Skip to main content

Best set of the year: 1986

Before I forget, I want to let readers know that I have picked a random winner for my 400 followers contest. Of course, you won't know who that person is until either you receive notification in the mail along with some cards or it is advertised on this or the winner's blog.

But I just want folks to know the wheels are in motion. I am starting to select the winner's cards. But it will take some time.

OK, now on to something that I haven't done in more than a year. It's time to subjectively rank the baseball sets from another year.

I started with 1981 and I'm up to 1986 now. This particular year probably explains why I have been hesitating on this series for so long. 1986 was a strange one for cards, at least from my viewpoint. In 1986, I made the physical break from the hobby. While in 1984 and 1985 I stopped trying to collect sets by buying packs, I kept my connection to the hobby by purchasing Topps factory sets each year.

But in 1986, there was none of that. I lived away from home, I was saying no to the old ways, I didn't care.

The few packs that I did buy seemed strange. And while new collectors seemed to regard the cards of '86 as sleek and trendy then, I just looked at '86 as a step back ... for every card company. And that's the way I still view them.

So here's my evaluation of the mainstream sets of the year when cards went backward:

1986 Topps -- the front

Plusses: A mysterious and wild new design. The '86 design evokes 1971 Topps, but with the brightest, boldest team name in cardboard history. But despite that brightness, to this day, the design has a dark, mystical quality for me, brought on by the first real use of black in 15 years. ... Color-coding of the team name with the team colors for the second year in a row. ... The position name in the color-coded ball is simplistic, but useful and almost whimsical. .... A few decent and different photos, if you look closely at the set.

Minuses: To illustrate the strangeness of photo choices, here is the Tom Waddell card, which follows the Tony Perez card in the set (card nos. 85 and 86). Can you imagine two more divergent back-to-back card photos in terms of interest and quality? ... The photo choices, from weirdly cropped pictures to blurry photos makes it look like Topps was attempting to come down to Fleer's level, or simply had fired all of its photographers and went with anyone on the street who had a camera. ... The black borders can chip if you're not careful. ... The look, while colorful, seems too simplistic to me. But I think that was just the style of the time.

1986 Topps -- the back

Plusses: The use of red as the primary color on the back looked bold as Topps had not used red as the primary background since the 1982 traded set and not in a base set since 1969 (although that's actually pink). ... A pleasant and familiar blocky design. ... There is a theme to the backs: firsts, lasts, oldests, etc. It's semi-interesting to see the date of a player's first home run. ... The quirky cartoon baseball draws your interest for 5 seconds. I know I appreciated it after seeing no cartoons on the back of Topps cards since 1982.

Also, I never realized this until today, but the cartoon baseball had many poses:

I feel like I've underrated the backs not knowing that.

Minuses: Even with the cartoon baseball, it's still a boring '80s back. I like the '70s backs so much more. ... Black on red is not as difficult to read as red on green, but still not the easiest.

1986 Topps -- overall

Plusses: Still have to credit Topps for that familiar, sturdy cardboard. ... A striking new design. ... Pete Rose tribute to begin the set. ... Turn Back The Clock subset returns for first time since 1977 but with pictures of past cards, which is the first time Topps did that in a base set since 1975. ... Another hefty 792-card set.

Minuses: If you're into rookies, it's not a great set for them. Cecil Fielder is probably your best bet. ... Topps added team leader cards after a year absence, but the faded-out, dream-like quality of those cards make them look half-finished (this is a personal preference, I'm sure others like them). ... The photo quality makes the set appear more amateurish than any other Topps set of the '80s.

1986 Fleer -- the front

Plusses: Out with the gray, in with the blue. You'll never catch me complaining about blue borders. ... While Topps ditched the logo on the front after a one-year experiment in '85, Fleer stayed with what first drew everyone's attention in 1983. Logos all around! ... Photo quality seemed to gradually improve over time for Fleer. ... Colors used in design reflect team colors, for the most part.

Minuses: I'm not crazy about the design. I don't know what that elongated name/position balloon is supposed to be. ... Lot of players just standing around in photos. Fleer did that way too much. I wish I had more '86 Fleer cards to find out whether the odd cropping was still a problem.

1986 Fleer -- the back

Plusses: Fleer is still numbering the set by team, got to like that. ... The "Did you know" fact at the bottom produced some interesting tidbits such as this one. ... The layout is a little different from what Fleer repeatedly produced between 1983-85. That's appreciated and it's a better use of space.

Minuses: I hate yellow on cards, including card backs. ... What happened to the mug shot in the top corner? That was a Fleer staple! ... Although the layout is a little different, it's still pretty boring.

1986 Fleer -- overall

This pretty much says all you need to know about 1986 Fleer for me: I always forget about this set. Sometimes I confuse it with 1985 Fleer, but other times I just skip right over it when I'm going through sets of the '80s in chronological order. It's as if it doesn't exist.

1986 Donruss -- the front

Plusses: Not many. Got to like the team logo. ... It has a cool Define the Design name in "The Max Headroom Set."

Minuses: My least favorite design of the 1980s for a mainstream set. The tightly packed horizontal lines are jarring and if they could be put into motion (and sometimes they look like they actually are in motion), it would make people queasy. ... The design really takes away from the photo for me. I couldn't even tell you whether the quality of the photos this year improved over the darkness issues of sets from '84 and '85.

1986 Donruss -- the back

Plusses: I will always compliment Donruss for the full names at the top and the contract status down below. ... Blue looks a lot better than the yellow from the previous year. ... I believe this is the card back that Panini mimicked for its 2014 Donruss set, for what that's worth.

Minuses: Same, same, same, same. Donruss enclosed the stat box beginning in 1985, but everything else is unchanged. ... I don't know who decided in the 1980s that card backs would be virtually pointless.

1986 Donruss -- overall

Plusses: For awhile, this set was much coveted and highly priced, all because of the Jose Canseco rookie. You can't argue with popularity, so that's a point in this set's favor. ... Diamond Kings and Rated Rookies are beloved by '80s collectors. ... I'd say this is in the top 10 of iconic 1980s sets, although I'd never put it there.

Minuses: I can't imagine what this set looks like in a binder. Taking a full set out in public must be a menace to society. Horizontal-line-prompting convulsions everywhere. ... Too much sameness overall, particularly on the back.

And now, let's reveal the overall winner.

The best set of 1986 is ...





Ranking: 1. Topps; 2. Fleer; 3. Donruss

Yeah, I'm not crazy about it either. It wasn't a great year. Unless you were gaga over rookies.

Total ranking: Topps - 4; Donruss - 1; Fleer - 1


  1. I agree with your rankings as well as the fact that all three sets were let downs. (Good thing you didn't throw the inaugural Sportflics set into this discussion).

    I've always believed that Topps modeled their 1986 design after 1975 Topps (versus 1971) as the 1975 base and mini sets were arguably at their peak of popularity in the mid-1980's.

  2. I guess I can't argue with giving Topps a slight edge over Fleer although it's certainly, as you pointed out so well, a not-so-great year for designs overall. I think the fact that the Orioles cards, with the orange "Orioles" on a black top border, mimic the teams unis so well tips me into the Topps camp.

  3. I agree that it was a down year (unless you like rookies...none too small a point since it was the '86 sets that really pushed that movement into overdrive--Bonds, Canseco, Bo, Inky, Wally Joiner, Will Clark, Ruben Sierra. Sure, they mostly turned up in the Traded sets, but that was the year). But I can't agree with the order. There's nothing new or innovating about the Topps design. You say '71, steelehere says '75, I'd say '64. And therein lies the problem; its basically the same design Topps has trotted out at least a half dozen times. And every time they use it, they do less with it (IMO). The one thing you can not seriously call it is "a striking new design". The best selling point for Topps, versus the competition, was the cardstock. And, hey, Topps ultimately got thinner and the others never got thicker, so thin won that war. Donruss had an actual innovative design. I can't think of another nationally released major brand release prior to this with a diagonal cut. You can love it or hate it but, unless you were collecting Squirt cards, it was something that hadn't been done before that. That Donruss design just works for me. The pictures just pop (Topps photos in '86 just laid there). The card back was simple, but utilitarian. They all sucked in '86, but I have to give Donruss top honors for that year. Fleer and Topps tie for last.

    1. I can seriously call it a striking new design because when I opened packs for the first time in 1986, I said "Whoa, THAT'S different." It looked unusual to me instinctively.

  4. As a kid, I would have chosen Donruss over Topps and Fleer. But in the past few years, Topps has soared to the top. I too never realized the different poses on the baseball. I guess we learn something new everyday. And as far as similar designs, I've always considered the 86 set a 64 knockoff.

  5. As I backfilled my player collections, etc. with these years that I skipped ('85 to '03) I thought the weirdest part of the '86 designs was that Donruss and Fleer both chose practically the same shade of blue. They almost blend together back to back in my tradeable box....

  6. I was "gaga" over the $15 per box pricepoint. That's why my '86 Topps set is complete and the other two aren't even close.

  7. I have always felt the 1986 Topps were more of an homage to 1964. In fact, a lot of the 80's cards are simply variations on the 60's:

    1983 = 1963
    1985 = 1965
    1986 = 1964
    1987 = 1962
    1988 = 1966

    It was heritage two decades before we though of such things. Everything old is new again.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Addressing the elephant in the room

A few people have noticed: I changed the way the blog looked with zero fanfare earlier this week.

I've changed my blog appearance, I think, six times now, although one was just a header swap. Just about all of those came with a bit of a warning or explanation.

I didn't think that was necessary this time, mostly because I've been doing this for over a decade, am pretty established, and don't think I need to justify my decisions here.

But also I thought that people were familiar with the general changes in web sites over the last two, three, four years and wouldn't be that affected by it. For the most part that seems to be true -- or, no one cares and they're all looking at pretty instagram pictures.

I've received a couple of questions though and just because I hate the feeling that some readers are lost, I'll explain what I can.

The changes, like many web site changes, are related to mobile phone use.

I've been irked by the way my blog looks on my p…

Mind explosion: a different way to sort

This may have been one of the most tedious blog posts to put together in the history of this blog, but I think it's for a good cause.

The reason I'm not entirely sure is because I didn't have time to carry it out for a few more attempts, got to shovel that 7 inches of heavy wet snow plopped on my estate on Nov. 12th.

Anyway, a couple of days ago, Colbey from Cardboard Collections was sorting his Topps Holiday set by card number and asked a very common question that I've seen come up many times during my blogging career:

 This is always a satisfying question because this is how I organize my sets when I'm organizing by card number. At the top of the post I showed cards from the 2019 Topps flagship set being sorted in that manner -- stacks separated by hundreds first, then you create separate stacks by 10s within each hundreds stack, then finally order each of the 10s by card number.

I've done this since I was a kid and first knew the card numbers on the back me…

Looking at cards with Johnny B.

Over the weekend, I got a chance to express my inner Mike Oz and share some baseball cards with a former major league player.

I'm working on a story for my paper that involves ex-player Johnny Wockenfuss, who is almost a cult figure with fans of a certain age (I am one) and especially fans of the Detroit Tigers during the '70s and '80s.

I won't go into much detail -- at least not now -- because I'm still in the middle of working on it, have more gathering to go, and I get very protective of my stories while I'm in the middle of the process. Got to retain that exclusive, you know.

But I will say that I was able to sit in the home of Wockenfuss, give him the cards that I have of him in my collection, and ask his opinion on them.

Yeah, cool. Way cool.

I have 17 cards of Wockenfuss ("you have a lot of them," my wife said, and I thought "if that's a lot, what is my Hideo Nomo collection?"). Wockenfuss remembered the cards -- "every bit …