Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The truly underrated

Last week, Sports Collectors Daily posted on its Facebook page, the following question:

"Complete this sentence: The most underrated baseball card set of all-time is _________ ." (and remember it's underrated, not necessarily best).

What followed was an abundance of comments, and true to what I have experienced with many Facebook comments, it's obvious that no one reads anymore.

Completely ignoring the original question, commenters shouted out sets like 1971 Topps and 1975 Topps and ... lord, amighty, did someone just say 1987 Topps is the most underrated set of all-time????

Two of my loves were being assaulted at the same time: my love for baseball cards and their history and my love for the English language. Underrated! Does anyone know what this means?

"Underrated (adj.): Having more importance, value, skill, power, etc., than people recognize."

1987 Topps, even if it was the first set you ever saw, is not being shortchanged in any of those things. Why, I think I hear Topps ramping up another ode to '87 Topps as I write this.

Fortunately, there were some comments on there that brought reason back to the room. Good answers like "1953 Bowman" and "1973 Topps," etc.

What one person considers "underrated" -- even when they know what the word means -- depends on their age and interest in the hobby. Old-cardboard collectors probably know all kinds of obscure sets from 1900-40 that I've never heard of. While newer collectors would call some one-off 1990s insert set "underrated." It depends on where you sit.

It's kind of a weird topic to approach from my spot in the blogosphere anyway, simply because I think we bloggers have done a damn good job of shedding light on some overlooked sets. The '73 set may be underrated to those hunting for star rookies but there have been tributes to '73 Topps on blogs for as long as I've been blogging. Bloggers turn underrated sets into stars. That's what we do.

Still, I decided to come up with a list of the truly underrated if only to get the bad taste of those comments out my mouth. I came up with 15 sets. I know I could have come up with 30 easily. I tried to avoid most sets that bloggers have lifted up, like 1973 Topps and 1991 Topps and 1984 Fleer.

Here, in reverse order, are 15 sets that are underrated. That doesn't necessarily mean they're your favorite, obscure, rare, contain overlooked rookies, or whatever you consider part of the definition of the word. For me, these sets are simply underrated, and that's all.

15. 2009 Topps

This would never fly in 2009. But I'm finding out nearly 10 years later that there weren't nearly as many people collecting in '09 as there are now, and they missed out on this set. I know that because nobody mentions this set anymore. For a flagship set, it is a gem. It is the set that got me to complete a Topps flagship set again. And that's because it is filled with photos that you had almost never seen in a Topps flagship set before. It's not a perfect set, but I don't regret trying to complete it.

14. 1970 Topps

I've spent too much of my life disliking this set. It didn't rank very highly in my ranking of all Topps' sets a couple of years ago. And back when I was a kid, it was probably the most unpleasant set that I knew. Of course, most of my animosity was related to those gray borders. In recent years, I've come to respect what's inside those borders. Too many airbrushed caps aside, there are some goodies in this set. Plus the backs are as colorful as all get-out.

13. 1974 Topps

This one is for me. I do not understand why this set doesn't get more praise. Sure, it's the first set I ever saw, the first cards I ever held in my hand. I'm biased. But I instinctively love so many cards in this set. The A's. The Reds. The EXPOS. The Steve Garvey card. The Davey Concepcion card. The Vada Pinson. Sure, '74 Topps has just one rookie that anyone cares about (Winfield), but who was looking for rookies in 1974? I sure wasn't. I was too busy staring at my Eddie Leon card in awe.

12. 1988 Score

Some of you are saying, "how can an overproduction era set be underrated?" Easy. Everyone has dismissed all of the junk wax sets so they've now all become underrated. It's the circle of life. One of the most underrated is 1988 Score. Much credit is given to 1989 Upper Deck for changing the baseball card game. But '88 Score was there the year before and they mixed things up in a way that no one had seen for decades. Strong action photography. In-depth bios. A simple and pleasing card. Throw '88 Score a bone for being a pioneer. It deserves it.

11. 1958 Hires Root Beer

Who had wood borders before 1962 Topps? And waaaay before 1987 Topps? That's right, 1958 Hires. The knothole is possibly the most meta theme for a baseball card (with the exception of '82 and '83 Donruss). And it works. Plus every card back features a picture of a root beer bottle.

10. 1971 Topps Greatest Moments

I tried to avoid small, obscure sets like this. But this one is too fantastic to leave out. You almost never hear about these, probably because they're way too costly. But they look absolutely fantastic. It is my goal to own a few of these one day. A moment-in-time, black-bordered set with neon colors, black-and-white framed photos and a newspaper theme on the back is way too cool to pass up.

9. 1994 Fleer

There aren't a lot of crisp, clean sets from the '90s. That probably means a lot of '90s collectors pass this set off as boring. It's not. It's one of those sets that welcomes you into the photo. Step into the batter's box with big John Kruk. 1994 Fleer makes you believe there's room in there. Also, 1994 Fleer knows what to do with the round design image, moving it from corner to corner depending on the photo. 1969 Topps, take note.

8. 1977 O-Pee-Chee

This particular ranking depends on your familiarity with 1977 Topps. Although I would never describe '77 Topps as a disaster, it endured the challenge of both expansion and the very first free agency class. That means there is airbrushing all over the set. The 1977 OPC set doesn't get rid of the airbrushing, but it does offer some non-airbrushed options (as well as new airbrushed options). And it offers interesting variations, like the lack of All-Star banners. The '77 OPC set is a lot of fun, possibly the most fun set on this list.

7. 1990 Upper Deck

Damn you, '89 Upper Deck, nobody ever looks at 1990 UD and it's all your fault! 1990 Upper Deck is better in almost every way. The design is cleaner. The photos are clearer. They're BRIGHTER. And they're even more inventive. 1990 is "1989 Upper Deck, Now New and Improved." Take a second look and you'll see.

6. 1954 Red Heart

This set is not underrated with 1950s fans, but I think it's been overlooked by too many people. This was a one-off, 33-card set put out by a dog food company. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a more rock-solid card set issued by a dog food company. The set is striking and beautiful. Hand-painted photos across the board with red, blue or green backs.

5. 1991 Score

Some of these sets are here to give my own self a kick in the pants. That's the case with '91 Score. I haven't been much of a fan of the turquoise-blue-black-and-white border combination, but I think I've let that get in the way of everything else this set offers. I don't think any other set had provided so many pleasing, varied and well-done subsets as '91 Score, from the cartoon All-Stars to the 1990 highlights, to the no-hitter subset, to the Master Blasters and Dream Team and Franchises. Plus, damn, a card of Bo Jackson breaking a bat over his knee. And a card of The Griffeys. And is that a card of an American flag? 1991 Score is an adventure.

4. 1911 T205

The "Gold Borders" have been trampled by legions of collectors salivating over the T206 cards. But these tobacco cards aren't all that different, plus they have gold borders! The fact that the set contains three different card looks throws me off a bit. But then there are terrific cards like this one and all of a sudden I JUST WANT ONE OF THESE. Also, this is possibly the first set to contain stats on the back. Top that T206 and your hyped Wagner card. Sniff.

3. 1952-55 Red Man Tobacco

Red Man marked the brief re-emergence of tobacco cards. Unlike the mini-sized cards of the early 1900s, however, these cards were oversized, both in height and width. Some collectors don't like them because of that. But they're too beautiful to ignore. The painted images are incredibly well-done, possibly better than anything that's appeared on Topps. And you get your photo and bio all in one shot for those too lazy to turn over the card.

2. 1952 Bowman

The 1952 Topps set is the New York Yankees of card collecting. Loud, attention-hogging, enamored with itself. It's difficult enough for sets from other years to compete with it. But how do you think 1952 Bowman feels? It had the misfortune of being issued the very same year! This set also features a second-year Mantle and Mays, but you never hear about them. Plus it has a Stan Musial! 1952 Topps doesn't. I won't say I prefer all of the '52 Bowman cards over the '52 Topps cards, but I do prefer some of them. And that makes it underrated enough. Please, '52 Topps, just shut up.

1. 1964 Topps Giant

Let me get this straight: there is a set that is twice the size of your average 2 1/2-by-3 1/2 card from 1964, is packed full of stars, is featured in full color and on sturdy cardboard, fits in your average postcard sleeve, and you can find the majority of the cards for less than $5 each??? Why on earth aren't these things the most expensive cards on the planet? I own only three of these cards. But I've fallen in love each time I've received one. Sometimes oversized cards really get a bum rap.

So, those are the truly underrated. There are many other sets that could have been selected. I haven't even addressed the 1951 Topps card I showed at the top of the post. I happen to like '51 Topps a lot, but I can see why it's been ignored.

I appreciate that your version of "underrated" may be different than my version. But I really hope your version doesn't include 1987 Topps.


  1. No, it doesn't. 1987 Topps is one of my favorite sets because that was the year I got back into collecting. It definitely is not an underrated set. Nice post, you put in a few sets that I was unaware of. I also have to admit to still having a soft spot for 1988 Score.

  2. I agree with a lot of these, especially 64 Topps Giants and 91 Score (I loved that set as a kid, and have a factory sealed set on my bookshelf) 52 Bowman is very nice as well, and I was thinking at least one vintage OPC set should be on there. 94 Fleer is a bit underrated as well.

    Since you mentioned T205 Gold borders...I just happened to pick one up on COMC a few weeks ago. And it's a 'Dodger'.

  3. I have come around to the opinion that 1974 is my favorite set of all time. It isn't flashy, but it is the only set from my youth that I still have a visceral reaction to. When I look at my 1974 set I feel as I imagine I did when I was a kid. I think the feeling is known as "deja vecu."

  4. I think the Score brand in general is underrated. You mentioned the bios and I know collectors don't buy cards for the backs but Score made some great card backs. I think my first Ebay purchase may have been a lot of four 1964 Ron Santo cards. I think I only paid six bucks and couldn't believe it.

  5. There are many 1990s sets that seem tonuave very little writren about...i like the 1995 Topps set amd the 1993 Upper Deck sets myself.

  6. Great Post. I totally agree that the #1 underrated set is the 1964 Topps Giants. HOF'ers and stars from that era.
    I have all except the 7 short prints. Koufax and Mays are two of them.

  7. Great list. One of my favorite card show purchases of all-time is picking up the 1964 Topps Giants set up last summer for $100. In fact that's gotta be close to being the best $100 I've ever spent. I love, love, love the design. And the writeups on the back are fantastic too.

  8. I don't rightly know how things are rated out there, but I love the '64 a Giant set, too. Have a bunch of them And the '77 OPC was the first full-sized set I ever owned. Great choices.

  9. Topps 2008, Opening Day. I like the border design on the regular base and then in 2008 OD they used that design but in red!

  10. I spent the entire post alternating between "Yeah! You tell 'em, Night Owl!" and "I bet he won't mention - oh, he did!".

  11. Completely agree. The 64 Giants are a great deal for a HOFer. I would also put Exhibits in the mix as well. The 71 Topps greatest moments maybe my favorite all time set

  12. We have such similar tastes, it's almost uncanny. Except for '91 Score, I went down the list with either "love those too!" or "Want one of those". I have at least one of each except the Red Hearts, most of the oddballs are in my Willie "Puddin' Head" Jones collection.

  13. I've always been a believer that some of the Ultra sets were probably underrated. Great photos and good price point. A lot of the sets I talk about on my blog were short lived 90's and 2000's sets. Hard to consider many of them underrated since they all had at least one major flaw.

  14. I second 2008 Topps Opening Day. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and the Phillies won the series and those red borders just scream out to you.

  15. Thank you for mentioning the T-205s. I remember looking at the T-205s and the T-206s and wondering, "Why would anyone prefer the T-206s?" OK, there's Wagner. That's a card. But, for a set? Give me them gold borders any day. And they've got minor leaguers in there, too! I have no idea who or what is in the T-206s. Nor do I care. Bor-ing! But I've got a half dozen or so T-205s and they are my go-to cards when I'm feeling blue (which is saying something because there's not a Met to be found in that set anywhere).

    While I agree with your choices, I also think that, if you get beyond the blog world (where they get plenty of attention), you'd find that sets like those Drakes sets and the TCMA sets (etc) get very little love from collectors. I'd add the Johnston Cookies Braves sets from the 50s; those suckers are gorgeous, too (if a tiny bit derivative of '52 Topps). The Conlon set is pretty amazing, if you're at all interested in the history of the game. And I personally think Pacific sets, in general, are under-rated.

  16. Yes!! Mad props to 90 UD. That Buckner card is stone-cold.

  17. I might put 1994 Collector's Choice on here. Everyone seems to talk about 1993 Upper Deck, and I feel like 1994 CC carries that torch better than the flagship UD sets of the next couple years. Plus anything near 1994 is inevitably going to be depressed due to the strike.

  18. I LOVE the '64 Topps Giants!
    And there are salesman samples of what WOULD have been 1956 Bowmans that are the EXACT design of '58 Hires Root Beeer!

  19. When I abandoned chasing new cards (chasing not acquiring...) and just focused on vintage T206 was the first set with some high dollar cards that I went all in for.

  20. "There has never been, nor will there ever be, a more rock-solid card set issued by a dog food company." Gold.