Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Team MVPs: 1986 Topps

1986. The year I broke free from the shackles of card-collecting.

For 11 years, from 1975-85, I collected cards with the ultimate goal in mind that I would complete that year's set (and, in some cases, that year's THREE sets). Even during the early years of collecting, when there was no way my allowance could possibly fund completing a set, I bought every pack thinking that I would indeed do that.

This became an obsession around 1980 and I kept failing at it. Finally, in 1984 and 1985, I simply bought the entire Topps set at the beginning of the year. There, are you happy now, Mr. Completist? I have the whole set.

But in 1986 something happened.

It was my first full year away from home. I was a free man. No chores, no curfews, no lectures. None of the old things that had beaten me down all those years. And that included baseball cards.

For the first time, I bought cards without caring in the least whether I would complete the set. In fact, I knew that I wouldn't complete the set. Not with the 10 or 12 packs I bought that year. It felt wonderfully freeing. Just looking through the cards without any objective other than looking at the cards.

Looking back on it now -- having returned to card-collecting shackles -- I picked a pretty good year to stop caring about cards. I know some people look at 1986 with card fondness, but I think it was a mess. The Donruss set is still almost unviewable to me. Fleer is thoroughly forgettable. And Topps? Well, Topps seemed to be possessed by mid-1980s Fleer in 1986.

I don't know what happened to Topps that year -- we've all discussed it before -- the blurry photos contrasting with vividly clear photos, the strange poses and weird cropping. It's all in 1986 Topps for some unknowable reason.

A few minor examples:

Step aside, Mr. Paciorek, we need to get the bat boy in there.

Bruce Benedict launching into his rendition of "I Feel Pretty."

Yes, that is Mr. Morgan's butt. Glad you asked.

So it is from this hell hole that I try to extract the best card for each team for 1986 Topps. You know the drill (or at least I hope you do since I've done six of these already). I go through my complete '86 set and determine the best card. Then I assemble the cards according to their division and league affiliation for the 1986 season.

I'm still not sitting on the floor to do this -- as I would when I was a kid. I was tempted to this time. But the dog was eyeing me warily, as he's not used to being at my eye level. So it was off to the table I went.

Here are the results: The best card for each team for 1986 Topps:

American League East

Red Sox: Wade Boggs; Orioles: Larry Sheets; Tigers: Kirk Gibson; Blue Jays: Jorge Bell; Yankees: Dave Winfield; Indians: Rich Thompson; Brewers: Charlie Moore.

Team with the best cards: Yankees. The Red Sox's domination in this category thus far falls flat in '86. They recover in the back end of the set, but it's not enough to overtake the Yankees, who have consistently good cards.

Team with the worst cards: Orioles. Not a decent one in the bunch. The Ripken is subpar, nothing worked except for Sheets' smile.

Team I should go back and review: Blue Jays. They don't have great cards in the set, but I'm a little too enamored with Bell's crooked cap.

American League West

Angels: Reggie Jackson; Royals: Steve Balboni; A's: Tony Phillips; Mariners: Ed VandeBerg; Rangers: Glenn Brummer; White Sox: Greg Walker; Twins: Kirby Puckett

Team with the best cards: It's a toss-up. A's, probably.

Team with the worst cards: Mariners. Nothing special about the VandeBerg card at all, but then there's nothing special about any of Seattle's cards. Also, it's a good thing that Brummer came along for the Rangers. They've got some stinkers.

Team I should go back and review: A's or Royals. I like the Phillips and Balboni photos a lot. I put those down and didn't pay a lot of attention to what came after.

National League East

Phillies: Mike Schmidt; Mets: Len Dykstra; Cubs: Chris Speier; Cardinals: Randy Hunt; Expos: Hubie Brooks; Pirates: Tony Pena

Team with the best cards: Cardinals. By a mile. They have seven or eight cards that could beat half of the other team's cards. In fact this division has the best cards in the set. The Mets and Pirates also have nice cards.

Team with the worst cards: Cubs. At least Speier's got some good action.

Team I should go back and review: Phillies. If you know the '86 set, you know the Kevin Gross card, where he's flipping up his sunglasses. I love that card. I wanted to make it the Phillies' best card. But I bowed to the action gods instead.

National League West

Reds: Bo Diaz; Padres: Tony Gwynn; Braves: Paul Runge; Giants: Jeff Leonard; Dodgers: Fernando Valenzuela; Astros: Phil Garner

Team with the best cards: Reds. It's a shame the Tony Perez-high-fiving-with-Eric-Davis card didn't make it.

Team with the worst cards: Tie between Giants, Dodgers and Astros.

Team I should go back and check again: Astros. The Garner shot is different, but I don't know how good it is.

Even after buying so few packs in 1986, I completed this set pretty quickly after I returned to collecting and started blogging. The cards are certainly easy to find. And for all those years that I wasn't collecting, I looked at the black-bordered set as kind of cool and mysterious.

My decision to free myself from cards continued after '86. I bought about the same amount of 1987 cards and then even less in 1988. I returned full force to the hobby in 1989 (before bowing out in 1994), but it was with a renewed spirit.

For the first time I was collecting cards knowing that I could complete a set if I wanted to completed a set.
But that it wasn't a necessity.

Boy, do I know that now.


  1. I bought four vending boxes of '86 Topps a couple months back for $20 shipped off Ebay. I figured that I would at least get that much worth in enjoyment from putting together the set... but the jury is still out there. If I were to put a dollar figure on the amount of "fun" this set was, it'd be pretty damn low. It was just miserable for all the reasons you pointed out. Blurry photos, bad cuts, AWFUL card backs, and zero quality rookies (not a big deal to me). I could have had nearly as much fun if someone had handed me a stack of index cards numbered 1 to 792 and shuffled them for me so I could sort them.

  2. I still think this is the best set ever just because it was my first, but I understand why people think it is dull. I also agree with you about the Perez card. I have always considered the Tony Perez card the 2nd best in the entire set behind the Bo Diaz.

  3. I sometimes wonder when set reviews like this are posted on blogs if one of Topps' old employees (who worked from them in the 1980's or years prior) ends up reading them. I'd like to hear what the thought process was when they chose the design and in many cases the photos for a particular set (be it 1986, 1975 or whenever).

  4. I like the overall design but I don't think I'll ever be able to get over some of the uniform decisions of the 80's. Great post as always : )

  5. The Reds do have a lot of good cards in that set, don't they? I would have picked Perez, with Rose second, and then Diaz.

  6. I've slowly grown to appreciate this set more and more over the years. A few of my favorites are the Gooden, Valenzuela, Fisk, Fingers, and Pena.