June 29, 2006

One Set to Rule Them All: #1 – 1987 Topps

If you had asked me a week ago which set would end up on top, I would not have known what to tell you. I had four potential Number One contenders (see sets two through four for the others), and if you thought ’87 Topps was a clear-cut choice for the top spot, I would've said that you’d be doing a disservice to the competition. So how did it end up here, and not at number 2, 3, 4? My approach to this set changed. When I talked with my friends or got an email from a reader or fellow collector, everything seemed to revolve around this set. Simply put, it was the set that launched a million collections, the set that made little kids care about baseball and little league, and it was the first set that I could afford that Beckett proclaimed would make me very, very rich as long as I held onto those $5 Will Clarks and Mike Greenwells.

This set had more iconic cards than all of the 1986 sets combined, more than the other two 1987 sets combined, and more than all of the 1988 sets combined. I’ve already touched upon the tremendous, league-defining rookie class from 1986-7, but I think I’m not alone when I say that nobody cared if you got a Fleer Ruben Sierra or Bobby Bonilla, but it was everybody’s business when you pulled one of these guys out of your pack of Topps. Hell, even the commons were iconic. Guys like Jeff Reed on the Twins, Steve Crawford on the Red Sox, Luis Quinones on the Giants, Rob Wilfong on the Angels and the electric green of Donnie Hill on the A’s. And speaking of green, how about those flippin’ sweet green packs? When I was 8 I could spot packs of ’87 Topps at 300 yards, thanks to my superpowerful coke bottle glasses (that’s not a joke; those lenses were painfully thick) and my 1987 Topps radar set to ‘Green’ (I wanted to coin a new term just now for ‘baseball card radar’, but all I could think of was ‘cardadar’, and it sounded too much like a seldom-used Spanish verb).

Personally, this set was always my second personal favorite, after 1986 Topps. I’ve always felt 1986 had the better design, because when it came out I thought that the wood grain seemed a little cheap, like a wood-paneled basement (which always seemed cool until the day your Dad had it installed and you realized you couldn’t get a good return bounce from that pink rubber ball you used to bounce against the cement basement wall). But for the purpose of the countdown, personal favorites weren’t a deciding factor in terms of rank. 1986 Topps never had the strongest checklist. 1987 Topps had one of the strongest—if not the strongest—of the decade.

You know, it’s funny. Look at the other sets that feature some kind of border designed to emulate items in the home: 1955 Bowman (the color TV set series), 1962 Topps (the original wood-grain) and 1968 Topps (I always thought the border was supposed to look like a TV set, or at least mimic the cloth screen cover of a hi-fi stereo speaker). All three are among the most memorable sets in their respective decades, so certainly the wood-grain of ’87 was no design fluke (1987 was also the 25th anniversary of the 1962 set).

But the really cool thing about this set is that it’s the pinnacle of baseball cards. Not just the 1980s, but the whole damned history, from the 1880s to today. This set is the bona fide Everest summit of cards: every set leading up to this one was building towards it: the strongest checklist with the most rookies featured in the most different kind of ways, with great All-Stars (including a fat Keith Hernandez and Dave Parker with his warm-up jacket on), inspiring Record Breakers (that Clemens RB, card no. 1, no less made me want to break records, too (something we may yet accomplish at The Baseball Card Blog…)), semi-lame-semi-awesome Turn Back the Clocks, plus cards of Pete Incaviglia, a thoughtful John Kruk, Dave Righetti with his eyes closed again, those scripty Manager cards, Future Stars of guys you knew even at 8 years old would never pan out, Frank Tanana with his mouth closed, seventeen cards per pack!, getting Team Leaders cards of lousy teams with no real leaders (hello Seattle Mariners), Jorge Orta: living member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, Terry Kennedy bitching out an unseen Padre, Frank DiPino’s wicked bizarre lips, Todd Worrell flying a kite and guys with names like Cliff Speck and Rod Scurry, guys who look like Otis Nixon and Oil Can Boyd, and finally, Gary Redus’ card where he reveals his kids are named Lakesha, Manesha and Nakosha. Sure, every set had fun stuff like this, but this set had 792 cards like this. It is the set every other set should be measured against before it can take a place in the pantheon of baseball card sets. It even gives Mike Schmidt a hard-on. Tell me, what more do you want?

For a long time, this set was my get-rich-quick scheme. I thought I would ride that wave of McGwires and Clarks and Cansecos and Bonillas and Bondses and Greenwells and Larkins all the way to college, and that once I made it to college I would be able to afford a big house and a nice car and all the junk food I could ever hope to eat. And while I still have that fantasy from time to time, I know that it’s only just that: not a reality I so convincingly believed would happen. And you know, the more I think about it, what I really would’ve done if I had sold my cards would’ve been to buy more cards. So if you want to think about it differently, a little more menacingly, this set catapulted a million ‘occasional buyers’ to ‘hard-core regular buyers,’ kids who would normally save their allowance for a car you built out of a box would all of a sudden uncontrollably spend their life savings at CVS or some other drugstore, in the process cleaning out whatever packs the store had laying around. Ah, the good old days. That takes me back.

And while those days have subsided, this set still has meaning, though one that’s metamorphosed over the years. Like a great book or movie, I read it differently today. No longer am I concerned with what cards from this set are worth: it’s become my guilty pleasure, the set I can buy a box of for the same price as when it came out (only now I can afford it). It’s the set I have just about twenty times over but still want to put together another. The set that creeps into my thoughts nearly every day, though I oftentimes don’t consciously understand the connection between it and the world around me. I could go on and on for days about this, but a set this good doesn’t need a dissection. All it needs are three cheers and to be set off into the night, to be shared by all.

Look for answers to reader mail sometime over the weekend.


Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this series. Thanks for doing it.

The ones that always stood out for me were the first years I collected: 1976-79. To me the 1976 set was magical. I liked all your choices as well, though.

Anonymous said...

Dude -

This is a great blog. I've come back every day or so, just to check the status of your set rankings! My only sadness with seeing that the '87 Topps set pacing the rest is that now the rankings are over.

What will you do now?

I'm keeping an eye out.


Richard Quick, Millionaire said...

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However, you need a better get rich quick scheme.

Visit richardquick.blogspot.com, scroll down to 101 Ways to Get rich quick and I'll hook you up.

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Anonymous said...

Man, I carried around an '87 Topps Gary Gaetti card in my wallet all through junior high. The Rat was one of my favorites, and the powder blue uni splashed on that wood panel background was, in the vernacular of the day, gnarly.

Anonymous said...

What a masterpiece of commentary. I particularly liked the "Mike Schmidt Observation."
Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

'87 topps had the best rack pack patterns. I collected unopened packs and spent hours at the local drug store sifting through the unopened packs and finding the gem Will Clark, McGwire, Canseco patterms. I think the pack was $1.25 then and those individual cards were prices at around $5 each. A few years ago I was so disappointed to see all of these cards show up on home shopping baseball card blowouts for pennies a piece.

Anonymous said...

I laughed, I cried... after reading ALL of your set ratings, I feel as if you climbed inside my sub-conscious all the way through, I thought holy-sh*t - 1987 Topps was the freakin' best of times, it was the blurst of times. Many others have more stand outs, but this baby had it ALL!!! Everyone - collectors and non-collectors bought up this set and it became the zenith of collecting!!! early & Baby Blue Fleers, Funky Donruss (&Canseco) and $UpperDeck$'89 were all special - but Freakin' woody '87 Topps - ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!! Give me Greenwell or give me...

Anonymous said...

1) 87 Topps!!!!!!!!!!!!YES!!!!!!!
2) 84 Fleer
3) 87 Fleer
4) 89 Upper Deck
5) 86 Topps
6) 87 Donruss
7) 83 Topps
8) Sportflics (1st year)
9) tradeds & olympic
10)clean image late 80's topps

*weird mention - 84 topps
*weird mention - first Score set (that smell and pastels)
*weird mention - fleer&donruss 88 (whoa when we saw those cards come out in 88!)
* weird mention - first skybox (never collected Basketball before or since)

Anonymous said...

You've kidding right? right? This is sarcasm right? right? Including the entire top ten list. Let me give you the, REAL list according to a vintage collector.

1. 1956 Topps- IE. last of the true Vintage Classics. First set with all the great players, last of the big cards, portrait/action shot, cartoon etc. Last year for Feller/Robinson. Only thing that could improve it would be if Frank Robinson/Brooks Robinson and Drysdale RC's came one year earlier

2. 1954 Topps- Two Ted Williams bookending the set, classic real pictures and drawing action shot.

3. 1952 Topps- If they gave us any more personal details we'd have nudie pictures of the players wives.

4. 1957 Topps- A set I wasn't much for at first, but has grown on me. Great RC year, No cludder on the cards, may not sound like much, but given what they do to a card today or how they destoyed sets in the 80"s with poor design, I like no cludder.

5. 1960 Topps- Color, Horizonal by design, great pictures, players leaving the hats at home.

6. 1968 topps- Yeah I know the Topps Barlap Bag look, but I like the set, I like the stars, I like the special cards in the set, Ryan rookie.

7. 1971 Topps set- IE. The topps challenge set. Where Topps boldly took the collector where no collector has gone before. The dreaded black borders, appropriate for the Star Trek take. Also where he never wants to go again, finding a mint card is like trying to find an open night with Pamela Anderson in the sack.

8. 1972 Topps- It took a little while for the 1960's to catch up with Topps, it di so with a bang in 1972. Like Rooster in his Cadillac Boat on a episode of Baretta this set more then over filled its limit. This set had more color then the fat lady on the Drew Carey Show. For a while I thought every player had an action shot.

9. 1975 Topps- The 1971/1972 combo set, color to the borders. Color easily showing every blemish. Notice I sometimes love the difficult sets, there is a challenge there. I own this set and the 1956 set, where 56' has beauty and no difficulty, 1975 topps has both.

10. 1977 Topps- Every collector has a personal favorite which really isn't popular, 1977 is that set for me. Why? Simple it was my first set I collected as a kid.

Top Ten Lemons-

1. 1953 Topps- Too cartoony, too kiddy, I want art not a comic strip posted to cardboard.

2. 1961 Topps- Without a doubt one of they poorest designs ever for topps. This guy should have faced a card collectors firing squad.

3. 1966 Topps- Another Bore of a set, Topps was set in its rut by 1966, pumping out its 5th dud design in a row.

4. 1967 Topps/1973 Topps- I lump these together for the same reason. The 1967 Topps set was a huge improve over the 5 straight years of gaggers Topps put out over 61-66 but who bought the stock cardboard, its hedious. Plus could ya sharpen the card cutting blades over the winter. Maybe we need to force the blade guy at topps to shave with his blade those two years, my guess is half of his face would be ripped off.

5. 1970 Topps- Just when you thought couldn't get more boring then 1961 Topps, Topps tried their best in 1970. Gray, are you kidding me gray. If I'd been collecting in 1970, I'd pull a Rip Van Winkle and tell my buddies, wake me up in 1971.

6. 1976 Topps- The Glacoma patients nightmare, the backs to put it simply are unreadable even to Ted Williams.

7. 1981 Topps- Ofcourse my biggest collecting year as a kid was also the biggest dud, they make better kindling then actual cards.

8. 1986 Topps- Various colorful colors is nice, IE. 1975, Black and White isn't ie 1986.

9. 1987 Topps- Wood is neat twice, IE 1955 Bowman TV's and 1962 Topps the third time not.

10. 1989 topps- Its really getting old topps pathetic designs.

NickL said...

I agree completely, but there is one thing that sort of bothers me about this set. It's the "On This Date" section on the back. It think it's a little obtrusive to have just a random trivia fact - completely unrelated to the player on the card - just sitting there. Furthermore, the date chosen for 'On This Date' is also completely random, which kind of ruins the importance of "this date." Why don't they just call it "On Some Day"...

Anonymous said...

Sorry - This set sucks. Most of the big player cards of this set had more value in 87 then in 2007 (20 years later!) It is true that this set is packed with great players, which helped spur excitement about collecting at the time the set was released. But it was outrageously overproduced. This overproduction prevented potential lifetime collectors from continuing to participate. The manufacture was taking advantage of a jump in interest in collecting cards. The resulting effect has been that many people who love baseball cards do not bother collecting anymore because you can’t trust card values to increase over time.

I had hoped that the 87 Topps set would be the cornerstone my collection. Now, every time I consider purchasing cards, I remember all the futile effort it was collecting the 87 set and decide not to waste my money.

Anonymous said...

Whoa. You are completely right. '87 Topps WAS the Don Dada of baseball card sets. I only collected for a few years, but my nostalgia for this set is the highest by far, and you put into words precisely why I feel this way. I stumbled upon your site and read it for way too long (I should be doing work right now) - and I don't even like to read blogs, even though I maintain one of my own. Great work, great enthusiasm for the hobby - when I have money again, you might have convinced me to collect again (if only the '80s stuff, at least).

Anonymous said...

great, just great. Apparently you seem to be roughly my age, and I agree completely about both the '86 and '87 set. '86 topps was probably the first cards I can remember buying(wow, were there alot of worthless cards in that set though, but it will always be a centimental piece in my collection). but definitely the '87 set is by far one of my favorite sets. what is there not to love about that set, especially with the amount of quality(or once quality rookies). My personal favorite set is the '74 topps, though. It is an incredibly fun set to put together, with a total of 18 errors thanks to the washington fiasco, the jesus alou that is miraculously missing his position, and one of my favorites the uncorrected card #161 with the number turned sideways on the back. the set also boasts Ken Griffey Sr., Dave Winfield and Andre Thornton rookies amongst a few other average names, and a crapload of hall of famers late in their career, that can easily be bought for cheap. being an older set, good condition is tough to come by and with such terrible quality control on this set, I find it is nearly impossible to find a decently centered card in the bunch(not to mention I've seen a lot of cards that are a lot larger that standard size, with x's and dashes all over the border,which makes me wonder if they were box bottoms, despite the fact that I can't find any documentation of there being any, on top of a few with unprinted backs with the green boxes), it makes for an extremely fun time putting this set together. I've been buying up lots on ebay, and just having a lot of fun trying to piece this one together in its entirity, its amazing how even a card in normally throw away condition could be considered an upgrade. Including the team checklists, tradeds(wow,what a terrible yet lovable set on its own), and errors there is actually a total of 746 cards to this set, and I love every one of 'em.

Anonymous said...

This was the only year I collected baseball cards and I remember also thinking that if I held onto them into adulthood, I'd be rich beyond belief. I even thought, after coming upon one of the Bonds rookie cards, that at least some of these cards would be worth something. I'm just going to wait it out another 20 years. At some point, these things have to go up in value :)

Anonymous said...

I am a collector of vintage Topps Graded card sets and I am a little disappointed with the commet made about the 1961 set. This set has a very nice seletion of cards from the Leader cards to the All Star cards. I have seen a lot of horrible sets in the past ten years, can't they think of something new because they seeem to be copying all the old card stlyes from the past.

Anonymous said...

The best baseball card set of the '80s is 1988 Topps. It rules! GO MILEY CYRUS

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. Just to clear up some of the confusion from previous commenters:

The sets ranked in this Countdown were all from the Eighties. In fact, this was The Baseball Card Blog's 1980s Countdown. I invite you to read the rest.


robbyt said...

I have to disagree with this statement above.

"The resulting effect has been that many people who love baseball cards do not bother collecting anymore because you can’t trust card values to increase over time."

The people who love baseball cards quit collecting because they were priced out by people who crashed an awesome hobby hoping to make a quick buck.

Nothing made me happier than to see the "collapse" of the investors as they have ruined what was once an enjoyable hobby.

If your only interest in baseball cards is "playing the market," then get into stocks and leave card collecting for the folks who love baseball.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% with 1987 Topps being the #1 Set. This was the set that began my love of card collecting and what immediately comes to mind when I think of my childhood and the years I spent devoted to the hobby and the sport. Thank you for running this series.

Gellman said...

Dear Gary Redus,

Thanks to you I have become a firm believer that certain types of people should not be allowed to name their children. That is all.

Anonymous said...

My sons went to college and left me with a lot of baseball and basketball boxes. One of these is the much commented on 1987 Topps Set. By the way he also left the 188 and 1989 sets and others.
Where can I find the value of sets such as this<

Anonymous said...

I bought a ton of 87 Topps and remember the rookie crop, but the scale of the overproduction of this set and other late 80s Topps sets disqualifies them in my mind.

My favorite 80s set was 1983 Topps. It was a good rookie crop, two photos were used, and the design was somewhat understated.

For the 70s, it is the 1973. Nothing fancy about the design, but for some reason, the photography of that set was far superior to anything from the era. The backs had easy-to-read numbers and a lot of player info.

For the 60s, I like the 65s. Nice front, but the backs are amazing in my opinion.

For the 50s, it's a tie between the 54 and 55 Topps. How did they cram so many good rookies into sets that were only a couple hundred cards? Banks, Aaron and Kaline in 54 and Clemente, Koufax and Killebrew in 55. Compare that to the 86 Topps set, which runs 792 cards and has not a single rookie that will get half the votes needed for Hall enshrinement.

John said...

I don't see why people are slamming this set for overproduction. Why should that lessen your enjoyment of the cards themselves. 1987 Topps is a one in a million set for all the reasons listed.

Anonymous said...

Nobody's gonna mention the Billy Ripken? i got the blockout first, then a bunch of scratchouts, until i had to trade for the original with FF on the bat handle.

I loved this set. Great post.

Joe said...

Awesome post. I was only 3 in 1987, but as my father introduced me to baseball cards, 1987 Topps is one of the first sets I remember. This post inspired me to pick up a box of 1987 Topps and get back into my childhood. In a few weeks you will be able to watch us open them on our show: Openingdaycards.com


nbhalsey said...

Yes, absolutely dead on. This set was my baseball education at age 6. Love everything about it. Don't care if the cards aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Great writing. Thanks for helping me re-live one of the best parts of my childhood.

Anonymous said...

for some users here... the value $ dont matters, the history is priceless.

For me, the most beatiful set is the 1991 topps stadium club, the first shinny gloss card set, is my favorite set, second is 1991 studio set, both are amazing sets.

Anonymous said...

1987 Topps.. Absolutely! I collected with my father in the late 80's and early 90's and remember the 87 Topps being our absolute favorite.. Barry Bonds, Bo Jackson and Will Clark jus to name a few.

We had such an enormous collection spanning from the early 50's to mid 90's that at one point- my dad told me that the collection could put my future kids through college! I totally believed him!! While gold ended up being the real college fund kind of investment- haha- the time we spent collecting cards was rich in bonding, gave me such motivation for good grades and I loved hittin the card shows! Whoaaa!!

I agree that the hobby has really lost it's hype but like all things- it could make a comeback.. retro collectibles are in some measure priceless to some of us. That vast collection of ours has been largely sold off over the years in efforts to downsize it to just one large box. It's a treasure chest and in it.. 1987 Topps set! This has been great to share, thanks all for reading :)

Anonymous said...

Best cards of the set have to be Kevin Mitchell and Wally Backman for their awesome home plate antics.

Anonymous said...

can anyone help me? i have a 1993 fleer94 #318 gary redus card. the lettering is misprinted and the g in his name is almost off the card. the logo and name are not centered. i can't seem to find anything on it in any topic i click about misprints. does anyone know if there is any value to it?

james rowland said...

My favorite set from the 80's was the 84 Donruss set. Mattingly was my favorite 80's superstar and that was the gem of all 80's rookies at the time. It was actually kinda sad as an adult when I finished my Mattingly collection and bought 4 of that card for what it was worth when I REALLY wanted it.