I was going to do one of those Team MVPs posts tonight, but the next set on the docket is 1993 Upper Deck, and it's going to take at least a weekend to figure out the best card for every team in that set.
So, pressed for time -- as usual -- I decided on a spin-off series. Yes, another series that I may or may not complete.
This is one that I've had in mind for some time, and something other collectors have done in one form or another over the years.
What is the best set of the year?
Usually, this is reserved for end-of-the-year posts. But I'm going back in time here. I'm going to figure out which set was the best going back 30 years and then tracking forward. I'm going to do one year at a time -- whenever I feel like it -- so these posts will pop up randomly like every other series that I do. Or if I get bored with it, you'll eventually never see it again.
I'm starting with 1981 because that's the first year when there were more than two major card set releases (if there were more than two back in the '50s or early '60s, don't bother me. I don't have a lot of cards from that time).
Major releases is all I care about -- so no Kellogg's or Drake's or Hostess here. Just the big kids.
So let's see what was the best in 1981, the year our minds were blown because there were two other sets on the store shelves besides Topps.
1981 Topps -- the front
Plusses: The final year of All-Star designations on each previous year All-Star's card. ... The final year (for a long time) of team photo cards. ... The ballcap graphic on each card -- the set's most distinguishing feature. The caps reflected each team's colors, too. ... The colorful borders. ... Lots of dugout shots, which is cool.
Minuses: The color borders didn't match the teams. Pink for Dodgers? Blue for Astros? Yellow for Twins? I also didn't like the shades of color used on some of the cards. The Reds received an awful puke green color. The rust-orange color used with the Royals bothered me, too.
1981 Topps -- the back
Plusses: Dig the old-school Topps logo, although I probably didn't notice it back then. ... Continued presentation of full career stats. ... Large card number. ... First appearance of walks, strikeouts, stolen bases and slugging pct. for batters and games started, complete games, shutouts and saves for pitchers. ... Cartoons on SOME of the cards.
Minuses: Lack of cartoons on ALL of the cards. Backs are pretty dull without the cartoons. ... Black-on-red type not the easiest to read.
1981 Topps -- overall
Plusses: Tradition. ... Large 726-card set. ... Good ol' cardboard. ... Quirky overall card design. ... Focus on color. ... Emphasis on team's full complement of players. ... The first real traded set (although I think it was partly in response to its competition).
Minuses: This is actually one of my least favorite looks among Topps '80s card sets. Something about the color scheme always bothered me. ... Topps didn't feature some of the key up-and-coming players as prominently as its new competition did. ... The 1981 and 1982 sets are a prelude to the period of "serious" card backs. All stats and limited or no cartoon fun.
1981 Fleer -- the front
Plusses: Some of the photos were different from what Topps produced (both good and bad). ... The design gives emphasis to the photo. ... The color border reflects the team colors. ... A baseball in the design is cliche, but always comforting.
Minuses: I hate yellow as a prominent color in card designs. Yellow belongs with fast food restaurants, sundresses, flowers and mustard bottles. Not cards. This one factor dominates my whole opinion on the front of the '81 Fleer card. But other than that, a lot of the photos were bizarre, off-center and not all that professional-looking.
1981 Fleer -- the back
Plusses: Not a lot. I thought the highlighting of the career average/career earned-run average was cool at first glance, although it's totally unnecessary. ... Full career stats is always good.
Minuses: Flat-out boring. ... More yellow. ... A large blank space where information could/should go.
1981 Fleer -- overall
Plusses: Something different to look at and buy after years of Topps. ... A nice, large set with emphasis on the team's full complement of players. ... Featured players on their own card that didn't get their own card in the Topps base set (i.e. Fernando Valenzuela). ... Some different photos that were kind of neat. ... A different kind of cardboard that is so sturdy that cards practically look mint even 31 years later.
Minuses: Plain, dull look to the front and back of the cards. ... Lots of errors (intentional or not). ... Set had a feeling of "let's just get this thing out."
1981 Donruss -- the front
Plusses: An interesting "family photo" look to the card fronts. (My nice way of saying there are lots of "stand there and smile" photos in the set). ... Much of the cards have a "this is baseball feel," probably because so many of the photos were taken in Wrigley Field. ... A clean design with a fun font for the team name.
Minuses: So many of the photos look the same. If I counted up all the "player with a bat on their shoulder" photos, I'm sure there would be at least 100. ... The photo quality isn't great -- lots of players' faces in the shadows. ... And, of course, the team names are yellow, which I don't like.
1981 Donruss -- the back
Plusses: I love timelines. These backs were fascinating to read in '81. And very different. ... Nice logo and drawing at the top, although it takes up a lot of territory.
Minuses: One-line of stats. Boooooo! Not crazy about the pink either.
1981 Donruss -- overall
Plusses: Again, it was nice to see how someone else would present a baseball card set. Three viewpoints! Crazy! ... Donruss, like Fleer, also had multiple versions of the same player. Two Seavers. Two Garveys, etc. This eventually became a minus in my eyes, but at the time it was kind of cool -- if confusing (hey! I thought I already pulled the Garvey card! What is THIS?). ... Cards of players who didn't get their own card in the Topps set (i.e. Tim Raines).
Minuses: Super thin cardboard stock that made the cards seem cheap. ... White cardboard stock that picked up any speck of dirt. ... A "here's our first set, be gentle" kind of look to the set. Seemed like a 1960s set issued in 1981.
And the winner as the best set of 1981 is ...
Yeah, I know. I'm not crazy about it either. It really wasn't a great year for cards, even though it was a great year for cards.
Ranking: 1. Topps; 2. Donruss; 3. Fleer