December 22, 2006

Card Critic's Countdown: 1948 to 1979

It's time to start this countdown. And I know, I've been putting this off for a while. But I haven't exactly been sitting around doing nothing (though I have been doing plenty of that too). I've been doing a lot of thinking, thinking that needs to be done now before I'm knee-deep into this thing and I find myself having to defend a set that isn't generally regarded as a 'classic'. Here are a few things I've come up with and some ground rules for the listing and reasoning in general.

This is a post-war countdown. And the problem with comparing post-war sets is that there are three distinct eras: pre-Mantle, Mantle, and post-Mantle. When it comes to ranking the merits of a set, the most gut of gut reactions is to side with the Mantle and rank it higher than those sets without. To quote William Shatner in Airplane! II, he's the big man, the top dog, the big cheese--how can you even fairly assess and rank the 'star power' of a set like 1973 Topps against one like 1962 Topps? It's not fair. That is, unless we determine a value system to the players in the set, assess them by how they did the year before, the level of their regional influence, and whether or not they were national star quality. Luckily, we don't have to do all that extra work. We're talking about classic Topps here (mostly), and classic Topps sets have already done this for us with their numbering system.

For example, from 1948 to 1953 there wasn't a clear-cut Mantle equivalent. From 1954 to 1957 Topps' Mantle was Ted Williams, and from 1959 to 1969, Mantle was Mantle. 1970 and beyond it gets tricky again, with no one stand out, though in 1977, Topps christened George Brett it's Mantle for the year. Anyway, I'd rather not get too bogged down in this right now. Just remember that I have no qualms about ranking a set without a Mantle higher than one with if it's a stronger set.

In other words, the sets in this countdown (like the sets ranked in the 1980s countdown) are not seeded by personal likes or dislikes (with the exception of the design element). Also, and this is important, the sets listed here are not ranked by value. Card value will rarely be mentioned, and does not have any bearing on the ranking of a set. Case in point: I have not ranked the 1966 Topps set #38 (out of 47) because there are very few high-value cards (high value = over $400, Mantle era pricing). I have it ranked that low because the design is really very average, the rookie crop is less than stellar, and the rookie that the set is generally known for (the Palmer) was double-printed, so everybody and their brother had a copy. Also, when you review the checklist, the set borders on mundane. It's incredible that Topps didn't hit a home run with this set, as it was bookended by the pennant-raising design of 1965 and 1967, a set featuring the largest photo space on a card since 1957 Topps and 1953 Bowman.

I have the sets ranked on the strength of their checklist, the strength of design, the rookie crop, the subsets (generally falling under 'checklist'), and the historical importance of the set or an element essential to the hobby that the set was first to introduce (like the all-star card subset of 1958 Topps or the 4-headed rookie of 1963 Topps).

I've also been spending the last few days trying to poke holes in my top 10, and the only thing I can come with is that the years represented are not diverse enough. For all my thoughts on fair and balanced ranking, could it be that the best sets really were the ones that came first? I don't know. But I do know one thing: the best set was not Topps' 1974 Traded set. Cross that one off the list right now... Jeez, even with Juan Marichal and Ron 'This Old Cub' Santo, it's just depressing. Thankfully, it's only 40 cards.

Right. On to the countdown.

47. 1974 Topps Traded
I'm not trying to say that this is the worst set--in the grand scheme of cards this set (series? subset of regular set? its own set?) is rather important. But 'grand scheme' symbolic strength and actual, measurable set strength are two very different things. This set is ugly. And ugliness matters. So does checklist strength. Despite a checklist of 40 cards (relatively big for a late-season subset), there are only seven big names: Marichal, Santo, Felipe Alou, Lou Piniella, Mike Marshall, Reggie Cleveland and Willie Davis. Then there's Nelson Briles, Tommie Agee, Steve Stone and Lindy McDaniel (of 'Lindy Shows Larry' fame). After that you're scraping the commons barrel (actually, you're scraping the commons barrel nowadays from Mike Marshall on, but for the sake of argument, let's forget that all but two or three of these cards can be had for less than a dime). Anyway, that line-up may have looked impressive as a launching checklist for Topps in 1974, but it translates to a success rate of just 28% for the set (success rate = # of good cards / total # of cards in set). Even when we factor in the coolness factor of getting a Traded card in your pack, well, it's still not that great. I can think of only one reason why Topps expanded the neat little Traded subset from 1972 into its own series: to sell more cards at the end of the summer, a time when kids have moved on to football cards, hockey cards, sniffing glue or whatever it is little kids do at the end of summers.

And yet, despite its weak star power, mine's not such a vast conspiracy that I think Topps had a deciding vote in who'd be traded. If anything, I think this set came about because of Marichal--and because it was time for an innovation, no matter how small. In retrospect this series can almost be viewed as a pre-emptive strike to SSPC and any other competitor Topps thought it might have had, like a one-sided, baseball card version of the Cold War arms race,a big old fuck you, let's see you balance a full year of cards and a traded series, you faceless bastards! kind of thing. Who knew that it would spawn a whole generation of Traded sets? Sure, you could make the argument that 1981 Traded was really the first, modern Traded set in the most traditional sense: 132 card sets that could only be purchased in those little color-coded boxes, but 1974 was the first time that Topps found a way to make commons desirable and to sell cards probably all the way through to November.

By the way, if you haven't noticed, my images have been getting worse lately (my computer died and took my scanner with it). That's why today's post features a nice scan of Randy Hundley from Blake Meyer's , and that great 'Card That Never Was' of Satchel Paige is from Dan Austin's Virtual Card Collection, which can be found here.

More Set Countdown Coming Soon After Christmas

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