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An underrated subset in an underrated set

I was going through the 1988 Topps set the other day in search of candidates for the Greatest 100 Cards of the '80s countdown and marveling over the pleasing nature of that set.

I will go to my grave insisting that the '88 Topps set is one of the most overlooked, picture-perfect sets ever made and losing a tiny bit of respect for anyone who says it's "boring." I have harped on this over and over and ranked the '88 Topps set fairly high in my all-time Topps sets countdown.

From the rookie cup cards to the manager cards to the -- good, lord those Mets cards -- and the terrific, colorful, 3-D nature of the set, it's one of my favorites.

But there is one element of it that I've always overlooked like the masses overlook '88 Topps.

The team leaders cards are an unnoticed treasure.

Perhaps it's because they don't look like the rest of the cards in the set, with the lack of a colored border and the white fog enveloping one-fourth of the card, but going through these cards again, I found them wonderfully retro and close to unlike anything Topps was doing in the '80s.

For those who somehow missed the junk wax era altogether, the '88 Topps team leaders set was a continuation of the team leaders subset theme that began in 1986 and continued through 1989.

After a 1985 set that produced no real team card at all (the manager card was as close as '85 got), Topps turned to a team card theme that it had last used in the early '70s, by listing team leaders on the back -- this time from the previous season.

The theme on the back was essentially the same between '86 and '89 but the front theme varied.

Each of the card fronts featured the same dream-like baseball scene with the washed-out borders. But the 1986 set focused on showing the "dean" -- the player who had been on the team the longest -- of each team. The 1987 set concentrated on meetings on the mound or celebrations at the plate. The 1989 set purely stressed game action.

The 1988 set, meanwhile, was a combination of "breaks in the action" during games and those old-fashioned baseball poses that you saw on combo cards in the 1960s, like the Dodgers Leaders card at the top of the post.

I thought it would be fun to count down the 1988 Team Leaders cards from worst to best.

Since it's a fun countdown, no thought beyond the hour I spent on it earlier today is involved. So don't be offended if your favorite -- if you have one -- isn't ranked highly. Also, don't be offended if I don't know the players depicted on the card. There ain't no captions on these cards, and I'm less likely to know a random player from the late '80s than one from the '70s or early '80s.

OK, here we go:

26. Mariners: Harold Reynolds and Phil Bradley, I believe. Honestly, nobody paid attention to the Mariners until Ken Griffey Jr. came along. So this is an expansion-quality team leaders photo.

25. Dodgers: Dodgers card or not, night card or not, this just makes me sad. Both Pedro Guerrero and Fernando Valenzuela were team leaders in 1987, but by the fall of 1988, each were irrelevant to the Dodgers' World Series run.

24. Twins: This is the first of the Bat-On-Shoulder, Dynamic-Duo cards in this subset. Kent Hrbek with -- is that Gary Gaetti? He looks so young -- at spring training. Nothing wrong with it, there are just others done better or with more star power. I know that seems odd to say considering the Twins had won the World Series right before this card was made. But all you needed to do was put Puckett on this card and things would've been so much different.

23. Giants: The end-of-the-game congratulation lineup photo. This was not a common photo in 1980s baseball cards, but it's kind of a mish-mash of a picture and demerits for showing Will the Shrill.

22. Yankees: Yup, it's Dave Winfield and Willie Randolph at spring training. It also looks like a picture taken by my grandmother. I'm surprised the tops of their heads are in the frame.

21. Mets: Topps was so excited to get Kevin McReynolds in the flagship set, after being spurned by McReynolds for four years, that they gave him a second card, pictured with Gary Carter. But any late '80s fan would tell you Hernandez or Strawberry makes more sense with Carter.

20. Astros: Chilling in the dugout with a baseball bat is always a fool-proof photo, but not a lot of star power in Kevin Bass and Billy Hatcher. How could Topps know at the time though, right?

19. Angels: Oof, I should have rated this below the Astros, but I was blinded by the night. Who is that with Wally Joyner? Is that Jack Howell? (*checks the handy internet to confirm*). Yup, it's Jack Howell. And neither of them seem excited about that.

18. White Sox: More star power here. Two Hall of Famers, in fact. And crotch-level uniform numbers.

17. Brewers: Who do we have here? Dale Sveum? Earnie Riles? I don't know. Batting cage photos are always nice but Robin Yount and Paul Molitor must have been meeting agents.

16. Red Sox: I love break-in-the-action photos on cards. Card companies are deathly afraid these days of showing anything that is not Action-All-The-Time, probably mandated by the MLB, so this is very nice. Boggs and -- somebody's going to have to help me, is that Marty Barrett? -- seem to be enjoying the photo, too.

15. Phillies: Yes! Another break in the action. Lance Parrish and, gosh, I should know the other guy.

14. Tigers: Alan Trammell wants to make sure Kirk Gibson is socially distancing.

13. Blue Jays: Fred McGriff and maybe Jessie Barfield discussing their craft. Love it.

12. Padres: Static shots always look better in Dodger Stadium.

11. Expos: Hubie Brooks and Tim Wallach. Nice left side of the infield. That team should have done more.

10. Rangers: You know how much I love dugout shots. Is that Inky? I think it is. Oh, and Steve Buechele.

9. Reds: Ron Robinson, at 6-4, was not the tallest player on the Reds in '87 and John Franco, at 5-10, was not the shortest. I probably like this card more than I should.

8. Cubs: Young Shawn Dunston buddies up to veteran Manny Trillo. This card alone should have made me take more notice of this set.

7. Cardinals: Red Schoendienst was the bench coach for the Cardinals in 1987 but a former manager and a St. Louis legend. Tony Pena was the young star catcher. It's a great photo. (RIP, Lou Brock).

6. Pirates: We are getting to some almost legendary pairings. Bonds and Bonilla generated friction-filled careers and it's a shame they couldn't have stayed with the Pirates to the end. But at the time, there was hope written all over them for a team that had been plagued by lousy teams, poor attitudes and a drug culture.

5. Indians: This is the highest-numbered card (#790) in my night card binder. I'm proud that it's there. It captures all of the promise of these two individuals in a dramatic setting. Nothing helps a card like a fully-charged light tower.

4. Orioles: The Orioles were at the beginning of a really bad period in 1987. This photo is more a reflection of the start of the decade when nobody was more successful than this duo.

3. Royals: Is this before a Saberhagen start? Whatever. I love the baby blues and George Brett exhibiting his extrovert behavior, and I'd love to know the conversation.

2. Athletics: Pretty much what 1988 was all about, frankly ... until the Dodgers came along.

1. Braves: Woooo! That's your 1950s style combo card right there! I don't even know half the guys in this photo. I don't care. Why can't we have stuff like this today?

So, now, don't you like that '88 Topps subset a little more than you once did? Don't you like '88 Topps more than you once did?


Well, I'm not going to stop writing about it.


Mike said…
Brewers: Glenn Braggs is with Tony Muser.

Red Sox: Wade Boggs is with Spike Owen.

Phillies: Lance Parrish is with Mike Ryan. (I think. I looked up the ID on this one a long time ago, though.)

Blue Jays: I believe that it is George Bell, not Jesse Barfield, talking with Fred McGriff.

Expos: I believe that it is Vance Law, not Tim Wallach, who is pictured alongside Hubie Brooks.

Braves: It's Gerald Perry, Dale Murphy, Ken Griffey, Sr., and Dion James from left to right.

I am definitely a dork for knowing all of this. ;) Fun post and I agree that team cards/leaders can be fun if/when done right.
gcrl said…
So this is how I learned of lou brock passing. I have an upcoming post on subsets, and I may wind up giving these a closer look, so we'll done! I always appreciated the cardinals card because of schoendienst being featured, just as ron perranoski was on the dodgers 1987 leaders card.
Mark Hoyle said…
Spike Owen on the Bosox card
I didn't know Lou Brock died today untilnI saw the reference here. And just a few days after Tom Seaver. A couple of icons from my youth.
John Bateman said…
Reading the Sports Cards Blogs made me appreciate this set much more than I did 30 years ago. Looking at all the sets that came since 1988 very few can top it for being memorable.
Base Card Hero said…
1988 is my absolute favorite set for design and nostalgia reasons. All the subsets were great-- I especially liked the All-Star cards.
bryan was here said…
I absolutely love the '88 Topps set. Takes me back to my high school days, when I would ride my bike across town to my local card shop and buy packs with the money I got from washing cars at the corner used car lot.
I'm a little biased here, but I love that Indians card taken at the old Stadium. I did go to a lot of Indians and Pirates games that summer.
'88 Topps needs to be used in Archives. It's LONG overdue.
acrackedbat said…
The Braves card is certainly sharp. I can't get past the heavenly cloud surrounding the players though. My memories would likely be different had I been collecting then.
Jason T. Carter said…
I agree with Bryan that 1988 needs to be used in Archives, but it needs to be done right. The few times they have attempted to pay tribute Topps had failed miserably, sometimes changing the font of the team name, other times losing the 3-D effect that makes the set so awesome. I was disappointed with the Reds leaders. Should have been Davis and Daniels in '88.

JT, The Writer's Journey
Nick Vossbrink said…
Nice. I hadn't noticed the year-to-year differences on these. Probably not helped by the Giants having a very 1987 photo in 1988 (there's been some discussion about the 1987 card and wondering why it shows like a 1983 photo of Jim Barr and Bob Brenly but that's a different post). Now that I think about it I believe all the 1989 cards are horizontals which is a nice bonus too.

One other thing about the 1988s is that I don't think Topps uses the font for "Leaders" anywhere else in the set. While 86 and 87 use the player name font and 89 uses the base graphic, in 1988 Topps used a brand new font that doesn't even match the script on the All Stars cards.

Oh and I do like how the faded out design language on these is carried over to the Mini Leaders cards as well.
Fuji said…
I was trying to visualize the A's card while scrolling down this post. Can't believe I forgot about The Bash Brothers. Anyways... I'll give you credit. This subset is much nicer than I originally gave it credit for, but the 1988 design is still my least favorite Topps flagship design of the decade. That being said... there are a ton of well-cropped action shots that help make this set worth looking at.
jacobmrley said…
Gary Carter and Kevin McReynolds, one of my absolute favorite players of all time and one of my least. I was thinking I'd have preferred they used one of the spring training photos of Darryl Strawberry punching one of his teammates, but alas, those were from 1989 and 1990. It would have captured the true nature of those late 80s Mets teams perfectly. Maybe Darryl and Doc talking to their coke dealer in the stands in Florida?
bbcardz said…
I'm with you on 1988 Topps. It is an underrated and underappreciated set but I still love it. I've always like those Team Leaders cards too.
Jeff said…
How did I never realize until you mentioned it that McReynolds wasn't in Topps sets before 1988?
Brett Alan said…
Well, I guess I like these cards a little more than I did before reading this, but I just don't like cards where the players aren't identified. Maybe it's a little OCD on my part or something. It's like, is that Mets Leaders card supposed to go into my Gary Carter binder, or not? (It is there.) You're right that a lot of the pictures are great--call it "Mets Stars" or something and identify the players and I'd really like a lot of these.
OhioTim said…
I collect Topps team cards, and agree that the 1988 ones are some of the best. My personal favorite is the 1987 Topps. But that is the joy of each person's collecting interests.
Jeremya1um said…
Nice job on highlighting the leaders subset. Wish they would bring them back for 2021 and beyond.
Matt said…
These are a great subset, and I wish Topps would bring back team leader cards in general.

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