(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.’