Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Night owl's all-time Topps set countdown (64-61)


Here we are.

Welcome to another blogger counting down every Topps flagship set from worst to best, according to his own biases and prejudices. As someone who strives for objectivity in his job, you won't see much of that here.

I considered being as objective as I could, taking a step back and evaluating the sets as they exist outside of my own influences. Perhaps the countdown would be more legitimate that way. But, frankly, that's boring and only the kind of thing that you would find in a publication in which the writers are getting paid.

This countdown will not produce any coin in my pocket, so it's going to be filled with my kind of fun.

There will be 16 countdown "episodes". Each episode will feature four sets. This way, I can write as much as I want about them without boring the entire card collecting public and, most importantly, me. (Well, maybe I will be the only one not bored, but I don't care). Also, each episode will have a theme, in this case, "it can't get any worse."

Finally, I've recruited all of my owl buddies to help out with the countdown. Each episode will feature a different owl. As the countdown progresses from the worst sets to the best, you'll see increasingly happier owls. Because, believe it or not, they really, really care about the quality of Topps sets.

Other than that, I'm not promising anything different from any other similar countdown, other than placing the Night Owl name on it for what it's worth.

But I believe that's enough introduction.

Now, here are the four worst sets in Topps history:


64. 1996 Topps


Is 1996 Topps even a set? This is the question I would have asked had I operated a blog that year or, heck, even collected a card that year. It's probably best that the set arrived when collecting was low on my priority list and, in fact, low on the priority list of quite a few other "former" collectors.

Card companies were still climbing back from the 1994 MLB players' strike when fans and collectors left the sport in unheard of numbers. A couple decades later, I can see why Topps made its 1996 set just 440 cards, the lowest total for a flagship set since 1957. The company was just hoping someone would buy the thing. But if I were collecting in '96, my reaction to this decision would have been "wrong answer."

Be proud of who you are! You're Topps, the greatest card maker in the land! Creators of the 792-card set! What the hell is 440 cards? I'm pretty certain the concept of the base set died in '96.

What I think Topps was doing was following the lead of Upper Deck. In 1995, Upper Deck dropped its flagship set from 550 cards to 495, while Topps' 1995 set was a robust 660 cards (after 792 in 1994). Topps then dutifully cut its set down to 440 in 1996. Meanwhile, Upper Deck went with 480 cards, 40 more than Topps.

This wasn't the only area where Topps copied Upper Deck, choosing to replicate one of the biggest head-scratchers in baseball card design ever.

The duplicate "squished head" image on the front of every player's card in the '96 set would be even more puzzling if 1994 Upper Deck hadn't preceded it.


I haven't the foggiest idea why it's necessary to reproduce the same image as the main one, right next to it, AND make it worse. But this was the theme of the '94 Upper Deck design, and, Topps decided to copy it, except two years later when everyone had finally forgotten the silliness of '94 Upper Deck. Topps: "Remember how stupid the secondary image on 1994 Upper Deck was? Well, we're bringing it back for 1996 Topps! Except we're just going to squish the head! Distortion! It's what's for dinner!"

Yes, 1996 was a great year for Kerri Strug, Michael Johnson, Jerry Maguire and the Spice Girls, but if you ask me what I want, what I really, really want, it's for Topps to redo the '96 design.

The '96 framework is basically 1994 Fleer, except completely botched. The plain white borders are there. The photo is the prominent feature. There is a floating team logo. But where '94 Fleer soars, '96 Topps flops. The team logo is just the right size in '94 Fleer, but too small in '96 Topps. The player's name is featured in foil on a difficult-to-read blue background in '96 Topps, while it artfully curves around the team logo in '94 Fleer. And the player's position is nowhere to be found on the front of '96 Topps, while the position follows the name in '94 Fleer.


The backs come down to a personal preference and, sadly, my preference is not this. Pale blue backgrounds are good for babies bedrooms and hospital walls. But it's ugly here. The huge, radioactive home plate background has no purpose and merely squashes the stats, which are difficult to read, but not as difficult as they could be considering white type on a dark background is always risky.

The 1996 Topps set took the worst aspect of the '94 Upper Deck set, copied the '94 Fleer set while ignoring all of its best points, and made the set its smallest in 46 years. It's as if Topps knew that nobody was going to like it.

The '96 Topps set had potential, but featured too many wrong decisions. That same year, Topps released its first Chrome set, which were shiny versions of its base-set cards. It was 1996's "lipstick on a pig" moment.


63. 2014 Topps


Ranking recent sets in a countdown that includes 60-plus years worth of pop culture is not an easy task. Perspective is everything when comparing eras.

If I were to assemble this countdown 10 or 20 years from now, 2014 Topps might receive a more positive ranking. But I'm fairly certain that it would not venture very far from the place where it resides now.

The 2014 Topps set commits two crimes. The first is one that has happened over and over in Topps' history -- it looks too much like the set that preceded it, 2013 Topps. This, in of itself, is not a felony. We will see in this countdown several sets that resemble an earlier set that are ranked higher than the set that went before it. Where 2014 Topps commits its true crime is in its refusal to be anything.

What the hell are we looking at here? If I stare at these cards for the next 25 years I won't know what the intent was behind this design. 2014 is a mess. It's as if 2013 Topps was a snowman and melted in the sun and someone reassembled the design based on what was left over to form 2014 Topps. There are too many elements on the card and nothing seems to go with anything else. There are swooshes and ribbons and tabs and logos and borders and discs. Straight lines and curved lines. It's a road map to nowhere.

The shiny roller coaster over the name and the position seems unnecessary and placed there only to continue "The Swoosh Era," which covers 2010-14 Topps.


The swoosh theme is so prominent I wonder if Nike is a secret sponsor for this set. But other than the addition of WAR as a stat (something that I'm sure would vault this set much higher on a lot of other people's countdowns),  these backs are a bore.

2014 Topps is a mutt of a set. It is compiled with bits and pieces taken from other places to form something new. But unlike a mutt, there are no adorable eyes or loving personality. Just a lot of ugly jagged edges and confusion. Like the 2014 viral video "Too Many Cooks," the end result is bloody ugly, and not nearly as fun.



62. 2000 Topps


I getcha. Who could concentrate on making a card set when Y2K was going to send us back to the stone age?

If this is the reason for 2000 Topps, then OK, you're excused. Because any rational-thinking person would know that Topps used the gray/silver border once before and collectors were still yawning about it while desperately trying to update their software.

The gray borders of 1970 Topps were probably very innovative when the set was first released, but not less than five years later (thank you very much 1972 and 1975 Topps), the set was hopelessly dated and as interesting as anything in grandma's bedroom. I know, because I saw a 1970 card for the first time in the mid-1970s and instantly wanted to take a nap. And you know how kids feel about naps.

But at the risk of making 2000 Topps about 1970 Topps, I'll steer this write-up 30 years forward and ... ah, hell, it's still boring. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Meanwhile, Topps was still issuing paltry flagship sets at this time -- only 478 cards with this one. I was still barely collecting at this point, but I do remember buying two or three packs from a bookstore of all places and thinking "so this is how modern cards are going to be now -- no, thank you."

Although I appreciate the unobtrusive design, the odd "porch step" effect ruins the minimalist look. The "Topps 2000" notation is welcome since copyright dates on the backs of cards were breaking tiny type records all over the country at that time, but it would have looked much better if it was placed on the same line as the position designation, and the "step" eliminated.


It's strange that someone who loves 1975 Topps so much would say this, but vertical backs are rarely pleasing (sorry, mid-1980s Fleer, it's true). Not only does this card back remind me of something ugly from the early '90s, but the stats are much too tiny. My eyes aren't what they once were and 2000 Topps shouldn't be reminding me of that. It has its own problems.

But the one thing you should know is how impressed I am that I was able to compose so many words for this set when really the only thing that needs to be said is "yaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwnnnn."

Not the kind of set you want to kick off the 21st century (or end the 20th century, depending on your viewpoint).


61. 1998 Topps



I know that collectors who grew up with cards from the late 1990s don't feel this way, but this was an unfortunate time period for first coming across Topps sets.

As you probably know, The Cardboard Connection has been conducting a bracket vote-off to determine the best Topps set in history. Virtually across the board, the Topps sets from the late '90s were the lowest seeds and voted out of their misery in the first round.

I wish I could pinpoint what was so universally disliked about these sets, but all I can do is give my opinion and that is: "they were depressingly ugly." My mood changes when I look at sets from this time period. Part of it is because steroids was so rampant at the time and I can actually see it in the pictures of beefed up baseball players from this period. But the other part is how obsessed card companies were with gold and silver.

Topps wasn't the only one company to plaster gold and silver all over their sets. One look at Pinnacle will tell you that. But while some companies could make the sets look at least slightly desirable, Topps could only make them look drab and not collectible at all.

I don't know what it would take for me to want to complete the 1998 Topps set. Amnesia? An auto accident that robbed me of the portion of my brain that determines good taste? It's a set design for disco dudes with open collars and medallions. Even though '98 Topps features some creative and interesting photos (no doubt spurred on by Upper Deck's innovative photography of the time), they're presented in a ugly golden frame.

You'll notice that I've ranked 1998 Topps below 1999 Topps, a set that shares a lot in common with '98 Topps. That is because I'm one of the few who likes '99 Topps better ("likes" is a strong word, let's go with "prefers"). The worst part of  '98 Topps, which '99 Topps doesn't possess, is the awful, muddled nameplate at the bottom. Backdrops with pictures, in which words are printed over them, should be outlawed in an amendment to the constitution. I'll say it again: I shouldn't have to tilt a card to read a player's name.


'98 Topps commits the same sin on the back. I'm trying to read the tiny, tiny stats but all I can see are Yankees logos floating before my eyes. In fact, if I close my eyes, I can STILL SEE THEM. Damn it, make it stop!!

Finally, I suspect that this is the set that kicked off the gold parallel phenomenon that exists to this day. I grew tired of these parallels a long time ago -- in fact, I was never very impressed with them -- yet a number of collectors are still hooked and look at anyone who questions them as if they're 400 years old.

This is what you wrought, 1998 Topps.

Russell Hammond is a golden god. You are not.


Up next: Sets #60-57. It will be a slightly less cranky episode. Slightly.

15 comments:

  1. 1996 Topps sucks. Add in the Mickey Mantle nostalgia and the cereal box factory sets and its no wonder why this is the set that drove me to vintage.

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  2. I also find 1996 to be an eye sore. I'm not as down on 1998 Topps (I always liked the faint team logos on the back)...but 2014 Topps?! Ugh, maybe even worse than 1996. Every time I get a 2014 Topps card in a trade, I instantly think it's some sort of Bowman card. There isn't a much stronger insult that I could hurl on a card.

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  3. You can tell that this is off to a nice start when I went down the four going "agree, agree, agree, definitely agree." I have a sliver of respect for 1998 Topps, but that respect is taken away because there is no way of customizing that design.
    500 bonus points for the Almost Famous reference.

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  4. I'm not sure what's sadder... the fact that there were only 440 cards in the 1996 set or the reality that I didn't know that fact.

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  5. Ugly, ugly, ugly and ugly. I'm ashamed I bought all but the 2014 set. By 2007 I stopped collecting new issue sets. 1996 is my lease favorite but I was single and had cash to spend. I'd rather have the money today than all those cards. Well, I guess I can.get some of that money back if I sell them at a garage sale.

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  6. Can't disagree with any of these being the bottom of the bottom. Not liking the foreshadowing of a poor showing for the 1970 Topps design (which I love and think is very under-rated), but otherwise... I only disagree on one point, ten or twenty years from now, 2014 Topps isn't going to fare any better. It might even fare worse.

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  7. Can't argue with these. Looking at the mid- to late- 90s sets, especially the '96 set makes me glad I wasn't paying attention to cards at that point.

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  8. Totally agree on all counts. Part of me wishes I'd gotten back into collecting more in 2010 than in 2014. Perhaps I wouldn't be so irascible about some of the things that bug me.

    Wait, of course I would be. But I'd be especially irascible if I'd come back to collecting in 1996. UGLY.

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  9. Yep, with ya all the way. I wouldn't have necessarily singled out 2014, but would have one whole section with 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 all in together since they're so similar.
    I never understood the "echo picture" concept either. Redundancy has no place in card design.
    I am currently finishing 1997. '96 is one of those sets that at some point I figure I'll see for ten bucks or less at a show and will pick it up and put it on a shelf. I think I did build 1998 for some reason, but I don't really remember it. That whole period is sort of a "recovery time" to me where Topps was re-learning how to do nice sets again. It took them a few experimental years to work back up to a median standard. Then they got into weird colors in the 2000s....I didn't pay any attention from the mid 80s to 2004, so it's all a bit foggy in my mind...

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  10. I thought Topps made all the 90s sets drab so that the inserts would look better in a pack next to them. Topps inserts were light years behind all the other companies and that was the only way their inserts could get any attention.

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  11. I was actively collecting in 1996, and all I can say is "Thank God for 1996 Collector's Choice". I only wish that, at the time, I could've let go of the general feeling of "I *have* to buy it, it's Topps flagship".

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  12. 1996 was horrible, especially the Star Power and Prospect cards. I bought my team's set anyway, but I made sure to write up a bad review.

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  13. I don't hate the 1996 design so much as the set size. I can think of at least one notable former player who was robbed of what should have been his final Topps card by the tiny set size.

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