Thursday, January 21, 2016

The best years to begin collecting

As someone who began collecting baseball cards in 1975, I am adamant that it was the best year to pick up that hobby. And, in general, I've proclaimed the '70s as the greatest year for a kid (or anyone, really) to start buying packs. People who also started collecting in the '70s have raised their fists in agreement to my very biased proclamations, and we all feel good about ourselves for an hour or two.

But was 1975 really the best year to begin collecting? Didn't other years have cool cards and sets, too? Didn't other years have cool hobby situations?

Of course they did. Some of those years may not be my bag but, sure, objectively, there were other great years to begin a cardboard obsession.

So I looked through the past 65 years and came up with a few in which it would be heaven to begin collecting that year. If you started collecting these years, there is probably a terrific chance that you would be hooked for life. That's how good the card situation was in those years.

I kept it to the last 65 years because while it would be great to live in 1909 and pull a Honus Wagner card out of a pack of tobacco, that's just too long ago for me. Weren't T206's available more than one year? What kind of warm, fuzzy feeling would you get buying tobacco? It's all just too weird.

So here are the best years for starting a cardboard habit.


Sure, 1952 is the year that Topps really started everyone on this wild ride. But if you began collecting as some 8-year-old in 1952, would you have any idea of what you had? For someone who began collecting in '51, they had a year of experience under the belt. They had reference. The '52 cards were gigantic and beautiful compared to the tiny game cards of '51 Topps. Perhaps those '51 collectors even knew that you don't throw out your cards at the end of the season, which I'm sure some newbie '52 collectors did. The '51 collectors knew what they had.

Besides, I'm partial to both '51 Topps and '51 Bowman when compared with the 1952 versions.


I don't know what kids did in the first half of the '50s with multiple brands of cards. They certainly didn't have much money back then, how could they focus on trying to complete multiple sets?

At any rate, in 1956, the slate was cleared. There was just one major set to collect. And it was glorious. I can see a one-card-per-pack scenario when that card was a 1956 Topps card. Each card must have been like receiving a fantastic reward. With collectors' focus narrowed on a set this pretty, I think it was the ideal situation to start collecting.


I don't really know what was going on in 1959 other that what I've read. But, to me, this is the year that seems like Baseball Card Collecting was the thing to do. Out of all of the years available to collect, there doesn't seem like any time more right for a kid to collect than in 1959. And the look of the cards that year didn't hurt.


In 1965, it's all about the card. The 1965 Topps set screams "baseball card" more than any other set. If you wanted to begin a hobby, without any question over what you were doing, then 1965 was the year for you. That's a baseball card, son, dad would say in 1965. And there wasn't a hint of doubt in his voice.


C'mon, man, there's no doubt that the year I began collecting was a prime one. Look at the colors. Look at the characters of the game. And, oh, yeah, a mini set, seemingly developed just for mini collectors. Yes, this was a very good year to start collecting. Much better than starting with some white-bordered set.


Two years prior, Donruss and Fleer joined Topps to add even more choices to the candy-and-gum aisle. As a full-fledged collector in 1981, I was confused as hell. Three? Now we're supposed to do three? Plus, none of the companies were really on their game. By 1983, the kinks were worked out, leading to three very fine sets. Both '83 Fleer and Donruss aren't much my taste but you've got to admit they're pretty good. And, 1983 Topps? With all of the crap sets created in the '80s, you were living right if you started it all with 1983 Topps.


By 1989, you could buy cards almost anywhere. It was as if the national economy was dependent upon everyone starting a collecting habit. You couldn't pick a finer year to begin chasing down cards, they were so easy to find! Plus, this is the year that the hobby changed forever with the debut of Upper Deck. Card opinions would never be the same after this. It must've been cool to be right there at the epicenter in your very first year.


As available as cards were in '89, to me there were no two years when cards were more ubiquitous than 1992 and 1993. Unfortunately, almost all of the cards in '92 were stinky (a pass for Topps and UD and a big pass for Pinnacle, but that's it). In 1993, most companies improved their game, added even more sets to collect AND the cards were just as available as ever. In a stroke of genius that was far too long in coming, I finally decided to focus my efforts on one set only, and that was the phenomenal Upper Deck set. If you did the same in your first year of collecting, well, your mommy and daddy must have read to you when you were a baby.


So, you're asking, I'm telling you the year that the baseball players went on strike, the World Series was canceled, and enthusiasm for baseball was at an all-time low, was a great year to start collecting?

Yes, I'm telling you that.

There are some excellent sets that came out in 1994 that are often maligned because it was the strike year. Stuff like Fleer and Finest. And, there was the first year of Collector's Choice, a set developed with the young collector in mind. You could go through the entire year buying packs of Collector's Choice, feeling as if the cards were meant just for you. That had to kick off a few collectors' careers, even as the game was silent.


Here we are 15 years later, and Topps Heritage still exists. That's testament to its appeal among a wide variety of collectors. Heritage helped a lot of collectors reconnect with the hobby, because the cards looked and felt like cards they once knew. There was a lot of history around the hobby in 2001 -- past players on cards and all that -- and who wouldn't want to start collecting in that kind of atmosphere?


The Allen & Ginter phenomenon began in 2006. By this time, I don't know how many kids were buying packs. They were getting pretty costly. But A&G captured the imaginations of older collectors and if you were returning to the hobby in this year (which I did), your mind must have been blown by A&G. I only wish I found it that year. What a great way to come back to collecting.

It's difficult to select anything more recent as a best year to begin collecting. Maybe 2015 will be one of those years, I don't know.

And, I'm sure there are other years that were just as grand to start in the hobby -- years like 1962, 1971, 1991 and 1995, for example.

Let's face it: any year that you start collecting cards for the first time is a "best year."


  1. I think the 2015 Stadium Club could fit into this dialogue.

  2. I think 1994 is one of the first years where I started collecting. I know I collected in 1995 and was full blown by 96-97, but I'm fairly certain that 1994 got me started. on.

  3. I began collecting Cricket and Rugby League cards in 1986, when I was 7 years old.

    Then, on my first trip to L.A. in 1989, I picked up a few packs of Score and Topps at a 7-Eleven in Anaheim. Add to those some cards from our Cap'n Crunch cereal boxes, and I was hooked.

    Great post, Mr. Owl! Wish I was around to collect in 1956 or 1975...

    Nick J.

  4. I started in 1988, which was both a glorious time to start and a terrible time to start. But I think 1971 Topps is the best introduction to baseball cards that you can get.

  5. "What kind of warm, fuzzy feeling would you get buying tobacco?"

    That's for when you actually smoke the cigarettes.

  6. I started collecting in 1978. You could get cards in boxes of Frosted Flakes and on the bottom of you BOX of Twinkies. Those were the good old days.

  7. You were one off from mine. If I'd have come in a year earlier I'd have caught Allen and Ginter on its first go-around and I'd be able to enjoy enough Upper Deck sets before they went out. Still, even in 2007 there was a lot for a young collector to be excited about. Maybe not as much as, say 1975 or 1965, but still quite a bit.

  8. As I started to collect in late 1991, I must say 1994 was my favorite year to collect. So many options to choose including the aforementioned Collector's Choice, and the prices weren't crazy yet. It had lots of inserts, but not an overabundance. I wasn't as impressed with 1993 to be honest though I did like a lot of sets.

    I would have to say though that 1989 might have been a great year to collect due to Upper Deck, I think 1987 would have been better. A variety of colors and designs (I would have dug woodgrain cards as a kid) and it would have prepared me for Upper Deck in 1989 as the new kid in town. Plus 1987 had some future big names that while may not been impressive at the time, but if you were aware of the players you probably could have made some good trades.

  9. I got a few packs for presents in 1989 but really started collecting in 1992. Wish I would've been a little older and known what I was doing so I could've got a lot of the 89 Upper Deck set but I enjoyed 1992 and 1993 as well.

  10. I still remember trying to collect 1981 and 1982 Topps sets as a kid. My brother and I worked on both of those sets.

  11. A lot of us have more than one year - the first, and then the year we came BACK. I started like Don in '78, then quit in '84, and came back in 2004 or so. So I missed the whole junk wax era and still don't own an '89 UD set.
    I'm working on 1993 Upper Deck right NOW.
    And I would vote for 2005 as a good year because there are so many non-flagship sets that are really nice. UD All-Star (and straight) Classics, Topps Heritage, Cracker Jack, Total, the Nationals startup set, Rookie Cup, and on and on.
    I also notice I have a lot of sets from 1994 that I've gone back and done.

  12. I'm doubtful that we'll never be able to call anytime within Topps zone of exclusivity as a good time to start collecting. As a matter of fact unless you have very deep pockets today would be a terrible time, at least for buying new stuff. But the vintage that'll always be there.

  13. I only wish I'd known as a ten year old in 75 (oops yep that's my age) but it was 1993 for me. Upper Deck and the first SP sets are my earliest collecting memories. I would hate being a new collector today.

  14. I'd wager that the year I first picked up cards was one of the worst to start collecting: 1999.

  15. 1993 for me! Plus there were so many cards out there I was still finding packs of 1991 Topps at my local Wal*Mart.

  16. 1983 for me! TOPPS was the first set I put together! And hey 3 packs for a dollar man I miss those days.