Monday, August 4, 2014

The first "incomplete" Topps set

Cards ceased to exist as I knew them in 1989. Actually, it probably happened in 1985 when Topps issued the U.S. Olympic team set. But that was a subset, which was grouped together and featured a design that differed from the base cards.

In 1989, Topps presented 10 cards of players -- who knows WHO they were -- in their college or (lordy, what is this?) their high school uniforms. And Topps didn't have the courtesy to group them together as their own subset or create a whole new design for them. No, they dispersed them into the base set as if they were regular major league players. Topps noted a difference only with a "draft pick" logo in the corner.

Also by selecting 10 players, Topps didn't even have the forethought to consider the legions of collectors who used nine-pocket pages for their collection. So, even if they wanted to separate the NON-major leaguers from the other cards in the set, they couldn't. It would look like this:

No place for Robin Ventura.

The 10 cards represented the top 10 picks in the 1988 major league amateur baseball draft (they're in order by draft pick above). With the exception of Gregg Olson, Andy Benes and Jim Abbott, who were already in the majors in 1989, I had no idea who these people were. College baseball meant zip in the Northeast (and still does to this day). WHO WERE THESE GUYS?

The part that irked me the most was the fact that for 14 years, I had collected a Topps set that came to be a pretty decent representation of the players who competed for the MLB teams in the past year. This is what I thought I was collecting, guys who played in the majors the previous season (the 4- and 3-player rookie cards were exceptions, but the fact that none of them had a solo card satisfied me).

Each card was reserved for a major league player or manager. They were the chosen few. And now Topps was playing with that -- by putting guys who had barely turned pro, let alone made the majors, into the base set, showcasing them with their own individual cards.


To me, this set was incomplete. It featured a bunch of major league players and then 10 wannabes (OK, seven if you want to be technical and include Olson, Benes and Abbott in their stupid college uniforms). Those spots could have been taken up by someone who actually played in a big-league game at some point in 1988.

I told myself that the only way the set would be complete, like the ones I collected through 1988, were if these guys all eventually made the major leagues.

So, let's see how they did, in order of their success in the majors:

1. Robin Ventura

Ventura played 16 years in the majors, with the White Sox, Mets, Yankees and Dodgers. He was a two-time All-Star, six-time Gold Glover, and played in the postseason five different seasons, including making the World Series with the Mets in 2000.

2. Andy Benes

Benes won 155 games over 14 seasons in the majors, playing for the Padres, Mariners, Cardinals and Diamondbacks. He appeared in one All-Star Game, played in the postseason four different years, and came close to winning 20 games for the Cardinals in 1996.

3. Gregg Olson

Olson was the first relief pitcher to win AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1989. In 14 seasons, he played for the Orioles, Braves, Indians, Royals, Tigers, Astros, Twins, Diamondbacks and Dodgers. He appeared in one postseason series in 1999 and finished with 217 saves in his career.

4. Steve Avery

Despite my dislike for this "subset", I liked this card and I'm not alone. Avery played 11 years in the majors, for the Braves, Red Sox, Reds and Tigers. Out of all the draft picks featured, he enjoyed the most postseason success, appearing in five postseasons with the Braves, including two World Series in 1991 and 1992. He was particularly terrific in the 1991 postseason, and an All-Star in 1993.

5. Jim Abbott

You could probably vault him to No. 1 just based on the fact he doesn't have a right hand. But Abbott won 87 games over 10 major league seasons with the Angels, Yankees, White Sox and Brewers. He threw a no-hitter with the Yankees, finished third in Cy Young Award voting in 1991, and we won't mention that horrible season in 1996. Abbott never played in the postseason.

6. Mark Lewis

Lewis played 11 years in the majors with the Indians, Reds, Tigers, Giants, Phillies and Orioles. He was a sometimes starting, sometimes backup infielder who battled to get out of the minors early in his career. He played in the postseason two different years and hit a pinch-hit grand slam for the Reds in the NLDS 1995.

7. Monty Fariss

Farriss played three seasons in the majors, with most of it with Texas in 1992. He managed just 104 total games, batting .217 for his career. But at least he made it.

8. Willie Ansley

Here is where it goes bad. Ansley never played a major league game. He made it as high as Triple A in 1993 and then went to the Mexican League. His seven seasons in pro ball ended in 1995.

9. Bill Bene

Every time I see him in my Dodgers binder, it bothers me that he's there. Bene also made it as far as Triple A in 1994. He had some brutal seasons in the minors prior to that. He ended his pro career after the 1997 season in the Angels organization.

10. Ty Griffin

Griffin didn't even make it to Triple A. He appeared in Double A ball a few different times but did not hit well. He spent most of 1993-97 in independent ball.

So there you are. There are three guys in the 1989 Topps set with a solo card who never played a major league baseball game. This wouldn't have even been a thought in, say, 1979.

Topps continued to use some of the base cards in its set to feature No. 1 draft picks in 1990 and 1991. And after that, there were non major leaguers all over the place. It is now nothing to pick up a pack and see a mix of major leaguers and newbies. Collectors who grew up in the '90s probably have no idea why I was even bothered by this in 1989.

But it's quite simple really.

I follow major league baseball. Sure, I'll watch a minor league or college game every once in awhile. But I FOLLOW major league baseball.

Unless it's a minor league set, I want to see major leaguers on my cards.


1989 Topps, you're:


  1. You've stated your case thoroughly. Fair enough. But I'll take 10 draft pick cards in a 792-card set which encompasses 26 big league teams versus what we've got today. You wanna talk about incomplete? Well, it's downright criminal that the league is four teams larger but the Topps set has shrunk down to 660 measly cards. And seemingly half of those cards are Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Puig. To quote a famously bad movie, "It stinks!"

    1. The downward spiral began here, Mark. Or, if you're including multiple cards of the same player for no reason, too, it began with '81 Donruss and Fleer.

  2. Kind of surprised you hadn't heard of Robin Ventura in 1989 or grouped him with Olson, Benes and Abbott in this column. He had a 58 game hitting streak at Oklahoma City in 1987 and ESPN covered his games where he passed Joe DiMaggio and when his streak ended.

    1. It's possible I heard about his streak back then, but more likely I read about it for the first time on the back of his baseball card. My focus was even more narrow then than it is now. I know I wasn't watching college ball on ESPN then.

  3. I saw the title of the post and my first thought was you were going to comment on the six missing cards from 1953 Topps that Keith Olbermann was discussing the other night.

    As far as 1989 Topps goes, it never bothered me. I started collecting in 1986, so I understand both sides of the issue. If draft picks were still done like this, I wouldn't have a problem with it at all. The top 10 picks should be recognized. The problem comes whenever they try and give cards to the entire first round or even later.

    BTW, I always hoped Willie Ansley would have made it because that bulldog on the card would have made that an iconic rookie card.

  4. Something is wrong with Ty Griffin's right arm. 89 Topps is one of those I found at a tiny card shop in Washington State while I was in the Navy. My buddy and I bought boxes of the stuff and I just don't know why.

  5. So 6 of the top 10 draft picks in 1988 make it good in the bigs. I think that sounds a bit above average to me.

    I hadn't realized that 1989 was the first year for Draft Pick cards. Of course everybody started doing it after that and the chase was on to determine a player's actual "rookie card".

    I must have seen over a hundred copies of that Ty Griffitn card.

  6. I liked this subset twenty-five years ago. The idea that some of these guys might end up being super stars caught my attention. But over the years, I have slowly lost interest. And I'm a little annoyed that I haven't figured out the whole rookie card situation.