Friday, May 8, 2015

Night Owl's all-time Topps set countdown (44-41)

All right, during the last Night Owl Counts 'Em Down post, I said I would set up a place where you could view the whole countdown all at once.

I still haven't gotten to that.

This is why I don't like making promises on here, because, I'll let you in on a little secret ...

I don't have any time for this blog at all!

If I'm working on this blog, it means I'm keeping myself from doing something else rather important like trying to keep the house from falling down, paying debts, or making sure the kid doesn't become a delinquent, stuff like that.

But don't feel guilty. I work on this blog because it's one of the few shreds of fun left in this life. Oh, what a cranky and deflated night owl I would be if I did not have this blog (and the other two, too).

I promise -- oops, there's that word again -- but, really, I promise that I'll get a page up in which the whole countdown is there at your impatient little fingertips.

And now for Episode 6 of the countdown. We're reaching sets that included things that I really do like. However, there is also something overwhelmingly off-putting about these sets that kind of drown out the like. You'd need a psychiatrist to find out why that is, so try not to dwell on it too much. Just go with the flow.

Flowing commences now:

44. 1970 Topps

There was a time when I would have ranked 1970 Topps at the very bottom of the countdown. Granted, this was years ago, and before the glut of ugliness that arrived between 1996-2002, but growing up collecting and through my teenaged years and young adulthood, I couldn't get over how boring 1970 Topps seemed.

This is all a matter of perspective, of course. I was a kid of the '70s, who collected overwhelmingly vibrant sets like 1975 Topps. After a decade of colorful sets, a guy gets conditioned to that kind of look and anything without seven different color schemes is going to look a little drab. I HAVE color TV, why do I want to see a black-and-white movie?

Conversely, collectors from the '60s, who were seeing 1970 Topps for the first time, probably thought it was interesting, maybe even inventive. Topps had never done gray borders before.

Knowing now what those collectors know has made me look at 1970 Topps in a different way.

I admit, the photograph does stand out when juxtaposed with the gray borders. There is nothing about the border to take your eye off of the photo. That's a major point in 1970 Topps' favor. And ever since I realized that, I've enjoyed the cards more, basking in the sunshine of a ballpark scene as players ready for another batting practice session.

There are some secretly great cards in this set, as I just mentioned. After years of thinking this set wasn't collectible at all, I can now see why someone would want to collect it, if only for the secret gems that burst off the page while surrounded by a number of drab cards.

Because, that's the thing. There just aren't enough of those cards, especially to counter the borders and the very no-nonsense team and position names. The '70 set is plagued by a number of hatless photos (a whopping 64 cards) and photos of players with blacked out caps (33 more). The poses -- with the exception of the many bat-selection pictures -- are ones you've seen forever in your dad's or grandpop's collection. Bat goes here. Glove goes there.

Even the first true Pilots set (the '69 Pilots set is a mish-mash) can't pull 1970 Topps out of the doldrums. The set is like a boring movie with just a few moments that connect and leave you wondering why the directors couldn't have spread that awesomeness throughout the whole movie.

The card backs are bright and colorful and have more in common with the 1960s than the 1970s. (Back on another countdown, I related the tale of how upon viewing the back of my first 1970 Topps card, I had to pull my head back to take in the brightness. That's because I grew up on dark card backs from the 1970s and '80s). I've often wondered whether the two-tone look was part of the inspiration for what would become 1975 Topps.

Overall, this is an enjoyable set once you get past all the gray. It's a "Lovable Once You Get To Know Me" set.

But overall, the general lesson here is: don't make your primary set color gray.

43. 1964 Topps

Here is another set that has grown on me over the last couple of years. You can credit 2013 Heritage for some of that, but I think I was beginning to appreciate it even before that.

The bold team names at the top is a huge plus. I LOVE BOLD TEAM NAMES (see 1967 Topps, 1988 Topps). Sure it forces, Cardinals to "Cards," but who cares? BOLD!

The set features a nice clean look that I've always liked. The white borders on the sides and at the top give it a crisp, out-of-the-pack appearance (provided you kept the dirt off the white borders).

Now to the stuff I don't like:

It's got a lot in common with 1958 Topps in that some of the photos have a "cut-out" scrapbook feel to them. Some of them look like grade-schoolers put them together; you can almost see the glue on the letters. There are several head-shot cards that, like 1958 Topps, barely fit into the frame of the design.

That is the aspect of 1964 Topps that makes my face scrunch the most. The photo appears to be boxed in by the team names and that rectangle of color at the bottom. The rectangle is too big and cuts off too much of the photo. In some cards, the player looks squeezed into the card.

All right, you were waiting for the back.

To me, two of the biggest "what were they thinking" moments in baseball card creation is the look of 1995 Fleer and the card backs for 1964 Topps.



And I like orange. I like it a lot more than other people. While everyone else is hunting for the red Starbursts, I'm hoarding the orange ones. I want the creamsicle Buccaneers uniforms to return. And I want an actual creamsicle NOW.

But none that excuses the very orange, very unreadable cards backs on '64 Topps. Although I do appreciate the cavalier attitude toward the card by requesting the collector to take a coin to the back to reveal a trivia answer.

After this set, there are only five sets from the 1960s remaining on this countdown. It's a fact that I probably don't understand '60s sets as well as collectors that are older than me. But I do know what I like and that's what this countdown is all about.

42. 2004 Topps

Take a look at this set and what do you see?

Because of the large team names at the top, I see 1964 and 1988 Topps (and to a lesser degree, 1986, 1975 and 1971 Topps)

Because of the drawn figure in the corner, I see 1973 and 1976 Topps.

Add some foil, and 2004 Topps is a blend of some of the most historic Topps sets.

It was also the first white-bordered set after seven years of Topps choosing everything from aqua to puke gold for their border colors. So it had to look refreshing to many collectors. Even now, more than 10 years after its release, it still looks refreshing.

Now let's get to the little man on every player's card.

Depending on your point of view, this is a very unnecessary feature or a whimsical, and therefore very necessary feature.

First, is this the first time that a player's uniform number has been listed on the front of a Topps flagship set? This is a cool and somewhat overlooked (by me) feature. This would have been even more useful back before internet and cable TV days.

Secondly, the repeat image, only in smaller sketch form, is definitely unnecessary, but I prefer to look at it as a quirky design element: what the image would look like before you colored it in.

One thing that I have never understood about 2004 Topps is why the images of the players in the photos are so small. On one hand, it gives you a view of what's going on at the ballpark at that particular moment.

On the other hand, you can barely see the player, which is pretty much the objective of a baseball card.

No complaints about the back. That's what a card back should be. Vitals, complete stats, bio, mug of player and all of it is easy to read and digest.

This is a good-sized set, although it's padded with a lot of extras (first-year cards, gold glove cards, draft pick cards, award-winner cards). Taken as a whole, it borrows from a lot of sets and doesn't do much innovative on its own. But if this set were to have showed up in, say, the early '80s, I definitely would have collected it.

41. 1981 Topps

Yeah, I get it. The caps.

One thing that I harp on about full-bleed sets from the '90s and '00s is that there is not enough as far as design to make the set memorable. It's a constant battle to keep from confusing it with another set. That's fine if you don't care about the legacy of a set, but I like sets that stick in my mind. And the best way for a set to stick in my mind, is for it to feature something that no one else is featuring or has featured.

1981 Topps had that going for itself with the caps. Each player's card displays a cap that is colored with the team colors and in the manner of that particular team's cap. This is why Randy Jones' cartoon cap features mostly brown with a triangle of yellow.

It's certainly distinctive and you'll never forget it.

But I've never liked 1981 Topps.

You'll be surprised by the reason that I don't like it:

I don't like the border colors.

Yup. The guy who adores 1975 Topps doesn't like bright, crazy border colors.

I can't explain it, except that when I see a whole bunch of 1981 Topps together, like so:

I recoil at the ugly.

I don't like the shades of color used for this set. I think the Royals, in particular (and I guess the Indians, too), got screwed with burnt orange on all of their cards.

The Reds and White Sox, too, with the puke green borders, I'm glad I'm not a fan of those teams.

Although the Dodgers didn't exactly luck out with pink (the Yankees, too).

The colors are just gross. Too much green and too much yellow and way too much burnt orange.

The only teams that lucked out were those bordered in blue -- the Orioles, Astros and A's.

Now that is a beautiful card.

I think one of the reasons that I prefer 1975 Topps over 1981 Topps (besides the obvious reason) is that '75 Topps didn't stick each team with one color combination. The color combos were all over the place, so if you didn't like one combination, well, your whole team wasn't stuck with it.

Topps also seemed to play favorites with the color combinations.

The Pirates, two years removed from winning the World Series, received yellow borders that matched perfectly with their color scheme.


The White Sox were punished for their uniform choice with sickly green borders.

This is the set that Topps put out the year Donruss and Fleer became competition. Neither Donruss nor Fleer issued a set that could legitimately compete with Topps that year, but Topps got lucky. If either Donruss or Fleer was on its game that year, it would have easily blown past Topps.

Scan through the '81 Topps set and you'll notice too many head shots for a set that was issued in the 1980s. Times would change the very next year for Topps and really change the year after that. But I view 1981 Topps as the end of the Olin Mills era. It is very much a dated set.

1981 Topps featured red backs for the first time since 1975, but all I noticed is that some cards featured a cartoon and others didn't. This was the first time in my collecting experience that cartoons were featured on some, but not all cards. I didn't like it.

After everyone was done collecting the set in '81, Topps issued the first modern traded set. If 1981 Topps is remembered for anything, it will be that Traded set and the caps.

There's not much else worth remembering.

Up next: Sets #40-37.


  1. The 2004 Topps set is the last set that made the binders. The 2004 Topps Retired Signatures set with the older players works with the 2004 design.

  2. The 1970 set is growing on me, but it's not much to look at in the binder, but those backs are awesome. It has the block letter team names like they would use in 1971 and I think they used the script idea for the 1978s and the team name.

    2004 Topps, more specifically, Chrome, was the last new cards I bought in 2003-2004. I think I have 75% of the set in a binder, looks good too.

  3. Man, I want a creamsicle now too...

  4. No way any Topps set from the aughts ranks higher than any Topps set from the 60s or 70s. Just no way 2004 is better looking than 1970 or 1964. No way the '81 set is better looking than '70 or '64 either. '70, especially, was a great looking set. Your complaint about the '64 design crowding the photo is a fair one...which is exactly what makes the '70 set so great. The '70 images don't look the least bit crowded and, except for the traded players, there are probably fewer "big head" shots in 1970 than in any year prior. At least it seemed that way to me. Nothing wrong with pitchers pitching, fielders fielding, hitters hitting and catchers catching. Besides which, card #1 was the 1969 World Champion Mets team card. No other set can top that.

    1. I've just added (because I didn't have the time to count them earlier) a big reason why 1970 Topps is where it is: 64 cards in the set have players with no caps. 33 more have blacked-out/airbrushed caps. That, combined with the gray borders, is too much for me. As for 2004 Topps, I need more action pix -- granted, all action all the time is no good either -- but I need at least some.

  5. I'm a huge fan of the 2004 design... and might be the only collector in existence that has that set in his Top 10 list. I'm still hoping to one day stumble across factory set of the stuff at the flea market in the $5 to $15 range.

  6. Time has softened my stance, but if you asked me in 1981 I would've said that Fleer *did* blow past Topps that year. I completed the Topps set because that's what one did, but I completed the Fleer set because it was new and different and I loved it.

    ...And I never liked the little caps.

    I have a soft spot for 1970, but I think that's because when I was a kid in 1975, 1970 was what we considered "vintage". Old enough that my friends and I didn't have them, but recent enough that you'd see them in flea markets and garage sales.

  7. I kind of like the little guy mimicking the photo on the 2004 set. It's at least something different from the "more white borders" Topps. The 1981 design for Topps really paled in comparison to the late 1970s sets they put's no 1977, that's for sure.

  8. I've recently moved my 1970 Topps to a binder in sleeves in attempt to complete it, inspired in no small part by your recent bat selection post in it.

    And of course you like Orange. As a CNY'er it's sort of ingrained. Go Orange, and God Bless the Great Jim Boeheim.

  9. The 1970 was the first set I really collected and bought a bunch of packs. It's grown on me over the years. Just started to go back and try to complete it. I actually like the simplicity of the 64 set especially the rookie cards. The 81 set is the last set I collected through buying packs. Don't really have any opinion on the 2004 set.

  10. You grade 1970 Topps slightly ahead of 1969 Topps and you complain about the dull photography and grey borders. Considering the number of hall of famers in 1969 Topps and Mantle's last card to me puts it slightly ahead of 1970 Topps which is the first post Mantle set. Keep in mind that the new expansion teams (four) are the reason for the increased airbrushing and hatless players not to mention the trades. 1969 Topps also features what I believe is the first night photography #338 Del Unser (or dusk anyway).