July 03, 2007

Early Nineties Countdown: #53 to 50

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The Pyramids of Egypt.
The Great Wall of China.
The Astrodome.

When you think of the great wonders of man, these items usually float to the surface. Well, I’d like to add one more to the list: The Jeff Bagwell Rookie Card.

Why should the Bagwell be on the list? I’m glad you asked. When Bagwell is inducted into the Hall of Fame, he may be the first Hall of Famer whose rookie card is worth less than ten dollars. Tell me: how do you explain that?

I’m sure the first thing you’ll mention is that Bagwell came on the scene at the height of card production in 1991, so his cards are worthless because there were so many of them. Maybe you’ll add that because there were so many of them, everybody had one so no one would pay that much for something they already had. Or maybe you’ll say that Bagwell wasn’t that big of a deal when he broke in, so there’s really no point in getting worked up over nothing. Also, didn’t he hit a boatload of home runs during the steroid era?

It’s true, all of these things are going against him, but the facts are like this: Bagwell was National League Rookie of the Year in 1991, he consistently excelled for over ten years, he was a perennial All-Star and all of his home runs were clean. Plus, he played for one major league team for his entire career—not too many guys of his generation can say that (I’m looking at a checklist of 1991 rookies right now and only Tim Salmon and Chipper Jones fit that category).

#53. 1991 Upper Deck
Including Bagwell in the regular set was a smart move for Upper Deck, as it provided added oomph to the high series and allowed the Final Edition to stand on its own as a look-ahead to 1992, featuring rookies Thome, Lofton, Klesko, Rondell White, Pudge Rodriguez, Dmitri “I Collect Only 10s” Young and of course Pedro J. Martinez (his only card from 1991).

In fact, the checklist for this set is incredibly well balanced in terms of debuting rookies. The Low Series had cards of Phil Plantier, Eric Karros, Mike Mussina and Chipper Jones, plus first cards (not rookies) of Mo Vaughn, Chuck Knoblauch and Frank Thomas giving everybody the finger. The High Series had Jeff Bagwell and Final Edition had everyone mentioned earlier.

But rookies alone can’t save this set from mediocrity. Enter the Heroes of Baseball insert series. Upper Deck really went hog wild with the inserts in 1991, with 45 different cards, plus five autographed cards (Hank Aaron, hobby workhorse Nolan Ryan, plus Harmon Killebrew, Fergie Jenkins and Gaylord Perry), up from ten inserts and one autograph in 1990.

And yet, even with the Bagwell Rookie, the Chipper card and the Pedro Final Edition card, plus the extra-curricular help from the Heroes, this set is still lousy. Who’s to blame? Maybe it was the cheap card stock that made the cards stick together. Maybe it was the crappy design that seemed to take up more front of card space than in years past. Or maybe it was that the hobby was catching on that Upper Deck, though expensive looking, autograph-loaded and hologram-encrusted, was a one-trick pony (insert autographs and they will come). And they were tired of that one trick.

#52. 1994 Stadium Club
Remember Stadium Club? Remember how it used to be three series? Jesus, they made a lot of cards in this set. And don’t forget that they made two parallel sets this year: First Day Issue and Golden Rainbow. And the funny thing about all of this was that I never knew a single person who cared. You know what I mean? Seriously, did anybody know someone who put together an entire Golden Rainbow set from 1994? And what kind of name is ‘Golden Rainbow’ anyway?

In 1991, when Topps debuted Stadium Club, no other set ever made had featured full-bleed color photography on every card. And yet by 1994, just three short years later, the full-bleed photo had become a sports card cliché. What had made Stadium Club the shit to rock in 1991 was keeping it down by 1994. Add a tired post-Grunge zine-style American Typewriter freeware font and faux cool ripped look on the front and ugly graphics, utterly ridiculous text treatments and nonsensical statistics on the back and you’ve got yourself a truly forgettable design.

I never could figure out what was worse: the prospect that because there were so many of these cards I could never ever complete even the most basic set, or the fact that I was repeatedly suckered into purchasing $1.25 packs even though I knew the first part was true.

#51. 1993 Topps
Topps ’93, in one word or less: disappointing. I had a lot riding on 1993 being a good year for The Flagship, but it was just, well… boring. And it had so much going for it: two-headed All-Star cards, four-headed rookies, a Draft Picks subset with Jeter and a Coming Attractions subset with Jim Edmonds, plus full-color headshot/mini-action shots on the back (Topps’ first set since 1971 with a back-of-card headshot and the first time ever in color). And who can forget the hologram explosion disco that was Topps Black Gold?

1992 Topps, with its clean, modern Craftsman-style lines and thin uncoated stock, is one of my favorite sets of all time, so I guess you can chalk up my lackadaisical attitude to the fact that Topps made a change for 1993 and printed the cards on a sort of thick, smooth coated cardboard stock. On the new cardboard, the whites seemed really white, almost teeth-gleaming white, while the other colors sort of all blended together, which made the white borders seem all the thicker. I also could never get the corners to bend and fray. That might seem like a godsend to most collectors, but as a purist it almost feels like Topps was cheating the system. I wonder how many graded 1993 Topps Jeters there are out there at 9 or better. I would bet quite a few, simply because those corners were made of steel. Coated white cardboard steel.

#50. 1993 Stadium Club
Topps Writer 1: There must be some mistake.
Topps Writer 2: I’m telling you, there isn’t.
Topps Writer 1: But…we just did one of these sets last year. Wasn’t that enough?
Topps Writer 2: Man, how long you been playing this game? It’s never enough. Just when you finish one they’re on you about the next one and the next one and the next. It never ends.
Topps Writer 1: Jeez… Do you think people really buy all this stuff?
Topps Writer 2: Who knows…
Topps Writer 1: Hey, I’m being serious here. Does anybody really even want another one of these sets?
Topps Writer 2: Hey man, I only work here…
Topps Writer 1: …Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your life?

The funniest thing about Stadium Club circa 1993 was that their best set of the year wasn’t even produced for general hobbyist consumption, but in a specially boxed set distributed solely at Toys ‘R’ Us. The cards, despite sporting the trademark Stadium Club full-bleed photo, were flimsy, cheap, had beginner’s guide to graphic design front and back graphics and featured end-of-the-roll type photos, like this great one of Sheff striking out with a guy in a skirt in the background straddling part of the dugout, or whatever it is he’s doing back there. Plus, the cards were stamped with just enough gold foil to make them feel legit. It was a great set. I wish I could remember who was in it.

Baseball Funnies

What do you call Jose Canseco without the juice?

Ozzie Canseco

More Countdown Coming Soon!


Anonymous said...

I have always liked the 91 Upper Deck set. It was by far the best set to come out of a truly terrible year for baseball cards. Well, maybe that's not saying much but definitely this set belongs higher on the list. It's certainly better than the 91 Topps set!

Pete said...

Call me crazy, but the 94 Stadium Club is one of my favorite sets. Lots of action shots. Full-bleed pics. And, most of all, I like the washed-out/contrast-y photo style. (I actually wish someone would be bold enough to try this style again.) Plus, with 7000 cards in the set, there's a card for everyone!!