Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Best set of the year: 1991

I am starting to get into very scary territory with this series.

It was right around 1991, or maybe 1992, when I first thought "I can't possibly collect all of this, or even pay attention to all of this. So I won't."

Consciously or subconsciously, I started to ignore sets that were available to me at the nearby drug or department stores. I did buy a selection of various sets, but I made a commitment to one set in 1991 (and 1992) and that set was Topps.

If I was going to complete a set, it would be Topps. It would be the only set in which I'd pay attention to exactly what was in it, so I could know when it was complete.

So I ignored a lot of the extra goodies that were available in other sets. Heck, I even ignored some '91 sets altogether. I don't remember opening a single pack of Upper Deck, Stadium Club, Ultra or Leaf in 1991. That is bound to slant my rankings of these sets here now.

Also, the rankings now include a whopping nine sets this time. I'm still limiting myself to the major sets (no Classic or Conlon or O-Pee-Chee). But since the "premium set" concept exploded in 1991, there is still plenty to rank.

Let's get to it:

1991 Bowman -- the front

Plusses: Instead of the yellow-dominated borders from 1990, Bowman went with a purple nameplate, which is an ever-so-slight improvement. The player name is bold and much easier to read. ... The set stays true to the Bowman '50s template, simple, posed shots and emphasis on photo space.

Minuses: Still boring as heck when compared with other sets issued in '91. ... I constantly confuse 1990 and 1991 Bowman. I just did it while scanning cards for this post.

1991 Bowman -- the back

Plusses: Bowman stays with the team-by-team breakdown for the third straight year and it's much appreciated. I now know that Mitch Webster smacked the heck out of the Twins in 1990. ... Easy-to-read number and I like the bold name at the bottom.

Minuses: Card backs like this get tougher and tougher to read the older you get.

1991 Bowman -- overall

Plusses: Bowman expanded the size of its set for a third straight year, increasing to 704 cards in 1991. ... Bowman really started to focus on rookies in this set as nearly one-fifth of the cards featured a rookie. ... This is one of the first sets with gold stamping as the Silver Slugger Award winners were recognized with a gold emblem on the front.

Minuses: There are rookie cards for Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell and others in this set, but the players also appear in other 1991 sets and their Bowman cards aren't as valued as those others. I have to think that it's because of the complete lack of excitement with the look of the Bowman set. ... This is the final year of Bowman using brown cardboard. Normally I like brown cardboard but anything that could brighten up this set is a plus.

1991 Donruss -- the front

Plusses: Gee, I don't know, readily available? These cards seemed to be everywhere in 1991. ... Donruss was all about the border during this time period and I do appreciate that.

Minuses: I call this set the "Fisher Price set," because it looks like something that would come packaged with a toy for an 8-year-old. It seems very childish to me, which is something that sticks out with several Donruss sets, none more so than 1991. ... This is the first time Donruss was issued in two series and the decision to make one blue-bordered and another green-bordered makes for a disjointed and jarring set.

1991 Donruss -- the back

Plusses: Donruss keeps churning out complete names ("Travis is his middle name!") and contract information.

Minuses: Same complaint as always, no more than five years of stats.

1991 Donruss -- overall

Plusses: This set is filled with subsets and inserts, one of the first sets to truly embrace the insert, providing such beloved series like Elite. ... Rated Rookies continue if you like that kind of thing.

Minuses: It's a toss-up on whether my least favorite Donruss set is from 1991 or 1992. I don't like either one. ... One of the most prevalent sets from the moment it appeared. These cards have zero appeal for me. ... Could be accused as the set that led collectors to devalue the base set in favor of inserts.

1991 Fleer -- the front

Plusses: THE BRIGHTEST SET OF ALL-TIME. 1991 Fleer will always be noticed, dammit. ... Nice acreage for the photo, although it's hard to notice with that border. ... There is something about this set that makes me take Fleer more seriously than I did for many previous sets. This could have been an iconic set if it didn't go with yellow.

Minuses: One of the most ridiculed sets ever because you need special eclipse glasses to view it. ... There is nothing that distinguishes team from team. You can say that about a lot of sets but it's very obvious with this set.

1991 Fleer -- the back

Plusses: I have to say, I don't mind the yellow here, probably because Fleer uses a few different colors to offset it. .. The head shot is nice-and-large and much better than the head shots that Fleer used on its backs during the 1980s. ... Dig the team logo.

Minuses: Really can't find any. This is the first departure from the Fleer card-back template that had existed since 1983.

1991 Fleer -- overall

Plusses: Fleer's set of 720 cards was the largest it had produced at the time. ... The Pro-Visions insert set is awesome and one of the best insert sets issued this year.

Minuses: Two things that keep me up at night: Who signed off on the 1995 Fleer design and who decided that every 1991 Fleer card should be bright yellow and whyyyyyyyyyyyyy????

1991 Leaf -- the front

Plusses: Although not nearly as classy or appealing as the 1990 Leaf set, there is still a bit of elegance with this set. ... Some people like silver-themed sets, I guess. I think they look dull and gray.

Minuses: The photo corners, although memorable, make the set look dated. ... This is a very ho-hum look for me from something that's supposed to be a premium-type set.

1991 Leaf -- the back

Plusses: It is similar to the 1990 Leaf back, simple, direct with an appealing design. ... There is a little more color with these card backs than in 1990.

Minuses: Silver/gray, ho-hum.

1991 Leaf -- overall

Plusses: Sturdy card stock. ... Um, it's not Donruss or Bowman.

Minuses: Leaf lost a lot of ground in 1991. Although it paved the way for sets like Stadium Club and Ultra, the latter two sets passed Leaf by in 1991 and it was tough for the brand to regain form. ... Relegated to the junk wax heap with other sets. ... I still couldn't find these cards where I lived.

1991 Score -- the front

Plusses: Colorful and distinctive. ... A pleasing border design with plenty of space devoted to the photo. ... The variety of borders -- blue, turquoise, black and white -- adds a bit of excitement to the set.

Minuses: I often question the border color choices. Turquoise? ... Depending on the border color, you could have the coolest card in the world (think any of the Pirates cards with a black border) or something that's just plain ugly (Astros on a turquoise border). ... The black and blue borders chip while the white borders always look awesome.

1991 Score -- the back

Plusses: The most informative card backs around. You couldn't possibly want to know more about Kevin Elster after reading this ... Very well-designed. Lots of space for a head shot and you don't feel like you've been deprived of information. ... This is the first horizontal orientation for a Score card back and I think I like it better.

Minuses: Not much. Score's addition of purples and yellows (and later oranges) around this time put me off, but that's personal taste.

1991 Score -- overall

Plusses: This is an 893-card set, which at the time was the largest major baseball card set ever made. Bigger is always better. ... The subsets are outstanding, possibly the best ever (K-Men, Master Blasters, No-Hitters, Dream Team, etc., etc.). ... An American flag card! ... I've said this before, but Score has always appealed to the basic collector, something that is a lost art.

Minuses: I wish the color scheme was changed a bit. I would have completed this set by now if there was some red in it. ... I do not need bare-chested baseball players in my subsets (*cough* Canseco/Puckett). ... The Magic Motion trivia cards that came in packs were fun at the time, but I have no idea what to do with them now.

1991 Stadium Club -- the front

Plusses: Considered landmark at the time. Full-color, borderless photos with a glossy finish. Nobody had seen anything like it. ... Many of the photos are different, some even unique, the first time seeing images like that.

Minuses: For people who wanted to see team names and positions listed on the front, they were out of luck. ... Some of the photos don't hold up over time, both in terms of quality and subject matter. ... Stadium Club designs -- if you can call them that -- are meant to be simple. I just don't like most of them.

1991 Stadium Club -- the back

Plusses: One of the most innovative card backs of all-time, displaying hitting zone and pitch chart information that had never been displayed before on a card back. ... My favorite part is a photo of the player's rookie card. This is phenomenal and something I wish Stadium Club still did.

Minuses: Some of the stat information isn't relevant anymore. ... Type can be difficult to read.

1991 Stadium Club -- overall

Plusses: One of the most memorable card sets of the last 30 years ... Some of the photos are still entertaining to this day (Eddie Murray).

Minuses: I'm going to upset people who grew up with this set, but it seems dated to me. The photo quality doesn't look as great as it was believed to be at the time and the card backs seem like they're trying a little too hard. I get that it is a landmark set, but I prefer other sets that came out this year.

1991 Topps -- the front

Plusses: Topps brought its A-game for its 40th anniversary and channeled its inner Upper Deck. ... Many of the photos are some of the best that Topps had created up to that time. ... Photos that stand out to this day, such as Benito Santiago, Roger Clemens and Walt Weiss. ... A fun design with the use of a team "wordmark" and sometimes allowing the image to break through the design.

Minuses: There are still a few clunkers in this set that seem to be holdovers from the 1960s.

1991 Topps -- the back

Plusses: It's the usual clean look from this time period, fairly readable. That's about it.

Minuses: Topps did not create interesting backs at this time. I think this is part of the reason that people focus on the "glow-backs" in this set. What else is there to pay attention to?

1991 Topps -- overall

Plusses: This is the final Topps card set on traditional cardboard. It should be praised for that fact alone. ... Another big, ol' 792-card set. ... There's lots of error-chasing in this set, if you like doing that. ... Although people didn't really appreciate it at the time, this is the set that showed that Topps was paying attention to what Upper Deck was doing and finally tried to catch up.

Minuses: An underappreciated set for years that's now getting the credit that it's due.

1991 Ultra -- the front

Plusses: Another premium card brand that places the focus on the photo, not the design. ... Out of the two silver-themed premium sets in 1991, I like Ultra much better than Leaf. ... Many of the photos in this set are a lot of fun (Shawon Dunston is a key one).

Minuses: I'd like this more if the borders were blue or red (but not yellow!).

1991 Ultra -- the back

Plusses: This set was praised at the time for showcasing three different images of the player on the card back. ... I happen to like the back design a lot although it's normally nothing I'd usually like.

Minuses: There is little to absorb from the card back, just basically another image.

1991 Ultra -- overall

Plusses: Fleer's first foray into the premium set market is a solid one. ... The Ultra Team set (the gold cards) received a lot of attention, although they don't appeal to me.

Minuses: I still have a difficult time finding these cards -- not that I'm looking.

1991 Upper Deck -- the front

Plusses: Upper Deck continues to make the photo the star of the card. ... The design, although similar to the previous two years, adds a fun team home plate to the corner.

Minuses: Of the first three years of Upper Deck, this is my least favorite. I enjoy 1990 UD a lot so this is quite a come down. ... I never liked the basepaths name background and the position designation is tiny. ... Until recently, you could find 1989 UD cards in my 1991 UD cards and vice versa.

1991 Upper Deck -- the back

Plusses: UD continues to make a name for itself with the card back, love those photos.

Minuses: Limited stats. ... Sometimes (as in the case of this card), the back image is better than the front image.

1991 Upper Deck -- overall

Plusses: An 800-card set. ... Still some great photos and fun photos.

Minuses: Man, these things are everywhere. Probably the most ubiquitous Upper Deck set ever made. ... Just doesn't match up to 1990 UD for me.

Geez, that took forever. How the heck am I going to get through the '90s with this?

Anyway, you want to see a winner, so here we go.















But it was a close one.

Ranking: 1. Topps; 2. Score; 3. Stadium Club; 4. Ultra; 5. Upper Deck; 6. Leaf; 7. Fleer; 8. Donruss; 9. Bowman

Total ranking: Topps - 7; Upper Deck - 2; Donruss -1; Fleer - 1


  1. Was a bit worried it wasn't going to be Topps since I'll stack that set up against any set ever made.

    I'm in total agreement with you on Stadium Club. It's odd how poorly it's aged and I was kind of disappointed when I looked at them again last year.

  2. I never really was a fan of Stadium Club from back in the day, I always found it kind of bland. I'm like you, I'd take Topps as the best set of the year although for me Upper Deck would be a close second.

  3. I always liked the 1991 Topps. I barely bought the premium cards (Stadium Club, Upper Deck, Ultra, Leaf) because they were more expensive. I guess Fleer is my second favorite, Score is third for me, then Donruss; maybe I like that Fleer are all the same color, even if it's bright yellow. I never liked the Bowman backs; I thought the stats presented that way were too hard to read, even when I was young.

  4. Score is too high. Granted, some of the other sets in this year are total dogs, but I would not put Score at 2. You can argue 3rd, but I would say 4th.

  5. Great post as usual. Really enjoyed reading the detailed breakdowns. Anyways... here's how I would rank them:

    #1: Topps - fantastic photography
    #2: Upper Deck - love the front card design and the extra photo on the back
    #3: Stadium Club - like you said... it's a landmark set

    Surprisingly... the (often dreaded) 1991 Fleer set has climbed up my rankings a lot in the past year or two. It doesn't crack my Top 3, but it's in that #4/#5 area. The photography in that set is highly underrated.

  6. I actually like the bright yellow on that year's Fleer. I was given a few a couple of years ago, they really shine. Of course, yellow is my 2nd favorite color, after green. So I may be biased. Also, I consider 1990 Topps to be one of the best designs ever. And I'm a huge Edsel fan. So you may want to discount me, hah.

  7. I agree that the 1991 Topps set is very underrated. Definitely deserves the top spot on your list, but I would have gone Stadium Club and Upper Deck for the second and third spots.

  8. The comment on needing eclipse glasses for Fleer really made me chuckle. Thanks for that! I thoroughly enjoyed your run down and opinions in this years releases. And I look forward to the rest of the decade, if that's any motivation!

  9. Normally I'd be foaming at the mouth over Topps winning and Bowman/Stadium Club/Ultra losing, but in this case, you're probably right on. Really not a competitive year.

  10. Awesome breakdowns. My list would probably be in a different order. But I'm looking at it from at least ten years later since I didn't collect any of them at the time.

    "My favorite part is a photo of the player's rookie card. This is phenomenal and something I wish Stadium Club still did." Trouble is, what set would they use since every rookie these days has about twenty different cards with the RC logo?

  11. 91 Score reminds me too much of Kenner and/or those silly Starting Lineup cards for me to like that set. I'm with you on 91 Topps though. Great set.

  12. My two cents...I like the Score set from this year because of the colors and just says 1991 to me. Remember that teal color was sort of the in color around this time, as I think Chevy was using it on cars and the Marlins came into existence shortly after. The Topps set is just what a baseball card shouldblook like. Ultra would be my third favorite. You can have the rest from this year.

  13. Also...please keep doing this exercise, I have a weird collection where I basically collect the Topps set and then any cards in other sets of players not in the Topps set, i have a hard time telling what sets are from what year as we get into the 1990s and 2000s

    1. I do the same thing, it works really well for the 1990s when there are some many sets, but as the number of sets dropped, it became more difficult to pull off, basically Topps and Upper Deck until the Topps exclusive.

  14. This is my choice for the year's best set as well.

    I remember feeling underwhelmed when I opened my first few packs in 1991, but this set has really grown on me over the last few years. Like you say, Greg, it's the photography. C.A. HOFer Carlton Fisk is my favorite card in the set -- and not just because I'm a lifelong White Sox fan who spent a lot of my childhood at Old Comiskey Park. As you've written in the past, there is so much awesomeness going on in that photo.

    The Benny Santiago card shows (literally) Sports Illustrated-quality innovation, but there are also subtle examples that add to the set like Craig Wilson, Oscar Azocar, Bip Roberts and the Kevin Maas record-breaker.

    I wouldn't have said this a few years ago, but I think it's one of Topps' best flagship sets.

  15. Received from my aunt the 1991 Topps teams sets for the Brewers (my home state team) and the Reds (my aunt at the time lived in Ohio), which were the first set I owned. So that set will always rank up there for me.

  16. Secretly hoping you'll do a 1991 Topps blog when you wrap up one of the others...