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Nobody knows what a subset is anymore

The December/January edition of Beckett Vintage Collector came to my house Saturday.

Yup, I've subscribed to the thing -- I should ensure that it stays in business if I'm writing for it, right? Asking for free copies all the time doesn't help them pay my salary.

The latest edition should start appearing in stores and at magazine racks in the next couple of weeks. And, once again, I have a story in it.

This is my fifth story for the magazine this year, something I didn't quite expect when the first one was published back in January. It's still very cool and I hope to keep it going for as long as they want me and I have topics.

This edition's topic is subsets:

You remember subsets, right?

Well, maybe you don't. Subsets went out of style by the mid-1990s and that's already 25 years ago.

Subsets were replaced by inserts, which were popular with both collectors and card companies -- card companies because now they could make collectors chase cards like a trained monkey, opening pack after pack after pack for cards that were a lot more elusive than subset cards, which were just as available as any other card in the set because they were part of the set.

Sure, some inserts seem a little too fancy to be included in the body of a set, but a lot of them -- especially the ones created these days -- are just subset cards that you have to pay more for to own. Think of some of the noted subsets of the past: The 1985 USA Baseball Team set, the 1976 Sporting News All-Time Greats set, the 1977 Big League Brothers set.

These would all be insert sets today and you know they would. And everyone would have to pay more for them because they'd have to buy more packs to get them.

Yes, this is another OK Boomer post. But I'm actually Gen X and generation arguments are ridiculous anyway. I'm not going to ask you to dial a rotary phone, but I do want you to know about the history of baseball cards. It's kind of one of the main reasons I write this blog.

When I looked back on the article I wrote and the subsets that I discussed, it occurred to me what an ancient concept subsets are. It didn't seem like it when I was writing about it -- although I do know that it's called "Beckett Vintage" for a reason.

It has been a loooooooong time since what was known as a subset -- a themed series of cards featured consecutively by card number -- has appeared in a major set.

How long?

Well, most of the more recent subset examples I can think of appeared in Score sets and Score hasn't been issuing card sets -- at least not without Panini's name on them -- since How Bizarre was on the radio. Upper Deck was issuing subsets in the early-to-mid '90s, just before the insert craze hit, but even then UD didn't truly understand subsets.

My favorite subsets were about moments -- the World Series, record-breakers, reading the stolen base leaders on the back. That's why subsets were needed.

Upper Deck used subsets to cram more star players into the set. That's OK with all-star subsets, but when you know it's just a random assortment of players, the "theme" aspect has been lost.

I tried to figure out the most recent time a traditional subset was issued -- outside of Heritage, of course -- and quickly abandoned that bit of research. Instead, I reached for something fairly recent that I knew I had in my collection. It was even titled "Moments".


Back when this card was issued I considered it the worst card of the year. We bloggers had a field day making fun of it at the time.

It is part of the 2009 Upper Deck O-Pee-Chee set, specifically the Moments subset. It is a whole 18 cards -- which immediately sets off the filler warning bells -- from cards No. 543 to 560 in the set.

Weirdly, the set displays dates on the front but they are not placed in order by card number. So I am going to do that for you now. And I am going to review each card to see if it would fit into a traditional subset from back in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

I'll start with the comical Michael Young card, which has the earliest date in the subset.

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: No. Although the card back lists all of Young's accomplishments at the time, the card's only function appears to be an attempt to embarrass him with his sleepy photo. Placing a name card in front of you is hardly a moment worth immortalizing with a baseball card.

Moment: March 8, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: No. Fun card, but all the back does is repeat some nonsense about the ball looking like a melon and Hanley Ramirez's all-star stats in 2008.

Moment: April 6, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: Unlikely. This was a random game six days into the season, a 2-0 victory over Tampa Bay in Yankee Stadium. The story of that game was Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera and the card back acknowledges it, then it forces in that Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were "flawless in the field" to justify the picture. Good thing the photo didn't show Robinson Cano. He committed an error in that game.

Moment: April 20, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: Not necessarily, but at least it was a pretty good game and the photo represents it well. The Red Sox scored six runs in the seventh and eighth innings to wipe out the Rangers' 5-0 lead and win 6-5. Youkilis and David Ortiz were both key figures.

Moment: April 20, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: Well, probably not, but at least we're approaching true subset territory. This card, which is from the same game as the last card, mentions Jonathan Papelbon's '08 season, in which he finished third in the league in saves. Maybe if he placed first, this would be a worthy subset card.

Moment: June 22, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: No. Honestly it doesn't seem like UD has any idea what a subset is with this set. This photo is from a random interleague game between the Padres and Tigers. Upper Deck likes the photo because the Padres wore their camouflage unis for the game. But a random home run during the season does not make a subset (but a series of cards about alternate uniforms DOES make a subset).

Moment: June 22, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: Nope. This card is an excuse to get Joe Mauer in the set again. It pretends that Mauer had something to do with the Twins' 5-3 victory over the Diamondbacks (woo, Twins-Diamondbacks, that's excitement) in which the Twins scored five runs in the fifth inning. Mauer's contribution? He reached on an error.

Moment: June 26, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: Nah. This card cracks me up as the back is all about how -- get this -- Evan Longoria actually picked up the glove and hat of a teammate as they headed out to the field! Amazing. Longoria did hit two doubles and a home run as the Rays beat the Marlins but I don't think Rays-Marlins is ever worthy of a card in a subset.

Monday: July 6, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: No. The card back mentions that both players were league leaders in 2008 (Hamilton: RBIs, total bases; Huff: extra base hits). But it's another excuse to use a photo more than anything.

Moment: July 14, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: Nope. Putting aside the fact that the Home Run Derby didn't exist when traditional subsets appeared, Lance Berkman finished the HRD in third place. Where is the photo of Josh Hamilton hitting fake home runs? He won the thing. That would make a worthy subset card.

Moment: July 15, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: No. Featuring Chipper Jones in a 2008-themed series is appropriate because as the card back says, Jones won the National League batting crown that year for the first time. But just getting selected to the All-Star Game isn't worth a subset unless you're including every All-Star in the subset. Also, the All-Star Game was on July 15, 2008 and I'm pretty sure Jones had already been chosen by then.

Moment: July 15, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: Yes. (Finally!) Maybe not with that weird caption but it definitely recalls a memorable moment. Jeter is celebrating with Michael Young after Young's sacrifice fly in the 15th inning scored the winning run for the American League in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. It was the longest All-Star Game in history and that is the sentence that probably should have appeared on the front.

Moment: July 15, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: No. This is the third card about the All-Star Game. Carlos Zambrano definitely did his part but we're really getting down to minor details if we're featuring a two-inning relief stint.

Moment: July 27, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset: No. But still a nice moment. Johan Santana pitched a complete game in a 9-1 win over the Cardinals and also went 2-for-4, scored a run and drove in his only run of the year.

Moment: July 31, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: No. This looks like an excuse to showcase the hyped rookie of the time, Kosuke Fukudome. The Cubs were a good team, yup. But the Dodgers beat them in the NLDS.

Moment: July 31, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: No. Sizemore was the star of this particular game against the Tigers. And, as the card back says, he would go on to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases. But none of that is quite notable enough for a typical subset.

Moment: August 25, 2008

Would it make a traditional subset?: No. Jose Reyes had a really good game against the Astros on this day. Nothing record-breaking or more notable than a really good game. End of story.

Moment: September 18, 2008

Would it appear in a traditional subset?: Maybe. The card marks Ichiro's 200th hit and the eighth straight time that he would have 200 hits in a season, mentioning that this is a record. But the best time for this card -- when it would be truly subset-worthy -- is when he reached 200 hits for the fifth consecutive year, because no one had done it more than four straight seasons at that point. But I'm not going to argue with another Ichiro card.

So out of the 18 cards, maybe 2 -- the Jeter All-Star card and the Ichiro card -- would appear in what was known as a subset from the late 1950s to the early 1990s.

Obviously no one knows what a subset is anymore -- I think my review of a subset from 10 years ago points that out.

But at least we have our inserts. Our waaaay too many inserts.

I miss the days when you could pull this out of a pack. Without searching all over God's creation for it.


Billy Kingsley said…
Ironically, Panini has returned a subset to the Hoops brand as of 2018-19, and I hate it. Instead of the already too small 300 players in a 525 man league, now we get 280 players. A really poor job of a flagship set.

Don't forget all the people who call inserts subsets...
Commishbob said…
I see a cloud and I'm going to yell at it..."Modern cards are not much fun".
Brett Alan said…
I hadn't seen any of those "Moments" cards. Some of them really seem like jokes; if you had posted this on April 1 I would have thought it was a very good April Fools Day prank.
Nick said…
Even though I wasn't alive to see most subsets, I still miss 'em...if that's even possible. I didn't even realize you had to go all the way back to 2009 OPC for the last non-Heritage subset. I'd say we're overdue for another one.
GCA said…
I bet Topps would say that they still include subsets like League Leaders, Home Run Derby / All-Star Game, and those insipid ML Debut cards. But these don't count, since except for the tiny little logo in the corner, they look exactly like regular base cards, and they're scrambled throughout the set.
CaptKirk42 said…
I miss subsets. Like many other things in the hobby that disappeared, I didn't realize they were gone for a few years. At first you think "Oh they'll have them next year" then when that year comes along you are like "Damn they skipped them again" and you realize they are totally gone now. One of my favorite subsets was the Super Vet cards from 1983 Topps.
Fuji said…
Amen brother. 75% of the flagship inserts these days should be subset cards instead. As a guy who enjoys inserts, I miss the days when it was exciting to pull one. It's not much of an insert when you get one, two, or three in a pack.

And the 1976 Sporting News All-Time Greats are one of my favorite subsets of all-time. They look awesome and they're an affordable way to add vintage cards of guys like Babe Ruth to your collection.
Nick Vossbrink said…
Damn. Missed this yesterday. Was totally appropriate too since I've ben sorting a set of 1991 Score with my youngest and explaining why it's one of my favorites. So many different subsets. It's kind of blowing his little mind since he's used to the monoculture of Topps.

I tend to blame expansion for the demise in subsets but it's really the combination of that and how there are no huge 900-card sets anymore. When checklists are only 200-400 cards and there are 30 teams there's not much room for anything besides base cards. Flagship + Update is the only thing that gets close to the right size but I don't really count Update as part of that set

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