May 07, 2008

The One-Two Punch

1990 Score and 1991 Topps Stadium Club: it’s come down to these two sets and really neither of them is better than the other. In a perfect world I’d rank them 1 and 1a. But this isn’t a perfect world. People want order, they want debate. They want controversy. And I was ready to give you all of the above and name Score victorious, but then I really started to examine the situation.

I’ve decided that’s there no way Score wins this one. It’s a phenomenal set, no question about it. But is it the best representative for the early Nineties? More so than Stadium Club? No, it’s not. Here’s why.

1990 Score feels like it should have been released a year or two before it was. What I mean is, with its fun subsets (Dream Team, Highlights and those Draft Picks), the event cards scattered across the bloated checklist and the cheap packs, it felt more like a typical set from the late Eighties than a set from the early Nineties. Granted, it was released in 1990, but it followed those sets that came before, not setting precedents for those that followed it.

1991 Stadium Club, on the other hand, set the tone for the rest of the hobby for the rest of the decade. The plain and simple truth is that the early Nineties were about one thing and only one: the evolution of premium cards. And there is no better example than 1991 Stadium Club.

Let’s take a look at these sets, starting with 1990 Score. You don’t need me to tell you that the Bo Jackson football/baseball card was the biggest event card in a time when the hobby was completely awash with them. You also don’t need me to tell you that you probably had three or four of the Sandberg error, if you could remember what the error on the card was. Or how about Dream Team? Or Rookie Dream Team in the factory set? Or the fact that the Draft Picks subset was flat-out awesome, with rookies of Knoblauch, Ben McDonald, Mo Vaughn, Earl Cunningham (who?), Roger Salkeld and Frank Thomas. Or the fact that Thomas and Vaughn became stars after the others showed what they could do, which ensured the set with at least two rookie waves.

While this was technically Score’s third edition, it was really the set that put the company on the map. It had everything: enough superstars to clump at the beginning and spread throughout the remainder of the checklist, enough rookies to choke a horse, winning, inventive subsets and at least two Bo Jackson-related event cards (FB/BB and All Star Game). The cards featured a winning design, the packs were relatively cheap and Eric Lindros was in the Rookie/Traded set. ”He’s an unknown quantity right now because he’s so inexperienced,” said one scout. “But he has all the tools to make it big.”

What more could you want?

Like a handful of other sets from 1991, Stadium Club featured a Jeff Bagwell rookie (though no Chipper Jones or Mike Mussina). Unlike the others, though, the fate of the set did not rest on who was or was not included. That’s because unlike the other sets, the quality of Stadium Club was unbelievable. Full-bleed Kodak photography (Topps was smart to officially enlist Kodak; it gave the set a certain gravitas. Plus, if baseball card collectors are anything they’re brand-conscious to a tee), gold foil at a time when that simply wasn’t done, and Topps rookie cards on the backs.

The other thing that Stadium Club had going for it was that they were perceived to be scarce (though the validity of that perception was never determined). Packs were expensive. The cards were desirable. Nolan Ryan was shown in a tuxedo. I mean, c’mon. If the elder statesman was this excited about the set, comparison with Stadium Club’s contemporaries was completely unfair.

I’m not going to compare the two head to head. They excel in different ways. I will, however reiterate my main point: that while 1990 Score is a tremendous set, it belonged to the previous, pre-Upper Deck era of baseball cards (and were it released in the Eighties, it would rank in the top ten sets of the decade). Stadium Club, with its borderless photography, gold foil, perceived scarcity, Bagwell rookie and UV gloss, was a premium experience, one that exemplified the baseball card hobby in the early Nineties.

1. 1991 Topps Stadium Club
2. 1990 Score

End of story.

And of the 1990 – 1994 Countdown. It almost took a year, but now it’s done. If you’re looking for older Countdown reviews, in the next two weeks I plan on going back and tagging the rest of the relevant posts.

If you can't get enough early Nineties, head over to The Baseball Card Blog's sister site A Pack A Day, where the Cardboard Junkie will be live-blogging packs of both sets ranked here.


Anonymous said...

I've loved reading this countdown. I'm glad you put 1991 stadium club first. i bought the set a few years ago and even 10 or 15 years later the photography still blows you away. especially compared to everything else at the time. Personally i think that 1993 topps finest had a much bigger impact in the long run. whether that was a positive or negative impact is up for debate. i really don't understand any reason for having 1990 score anywhere near this high. honestly its not the most visually appealing set. most score sets from the time weren't. so many sets from that time were so much better than that particular set. i would take 1991 fleer ultra or 1992 pinnacle over that set for sure.

Anonymous said...

I hated Stadium Club. I never liked the borderless cards. I think the rookie card on the back is cool, but the rest of the card is trash. It ruined the hobby. Do you hear me? RUINed it.