June 03, 2007

Early Nineties Countdown: #77 to #70

The checklist is complete. The sets have been ranked. And while I originally thought there were 76 sets from 1990 to 1994, I recounted and found there to be 77, so that’s the figure I’m sticking to.

A few more notes before we begin. Like the Eighties countdown, the worth of an individual card or set will not be considered when ranking these sets, but may be mentioned anecdotally in describing a set. Also, I am going to say that my personal favorites of the years in question will not get preferential treatment, but we all know that that’s a very tall order to fill and I may stray from that rule. Also, I recently came across an old Beckett from November 1995, and will be referring to the stuff in it on more than one occasion. For starters, let me say that I forgot how big a deal Kenny Lofton was; his 1992 Fleer Update card is high column listed at $32.00! Are you kidding?

Finally, what makes a countdown like this so great to me is that thinking back on all these sets, I was able to come up with good things and bad things about almost all of them. There were only a handful that I had no recollection of collecting, and almost none where I couldn’t think of anything to say. I’ve decided that the sets that fall into this category, those that are so boring and non-descript that even I can’t think of one good or bad thing about them, were boring because they simply had no reason to exist. I’ve put these sets at the bottom of the list, but really they shouldn’t even be in the countdown.

In no particular order…

#77 1994 OPC
#76 1993 OPC
#75 1993 OPC Premier
#74 1994 Triple Play
#73 1994 Sportflics

Now, let the countdown begin.

#72. 1991 Leaf
Let’s start with some easy multiple choice. Let’s say that you’re in charge of Leaf, it’s 1991, and you’ve just come out with one of the great sets of 1990: a set with a perceived limited production run, chock full of rookies, plus a great design and loads of star cards that everyone, young and old, want to get their mitts on. How would you follow this great success? Would you a) put out another great set following the same principles, b) take in a ton of advance orders and then split for the border with the cash, or c) over-produce, strip the base set of important rookies, stuff them in an insert set that no one will ever be able to complete, commission and greenlight a shitty design and then laugh all the way to the bank? If you answered ‘c’…congratulations, you’re correct.

Seriously, how did Donruss and Leaf screw this up? A company simply doesn’t abandon a winning formula, especially at a time when there are a thousand competitors in—let’s face it—a niche marketplace. Why, why, why didn’t they include important rookies in this set? Why did they only include them in the Gold Leaf Rookies insert set? If Leaf had included a Jeff Bagwell rookie in the base set, this would have been a monster in the early Nineties. Instead, it was the hobby’s biggest joke; one from which Leaf would never recover.

#71. 1990 Fleer
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the past few days: Were it not for the colossal let-down that was 1991 Leaf, 1990 Fleer would be the worst set of the first five years of the Nineties, and for a variety of reasons, none so prevalent as it simply had nothing to offer. You’d think that 1990 would’ve been a stellar year across the board for baseball cards, as 1989 had so much going for it and the hobby was experiencing a boom larger than it had ever seen. That was simply not the case. While other sets figured out a way to capitalize on the hype, a few didn’t (Fleer chief among them).

This is not to say that they didn’t try new things with this set; they did. In addition to the requisite combos and doubleheaded rookies, they included 'Players of the Decade,' a new subset of stars of the 1980s. Fleer also led the way with three insert sets: All-Stars, League Standouts and Soaring Stars (after a 1991 hiatus, this insert set was renamed Rookie Sensations for 1992).

But they took more than a few bad turns. For some reason their design team (which was in the middle of putting together an unprecedented four straight years of bad design, 1989 to 1992) approved a bland white border and bland red, white and blue back—virtually guaranteeing that collectors would confuse them with novelty deck-of-cards sets you could buy at Circle K, Kmart and other fine drugstore and discount department store chains. They then proceeded to miss out on the key rookie of 1990, Frank Thomas. Oh, and like most of all the other manufacturers that year, they printed 1 billion cards.

It’s not so much that they printed so many cards. It’s that they printed so many cards and none of those cards was of Frank Thomas. Taking nothing away from Juan Gonzalez, David Justice, Marquis Grissom, Ben McDonald, Larry Walker, John Olerud, Delino DeShields or even Sammy Sosa, Thomas was hands-down the best of the bunch. So to come out with a set that doesn’t have a card of him? What’s the point of that? Exactly. There is no point. You’re just killing time until you have a chance to show the world you realize you screwed up and pray that collectors are completist enough to hold out and buy your lousy Update set at the end of the season, where not only will there be Thomas, but Olerud, Carlos Baerga (was there ever anyone bigger than Carlos Baerga was in 1993?) and Travis Fryman too.

Too bad by the time the Update set came, nobody really cared about it, either.

#70. 1990 Bowman
OK, so I didn’t mean to set up Frank Thomas as the savior of baseball cards. In reality, he was a standout from the many that made up the great, overlooked rookie class of 1990. And while it’s a good thing that Thomas is in this Bowman set, it’s also true that this set is not a classic simply because it has a card of Thomas in it. Far from it.

1990 Bowman must be viewed as a transition set between the 1989 and 1991 Bowman sets. 1990 was the first year to use the modern card size (1989 was the same size as the 1950s issues, just slightly taller than what is considered the ‘modern’ card size that began with 1957 Topps) and really the first Bowman attempt to fashion itself as the ‘Home of the Rookie Card,’ something it would achieve with the 1991 set. So where does that leave this set? Well, it’s got a lot of rookies; all the big names are here, all in the one series, which is nice. Plus the front was one big color photo with a tiny white border along the bottom with team and player names (also nice). But that’s where the niceties stop.

Those minimal fronts became a big sea of boring faces as the set progressed. Also, what was with the backs? Who was it at Bowman/Topps that decided a grid-like breakdown of the past year’s stats would be a good thing? Granted, it was something that set Bowman apart, but for the worse. I could never make heads nor tails of the stats on the back of a Bowman card from 1989 to 1991.

There nothing really that bad about 1990 Bowman, it’s just boring. Minimal design is one thing, but boring? 'Boring' is never going to cut it in baseball cards. C'mon Bowman, you know that.

#69 to #65 Coming Soon


Jason said...

Judging by my collection, 1990 Bowman, Donruss and Fleer must've been sold by the pound, rather than by the pack. Actually I recall buying loads of rak paks of Bowman looking for Frank Thomases & Dave Winfields and loads of the Donruss because they were there (and years later, Big Lots had boxes of them for like $4.99). And despite accumulating some 1200 1990 Bowman cards (never bothering to assemble the set) I ultimately ended up having to buy the Winfield off eBay years later!

Brian Chidester said...

I went to the factory of Fleer in Philadelphia in 1990. My dad was installing security cameras inside, because there were so many break-ins. Despite the fact that he was working for them setting up security, my brother and I wandered off, as kids do, and when he called us to get in the car and go home, we jumped in the back excited. He drove off, and out from under our shirts we pulled mounds of 1990 Fleer proof cards and cards without the color-process and all kinds of crazy cuts and over prints. We though we hit the jackpot. Hahahaha!