This all-time set countdown is based primarily on design.
I am somewhat of a designer at work. Although it does not come easily to me, I try to create a sports page that looks pleasing to the reader. Unfortunately, I cannot invite the readers in to evaluate whether the design looks good before the page goes to print ... on second thought, fortunately, very, very fortunately, I cannot invite the readers in to evaluate whether the design looks good before the page goes to print.
So, I have to be my own critic. I decide, while in the act of creating the page, whether it's an appropriate and interesting design.
So, while I have never designed a baseball card except for the ones I sketched on index cards 40 years ago when I was a kid, and I probably couldn't do anything innovative if you told me "here, design a baseball card from scratch", I know what I like. And I think my opinion is somewhat accurate.
That doesn't mean this countdown doesn't play favorites. It does.
But I wanted to mention design because a lot of the other elements that go into judging the quality of a set -- photos, whether there's a position listing on the front, notable rookies, size of set, etc., are all on the table. But they mean a lot less to me than design. Design is what lasts in my memory, the first thing I think of when a set comes to mind. So that is how I am evaluating here.
Now, on to Episode 2 of night owl's all-time Topps set countdown.
60. 2008 Topps
The look of 2008 Topps was made for me -- specifically made for me. It was a gift. Someone wrapped up a new design in sparkly paper, tied on a ribbon, added a tag that said "created especially for night owl," sent a courier to hand me the gift ... and then that person dropped it on the ground and stomped on it repeatedly.
This is a card set with a world of potential, rendered utterly useless, by a single decision to give the design on 2008 Topps a uvula.
Topps could have placed the Topps logo anywhere. Looking at this card, there is a variety of options for a logo, there's certainly enough space on the photo. But instead of placing it any place logical -- nobody is buying the card to see the Topps logo! -- Topps altered the design for the logo, and consequently ruined virtually every photo in the set.
As much as I'd admire design being its own bad self, it must give some consideration for the picture. And 2008 Topps did not.
This is why the set features photos like the one above. Feet -- if not yards -- of dead space around the tiny image of a baseball player. There are many other examples of that design bump getting in the way. And so in 2008 Topps we have:
Pictures of tiny, tiny players.
Pictures where you can tell immediately the photo was cropped with the design in mind (thank goodness Hanley was standing to the right).
Pictures where the player is actually ducking to avoid the logo bump.
Only through a bit of good fortune -- and what must have been the most thorough selecting of photos in the history of a Topps set -- does a 2008 card come out looking just right. The head in just the right spot, the bat in in perfect order.
This is a shame, because the rest of the design is wonderful. Foil name aside, the circus circles for the team name are outstanding. And the alternate colors used for each team reflect the team colors almost perfectly. It is a colorful, quirky design. I love colorful and quirky!
But the border shape provided for the picture -- which looks like a piece of toast -- kills the whole thing.
The back of the card continues the logo bump theme, although it is not obscuring anything. The card number is readable, but otherwise nothing on the back is memorable. Or maybe I'm still fuming over the front.
I have a difficult time with sets where design determines the image used. Sets like 1969 and 1966 Topps don't fare as well as they could in this countdown either because of that fact.
But those sets aren't this far down on the list because they didn't have the potential that 2008 Topps had. 2008 Topps had talent, man. And it blew it all on cheap wine and loose women.
59. 1999 Topps
Someday someone will explain gold parallels to me in a way that I get it. At that point, the normally very dim light bulb above my head will beam brightly and I'll exclaim, "YES! FINALLY! THIS IS THE REASON GOLD PARALLELS HAVE LASTED 20 YEARS!"
I have gone decades of my life regarding gold parallels as nothing but a more difficult to obtain base card. The appeal was never in the look of the gold parallel for me, but merely in the fact that it was slightly more rare.
So, here in 1999 -- year of The Matrix, the Sixth Sense, red swingline staplers and other exotic, end-of-the-century dreamscape imaginings -- Topps put out one giant set of gold parallels.
I can only imagine how confused Night Owl would have been if he collected one iota in 1999. "Wha --- what? This entire set is this boring, drab gold color!"
The look of the '99 set is achingly dull. Placing a gold frame on every card is an excellent cure for insomnia. True, the design places an emphasis on the photo -- and that is appreciated and the reason why this set is ranked higher than another gold set from 1998 -- but the photos, in general, aren't anything worth showcasing. There are a few decent pictures in 1999 Topps, but most of them are one stereotypical action shot after another. And some of the photos are dark, too.
Combine some dark pix with the type on the card and opticians must have set a record for appointments this year. All the squinting and holding up to the light -- "does that say 'Indians'? Ma, come over here, does that say 'Indians' to you?"
In a way, I admire '99 Topps for its concerted effort to display the photo. It is minimalism at work and I will periodically get on board with minimalism in this countdown. As someone who appreciates the 1976 SSPC set, called "The Pure Set" because of the lack of writing on the front of the card, I like this so much better than '98 Topps.
But this ain't '76 SSPC. There is no quirk to this set. Just a lot of squinting in the dark.
Speaking of squinting, there is more tiny type on the back. "Sandy is the Indians' only six-time All-Star catcher" looks like it's being whispered by a 4-year-old girl. I do appreciate the large secondary photo on the back (and the rookie of the year notation on this card is fun), but come on, guys, 60-year-olds collect cards, too.
And just a personal preference: yellow backs? Ick.
Again, the late '90s was a period of annoyingly small card sets (the 1999 set is only 462 cards) and an overemphasis on inserts. I think Topps would have attracted a lot more collectors if it had bumped up the size of the cards and saved the gold and silver for the inserts.
58. 2001 Topps
Topps hasn't done a great job with its anniversary sets, and its 50th anniversary set might be the worst of the bunch.
First the good news: Topps did go all-out for its 50th anniversary, producing a 790-card set after half a decade of no more than 503 cards per year.
Now the bad news: All 790 cards are this ugly greenish color.
I don't know what that color is and it's confused me for 15 years. I want to call it green, but it's not really green.
Would you say it's any one of those colors? I've been tempted to call it "pine" in the past but after looking at this chart it's not pine.
No, there's definitely a little blue in the border, which causes me to go to another color chart:
Yup, these are shades of teal. The color for 2001 Topps is so strange that we have to describe it the way people describe paint or nail polish colors.
The closest match I can find is Aruba Blue.
Here is a swatch of the 2001 Topps Mike Remlinger card:
And here is Arube Blue:
Not an exact match, which is both irritating and close enough. Maybe Tempo Teal would work better.
Anyway, I think it's safe to say that the 2001 Topps border is the teal family, which might have worked around 1994 when Florida Marlins hats were everywhere, but why 2001? Why for the 50th anniversary! Is anniversary 50 teal in the card world?
The border color is so strange that it distracts me from the rest of the set. I know this is probably puzzling to people who don't understand my love for 1975 Topps, but -- come on! -- the whole set is the same weird color.
The other drawback to 2001 Topps is more of a perception thing and may not even be a problem. I have this perpetual fear that the gold foil will flake or fade from my 2001 Topps cards. I've seen a little bit of fading on a couple cards, although no flaking, so I don't know if this is an actual problem. But the cards look a little cheap to me because of that.
You can't escape the Aruba Blue color on the back. This isn't the '60s, '70s or '80s, design themes extend to the back of the card, too.
Here you see what was probably the big selling point for 2001 Topps backs, the action image of the player behind the stats. But this is how clueless I am: it took years for me to realize those images were there. Silly me, I was trying to read the stats!
I don't like images behind numbers and words when I'm trying to read them.
With the exception of the color choice, 2001 Topps is pretty good on presentation. But I just can't stop focusing on the color.
I know that color is around here somewhere.
57. 2012 Topps
Sometimes I wish I could be one of those collectors who only sees photos when they look at cards. "Isn't Stadium Club awesome? Those Fleer Ultra sets were the BEST!" That collecting mentality would help me get through sets like this, which is actually pretty nice photographically.
Some of the pictures in 2012 Topps tell great stories and that is something worth mentioning because in the '90s you had to go to Stadium Club and Fleer Ultra for that ... or just collect Upper Deck. Before Upper Deck, well, enjoy another card of a fielder crouching with hands on knees.
But photos aren't the whole package for me, especially when -- here we go again -- an element of the design is infringing itself on the photo.
The nameplate "surfboard," or what I endearingly call "a tumor," blocks out too much of the picture. There are photos in this set where a runner is sliding into a base and the fielder is preparing to make the tag, but you have no idea how close the runner is to being safe or out because THE TUMOR HAS SWALLOWED THE BASE.
Also, I would be much more forgiving of this design if the nameplate/logo filled up the entire width of the card. I know it would kill whatever theme Topps was going for with this set, but I would like it a lot more.
This set looks unfinished to me. It looks like a prototype -- this is a start and we'll get back to you with more. Where's the team name written out in words? Where's the position? There just isn't enough on the card front for me to believe this really is a finished baseball card.
Much like my dislike for 1992 Donruss, my dislike for 2012 Topps is not easy to explain. Maybe the above explains it adequately, maybe it doesn't. I just know it's very unappealing and to this day I'm sorry I bought more than one pack of the set. I can't say that about a lot of other Topps sets.
One other issue, and back to the photos for the moment: I believe that this is the set that started the rampant number of closely cropped images where we are forced to view every last ear and nose hair and facial tick. Every card is expressive, CLOSE TO THE ACTION, and the same, same, same.
That's the back. Not a lot to say about it. For all of you blind bats, the card number is huge, and the stats and darn near everything on the card is readable.
But none of that is going to get this set to be ranked any higher.
Up next: Sets #56-53. Maybe I'll have something nice to say.