Friday, August 28, 2015

Night Owl's all-time Topps set countdown (12-9)

Now that I'm entering the top 10 in the all-time Topps set countdown, I'm wondering why the flagship set can't be as amazing as these sets are every year.

Although Topps seems to give us basically the same thing each year, I don't know how consistent they are from set to set. Maybe not for a lot of collectors, but for me, the progression from 1995 Topps to 1996 Topps is not just a step backward, but a step backward off a cliff. There are plenty of other cases like this, too. 1966 Topps is not 1965 Topps and 1990 Topps is not 1991 Topps. Some of this comes down to personal preference, but there are plenty of sets that the majority of collectors like while there are others that the majority do not like.

So, why is that? Was it just a bad year, or conversely a really good year? Did everything click? Was there a shake-up in research in development? Was the design team loopy on paint fumes? As collectors, we'll never know.

All I know is that some sets I love to my very core, and others could disappear tomorrow and it'd be two years before I discovered they were missing.

I suppose this is what happens when you obsessively examine cardboard.

Isn't it wonderful?

So, anyway, all of these sets are terrific. Some of the best. Only the greatest of the great -- genius sets, really -- can surpass these four sets. In other words, these sets get an "A," but not an "A+".

Take a look:

12. 1962 Topps

A few days ago, there was a fascinating post on The Topps Archives blog, called "Mocking Day". It documented several "mock-ups" of various Topps vintage baseball card sets, as designers worked on what the cards would look like for the coming year.

One was a mock-up of the 1962 Topps set, in which there was speculation that the design for the '62 set could have been drawn up as early as four or five years prior to '62.

That makes sense, because I've always considered the '62 set more in line with a '50s set than a '60s set. It's old-school vintage with one of the most classic designs ever created for a baseball card. If the "peeling poster on a wooden fence" design doesn't put you in mind of "Leave It To Beaver" episodes then you're either too young or you just don't get it.

The '62 set is one of the most recognizable baseball card sets ever made. This was taught to me way back when I was first learning about vintage sets in the late '70s/early '80s. The '62 set was REVERED and possibly the most enthusiastically collected set that I knew. Even today there are frenzied collectors of  '62s, simply because of the crazy variety in this set.

(You're going to have excuse the pen marks, etc. on these cards) You see, the '62 design may have been absolutely inspired, but the execution of the cards is all over the map. You have players with two different images in this set. You have green-tint variations. You have card numbers on the back that look different from one series to the next. This set was designed to be collected decades after it was created.

Since the set has such an old-school look and feel, the photo selection isn't the greatest. There is some airbrushing, but what I notice most is the huge number of brush-cuts in '62 Topps. I don't know if there are more hatless cards in '62 than any other Topps set -- probably not -- but it sure seems that way.

The "oldness" of this set -- place it next to the sets from 1960 and 1963 and it seems like it was created at least 20 years earlier -- causes it to lose some appeal with me. But I can't let my color bias take away from the fact that there are cool photos mixed in here.

This set marked a sizable leap in collecting for Topps. Not only is it the first set with a noticeable (nonwhite) border, but it's packed with elements that would be staples of future sets. The '62 set contains the first multi-player rookie cards, the first "in-action" cards, and includes a rather random 10-card tribute to Babe Ruth.

But as far as I'm concerned, its wood-panel design (later mimicked by 1987 Topps) is why this set is ranked where it is. To me, the sign of a great set is its lasting power, its ability to remain memorable years after it was made.

The '62 set has remained in many collectors' memories for decades. It is not easy to forget.

Yeah, it looks pretty damn old (these card backs have always looked ancient to me), but you can still be old and relevant.

After all, aren't collectors still hassling Topps about making another wood-bordered set?

11. 1973 Topps

Back before there were card blogs, the '73 Topps set was known for maybe three things:

1. It was the first 660-card set, which would be the norm for the next five years. It was also the last set to be issued in several series for decades.

2. It contains Roberto Clemente's final card and Mike Schmidt's first.

3. The little position shadow guy in the corner.

Since the advent of blogs, though, the '73 Topps set has grown in stature as writers highlight its many "interesting" action sets and praise what could be considered as incompetence on cardboard.

These "reality altering" airbrushing jobs give '73 Topps a look all of its own. And decades later we can look at it like we look at the clothes people wore in the '70s -- isn't that awful? Isn't that great?

1973 Topps marked the next step in action photos in cards. In '71, we had the first base-card action photos. In '72, we had a set devoted to a large subset of action cards. In '73, Topps stepped up its game with even more action photos. They may not have been the best pictures, but they were certainly interesting -- some depict action that I don't think we've seen on a card since -- and memorable.

Still, there are elements that have made '73 Topps one of the overlooked sets of the '70s until very recently. For one, the border is white. After the first three years of the '70s, collectors had started expecting crazy border colors every year -- and then they came to 1973 with its vast white border. Because of that, the set was considered plain. For decades.

The size of the border also cuts down on the photo size, which is particularly notable with some of the action shots. They could have been even better.

Finally, as much as the action shots make this set, there are many, many more cards like Von Joshua here. Dude standing in a field. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- but I think sometimes '73 Topps' "trend-setting" ways are overstated.

It's a rather interesting set. A quirky set, even. But there are mistakes all over it. I think the mistakes are charming and I know others do, too. But looking at it as impartially as I can, I know other collectors see ... well, mistakes.

The '73 set features among the greatest cartoons ever to appear on baseball cards. Informative, personal, witty. And a black-bordered back is very cool.

There is just enough stuff like this to put the '73 set at No. 11 -- something that would have never happened before bloggers started hailing this set over the last few years.

Personally? I don't know what took us so long to realize greatness.

10. 1965 Topps

The '60s may not be my favorite decade for card sets, but it nailed it in terms of memorable sets with two of 'em -- 1962 and 1965.

This isn't the first time that pennants appeared in the design on a Topps card (1960 manager cards, yo), but it is the first time that Topps incorporated them into the design of virtually every card in the set. It's a look that makes you wonder why it took Topps more than a dozen years to come up with it. And then you hope it did take Topps a dozen years to come up with it because why did we suffer through 1961 Topps if they had this in the shed?

The '65 set, like a few others, says "baseball card". It just does. And, until recently, it was my favorite Topps set of the '60s.

It has almost everything you want. Bold colors. Large team names. Large photos. I'm proud that this is the set that arrived the year I was born.

But I do hold a little grudge when it comes to '65 Topps.

Why do the Dodgers cards look like this ...

... when they could have looked like this.

I'm talking about the border color, of course. Sure, the pennant flag is blue on the Torborg card. But gold for the border? Agreed, part of the charm of '60s and '70s cards were the random colors given to teams -- green for the Reds, pink for the Yankees, purple for anybody. But when you see the blue-bordered Koufax-Drysdale leaders card it automatically makes you think -- what if? It could have been even greater.

(Again, excuse the scribbles). The border colors used for some teams is simply too jarring for me. Especially the purple for the Giants and the Twins. I remember digging through a box of old cards at pawn shop several years ago and coming across the purple '65s. Bleah, I thought.

That said, I adore any of the green-bordered cards, the blue of the Phillies and Angels and the gray for the Orioles and Colt .45s. And kudos on the team logos and again the large space for the photo.

Oh, and blue backs rule.

9. 1976 Topps

I mentioned in an earlier post that I've been binge-watching past All-Star Games on youtube. Just yesterday I was watching and Greg Luzinski came to the plate.

Suddenly, I remembered my affection for Luzinski as a kid. I wondered why that was, and it took me almost no time to remember this 1976 Topps card.

This was one of my favorite cards at the time. I simply adored it. And that is what the 1976 Topps set is for me. A little kid marveling over so many cards in the set. There are so many favorites, I can't scan them all.

There is this one.

And this one.

And this one.

And this one.

And this one. ('76 Topps has some great batting cage shots).

I read in the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards quite a while ago that '76 Topps marked the time when Topps dedicated itself less to design and more to the photo. It makes sense. The photos in '76 Topps are larger and feature more clarity than the sets that preceded it.

I have a tendency to compare '76 Topps to '73 Topps, because each features a little drawing depicting the position. I prefer the '76 drawing, probably because I collected '76 as a kid, but not '73. But I like the realism. To me, '76 Topps is '73 Topps improved in several ways. Better, more professional action shots.

A better-looking all-time greats subset.

Better leaders cards (Olympic podium style! Fantastic!).

But definitely not better backs. Who can read that?

1976 Topps has some of the most spectacular looking All-Star cards, showing All-Stars like All-Stars should look like -- like damn All-Stars, damn it (not like Topps Update all-stars).

And it also has my favorite record-breaker subset of all-time.

This is how the '76 set starts. I'd have a hard time keeping the Dave Lopes card off my top 100 favorite cards.

And these are the backs. Just glorious. I've thought these were fascinating since 1976. Some record-breaker cards give you boring write-ups. These give you detailed stats! I poured over the Rennie Stennett rundown repeatedly as a kid. 7-for-7? I had to see how it was done!

Yes, the '76 set was issued when I was a kid, so I'm a little biased, and there are cards like this ...

... that freaked me right out.

But you can't discount the first time the Astros wore their rainbow uniforms on a card (with a PINK nameline!).

Or George Scott (more batting cage shots!)

Or Gary Carter (in Wrigley Field!)

Or Reggie Smith (batting cage shots!)

Or Tony Oliva (final card!)

The '76 set reminds me of collecting in fifth grade, hiding the cards from my teacher. It's not the greatest set, but it's pretty terrific (I didn't even show the Johnny Bench card or the Pete Rose card or the Carl Yastrzemski card or the Carlton Fisk card or the Reggie Jackson card or the Vida Blue card ...).

And one more thing:

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the Top 10.

Up next: Sets #8-5


  1. Love the Bubble gum! Oh yeah, the sets are great too.

  2. The 1965 set is at #10, and it's NOT your favorite set of the decade? I sense the 1967 set coming up. Yay!

  3. I'll just bite my tongue and say no more than the '65 belongs in everyone's top five (so does the '67).

  4. I love '73. It one of the few vintage Topps sets I'd consider building.

  5. Three cheers for two of my favorite sets, 73' and 76' , to make it this far up your list. The 76' All Time All Stars is my favorite subset.

    The Astros and Taco Bell must have hired the same uniform designer in the mid 1970's. I was never a fan of this uniform but now the Astros have one of the best, if not the best, uniforms around.

    I can't comment on the current Taco Bell uniforms. Maybe if the fast food industry came out with their version of employee all star cards we can track such changes over time and it would spawn a new blog following under the name of the Hungry Owl.

    I'm looking g forward to the next post!

  6. Heck yeah! Approaching the final stretch. The '65 set is my favorite of the decade and is in my Top 5. The '76 design is my 3rd favorite Topps set from the 70's... and sits within my Top 10.

  7. My first pack was from the 1976 set. I picked up the Aaron Record Breaker card on that first pack and was immediately hooked!

  8. I always liked '73 Topps. The only problem I ever had with it, was how THICK that white border was.

  9. I hate 1962. That wood grain border just bugs me. I hate 1955 Bowman for the same reason. Not exactly sure why, but maybe it is because they are cards trying to not look like cards. Maybe we should sit them down and have the "love yourself for who you are and don't try to be what your not" talk with them.

  10. I think Topps could get away with another "wood" set, it's been 25 again after all. However, go with different colored stains of wood to represent all the different stains players use for their bats, maybe even match the stain to stain each player predominately uses for their bat.

  11. The 1962 set is the only time advertised for kids to collect the new Topps NFL cards in the fall!! The back of some high number cards!

  12. I have the 74' Von Joshua card and I always had to stare at it because I had a classmate that claimed Von was his cousin. I always searched for a resemblance but I had my doubt about his claim because the kid was not always truthful and Joshua was about 16 years older than us kids. 16 years can seem like a lifetime to a 10 years old.

    Joshua is from Oakland so there was a chance the kid was telling the truth. However, after seeing the 73' card, there is a very strong resemblance to the kid from my class. The kid, who will remain nameless, has a similar stare in his 4th grade class picture as Von's look in the 73' card! I don't doubt the kid any longer.

    I recall Joshua made the last out in the 74' World Series and I instantly thought "There goes his cousin" and THEN I thought "The A's won!"

    I always wonder what happened to that kid. He was expelled from my school in 1974 and never heard from him.