April 27, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #9. 1992 Topps

What makes a set truly great? Are there certain things great sets possess that lesser sets do not? If a great set is the product of previous years’ evolution, then shouldn’t earlier years be considered great as well? Just what is it that pushes the great set to a higher plane? I’ve asked myself these questions a number of times while writing this countdown. And while their answers are hard to pin down in the majority of cases (because there are very sets that stand apart from the pack), 1992 Topps is different: There’s more than one thing that elevates it to greatness.

In 1991, Topps debuted gold foil stamping on some of the subset cards in the Bowman set. (Topps also added a small gold foil palm tree accent to a miniscule quantity of its flagship and sent them to troops as part of their Desert Shield distribution program.) Interesting in a footnote kind of way, the gold foil itself didn’t add much to overall card design. If anything, it was a ‘hey, look what we can do’ kind of thing. That changed for 1992, which saw Topps increase its gold foil stamp quotient exponentially, resulting in the Topps Gold base set parallel. Really, there were two parallels—Gold and Gold Winners—but nobody really wanted Gold Winners: they were much easier to find than straight up Gold (this difference could very well have been the first instance of tiered desirability). And though Gold technically wasn’t the first time Topps had done a base set parallel (the Tiffany sets of the 1980s were Topps’ first true parallel sets), it was the first parallel randomly inserted in packs (Topps Tiffany cards had been available only as complete, factory-sealed sets).

In addition to the introduction of widespread gold foil stamping, ’92 Topps saw an increase in quality photography. Unlike Topps photography in the 1980s, (it took the company nine years to reach its zenith in 1988), 1990s Topps photography peaked early. With the introduction of the Stadium Club brand (and by extension officially bringing Kodak into the fold) in 1991, the idea took hold that every card, not just those of stars, could feature nice photos. There were a handful of such ‘cinematic’ cards in the 1991 flagship issue, but 1992 saw 26, certainly a dramatic increase by anyone’s count. In fact, it seems like the Pittsburgh Pirates hired their own private photographer; just about everyone on the team got decked out across their own empty Three Rivers Stadium backdrop.

Any great set has to have a great checklist. The first thing you notice about this set’s checklist is that Topps cemented institutional hero worship upon Nolan Ryan (#1 in 1990, 1991, 1992). Up until that point, the company had bestowed subset hero worship on four players (Babe Ruth in 1962, Hank Aaron in 1974, Pete Rose in 1986 and Ryan in 1990), and institutional hero worship on only one: Ted Williams (#1 in 1954, 1957, 1958). This may seem like a no-brainer on Topps’ part, but remember that while certain checklist numbers through the years may have ‘felt’ like they should have gone hand in hand with certain players (#500 with Mickey Mantle, #600 with Willie Mays, #250 with Stan Musial, #200 with Warren Spahn or Sandy Koufax), very few numbers were given to certain players repeatedly. (As an aside, just wait until the Mickey Mantle estate ends their relationship with Topps: I bet that card #7, their current holy number, will go right back into circulation.)

1992 saw the return of the four-headed rookie card, on hiatus since 1978. It was also the fourth year in a row that draft picks were given their own subset, highlighted by Cliff Floyd, Aaron Sele, Manny Ramirez, Shawn Green, Pokey Reese and Brien Taylor rookies. Record Breakers, All-Star Rookies and All-Stars rounded out the subsets. The All-Stars were especially strong, with seven Hall of Fame caliber players (plus Bonds and Clemens). I think it’s telling that three of the five subsets were rookie-related. Add in a boatload of unmarked rookies and this set is literally crawling with them (110 total for the set). Chalk it up to the Bowman Effect. With Topps establishing the Bowman brand as the legitimate ‘home of the rookie card’ in 1991, the company built off of that assertion in the 1992 Topps flagship by including scores of ‘cup of coffee’ type players, older rookies and career minor leaguers briefly up in the majors. As a result we’re treated to cards of guys like Alonzo Powell, Jose ‘The 700 Year Old Rookie’ Mesa, Bryan Hickerson and John Wehner. For a lot of guys, 1992 Topps would be their only major league card for their career.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a bad proposition (What if your only card was in 1988 Donruss?). This set is one of the best-designed sets the company has ever released. You may regard that last sentence as pure hyperbole, but I beg to differ. Let’s break this down. Clean white borders had been a Topps design staple for most of their 40-odd years of producing cards (notable years without continuous white borders: 1962, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1975, 1986, 1987, 1990), so their inclusion in 1992 was no real surprise. If anything, the surprise is how well the borders play off the rest of the card.

On the front, thin lines framed the photo, with one specific to team colors, the other white. Player name and team were set against small team-colored rectangles that filled out along the bottom of the frame, though never touched the white border. The three card front elements (the accent frame and two bottom boxes) each featured a different team color. For the Rangers, the accent frame was in gray, the player name box in red and the team name box in blue. It’s done to complement the photo, and achieves this in striking manner. It’s interesting to note, but nothing besides an odd arm or leg ever touches the surrounding white border. That may not seem like much, but previous years’ design routinely allowed elements to touch or overlap the borders (see 1988, 1985, 1980 and various others).

So while the frame and borders evinced a certain Frank Lloyd Wright sense of design, the real star of the card was the photograph. The photo was given free reign over the frame, giving nearly every subject a larger-than-life, magazine cover presence. In those instances where the player didn’t seem to literally pop off the card, the photograph was interesting enough to make you think they did.

As for the card backs, 1992 was quite possibly, in my estimation, the best-designed Topps back since 1971. ’92 was the first Topps flagship back to feature anything in color, and instead of a meaningless headshot (like Fleer used for its 1991 back), Topps chose a panorama of that player’s home stadium. It was a nice touch; gave the card grounding. Besides, not all of the cards had a photo, only for those players with a few years experience. Most veterans had too many years of service to list everything and include a photo, so when you got one with a photo it seemed special. Out of 792 cards, 595 featured a stadium on its back.

One of the questions I’ve asked myself before ranking a set is whether the set in particular was a product of its time, or a product that helped create its time. In this vein, the innovations put to use in 1992 Topps (gold foil stamping, tiered parallel sets) not only added to the frenzy of card collecting at the time, it laid partial groundwork for the years that followed. Add in its glorious design, killer checklist and stunning photography and not only do you have a great set, you have the best Topps set of the early decade.

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