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Turn back the clock, Topps

Baseball cards do an excellent job of teaching history, and I believe they're still doing a good job even today. Topps is the king of this tradition, carrying it from its early days -- when just about every card company was about history -- into its current sets.

With complete career stats, tribute cards to past greats, and sets like Heritage and Allen & Ginter, the historical aspect of cards is alive and well (sorry, Upper Deck, you didn't kill it in the early '90s). But there is one aspect that I wish Topps would bring back.

Yup, the Turn Back The Clock subset.

Subsets are a funny thing. Sometimes they are annoying interruptions in your quest to complete the set. "Why do I have to collect this stupid Father's & Sons series? I just want to see what Dave Parker's card looks like this year!" But sometimes they're fascinating, and for me, the Turn Back The Clock set was fascinating.

A number of collectors in their 30s remember Turn Back The Clock from the late 1980s. That's when Topps used TBTC subsets for a five-year stretch. In each case, from 1986-90, Topps used its past cards to illustrate whatever year it was recalling.

Let's have a look at those:

This was the basic format for this five-year stretch, beginning with these ones in 1986. It was a five-card set, featuring past cards (in some cases), tilted at an angle with a shadow illustration. Each year the background color would change.

Each TBTC card paid tribute to the baseball year from 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years prior, featuring a player (or manager) who was notable in that particular year. In this case, Topps featured Valenzuela because of Fernandomania; Tom Seaver for his third Cy Young season; Willie Mays for setting the NL career home run mark; Frank Robinson for his Triple Crown season; and Roger Maris for breaking Babe Ruth's single-season HR mark.

With this particular TBTC set in '86 (card #s 401-405, by the way), Topps created a card that didn't exist -- which is something we would see in future TBTCs, too. For whatever reason, Topps didn't go with the 1981 Traded Fernando Valenzuela card for its TBTC tribute to 1981, but created a new Fernando image with the '81 card design. It's still a mystery to me why this was done.

That is the standard card back for the 1986 TBTC subset and really for every TBTC set during this period. Topps compiled a variety of highlights from that particular year and presented them in random fashion. But in each case it would end the write-up by mentioning whoever was on the front of the card and that person's accomplishment that particular season.

Here is the 1987 TBTC subset. It is cards #311-315. It's one of only two TBTC series during this time that didn't feature white borders -- because the entire '87 set didn't feature white borders. Topps also switched the brown background from '86 to a rust color.

This time, Topps featured Rickey Henderson for breaking the single-season stolen base record; Reggie Jackson for his Mr. October moment in the World Series; Roberto Clemente for getting his 3,000th hit; Carl Yastrzemski for his Triple Crown season; and Maury Wills for setting the single-season stolen base mark.

Once again, there is a card featured here that did not exist -- although I suppose by this time it HAD existed two other times. The 1962-style Maury Wills card was created first for the 1975 Topps MVP subset and then later in the 1982 Kmart set. This is the third time this image, which didn't exist in 1962 because Wills wasn't in the '62 set, appeared on a card.

There is your typical reverse side of the '87 TBTC subset.

In 1988, Topps reserved its TBTC subset for cards #661-665. It is also the only TBTC set from this five-year period in which all of the cards featured exist.

Topps changed the background to green, and the white borders were back.

Here, Nolan Ryan is featured for breaking Walter Johnson's career strikeout mark; Jim Rice is featured for his 46-homer, .600-slugging season; Ron Blomberg for being the first designated hitter; Bob Gibson for registering a record 1.12 ERA; and Stan Musial for closing out his Hall of Fame career.

There is the back.

The TBTC subset was back for a fourth year in 1989 and at cards #661-665 for a second straight year. For me, this is the most ubiquitous set of them all. I think I have had 20 of each card at one point or another in my life.

This time, the background is blue. Topps selected Dwight Gooden for his breakout rookie season; Lou Brock for ending his career as the all-time stolen base leader; Hank Aaron for passing Babe Ruth for career homers; Gil Hodges for leading the Miracle Mets; and Tony Oliva for leading the league in hits and batting average in his rookie season.

The Oliva card that Topps created did not exist in the 1964 set, although the picture did. Oliva appeared on one of those two-player rookie cards, sharing space with Jay Ward.

That's your back.

The 1990 TBTC subset is the only one for which I don't have all the cards. I have just two.

But here are images of the other three:

Topps again featured the cards at #661-665. It used an all-orange background for these cards, which is pretty terrible. The Fred Lynn card is one that Topps first created for the 1982 Kmart set and re-used here. The photo is from the 1975 set, but Lynn is in one of those four-player rookie cards and didn't have his own card.

Here, Topps used Sandy Koufax for his second Cy Young season; Johnny Bench for his mammoth MVP season; Lynn for his record-setting rookie year; Mike Schmidt for his unanimous MVP year; and Dick Howser for leading the Royals to the Series title in '85.

The Schmidt card is interesting to me because he had retired after the 1989 season, yet he was able to get into the 1990 Topps set anyway as sort of a final tribute.

And there's your back.

Perhaps the best thing about the TBTC subsets from this time is that it created the desire in collectors like me to obtain those old cards that were featured in the subset. I can't tell you how many times I stared at that 1990 TBTC Sandy Koufax card before I finally ... FINALLY ... obtained an actual 1965 Topps Koufax last year.

And, how many collectors didn't have an '84 Traded Dwight Gooden rookie card in 1989, but yet were able to pull an image of that card in the 1989 set? That had to be cool. (I still don't have that Gooden rookie).

But even with all that goodness from 1986-90, none of those sets are what I first recall when someone mentions the Turn Back The Clock series.

Nope, that's reserved for the first TBTC series:

The first TBTC arrived in the 1977 Topps set (cards #433-437), which was the third year that I collected cards. Thanks to that set, I became acquainted with Nate Colbert and learned all about Maury Willis' 1962 season. And sadly, because I never saw the card for decades, I knew nothing about Bob Keegan.

Topps selected Colbert for his five-homer doubleheader; Yaz for winning the Triple Crown; Wills for the stolen base mark; Keegan for his no-hitter; and Ralph Kiner for leading the league in home runs for a seventh straight year.

Yastrzemski and Wills are the only players to appear in two TBTC subsets as they also appeared in the 1987 TBTC (which is why Topps probably should have selected someone different for 1962 and 1967 in '87).

As you can see, Topps didn't go with its own cards for this set, it actually found photographs -- which is super cool. I imagine that practice probably got difficult or expensive, so Topps decided to advertise its own cards from 1986-90.

I don't know which I like better. I love seeing pictures I haven't seen before and I love seeing old cards on new designs. But if I had to choose, I'd probably go with the way things were done in 1977.

Here is a back from those cards:

As you can see, Topps kept its write-up to whoever the subject was on the card. Again, I'm not sure if I like this more than the way Topps did things from 1986-90. There is more of a "celebration of the moment" with the '77 TBTC set while the others have more of a "celebration of the year" feel.

What I do know is that it has now been more than 23 years since we've seen a TBTC set and that's not cool.

Topps loves to brag about its history with all of its exclusive contracts with old-time players. Why not put that to work with a new TBTC set? Heck, if it was bumped up to like 12 or 15 cards, I'll even collect the thing.

Although I suppose it's too much to ask to keep it to a subset.

It's going to be all inserts and parallels isn't it?


deal said…
Yeah instead of TBTC, we get Annoying Archives with 4 sets that have no rhyme or reason for being together. Love the 77 Subset.
defgav said…
I think showing the old cards was much neater back before you could just Google any card to get a good look at it. And before Topps went nuts with reprinting their classic cards.
JediJeff said…
While it's not quite the same thing, when you talked about the lack of a new TBTC set, I thought of the 2011 History of Topps subset:
If Topps did another TBTC, not only would it be an insert and have parallels, it also would be serial numbered with certain versions only available in certain stores in certain areas.
I liked TBTC, but reading them gives me a headache. Talk about seeing how much you can cram onto a card! I'd have been okay if the font was maybe .5 to 1 point bigger, but even then my ADHD says "Screw this" halfway through reading them.
Fuji said…
It's funny... back in the 80's, I was always bummed to pull one of these TBTC subset cards (unless it was for my set). But you're totally right... you can learn a lot from them. I never knew that Ralph Kiner led the National League in home runs seven seasons in a row. That's pretty awesome. I also didn't know about Colbert's five home run double header. I've gotta add that card to my Padres collection.
Zvon said…
Excellent and informative post. I didn't realize that some were of alternate cards. Very cool.
CaptKirk42 said…
Love the TBTC cards. It is the type of "subset" (or more accurately a sub-section of the main set) that I like. Topps doesn't need a zillion parallel sets to the main set or confusing subsets that don't make sense. Pop a few 5-10 card sub-sections into a set is just fine by me.
GCA said…
Next step is to bring back the three head leader cards instead of just another action shot and an extra caption like we have now. It's hard to tell which ones are the leader cards any more.
Paul Hadsall said…
I never realized that Topps had to fabricate old card images for some of the old Turn Back The Clock subsets.

madding said…
I'd like them to turn back the clock to a time where every card wasn't UV coated. Get rid of the gloss. I hate it, and it attracts smudges anyway. I'd take the cheap feeling new Archives card stock over what they do with the base set, even.
jacobmrley said…
I always preferred these cards in chronological order:

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