard stock like they used to!

Captain Easychord said...

ironically, the nate snell card is perhaps the 86 topps card that stands out the most for me... you see, at some point in my youth, I thought it would be a good idea to dabble in "forged" signatures... now I didn't want to fuck up an actually good card with that type of nonsense, so I looked for a player who was awful... then I looked for a card that I had a bunch of... obviously I was looking to experiment in the most small time fashion possible... and the card I chose was none other than 1986 topps nate snell...

I pulled out a bic pen and in quintessential 10 year old handwriting, scribbled "nate snell" across the front of the card... then I went around telling people I had an autographed nate snell card... the whole thing was rife with unintentional comedy, but I'm sure I still have that nate snell card kicking around somewhere... and it's probably in a plastic sleeve... heh...

Jason K said...

1986 Topps was also my first set. I loved the Pete Rose cards and I remember laying all my 1986 cards out on the ground as I watched the All-Star game, matching up the pitcher and batter.

Jason K said...

1986 Topps was also my first set. I loved the Pete Rose cards and I remember laying all my 1986 cards out on the ground as I watched the All-Star game, matching up the pitcher and batter.

Phil said...

The first packs I ever got. I was six years old, and my grandmother had a book table at the local flea market. I remember getting a $1 or some change from "helping out" (what could I really do, I was six) to go buy those packs. I remember my mom bought me some packs of '87 Topps, and I was pissed that they were different than the '86. '86 Topps was a great set and it was the beginning of my first real hobby.

Lee said...

I would contend that the best thing ever to happen to Dane Iorg was the game winning hit in the bottom of the 9th in game 6 of the 85 series, but I guess we'll just have to agree to disagre.
To this day, 86 topps is my favorite all time card design.

horatiosanzserif said...

I was 8 when this set appeared, and it was the first I collected, too. I pulled it out last week at my parents' house for the first time in decades. Now, as a professional journalist, I'm absolutely baffled at the photos on many of these. They're ridiculous. And they're amazing.

My faves:

1. Jorge Bell (#338): A quintessential spring-training shot, he's caught cajoling with the photog while draping himself all over the dugout bench like he just bought everyone another round of Coronas. His hat's cocked way to the side of his prodigious afro, and his Blue Jays T's open quite a bit to reveal a mint's worth of neck bling. I have no idea if Jorge/George encountered a substance-abuse problem later in life (and I apologize if he did), but I look at this card and think: "Wasted." Wasn't Bobby Cox his manager when this was shot?

2. Jackie Gutierrez (#633): The quintessential "look pissed" pose. If the stands didn't empty behind him, I'd swear he was shot just before a bloody melee.

3. Mario Ramirez (#262): No, the camera's over here, Mario.

4. Steve Trout (#384): The ultimate "yacht rock" baseball card: No hat, no uniform (hell, no Cubs logo at all), huge aviator shades, foofy flying hair and the exasperated look that comes with throwing another 81-mph fastball.

5. Rafael Ramirez (#107): OK, don't get me wrong -- Mr. Ramirez had a long, fantastic career. Somehow, though, this card portrays him as a cross-eyed kid with some kind of muscular disorder in his arms. We used to get beat up on the playground for offering this one in trades. It was worth it.

Anonymous said...

The Randy Ready card from this set is the first baseball card that had me almost in tears laughing at. For some reason, as a 10 year old, the sight of the name "Randy Ready" combined with the goofy grin and god-awful mustache was the hight of comedy.

Daniel said...

I was 15 when this set came out, and I've never been a fan of it. I guess I was spoiled by better sets that I collected before that, such as the classic 1976, 1978, 1981 and 1983 Topps sets. The photos are dull. The design is uncreative, and there are virtually none of the special cards (team photos, future stars, post-season cards) that made the Topps sets of the 1970s and early 1980s fun to collect. Thumbs way down.