Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Best set of the year: 1991

After basically taking the year off from collecting in 1990, I was back in 1991.

I collected a lot of stuff in 1991 -- because there was a lot to collect. They blew the barn doors off in 1991. Cards and collecting and hobby people in general would never be the same because of '91. There was no going back. The genie was out of the bottle. Everyone had an accountant. We were all going to be stinkin' rich.

And the quickest way to retirement -- in 1991 -- was to buy even more cards.

The card companies were there for you. There were no less than nine major card sets in 1991, the most ever. I'm not even counting things like Classic and O-Pee-Chee Premiere. Nine sets to collect. NINE! For the first six years of my collecting existence I was collecting one solitary set and sticking my fist in a cereal box for another. That was it.


The '91 card season is probably most notable for the growth in "premium" sets. Leaf in 1990 spawned Stadium Club and Ultra in 1991. With that many sets available it's taken me a full year to get up the nerve to continue this series. But I'm ready now.

The 1991 card season was quite an improvement over the 1990 season. There's still a lot of ick in '91 but not as much. So let's give this thing a review. Hold on, it's going to be long. Nine sets, you know.

1991 Bowman -- the front

Plusses: There aren't a lot. ... Bowman kept its set to the standard 2 1/2-by-3 1/2, easing any concerns that it would return to the oversized dimensions from 1989. ... For the third straight year, you get an unobstructed, clear view of the card subject.

Minuses: Just as boring as the 1990 Bowman set. .. I've never liked the purple gradient bar at the bottom. ... I confuse 1991 and 1990 Bowman all the time.

1991 Bowman -- the back

Plusses: As I've said for previous Bowman sets, the statistical information you received with Bowman back then was quite welcome. You couldn't find this information outside of The Sporting News.

Minuses: It's not the easiest to read.

1991 Bowman -- overall

Plusses: Bowman increased its set size for the second straight year and was now at 704 cards strong! ... This Bowman set kicks off with five different Rod Carew cards, something that doesn't get enough attention. ... For the third straight year, the set is numbered by teams. ... Some of the cards receive gold-foil stamps related to various awards won the previous year. ... Rookie cards of Thome, Mussina, Bagwell, Chipper Jones, etc.

Minuses: Once again, I never saw these cards in any stores back in 1991. ... This seemed like the time when Bowman staked its claim to the rookie market -- you may not consider that a bad thing, but it's probably why I don't care about Bowman to this day. ... Nothing about the front of these cards makes me want to buy it. I've read where '91 Bowman was made in the style of '53 Bowman. I don't see it.

1991 Donruss -- the front

Plusses: Ummmm ... it's fun if you're like 6 years old? ... Honestly, this is one of my least favorite sets of all-time, so I'll stop here.

Minuses: I call this set "the Fisher Price set" because it looks like something that would come with the little farm animals and farm people all contained in the same cardboard-and-plastic package. "For 8 years and Under" should be plastered on every 1991 Donruss pack. ... Half the set has blue borders and half the set has green borders. What the hell?

1991 Donruss -- the back

Plusses: You're looking at the same stuff since 1982. Full names and full contract/transaction information is always welcome.

Minuses: Once again, only five years of stats. ... Half the set has blue backs and half the set has green backs. Huh?

1991 Donruss -- overall

Plusses: Well ... it's certainly readily available. ... 1991 Donruss is known, to the new breed of collectors that arrived with the late '80s card boom, as the set that brought us the Elite series, an insert set "limited" to 10,000/7,600/5,000 cards depending on the kind of insert. It created a new kind of frenzy, which was cool for those collectors, and those cards still retain their value.

Minuses: Are these the cheapest cards ever made (Elite cards excluded, of course)? If they aren't, they must be in the bottom 10. ... Wacky "variations" based on the border patterns, which I can't bother to track. ... Possibly the set I would miss the least if it disappeared off the face of the earth. ... This is smack in the middle of my least favorite period of Donruss cards.

1991 Fleer -- the front

Plusses: OK, we're not starting well, are we? I promise it will get better. ... The color choice is certainly daring, I'll give it that. ... Aside from all the YELLOW, I like the design. It is almost stately and it would look quite a bit better with a different colored border. ... If you're a fan of the Pirates or A's (and to a certain extent, the Padres), you're wondering why I'm so hard on this set.

Minuses: The same protocol for viewing an eclipse applies for viewing 1991 Fleer. ... This is somewhat the same problem as 1990 Donruss -- a border color that gets too mind-numbing when it's on every card. ... If this border was color-coded by team it would be one of the greatest sets of the '90s. ... The team logo, a staple of Fleer sets since 1983, has disappeared.

1991 Fleer -- the back

Plusses: Hey! For the first time since 1983, the Fleer card back looks a little different! And it has color and a large head shot, too! I actually like '91 Fleer's backs a lot. ... Phew! There's the team logo. ... Man that card number presentation is glorious.

Minuses: Some of the type is a little too tiny for folks of advancing age.

1991 Fleer -- overall

Plusses: Fleer tried something new, OK? We're going to give them some points for that. ... It might be the most visible set of all-time. Visible from Mars. ... This is the largest Fleer set to date. 720 cards. 720 YELLOW cards. ... If you can get past all that YELLOW, some of the photos are fun. Maybe not as fun as mid-1980s Fleer, though. ... The '91 set has some interesting extra stuff, particularly the Pro Vision cards that come in either black or white borders. The black borders rule.

Minuses: Trading cards shouldn't make you see spots after viewing them. ... The thought of completing the whole set is intimidating, just because of the color. ... Although I wouldn't put Fleer in the same lousy class as Donruss, the 1989-92 period of Fleer is one of my least favorite. ... There will be some joker who declares 1991 Fleer as their favorite set in the comments. That person needs help.

1991 Leaf -- the front

Plusses: Maybe not as classy as 1990 Leaf, but still a mature-looking front. ... The photos are well-presented by using the old-style photo-corners design. ... Pictures are nice and clear.

Minuses: For me, this is a come down from the 1990 set. I'm just not feeling it. ... No team mention on the front.

Plusses: Very similar to the 1990 Leaf design. It's well-designed and elegant, using an added color with the red. ... Complete stats! ... Interesting placement of the card number.

Minuses: I mentioned this the last time: I'm not a fan of silver/gray-dominated color schemes.

1991 Leaf -- overall

Plusses: As the first real premium set, Leaf stayed with what worked the previous year. Elegant set, quality card stock.

Minuses: 1991 Leaf is not nearly as scarce as 1990 Leaf, which you can view as a plus or a minus. The complete set is valued at rock-bottom junk wax prices, a good $60-70 less than a Leaf set from the previous year. ... I still couldn't find these cards anywhere back in '91.

1991 Score -- the front

Plusses: Color aside, I'm a big fan of the '91 Score border design. I like it better than the first three Score sets. ... There are some pretty cool photos in this set. ... The Score logo here is awesome.

Minuses: I don't get the border color choices. Blue, OK. Black, OK. White, yeah, OK. Turquoise???

This is what the black-bordered cards look like in the Score set. That is vastly better than turquoise. Perhaps you set too high a standard in a set when only some of the cards are black-bordered. But I can't help but think that '91 Score would have been even better if another color choice was chosen to replace turquoise. ... The blue and black borders are prone to chipping.

1991 Score -- the back

Plusses: Score continues to have the best card backs from this time period. I like just about everything for this arrangement. ... The giant head shot is tremendous. Score loses nothing by devoting that much space to the photo. ... The always great Score write-ups. ... I love the positioning of the card number.

Minuses: I can't really find anything.

1991 Score -- overall

Plusses: Score packs a ton into its 1991 set. Not only is it 900 cards strong (issued in two series for the first time), but it might feature the most varied and best-presented subsets ever made. Dream Team, The Franchise, Rifleman/K-Man/Master Blasters, the No-Hit Club, Highlights, No. 1 Draft Picks, All-Star teams (cartoons!). Just outstanding. ... A card of an American flag! ... This set is what collecting is all about for me. You get a lot in every pack.

Minuses: The four border colors make the set somewhat disjointed. ... I can see some of Score's fascination with purple combined with orange combined with green, which really hurt the '92 set for me, creeping into the 1991 set. ... There is a tendency for some collectors to not take Score sets seriously. I don't really get that thinking, but maybe it's putting purple type on a yellow background.

1991 Stadium Club -- the front

Plusses: Hold on to your hats. We really have something different here. ... Full-color photos with quality production. ... High-glossy fanciness. ... Some photos that you had never seen outside of Upper Deck. ... These card fronts were mind-blowing at the time.

Minuses: I know collectors who don't like borderless sets. I'm one of those people, although I restrict my quibbling to Topps flagship. Stadium Club is meant to be borderless. ... No team name. No position. ... If you can take off your Stadium Club fan-boy glasses for a moment, the photo quality looks pretty dated. ... Some of the photo selection, particularly a few of the head shots, are dorky.

1991 Stadium Club -- the back

Plusses: Forget about the borderless photos on the front, I was all about seeing that rookie card on the back. What a concept! I LOVED THIS! ... Possibly one of the most interesting card backs of all-time (it ranked very high on my Card Back Countdown several years ago). ... The strike zone stats were also cool and made people forget that Stadium Club wasn't presenting full career stats.

Minuses: That's a lot to digest if you're used to reading the a plain, gray Topps card back. ... Some of the Stadium Club stat presentations became dated, too.

1991 Stadium Club -- overall

Plusses: Anyone who grew up with borderless sets probably doesn't know what the big deal was for Stadium Club. But for the card world, Stadium Club was like watching the first Star Wars movie. What IS this? This is SO COOL. ... Probably the most popular set of 1991. ... You could sign up to become a Stadium Club member and get special Members Only cards.

Minuses: Sadly, glossy cards lose their gloss over time. There are some sets that more prone to bricking than Stadium Club, but Stadium Club cards that stick together make me sad. ... Because they're borderless cards, the cards have a sameness to them that really can confuse when you're comparing different Stadium Club sets. ... Like Upper Deck when it first came out, it was a bit pricey.

1991 Topps -- the front

Plusses: Some of the best and most interesting photography that Topps had placed in a flagship set to that time. ... A semi-iconic design that has increased in appreciation over the years. ... The first horizontal photos in decades.

Minuses: At the time, '91 Topps was slammed for a hum-drum design that didn't match up with other card sets issued that year. I can see where it could be considered a little dry. ... There are still quite a bit of boring head shots in this set.

1991 Topps -- the back

Plusses: (*shrug*) The monthly scoreboard is somewhat interesting although it's pretty much a concept that Fleer had used for several years. ... Some of the write-ups are interesting.

Minuses: Compared with the other card sets out at the time, this card back seemed as backward as it gets. This was your father's card back, maybe even your grandfather's.

1991 Topps -- overall

Plusses: A set unappreciated in its own time that grew into a cult classic among card bloggers. ... Topps showed that you can produce an interesting set and still retain that traditional cardboard feel. ... Topps pulled out all the stops for its 40th anniversary, inserting certificates for older Topps cards in packs (I never found one). It even gave away a grand prize of a complete set for every one of Topps' 40 years.

Minuses: Topps sure gave ammunition to its critics who wanted it to keep up with Upper Deck by issuing a rather staid set with a card back that looks like the 1989 zzzzz-fest. There was a perception that Topps was resting on its laurels here.

1991 Ultra -- the front

Plusses: I really love some of the photos in this set. ... The basic design is clean, straightforward and awesome, although I wish it wasn't gray.

Minuses: Because of the obsession with gray/silver at the time I often confuse '91 Ultra and '91 Leaf.

1991 Ultra -- the back

Plusses: Well, it sure grabs your attention. Not one, not two, but three photos of the player, with a team logo kind of floating in the air. ... It's a colorful back. You're certainly not mistaking it for Topps.

Minuses: There's not a lot to offer here. Limited stats, a pretty poor use of space. Compare this back with the Stadium Club back and Ultra falls on its face.

1991 Ultra -- overall

Plusses: The second premium set to make its debut in 1991, Ultra showed that Fleer could be about more than bizarre yellow borders. ... Fleer kind of had a reputation for haphazard photos at the time so this boosted the company's status.

Minuses: At just 400 cards, it barely feels like a set, especially for the time. ... Stadium Club kind of wiped up the floor with Ultra in '91, although I think the photos hold up better in Ultra than Stadium Club.

1991 Upper Deck -- the front

Plusses: Upper Deck continues to be all about the photo in its third year of existence. ... The logo on home plate is a nice look.

Minuses: I really don't like this version of Upper Deck. It's my least favorite of the early Upper Deck years and even into the mid-1990s. .... There's a lot of sameness between 1989, 1990 and 1991, it was difficult for me to distinguish between the three for a long time.

1991 Upper Deck -- the back

Plusses: Once again, UD really makes a name for itself with its backs. ... The hologram logo is a little home plate!

Minuses: Always confusion with how you orientate the backs of some Upper Deck cards. Now the card number is sideways! ... Limited stats.

1991 Upper Deck -- overall

Plusses: For the folks who noticed it, 1991 Upper Deck completes the trip around the bases with its "2nd-to-home plate" design (1989 was "home-to-first" and 1990 was "first-to-second"). ... A massive set of 800 cards (including the high-number set issued later in the summer) with a ton of rookies stuffed into it. ... There were a number of "Heroes" insert sets honoring folks like Hank Aaron and Nolan Ryan. The Baseball Heroes look became so iconic with collectors that Upper Deck later issued a few sets based on that design.

Minuses: I didn't collect Upper Deck at the time, but if I did, I sure would have been sick of the look by this time. Too much sameness. ... These cards are more available than any other Upper Deck set. There's a store on the other side of town that trots out plastic containers of about fifty 1991 UD cards each every so often. They just sit there because no one wants them. ... UD was still giving the 666 number to a Dodger, a tired joke that wasn't funny the first time.

OK, that's all of them.

It's time to declare the winner.

















My man, Otis! (That's Otis Nixon in the picture, not Alex Cole).

This was an easy pick for me this time.

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

Total ranking: 1. Topps-6; Upper Deck 2; Donruss-1; Fleer-1; Stadium Club-1


  1. 1991 Donruss Alex Cole was the first card I ever bought at a card show. The 1991 Donruss design has really grown on me. As I get older the Donruss backs are easiest to read.

    My Rankings.: 1. Donruss 2. Topps 3. Upper Deck then a drop off 4. Bowman and then a huge Drop Off 5. Leaf 6.Score 7. Stadium Club 8. Ultra 9. Fleer.

  2. I agree TSC was the clear winner.

  3. 1991 Topps flagship would be the only set I'd put in pages. And I think card shops were asking two bucks a pack as it seemed very hard to find retail packs when TSC first arrived.

  4. I loved Score and Topps back in the day. I must have busted a ton of packs of those two sets (along with the very yellow Fleer). I never liked the 1991 Stadium Club set (though I also have no nostalgia attached to it since I never saw packs of it for sale as a kid).

  5. In 1991 Stadium Club and Upper Deck were what my classmates and I all wanted. I also, as an autograph seeker, really enjoyed Ultra and Leaf since I really liked the silver ink and the way it looks with signatures.

    Now? You're absolutely right about how Stadium Club's photos don't look as nice as they used to. It's still a wonderful set but it's underwhelming compared to my memory of it. Meanwhile I'm totally in the Topps Flagship camp now and have this as one of my top 5 Topps sets period. I also continue to love Score for its willingness to experiment with crazy subsets. Nowadays those would all be inserts and hard to find. They're much more fun as just base cards.

  6. I kinda thought you'd go with Flagship here, but Stadium Club has to be the winner because they cards were so much higher quality than the other sets. I like 1991 Topps a lot. Score and UD are solid compared to their other releases to that point. But those first three sets are godawful. I've got no love for those bland gray sets, either.

  7. Back in the early 1990's I refused - REFUSED!!!! - to patronize the high-end sets like UD and Stadium Club. As a result, 1991 Topps was very much appreciated in its time by me, because it's easily the best of 1991's non-premium sets.

    Does it help at all if I point out that 1991 Donruss Series 1 had blue borders and Series 2 had green borders?

    ...Nah, I didn't think so.

  8. Do you remember how you would have rated them at the time?

    1. I didn't see half of them in 1991. But of the ones, I did, I'd rank them about the same. I never liked '91 Donruss.

  9. Fantastic post, Mr. Owl. I remember 1991 very well. For a guy who loved baseball cards, I felt there were too many sets to collect! I also felt each set was flawed in different ways: Topps flagship had too many head shots and bad printing; Score had too many cards; Stadium Club's design was too basic; Fleer had yellow "yuck!"; Donruss's border was designed by a second grader with really thick glasses; UD's border looked too much like their preview two sets; Leaf looked weird with those corners; Ultra was too sparse of a design. Of course, I was buying packs like a fiend anyway! On another note, Stadium Club will always be one of the most polarizing sets of all time to me. Did it add to the hobby or actually help ruin it? Would love to hear your take on that.

  10. I worked at a card store in 1991 and remember the boss getting frustrated at all the different types of sets coming out and having to stock them all. Needless to say the card companies rammed that stuff down our throat and the amount of Fleer and Donruss we had left over was insane. Nobody wanted that stuff when they could have Stadium Club and Ultra. Great post!

  11. Stadium Club was always my favorite back then and I love them just as much now. I was really excited to find out they were coming back in 2014.

    I both agree and disagree about the photos on the New Stadium Club set. The photos they started with in 2014 for the weakest and I feel like they have gotten progressively better. They seem to do better with vintage player images versus current player images. The Sandy Koufax from 2016 has my favorite photo ever on a card. The photo variations of current players I guess makes up for it but those are tougher to find.

    Great post!

  12. This was fun. I was 9 years old in 1991 so at that time my favorites were likely flagship and Score. It's what my parents would buy me when they went out. Now I'm a sucker for Leaf and can appreciate Stadium Club.

  13. You said something nice about '91 Fleer! I've never wanted to print out a blog post and frame it before, but I might do it with this one! Incredible choice on the card you chose to showcase as well. For those that don't know me, I am the very rational person who loves '91 Fleer.

  14. 91 was truly the start of the greatest era in the hobby, in my opinion. I wish we could go back to it. The 1991-98 time period was just incredible, I can't think of any other adjective to describe it.

    I love the yellow border on the Fleer set, but yellow is my 2nd favorite color behind only green.

  15. Sort of the beginning of the end of baseball cards. I view 1991 Topps as the last "real" card set ever produced. I appreciate how diplomatic you were with '91 Fleer, people have opinions stronger than it's yellow glow (I love it myself).

  16. I remember thinking Stadium Club was besmirching all that a baseball card was supposed to be when it released that 1991 set. "No borders? What the heck? Without borders it's just a photograph!" But the card backs were pretty cool at the time.

  17. Also, something I think that is underappreciated about 1991 Donruss - every border design on every card I believe is different. Trying to figure out the meaning is like trying to figure out the Davinci Code or Ginter Code

  18. 1991 Donruss is special for me as it's the first pack of cards I ever opened. I still remember getting Hector Villanueva and Scott Chiamparino in that first pack. Also, this may sound like blasphemy to some people but I never really got into Stadium Club, I always preferred the traditional cards (Topps, Donruss, etc.). Speaking of which, I always through 1991 Topps was pretty fun as well with the funky team logo at the bottom and the interesting pictures. I'd rank these as 1. Topps 2. Upper Deck 3. Donruss. 4. Score 5. Leaf 6. Stadium Club 7. Ultra 8. Fleer 9. Bowman

  19. Was in my comics phase in '91, so I didn't see any of this when it was new. So most of these sets I've only seen in huge bulk lots for sale cheap, so I've never really looked at many of them closely.
    I went back and built Topps & Stadium Club. Love the variations in Topps.
    My friend that knew nothing about cards bought me a factory Score set (store clerk got over on him), but I do like the subsets.
    I build a "junk" set about every year, and Fleer is in the top few for the next one.
    Will probably never own Donruss or Ultra. Ugh...
    Upper Deck was the first one I built of '89 thru '93, so I like it a bit more.
    Got a cheap Bowman set somewhere already sheeted up, but don't have aspirations to get many more years.

  20. 1. TSC
    2. Topps
    3. Upper Deck
    4. Fleer

    No sense in ranking the other sets. I'm not a fan of any of those sets. However if I had to pick a worst set design... I'd go with Leaf. Maybe Donruss. Nah... Leaf is a little worse.

  21. That turquoise color score used was the in color for a short period of time...cars came in that color, and 1991 was the year the Marlins first came into existence, although they wouldnt play until 1993. I was, and still am, a big fan of this score set...it to me just says everything about the fashion of the time, say, 1972 topps says about the 1970s

  22. I like the 1991 Fleer. I was at an awkward age in 1991, and it's an awkward set.

  23. 1. Studio
    2. TSC
    3. Ultra
    4. Topps
    5. UD
    6. Leaf
    7. Score
    8. Bowman
    9. Fleer