Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Night owl's all-time Topps set countdown (4-1)

We've made it.

When I first started this countdown at the beginning of March, I knew how I wanted to do it. I wanted it in-depth, I wanted it to last a long time, I wanted each set to get equal time, and I wanted at least some element of suspense.

I think all of that was achieved. And the best part of it is I had a great time doing it. This kind of thing is in my sweet spot. I've been making lists since before a good chunk of you were born. This was not taxing or difficult. As usual, the worst part was scanning all of the cards.

The only thing I slipped on was compiling the full list separately so people can view it on the sidebar. I wanted to get that done before the countdown ended. I didn't, and now who knows when that will be done? But I hope to finish it sometime soon.

All right, that's all the intro I want for the final episode. What is to come are the four best sets that Topps ever made. These sets are so good that I have no doubts about where they are ranked. I don't care if a mob comes to my house with pitchforks to tell me I'm wrong. I'm right. These sets are too great. Everything clicked for these four sets and I consider them perfection.

OK, they're not actually perfection. All it takes is someone like me to look at it for 3 minutes and I'll find something wrong. But when you stack them up against every other Topps set? Yeah, they're perfection.

So, let's see Topps on a good day ... make that a good year:

4. 1983 Topps

There is a temptation to write off 1983 Topps as an updated version of 1963 Topps, the beginning of the '80s Topps homage to itself. But 1983 Topps is so much more than that.

Sure, 1983 Topps resembles '63 Topps, but as I stated before, it is a vast improvement over '63 Topps. The '63 set may have had the vision, but '83 Topps had the harmony. It had the good sense to place the head shot not in the main photo, but in the inset. And once the head shot was out of the way, that cleared the path for what was the most thrilling set that I had collected in years.

You're going to have to place yourself in my collecting world for a moment. The sets that I collected as a kid, and some of the ones that arrived before I was a kid, were all leading up to 1983 Topps.

Think of it. Topps experimented with action photos here and there in the '50s and '60s. But by the late '60s your action shots were confined to World Series highlights or maybe some All-Star cards. Then, in the early '70s, action shots appeared on select players' cards. That continued through the decade. And as we collected, we could see a few more action shots gradually each year. We relished those action shots -- those were indisputably the coolest cards in the set.

So, now, we're in 1983. I'm a senior in high school. Collecting cards is for babies. But I'm hooked and I still do it, hoping that no one I know in school will see me walk into the Monroe Market and go right for the card section.

I open those first cards of 1983 Topps and all I see is all-out action. Card after card of players in action. There is a tendency to dismiss this these days after we've gone through the '90s and '00s with set after set after set of nothing but action. But this was brand new, exciting, and most of all COOL!

I wasn't worried anymore that someone from school might see me opening packs. Look at the shots. Every player looked like a superhero! These cards were awesome.

I haven't done an exact count, but somewhere around 75-80 percent of the players' cards in 1983 Topps are action shots. This was unheard of at the time. And that, by itself, makes 1983 Topps one of the greatest sets ever made.

The '83 Topps set gives you both worlds. Player in action, and a nice look at what that player would look like on a 1960s card. It's almost two cards in one. The card is balanced. It makes sense. And it's colorful without being loud. I love two-tone designs and '83's is simple and very easy to read.

The 1983 set gives you photos that collectors probably hadn't seen since 1973 or 1971 Topps. The cards are exciting to view, and there are some that are my favorites of the entire decade.

To me, 1983 Topps is easily the best set of the decade. By any card company. It is an iconic set that not only hit all the right notes, but enjoyed some fortune that only some of the greatest sets enjoy.

All three of these rookies appear in '83 Topps. And every one features action from a game (or at least a practice).

1983 Topps also marked the return of manager cards in Topps sets. It would become a staple of '80s sets, but up until '83, I had only seen manager cards in '78 Topps and -- in the recesses of my mind -- 1974 Topps.

The worst that I can say about '83 Topps is the backs are a typical '80s borefest. Also, when Topps was unable to get an action photo of a player, sometimes the posed shots it used were almost identical to the inset photo.

But that is quibbling. The '83 set was the pinnacle for Topps in the '80s. After 1983, it would be a slow regression until we were left with 1989 Topps. And it would take another card company to issue a set with the same amount of "wow" factor as '83 Topps to revive the collecting game again.

Yeah, I just compared 1989 Upper Deck to 1983 Topps.

You had to be there in '83.

3. 1971 Topps

Maybe a handful of sets bring out the curiosity in me:

"Who was the genius who designed this?"

You're looking at the set that prompts this question time and again. What wizard, what cardboard shaman came up with this design, convinced everyone else at Topps that this was a good idea, and then saw it to conclusion? Why isn't there a plaque of this person?

The '71 set is bad-ass. The most bad-ass set that was ever made. When I was a kid, '71 was unquestionably cool. It's not like we saw many around, but you could see the unspoken thoughts bouncing between our heads as we stared transfixed over a couple of '71 cards that someone obtained no doubt by climbing a beanstalk and snagging them from some sleeping giant. SO COOL!

Sleek, pitch-black borders. Bold team names that almost blinded you coming off the midnight background. Multi-colored player names and position names that gave a neon glow to the entire card. It was that individual player's marquee lit up for the collector to see! 1971 Topps was dressed in a leather jacket riding a motorcycle.

No other set looked like 1971 Topps, and it stayed that way until the retro craze hit more than 25 years later. The '71 set was mystical and instantly desirable. I remember thinking as a youngster what I wouldn't do to have 50 or so '71 cards in my collection.

The '71 set features quite a few appealing elements outside of its design. The set boasts the first full-action player photos in a Topps flagship set. The set is huge, 752 cards, with the high numbers rather difficult to track.

It's a set that forces you to collect, but by natural, not artificial means.

The '71 set is branded as difficult not only because of the high numbers but because of how fragile it is. Black borders chip easily, some say, almost as if it's a reason not to collect it.

This was never a thought for me. 1985 Donruss hadn't been created yet. Nor '87 Donruss. There were no other black border sets when I first saw '71 Topps. It was unique. And a little border chipping wasn't going to prevent me from lusting after a unique set.

The '71 set added one more innovation -- head shot photos on the back. Pretty striking at the time. As someone who grew up with cartoons and complete stats on the back, I wasn't impressed with '71 backs, but I can see it for what it meant in '71. It was different, maybe good, maybe bad, but definitely different.

Today, I write a blog devoted to the 1971 Topps set. It's recognition of my continued amazement that I completed this set. But it's also to let that kid on the porch who was staring longingly at those few '71 Topps wondering if he could ever get some in his collection, that yeah, you were right, kid.

These cards are the epitome of cool.

2. 1975 Topps

I know.

Some of you didn't see this coming.

"What? 1975 Topps is No. 2 on Night Owl's list? Doesn't he freak out over everything 1975?"

Yeah, settle down. I'm trying to stick with what I think is the "best" set here, not necessarily my favorite. The adjectives get muddled when you get to this point in the countdown, but really I do think this is where this set belongs. At No. 2.

The 1975 Topps set is iconic for a lot of reasons: its bright-as-the-70s two-tone design, possibly the most blatant disregard for team colors in cardboard history, its historic number of well-known rookie cards, and a once-in-a-generation clash of the old and the new -- from Aaron to Yount.

The set features the most memorable All-Star cards ever made. And it threw an entire subset at collectors that was almost entirely new:

Except the pictures on them were pretty old.

Yes, for many reasons, the '75 set is one of the most beloved and collectible of all-time.

And maybe all of that is good enough for it to reach No. 2 on this list. But, as you know there is another reason why it's here.

The 1975 set is the only set that I have encountered where I can look at certain cards in the set -- stare at them just for a few seconds just to get the brain to go back to that particular point in time -- and then there it is: exactly what I was thinking, where I was when this card was first in my hands.

There are many cards from this set that can take me there. George Foster, for instance. I'm on the playground at school, not over by the pavement, but on the grass, sort of in the back of the school, close to the highway. I'm facing toward the highway, and I have this George Foster card in my hand, and, I really love the colors on this card, I mean really, really love them, but doesn't this George Foster (I don't really know who he is), look like the Grinch?

These are the memories from the '75 set.

And there are ones for Willie Horton ...

... and Dan Spillner ...

... and Carl Morton.

Requisite card back!

And there are so many others. And you know all that, because I wrote an entire blog about the set, that I finished four years ago almost to this day. And there really isn't anything here that somebody else couldn't say about the first set that they ever collected.

But there's something about the vibrant colors in 1975 that makes the memories seem more alive than if it was a plain, white bordered set from say, 1991. Maybe there isn't anything to that and some scientist would debunk my theory in a couple of seconds.

But I don't care. 1975 Topps did something to collectors that was unique to that year.

After all, here I am, 40 years later, writing a blog about cards as enthusiastically as if I was 9 years old opening my first packs.

OK, now, why isn't this set at No. 1 again?

1. 1956 Topps

I have said this before:

If I grew up in the 1950s and collected 1956 Topps, it would be my favorite set of all-time. Too bad for you, 1975 Topps, I saw '56 Topps coming out of packs with my own eyes. It wins.

There is no more pleasing set than 1956 Topps. It's almost a shame that Topps created its very best five years out of the box. But at least they did it, right?

The '56 set has everything that you need. Large cards (why'd we go with 2 1/2-by-3 1/2 anyway?). Full color. Prominent player head shots. And they're superimposed on action of the player on the field! What a concept!

The '56 set introduced me to the idea of collecting for the love of the look of a set. For years, I had to know who was on the cards. That's why I was collecting the cards. But when my dad brought home those '56s donated by his co-worker, I knew maybe 5 percent of the players on the cards. And I didn't care! They looked so great, I just had to have them.

Besides, all you had to do was turn over the card and there was plenty of information on the back. These are the greatest card backs ever made (that was another countdown). I'm telling you, this set has everything.

1956 marks the start of the Topps monopoly. Bowman was gone, and except for a few upstart attempts in the early '60s, Topps had its way with collectors until the early '80s. Maybe that's a bad thing, but it sure was great for Topps in 1956.

The handicap of the years that preceded '56 were gone. Topps now had control of almost all the players it wanted to feature in the set. Guys like Roy Campanella and Mickey Mantle returned to Topps, making the '56 set one of the most powerful ever created.

The set is 340 cards, which is maybe on the small side, but probably just about right for a 16-team league.

This countdown has focused quite a bit on visual appeal. I'm not much for minor details, like whether a position designation is on the front or if there's a facsimile autograph crowding the photo. I try to look at the big picture, and it's obvious that 1956 is beautiful, probably the most beautiful set that Topps -- or anybody -- has ever made.

And that is why I'm attempting to collect a set created 10 years before I was born. I may never finish it off, but I know that I will appreciate every single card that I obtain. Because each card in the '56 set is worth studying, front and back.

I hope you've enjoyed this countdown.

We're done.

Up next: Wait, hold up! The top 100 cards of the 1970s is on its way! But give me a few weeks or months to catch my breath.


  1. Hard, no...impossible to argue against the '56 Topps set. Pretty darn awesome.

    I've enjoyed the countdown very much. Had my quibbles along the way but that's what makes blogging (and reading blogs) so much fun.

  2. Enjoyed the countdown as well. I had a feeling that 1956 was going to be #1 and 1975 #2. Your '56 of the Month posts gave it away.

  3. Thank you Night Owl. I have greatly enjoyed the entire countdown. I've been collecting since '73 and your writing and analysis helps me to enjoy my hobby in ways that I had not even considered!

  4. Wow, 1975 Topps wasn't number 1? There are whole lot of people in Vegas right now who are really disappointed (to put it mildly).

    1. Myself, I lost a small fortune on that bet.
      Yet, 1956 is just a beautiful set. Topps did it right.

  5. The blog said "2. 1975 Topps".
    I said "Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat????"
    Right from the start, I figured that 1975 would be #1. I certainly don't have any arguments against your rankings, it just wasn't what I expected... Like when someone ranks Beatles albums and DOESN'T put Sgt. Pepper at the top, I wouldn't put Pepper any higher than #4 (on a good day), but I *expect* others to rank it #1. And then if it's not, I'm stunned.

    Thank you for the rankings, I know this took a lot of work on your part, and I want you to know that it was very much appreciated!

  6. What a fun series! Thanks for doing this - I wish 1982, 1985, and 1991 had fared a little better in the rankings, but that's what makes publishing a list like this so fun - the discussions it generates.

  7. I'm glad I didn't lay money down on this one. We'd be sleeping in the streets come tomorrow.

  8. 1983 is definitely the best of the 1980's. I was a sophomore that year and I spent a bunch of my money on cards. The Topps were the best. The 1956 are great. I don't have 1971 or 1975 in my top 10 though.

  9. What a countdown! I never expected anything to top 1975 Topps on your list but if anything could, 1956 Topps is as nice as it gets. My personal favorite is 1965 Topps, but there are so many excellent choices.

  10. Good read, and favorite vs. best Is a good explanation. Emotional vs. rational.

  11. My jaw literally dropped when I saw 1975 at #2- no exaggeration. Fun read. I read every post and learned more about baseball history than I did by watching 20 years of SportsCenter.

  12. I could not agree more with your pick for #1. I would love put that set together no matter what condition the cards were in. Thanks for a great series. One of your best ever. Now I'm off to gain more leg muscles.

  13. Great job. Pretty much agreed with the choices as the countdown wound down. I think our collecting time frame somewhat matches up.

  14. Great countdown, N.O.
    Very enjoyable!

    But I seem to be in the minority of collectors who are not that hot on 1956 Topps. The Mantle card in particular always creeps me out.. he looks like a ventriloquist's dummy!

  15. Great job on the countdown,enjoyed it very much.

  16. '83 to me is what '75 is to you, so I'm glad to see it ranked so high.

    Nice work with the count down, it's been fun to follow, even if '56 is about 40 spots too high (too much face).

  17. I have a small handful of '56 Topps, and I couldn't agree more. What a set.

  18. Great minds think alike. I don't have the 1971 set in my Sweet Sixteen... but the other three are in my Top 6.

  19. I can't believe I didn't see this until now. I'll have to go back and re-read the whole thing. I did a similar countdown a few years back over at SportsCardForum when they still had their articles section. We've come to vastly different conclusions-- possibly out of differing grading rubrics-- but it's great to see another attempt at ranking them. I've considered putting it into book form once Topps hits its 75th modern set (I consider 1952 to be the start rather than 1951; so 75 years would be 2026; I have a few years to work on it), but would love to make it a collaborative effort among a few collectors.