Thursday, July 30, 2015

Night owl's all-time Topps set countdown (20-17)

With everything that's going on this week, I considered postponing the latest edition of the countdown until next week. Trade deadlines, bloggers taking off for the National Sports Card Convention, who's paying attention?

But then I thought, this is Night Owl Cards here! The National doesn't stop because of what NOC has to say, the trade deadline isn't moved to make way for Night Owl, that's their problem. It's time to make them pay! You skip one day of Night Owl Cards, you lose. Thank you to the faithful readers who know that there's nothing better than reading random thoughts about baseball cards.

So, here we are in the Top 20. From this point out, you are guaranteed that these are sets that I like. Even if I spend part of that set's segment criticizing some element, I still like the set. Nothing's perfect, even the set at No. 1.

So be comfortable in the fact that these are enjoyable sets, and if you've never appreciated them yourself, maybe there's something here that will help you to enjoy them.

20. 1980 Topps

We're getting into sets to which I have deep ties. 1980 Topps is one of them.

1980 Topps marks my beginning as a "serious collector," it was the first set that I actually attempted to complete. I didn't complete it that year (I didn't complete until decades later), because I was still a young teenager with very little money. But the process and the set left quite the impression.

Thinking back to that time, I approached this set with a great deal of hope. It was the start of a new decade, the first time I understood the concept of a brand new decade. I was looking forward to the future of baseball cards. And when I took a look at 1980 Topps, I was pleased, because it looked a lot better than 1979 Topps.

Topps went back to the pennant flags, a tried-and-true practice that had worked in previous sets like 1965 and 1974 Topps. The flags are quite a bit more active than in previous versions, as well, which complements the action photos in this set.

And, unlike 1979 Topps, this set is filled with color. And it doesn't detract too much from the photo.

1980 Topps begins with this bad-ass card, one of the best first cards of any Topps set. You don't know how pleased I was to see the highlights/record breaker subset returning to the front of the set after 1977 and 1979.

The 1980 set is known for one of the best-looking rookie cards ever made, the Rickey Henderson rookie. And it's got one of the best-looking card backs as well.

I've mentioned before how thrilled I was to see blue backs. I wasn't around in 1965, so this was very exciting, and to this day, I appreciate the 1980 card backs more than most.

So, you know what's coming, what don't I like about the 1980 set?

Well, other than the grudge I hold against it for not being able to complete it in 1980, I have just one minor complaint.

There is way too much yellow in this set.

Yellow borders, yellow small flags, yellow big flags, yellow letters, yellow, yellow, yellow. Eight of the nine cards on this sheet feature yellow. And it's like that for most pages in the set.

I'm just not a fan of yellow in most places, and that includes card sets. You know my feelings about 1991 Fleer.

Yellow is good for attracting the eye and that's why fast food operators and advertisers use it, but it decreases the appeal of cards, for me. If 1980 Topps had used a few more blue borders -- to go with the blue backs -- I would have rated this set higher.

19. 1984 Topps

If you asked me a few decades ago, or even as recently as five years ago, what I thought of 1984 Topps, I would have told you it was a lazy rehash of 1983 Topps, an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the set that preceded it.

I've come around since then.

Sure, 1984 Topps looks a lot like 1983 Topps. But pretend for a moment that 1983 Topps didn't exist. Or that 1984 Topps came before 1983 Topps. I did that, and I saw a new way to look at this set.

To me, this set is one of those sets that is "of its time," like 1959 Topps. If you remember the mid-1980s, it was filled with bright colors, from The Cosby Show to Miami Vice to the Go-Gos to Coca-Cola advertisements. Everything was bright, vibrant, bold colors. That's 1984 Topps.

1984 Topps is full of action, just like the previous year's set. The bright colors underline the action. Then, there are the vertical team names and the cut-out mug shots with the colorful background. This gives the set a comic-book feel, which makes me appreciate the set even more.

If I bump up the contrast on Joe Beckwith's card here, he looks more like what you would see in a comic book. Or at least that's what it looks like to me.

In the past, I thought that so many elements -- 1984 Topps has a LOT of elements -- detracted from the main photo. The player in the main photo looks cramped. But while that may be the case in some pictures, I think Topps did a great job of finding pictures, or cropping them in such a way, that makes them stand out.

To me, this is a great pop culture set. I enjoy it more and more and am now wondering why I've ranked it so low.

So let's see a reason why it's at 19.

These blasted things.

This is one of the worst examples of set filler from the 1980s. There are 18 of these cards, many with the same repeated mug shots. I hated them the instant I saw them.

The backs, while featuring a nice team logo, aren't the friendliest, either.

Here's a better logo example, on the manager cards. These are wonderful.

And for those who still aren't convinced, or just know this set as the one with a Don Mattingly rookie card, I invite you to take another look at it. It's not just a knock-off of the 1983 set. It's a 1980s comic hero swooping in to the strains of James Ingram's "Yah Mo Be There". You might be surprised.

18. 1952 Topps

Back in the spring, when counting down all of Topps' flagship sets was all the rage (sorry, no trends being set here ... again), the 1952 Topps set was voted the best set over at Cardboard Connection. This was one of those mass vote-off rankings where readers did the selecting.

It once again proves my point. The masses don't know what they're doing.

Sure, 1952 Topps set the template for the modern baseball card. It gave us stats on the back and the approximate number of cards in a set and a bunch of other things. Yes, if it weren't for 1952 Topps, the other sets that I love might not be around.

But that gets 1952 Topps as far as No. 18. It's not getting to No. 1 on that. Because it's not good enough.

I'm one of those bloggers -- and I know I have company on this -- that believes '52 Topps is overrated. Topps has beaten the design into the ground for 20 years now through various tributes and reissues. I look at the set and the design and I'm numb to it, like a song I've heard 25 times a day on the radio. All of the pioneering that '52 Topps did means nothing because of Topps' subsequent overkill.

It actually took someone else's blog for me to rediscover some more respect for '52 Topps. Adventures in 1952 has been documenting the quest for a complete '52 set a card at a time. Thanks to that blog, I've seen several '52 Topps cards for the first time.

And I've liked what I've seen. I like the bright backgrounds. I like portrait shots, although the colorized black-and-white photos sometimes aren't the greatest. The design in general is pretty ugly, and the set has a very old, dated feel. No matter how much praise it gets, it's not timeless, like some other sets from that period.

There are you historic stats on the back (sorry for the small number of scans with this set, but thanks to a bunch of '52 Topps being dumped into the river, they're not easy to buy).

While I wouldn't mind collecting this set, there are too many other sets -- many of them made by Topps -- that look better and are simply more pleasing to collect.

Being first means a lot, but it doesn't mean you strong-arm your way to the top. Others came second, but did it better.

17. 1974 Topps

Some sets are more difficult to rank than others.

I know for a fact that many collectors, those who never collected a card in the '70s, would rank this set much lower. There isn't much about it that appeals to a younger collector. The design is tried-and-true, the photos are what I'd characterize as "in transition," there are many too many glorified head shots.

But when I see certain cards from this set ...

... I melt.

This Aurelio Rodriguez card (the original "A-Rod") is one of the first cards that I ever saw. It came from those first packs that we received from my mother back in 1974. I can't remember if I had this card or my brother had it, but it is legendary in my mind, and I cannot separate it from an analysis of the set, which is supposed to be objective.

This set means too much to me.

I actually think there are enough classic cards in this set to satisfy an objective ranker:

And I think the design really helps certain teams in this set, like the Reds and the Yankees, and especially the Oakland A's:

They have phenomenal cards in '74 Topps, as they should, since they were the two-time World Series champs at the time. And don't you know that 8-year-old night owl knew exactly how cool these cards looked.

The Swingin' A's were everywhere at that time, and so was Hank Aaron. To recognize Aaron's imminent surpassing of Babe Ruth for the all-time home run record, Topps did something it had never done, and issued a Hank Aaron retrospective to kick-off the set.

That automatically makes the set memorable, although I've always been miffed that Aaron didn't receive a card that looked like everyone else's in the set, too.

Also, how scary was it stating for a fact that Aaron would be the home run king before he became the home run king?

Speaking of the backs, 1974 Topps has some of the best cartoons ever.

And 1974 Topps gave us the first separate Traded Set:

True, there are ...

... far too many ...

... examples ...

... of airbrushing in '74 Topps.

But, I can't help it. I look at a card of Al Bumbry or Claude Osteen or Garry Maddox and I'm transported to the very first time I saw baseball cards up close, in my hands, and all of them were 1974 Topps cards.

That's enough to get this set to No. 17.

Up next: Sets #16-13

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Watching baseball to take my mind off of ... baseball

Stephen Strasburg is pitching for the Syracuse Chiefs tonight on a rehab assignment on his way back to the Nationals. The stands are expected to be packed at NBT Bank Stadium (love those modern stadium names), which means I'm glad I attended last night's Chiefs game.

Although I wouldn't mind seeing Strasburg pitch, I abhor crowds, and really star-gazing is not why I go to baseball games.

I go to games, it's apparent to me now, to forget. Forget everyday concerns and problems, yes, but also to forget baseball.

Yup, that's what I said. I watch baseball to forget baseball.

This is what I mean: as you know the trade deadline is very close. This has always been a pretty exciting time, but most years you didn't think much about it until the very day of the deadline. That's no longer possible. Because of the internet and the fantasy baseball influence, the trade deadline is now a week-long holiday and people are mentioning scenarios and insider information and all kinds of fantastical potential deals.

It's very easy to get caught up in that, plus get caught up in watching the fortunes of your favorite team, and forget that you're supposed to, you know, do something besides watch constant updates on your phone.

Physically going to a baseball game, and keeping the phone turned off, helps get all that nonstop chatter out of your head. It felt good.

So quickly, so I don't bore you too much, here are the top three and bottom three things about last night's game:

Top three

1. The Chiefs were playing the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons are the Triple A team I like the most (yes, even more than the Dodgers' Triple A team), so we sat on the Bisons side and cheered for the Bisons and they won because former Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis turned into his 2007 self and threw seven shutout innings.

2. The girlfriend of Bisons third baseman Matt Hague, who is leading the whole International League in hitting, sat down in front of us, unzipped her bag, and pulled out a tiny dog. Now, normally, I don't like yippy dogs. But this one just sat in his seat and looked around the whole game. If I took my dog to the park, we'd be ejected within a half hour. I was very impressed ... and jealous.

3. The timer on each pitch is definitely doing its job. The game was done by 9:35. There have been some games where I haven't gotten out of there until after 10:30.

Bottom three

1. Not every year, it depends on whether I feel like blowing my money, but often I try to pick up the Chiefs' team set at the game. The Nationals kind of bore me as an MLB team, but as you can see they have a few notable guys, and I've been able to land a minor league card of most of them. Unfortunately, the gift shop, for whatever reason, was closed. No Trea Turner card for me.

2. The game program is now a newspaper tabloid. I'm assuming this is some sort of deal with the newspaper in town, and I know I should appreciate anything newspaper, but I like my programs to be programs. Glossy covers, you guys.

3. The nachos were gross. I don't like nachos anyway -- well actually I don't like nacho cheese -- so that's really not a comment on the concessions (the sausage sandwiches didn't suck).

I don't need to tell you that overall it was a good time, but I think I'm mostly happy that I was informed during the game that the Dodgers were losing to the A's, and I really didn't care. My interests were not invested elsewhere; they were invested here.

Baseball cards help pull your focus, too. It's one of the many reasons why I like them so much. When the chatter gets too high, it's great to shut things off or leave the room and start organizing.

The latest cards that I am organizing are some from The Lost Collector (how's that for a transition? Hey, AJ did once live in Syracuse). He sent me some modern Dodgers recently:

There are a couple of cards from my favorite 2015 set.

And that's probably the best-looking insert set of the year.

And a couple of much-appreciated Opening Day Puigs.

I envy you people who have a ballpark nearby, especially of the major league variety. The closest MLB park to me is around five hours away, probably longer considering customs. Even the closest high-level minor league park is over an hour away.

There is nothing quite as relaxing as sitting in the stands and watching a game for a couple of hours.

So much more relaxing than hitting "update" a hundred times a day.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From star of the '70s to marginal Hall of Famer

When I was a kid, there were few baseball athletes that were as big of a deal as Lou Brock.

I had just missed out on Hank Aaron surpassing Babe Ruth for the all-time home run record in 1974, so when Brock passed Ty Cobb for the all-time stolen base record in 1977, that was the big "all-time" mark of my childhood.

And it was a major deal. I remember the newspaper layout when Brock broke the record in late August of that year. Large headline, large photo, top of the page. All during my first few years of following baseball, Brock was treated with reverence, a perpetual all-star, a World Series hero, a topic of paperback biographies, a certain Hall of Famer.

Indeed, Brock did make it into the Hall of Fame on his first try in 1985. And nobody raised an eyebrow.

It's only been in the last decade or two that Brock has come up in discussions about "marginal Hall of Famers." Brock's stats aren't treated kindly by sabermetrics. His on-base percentage, while OK, wasn't what you'd expect from someone with such lofty honors. His career WAR is comparable to players who almost no one would consider to be a Hall of Famer.

Nobody's really arguing that Brock doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, but as someone who's been around baseball for 40 years now, the decline is obvious: he's gone from highly acclaimed superstar to "yeah, well, I guess we don't kick him out."

Of course, this probably doesn't mean a thing to Brock. He's in the Hall of Fame. He's been in there for decades. No one's going to say to his face, "yeah, but your WAR wasn't really that good." If they do, he's going to point to that plaque and say, "I'm there forever, son."

Brock made it into the Hall of Fame based on his prolific base-stealing ability, 3,000 career hits and a terrific World Series reputation (he batted.391 in 21 games). His reputation was passed down to young kids like me, probably through people like Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek and syndicated sportswriters of the 1970s.

Reputations are being made based on a somewhat different set of standards now, which is fine. But it's always nice to go back to the '70s and review who people thought was at the top of the class.

And that's why we're voting on the best 1970s Topps card of Lou Brock.

I'll show you all of Brock's cards from this decade and ask you to vote for your favorite in the poll on the sidebar (I'm at a ballgame tonight, so I won't be able to put up the poll until after I get back). (EDIT: Poll is up!)

Brock has one particular card from the 1970s that, as far as I'm concerned, far surpasses anything else that he's ever had on cardboard. I'm not even afraid of tipping the voting in this card's favor. It's that good.

But we don't play the game on paper and we don't vote based on night owl's biases (I've found that out a time or two). Make up your own mind.

So here are Brock's 1970s cards. Every one of them has a card number ending in a zero or a five. Because I'm telling you again, he was a big deal in the '70s:

1970: Brock lounging casually at the batting cage, with bat behind his waist, which sets him up for a sucker punch to the solar plexus.

1971: I don't know why I admire this card so much. It's probably because it's such a crisp copy of a high-numbered card. The "sky shot" makes me almost miss that Brock is holding a bat in this picture.

1972: This might be from the same photo shoot as the 1971 card. The bat looks very similar. Brock received the double zero treatment for 1972, as card No. 200. That's star power.

1973: This is the only '70s Brock card that I don't have. It's very '70s, from the tilted background to the high-rise in the background that appears on a few other '70s cards. But the best part of this card are the traffic lights in the background. Traffic lights! There can't be many baseball cards with traffic lights. And now I must have this card.

1974: The card from his record-breaking season, when he stole 118 bases, but the best part of this card is on the back.

Brock operated a flower shop. He also was a known inventor, coming up with the Brockabrella, an umbrella hat that actually appears on a baseball card (Jay Johnstone's famed 1984 Fleer card).

1975: That is a LOUD card. Red, pink and yellow. But it all fit with Brock's flashy reputation.

1976: Here it is: the card I expect to run away with the voting (heh, get it?). Not only is this probably Brock's premier card, but I expect this card to do some serious damage when I compile the 100 greatest cards of the '70s. Vote for another card if you like, but I might ask you for a reason.

1977: This one's pretty good, too. Very '70s. From the baby blue road uniforms, to the NL centennial patch, to one of the only preserved-on-cardboard examples of the anniversary throwback helmet. Also, a very cool red bat.

1978: I am well-acquainted with this card as it was the first Brock card that I pulled myself. In fact, I'm not used to it being in such pristine condition. The frayed/worn version is much more familiar.

1979: The final card of Brock's career closes the decade. I always thought this was appropriate. Brock's performance fell off quite a bit in 1978. You get the sense from the card that he knows that. The St. Louis logo on his helmet apparently is embarrassed to be seen on him.

So, once again, the poll is up. Have at it. Vote for the Best of the '70s Lou Brock card and give the man some love that he hasn't experienced since ... well, the '70s.

Monday, July 27, 2015

When your sticker book rejects your stickers

So, I have this sticker album from 1982. It came to me from across the ocean, because back in 1982 I had one and have no idea what became of it.

Periodically, I find '82 stickers and it's a very giddy moment because I can pull out this sticker book and STICK, STICK, STICK THEM! Weeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!

Still the book is not a big collecting priority because I've always been all about the cardboard. So the sticker book sits patiently waiting for some more stickers.

Awhile ago, A Swing and a Pop-Up acquired some '82 stickers, because he's one of the original kings of the oddballs, and had a few extras to spare. I pounced quickly. And eagerly anticipated a sticking session.

The stickers arrived:

I could feel my whole body vibrating.

There is no time to waste when a sticking opportunity strikes. I ran upstairs quickly and grabbed my sticker book, and started paging between gulps of air.

Sadly, by the time I was done, there was just one sticker stuck.

My new scanner cannot contain the awesomeness of my sticker book either.

Andre Dawson is now stuck.

But all the other stickers are dupes.

I don't know what to do.

Back when Topps first started issuing '80s stickers, in 1981 and 1982, I bought up a ton of those packets. But I refused to stick anything that wasn't a dupe. So I had tiny little stacks of unstuck stickers in my collection from both years. (I have no idea what happened to those either).

But I've turned completely around on my sticker thinking. Stickers are meant to be stuck!

And if they aren't stuck, what good are they?

So all of the above stickers I have there, except for Dawson of course, are there for the taking. If you need one or all, let me know and I'll ship them off.

Otherwise, I'll find some place to stick them. And if that's got to be the dog, so be it.

Bert sent a few actual cards, too:

OK, that's not really a card either. Still kind of cool.

These are from a 12-card Duke Snider sent issued in 1983. I wrote a post about these quite awhile ago. I could tell you more about the cards if I found the post, but it's getting more and more difficult to track down old posts. So, for now, all I can add is that last card is awesome.

So is this 1979 TCMA card. God bless the TCMA. Fantastic.

I think this one card makes up for sticking just one sticker.

Come and claim them.

Or the dog gets it.