February 07, 2008

The 1990 – 1994 Countdown: 42 - 41

42. 1994 Bowman’s Best
I never collected this set. Not when it first came out, and not any time since. My collection does not have one single card from this set. Chalk it up to lack of interest, I guess. So then why do I have it tucked into the middle of this Countdown? It’s because of my interest (bordering on obsession) with the art of checklisting.

This first edition of Bowman’s Best is a landmark in the way Topps divided the checklist, as well as in card distribution within packs. That they seeded two 90 card sets–red for stars and blue for promising rookies–within the same packs marks the first time in company history (as far as I can tell) that this was done (and that neither was an insert set). It’s a remarkable achievement. I’m not so sure you can say the same thing about the cards themselves.

41. 1994 Finest
In 1993, Topps Finest was something of a pioneer. It was one of, if not the first of the ultra-luxury sets. The checklist was limited to 199, with room only for the upper echelon of players (though guys like Dave Fleming and Mike Devereaux snuck in somehow), not to mention that the quality of the cards was staggering: the backs featured a full color gloss and the fronts resembled pressed beer can art. Everything about the set breathed ‘fine art a la baseball,’ and the quantities available and pack and individual card prices only reinforced that idea. And I haven’t even mentioned Refractors yet.

This background is important because without it, you can’t begin to understand why 1994 Finest was a major letdown. Finest’s debut the year before had got a lot of things right; the bar was set high, but not impossibly so. The limited checklist and quantity available allowed Finest to cater to a higher-end customer, and limiting the number of insert sets down to just the Refractors parallel set—especially in the context of insert mania in the early Nineties—gave the brand a refined air. Packs were expensive, there weren’t that many cards per pack, and the Refractors were scarce. In other words, everything fed off each other to create a perfect storm of collector buzz.

So why didn’t Topps follow the same game plan for 1994? Were they frightened of possibly appearing staid in the overwhelming hobby environment of push-push-push? It’s hard to say. Instead of taking the lead from the previous year, 1994’s Finest was bloated: With a total of 440 base cards—more than twice the amount from the previous year—it became just another ‘premium’ set without much substance.

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