May 15, 2006

Best Set Countdown: 21 – 18

Over the past few days, I’ve been taking a nice break from baseball card writing. I took in a show at the Holy Cross [Abandoned Catholic] School on West 43rd Street yesterday, which was great. I stocked up on cheap star cards from 1977 – 1984, including a nice 1983 Fleer Sandberg rookie and that Aurelio Rodriguez from the 1969 set (you know, the one that’s really the bat boy). I also ordered some old packs from Burbank Sportscards, which arrived yesterday. But mostly I spent my time thinking about what the real difference is between the three update/rookie/traded sets from 1986.

21. 1986 Fleer Update

And you know what? I didn’t really come to any new conclusions. Donruss was a rookies set, so it didn’t include vets. Fleer had some players that Topps didn’t have (like Tommy John), and Topps had some that Fleer didn’t have (like Tom Seaver). Like its regular issue set, Topps Traded couldn’t keep a grasp on its value, and Fleer and Donruss could. Same old stuff I knew before I started. Really, determining the best of these sets comes down to which design resonates more.

I’ve already talked about the design of the Fleer and Donruss issues from 1986, and my feelings extend to their respective rookie/update sets. It may have been hard to keep those corners sharp, but if we’re putting their designs up against 1986 Topps, the Fleer-Donruss tag team will lose every time. Even if the match is held in a steel cage. Even if Fleer hits Topps over the head with an illegal metal folding chair. Even if Donruss goes in with Topps as friends and Donruss betrays Topps in the ring. And yes, even if Gorilla Monsoon says there’s no way Topps gets out of this one alive; Topps does get out alive, it sweats all over Mean Gene in the post-match interview and yes, it does send flowers to Fleer and Donruss in the hospital. In fact, here’s how they rank: 1. Topps Traded, 2. Donruss Rookies, 3. Fleer Update. End of story.

20. 1988 Topps

I would like to go on record and say that 1988 is one of the most underrated Topps sets of the 1980s, and you can base that decision on a great checklist, or those fantastic Team Leaders cards, or because it had one of the best All-Star card designs of the decade. Or you can base this decision purely on the photography. Crisp, dynamic; card after card featuring a great action shot or a clean headshot. Topps photography (hell, baseball card photography, regardless of manufacturer) sucked for many years, with maybe under 100 cards total that you could agree featured great photos (amassed fromthe random years along the timeline featuring good photography (that was straight-up photography, not colored over like in 1952, 53 or 55): 1954, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1965, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1985, 1986). But in the 1988 set there are literally hundreds of great photos. I can picture a few of them in my head without prompt: the iconic Mattingly (him looking skyward, following the arc of a sure hit (or at least a long fly)), the powerful Clemens at the end of a windup, Brett’s massive frame in smooth follow-through, the cocksure McGwire, the pure hitting motion of Boggs, the hopeful Al Leiter (and pseudo-Leiter) in a shroud of deep blue dusk, the glory of Dave LaPoint, the King of the Airbrushed Card; even the chainlink fence behind him was airbrushed in (the background was probably originally the Oval Office, the photo taken on the day that outgoing President Reagan made it a priority to award Senior Superlatives and LaPoint somehow beat Meadowlark Lemon for Best Smile. And by the way, aren't the Globetrotters always turning up at the White House? It's odd, really...they should be made Ambassadors, and not just 'of the game', because that's lame, but real ambassadors to a country in Europe, like Belgium or somewhere). Anyway, the photography lends itself well to a lyrical wax.

Okay, so photography aside you probably think this set is ranked way too high: you think it’s too bland a design (a mix of the 1967 team name dropped out over the background and the 1966 mini banner in a corner), that there are really no major rookies and practically no subsets. I would argue that, despite everything I’ve said in the past about the make-up of a strong set, 1988 Topps is the exception that proves the rule: it does have a weak rookie class. Tom Glavine, Ken Caminiti, Doug Jones—this is the definition of weak (did you notice that the third guy mentioned is Doug Jones? He of the Sam Elliott Cowboy Mustache?
I wasn’t even aware the man was ever young enough to have had a rookie card. I thought he just appeared one day…) But it also possesses the first regular issues for Fred McGriff, Matt Williams, David Cone; and second years of McGwire, Bonds, Bonilla, Bo Jackson, Will Clark and the rest of the strong rookie class of 1986-87.

And if you think that there are not enough subset cards, consider this. The set has six subsets: Turn Back the Clock, Future Stars, Record Breakers, All-Stars, Team Leaders and All-Star Rookies. If you look at the 10 Topps regular issue sets of the 1980s, it has an above average amount.

1980: 5 (Highlights, Future Stars, Team Cards, League Leaders, All-Stars (AS denoted on regular cards))
1981: 6 (League Leaders, Future Stars, Team Cards, Post-Season, Record Breakers, All-Stars (AS denoted on regular cards))
1982: 6 (Highlights, Team Leaders, Future Stars, League Leaders, All-Stars, In Action)
1983: 5 (Record Breakers, Team Leaders, Super Veterans, All-Stars, League Leaders)
1984: 5 (Highlights, Team Leaders, All-Stars, Active Leaders, League Leaders)
1985: 5 (Record Breakers, Father/Son, Team USA, All-Stars, #1 Draft Picks)
1986: 5 (Record Breakers, Pete Rose Hero Worship, All-Stars, Turn Back the Clock, Team Leaders)
1987: 6 (All-Stars, All-Star Rookies, Future Stars, Record Breakers, Team Leaders, Turn Back the Clock)
1988: 6 (Team Leaders, All-Stars, Turn Back the Clock, Future Stars, All-Star Rookies, Record Breakers)
1989: 7 (Record Breakers, All-Stars, All-Star Rookies, Draft Picks, Future Stars, Team Leaders, Turn Back the Clock)

If to you subsets are a necessary evil, and the number of them that a set possesses is directly responsible for that set’s level of weakness, then less, for you, is more. But I argue (and have argued before) that subsets are a good thing, that sets thrive when there’s more than one card of the better players, or special cards of promising rookies or even of someone like Casey Candaele (’88 All-Star Rookies represent!).

As to value, this set is worthless, and deservedly so. As stated before, there is no real rookie class to speak of and everybody knows that second-year cards do not hold a candle to rookies in terms of value. But all these things do not hinder the set’s worthiness as a fun, collectible set. 1981 nor 1984 have any real value. Hell, no Topps set after 1985 has enjoyed any real, lasting monetary value, but valueless cards do not a bad set make.

And one last thing about the design: I don’t think it’s ugly or bland. If anything, I would call it tastefully minimal. It rivals Topps design between 1983 and 1986: there is practically nothing that gets in the way of the photograph (not even the team name, which was a hark back to the '84 bustin' out, head-through-the-window headshot). And when we’re talking about great photography, at least Topps knew enough not to screw it up with extraneous design.

19. 1982 Topps Traded

This traded set is one of the best ever, and not because of the obvious Ripken. This set is awesome because it possesses the first card of Ozzie Smith as a Cardinal (and thus Garry Templeton as a Padre), an A-1 hallmark card from the early Eighties. In fact, if we were to tear a page from the Big Book of Traded Card Milestones, I would bet that this card is up in the Top 5.

Top 10 Traded Cards of Veterans. Ever.
1. Frank Robinson, 1972 Topps
2. Steve Carlton, 1972 Topps
3. Joe Morgan, 1972 Topps
4. Ozzie Smith, 1982 Topps Traded
5. Juan Marichal, 1974 Topps
6. Pete Rose, 1984 Fleer Update
7. Carlton Fisk, 1981 Topps Traded
8. Reggie Jackson, 1982 Topps Traded
9. Oscar Gamble, 1976 Topps Traded
10. Dennis Eckersley, 1987 Topps Traded

This set also succeeds in making the drab 1982 design a little less than drab, if only because, as with other Topps Traded sets, the colors a just a little bit stronger, the card stock is a little bit brighter and the players seem a little less bored.

18. 1986 Donruss Rookies

You know it’s funny, but what the 1982 Topps Traded set was to veterans (featuring Ozzie, Reggie, Gaylord Perry and other luminaries such as Vida Blue, Chet Lemon and Fergie Jenkins, Bob Boone and George Foster), the 1986 Donruss Rookies set was to, well, rookies. Seriously, all personal favorites aside, was 1986 not one of the best crops of rookies in the decade? If not the best? I bring this up because traditionally a good traded/update set features a balanced offering of rookies and veterans. It’s why 1984 shines, and why 1985 flops. But 1986…shit man, 1986 didn’t need any fucking veterans to succeed. Look at this list: Wally Joyner, Bobby Bonilla, Ruben Sierra, Bo Jackson, Will Clark, Jose Canseco, Kevin Mitchell, Barry Bonds, Andres Galarraga, Todd Worrell, Pete Incaviglia, Mitch Williams, Doug Drabek, John Kruk…it just goes on and on. I didn’t even mention Dan Plesac, Cory Snyder or John Cangelosi!

True, the inclusion of Galarraga, Snyder and Canseco should technically hurt the standing of this set (because all were included in the regular 1986 set; Canseco’s Rated Rookie was the Mona Lisa of baseball cards of the 1980s), but they don’t. The ‘Griffey Factor’ couldn’t possibly matter here, simply because the other cards in the set are just too overpowering a combination.

The only years that even remotely compete are 1984 and 1988. The former has two Hall of Fame rookies in Clemens and Puckett (which only one company capitalized on), plus Gooden, Saberhagen, Jimmy Key, Mark Langston and others; 1988 has Alomar, Grace, Ron Gant, Jim Abbott, Brady Anderson, Andy Benes, Jay Buhner, Charles Nagy, Black Jack McDowell and Tino Martinez (and really most of them are on the Team USA Olympic cards included in Topps Traded; 1988 Fleer Update? 1988 Donruss Rookies? I don’t think I’d take a bullet for either set).

Checklist aside, this set ranks higher than the Fleer Update because Donruss was the premium issue of 1986. But it doesn’t rank higher than the Topps Traded issue because 1986 Topps Traded was (to me anyway) one of the cornerstone sets of the decade.

Coming Soon: #17 – 13


Anonymous said...

can i just say how i loved the fake news titles in the 1976 topps traded. as if any newspaper ever would consider the trade of mike lum to be front page material

Anonymous said...

The Oscar Gamble traded card is the greatest card ever made. The airbrushed cap, the afro, the double entendre on Gamble's name; it has it all!

Anonymous said...

I would throw the 1986 Sportflics Rookies set into the mix for best 86 traded set. It's got all the rookies, including the Bo Jackson which Fleer is lacking.

1986 sportflics in general are, I believe, a fantastic value these days. You can get the set for $10 on certain websites. It was the premier brand in 86, and has some amazing cards, including a Canseco RC. The wax boxes suffer from incredibly poor collation, so if you were trying to put a set together that way back in the day, at 3 cards per pack no less, it was tuff.

Like the 70's Kellogg's sets, the Sportflics 3d cards are, I believe, way undervalued. Which is great for me, cuz I luv em.

Poop Poopson said...

I don't know, there are some VERY small towns and counties that publish a weekly paper...nah, you're right, no one would care enough to make Mike Lum front page news!

Mike said...

I hate Sportflics. There was nothing like spending a dollar on a pack and getting Pat Tabler, Tom Candiotti, and Frank White. I swear Pat Tabler came in every pack. Then you were sure to get the classic triple reliever card featuring Lee Smith, Jeff Reardon, and Dan Quisenberry. The best thing about Sportflics was they made amazing throwing stars and you could legitimately hurt someone with them.

The Rev said...

I stopped caring about what you wrote the minute I saw the Oscar Gamble card. That thing just steals your attention.

Anonymous said...

OK, I know you were just going off-hand about the comparability of the rookie class of '86 to '84 and '88 but how could you go out of your way to note Jimmy Key and Mark Langston (all around good players) and relegate Don Mattingly, especially after he's pictured in the post, to "among others" status? Yankee fans are crying.

Ben Henry said...

I was talking about traded/rookie/update sets. Of course Mattingly was the big rookie of 1984. But he wasn't in a traded set that year, so really I don't think he's relevant to the argument.

Anonymous said...

My apologies, Ben. I should have known better that there was no oversight given your incredible knowledge in this area. I was also probably blinded by rage and my man-crush on Donnie Baseball. Keep up the good work.

Captain Easychord said...

the 88 topps traded set also had a robin ventura team usa card... and what exactly to make of those team usa cards? do they really count/not count as "rookies?" you reference 88 topps as mcgwire's second card, so I take it you're not counting the 85 team usa card... and on that note, has there ever been another player designated an all-star rookie on their card the third year it was issued in a set? that always struck me as strange...

in retrospect, I suppose the 88 topps design wasn't that bad, but I definitely remember being disappointed by it at the time... the all-star subset in particular rubbed me the wrong way... I'm still not crazy about the "corner-wrap" name display... I can see how a lot of elements of the set sorta harken back to days and designs of yore, but I dunno... maybe it's the font they used... something just isn't quite right...

Mike said...

Todd Hundley was a Topps All-Star rookie in the 1993 set after appearing in 1990 Topps Traded and the regular issues in 1991 and 1992. Ben Davis appeared in several Topps sets, although I believe only by himself in 1996 (the rest were combo prospect cards) before being an AS rookie in 2000. I'm not sure if there are others.

Drew said...

I have fond memories of '88 Topps as well. I still remember when I opened my first packs and was immediately struck by the photos, which seemed to almost jump out of the cards. Whereas '86 and '87 Topps were more understated as far as their design and photography, with lots of head shots and other stationary poses, '88 was a bright, colorful burst of light. (The backs weren't so hot though -- a pukey black and orange.) 1988 Score had its share of fine action photographs too, but Topps's shots were bigger, bolder, and better.

Too bad all this was forgotten the following year, when Upper Deck singlehandedly induced a sea change in the hobby.